Ambitious new A&E series 'The Glades' looks beyond Florida's blue skies

POMPANO BEACH

Timothy Busfield refused to be beaten by the heat. • This was an important skill for a simple reason. Hunched over a video monitor in a cracker-box-small house nestled along a suburban street here, Busfield was the guy commanding the small army of technicians who invaded this 1920s-era home last month to shoot a key scene in the fourth episode of A&E's new detective series, The Glades. • Yes, he won an Emmy playing sad sack advertising guy Elliot Weston in ABC's classic ode to yuppiedom, thirtysomething. But alongside scene-stealing performances on the West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Busfield has earned a wide-ranging resume as a TV director that includes NBC's Lipstick Jungle, FX's Damages, Fox's Lie to Me and CBS's Without a Trace. • So when A&E needed an experienced hand to help shape the voice, look and storytelling style for its new show about a quirky Chicago cop-turned-crime solver in the Sunshine State, it turned to the guy who once played Arnold Poindexter in the Revenge of the Nerds movies.

And as he wiped away streams of sweat, bellowing for a barrel of Gatorade while watching a tense scene unfold between an unhinged bad guy and the show's hero, Busfield knew the heat, tight quarters and tropical foliage outside would tell viewers they had entered a strange new world quicker than any lines in a script.

"That's why I like young, green shows; you can still have an impact and set the ship on the right course," says the director, a blunt, gregarious personality who breaks up the tedium with energetically funny stories about burning his hands while playing a hapless mortar man in Bill Murray's classic comedy Stripes.

"After a few seasons, the actors won't listen to anyone; they become director-proof," he joked, jerking a thumb at the show's star, hunky Australian TV actor Matt Passmore. "Look at Matt . . . he's really been sweet. By the end of season two, he'll know everything."

Set in the fictional town of Palm Glade, the show is an ambitious attempt to meld the "blue sky" adventure high jinks of popular cable series such as Burn Notice and Royal Pains with a more expansive look at Florida's landscape, from the swampy Everglades to the Muck Bowl football rivalry in Belle Glades.

Such shows, named for their clear atmosphere, sandy beaches, idyllic settings and quirkily fun characters, have become a big business for USA Network. Its summer debuts of Burn Notice and Royal Pains ranked second and third in highest-rated cable TV shows of that week.

Now The Glades hopes to mint its own Florida-centered version for the A&E channel.

But the oppressive humidity in South Florida made steady progress a challenge during Busfield's shoot for the episode, "A Perfect Storm." At times, the air felt like a living thing, filling the tiny house with its punishing thickness, beating down the cast and crew as they scurried to film a confrontation between Passmore's Jim Longworth and a key character played by Oldsmar resident Ricky Wayne (because it made too much noise, the air-conditioning had to be shut off for filming).

In one corner, guest star Lorraine Toussaint slumped in a chair between takes, tormented by a headache. "My face is glistening," said the actor, recently seen as Holly Hunter's boss on TNT's Saving Grace, sounding both astonished and annoyed.

"It makes people a little crazy," admitted Glades creator Clifton Campbell, a Hialeah native who crafted the pilot episode during the Hollywood writers' strike in 2007 and 2008.

"When we fly in our guest actors, they get off the plane and say, 'What is that?' " cracked Campbell, calling from Los Angeles, where he's supervising the writing staff and escaping the humidity that made Busfield's day such a challenge.

"That's our air. Welcome to Florida."

The only person who seemed mostly unfazed by all the heat, repetition and close quarters was Passmore, who compared the climate with his boyhood home of Queensland. Like many foreign-bred actors playing Yanks in America, he brings all the advantages of a hire from overseas: years of TV experience behind a 30-something face American viewers have barely seen.

"It's quite liberating to play a character who doesn't give a cr-- what anyone thinks of him," Passmore says of his character, an irritatingly smart-aleck Chicago cop who tries retiring early to play golf in the Sunshine State, but winds up bird-dogging murder cases for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "I like to see the guy as a (blend) of maybe Columbo and Magnum P.I., without the raincoat or the Ferrari."

Like Longworth, Passmore is a stranger in a sunny land, struggling to find a way to watch his beloved hometown rugby team's games between 14-hour shooting days and marveling at the grotesque stories offered by the real-life FDLE agents who serve as series consultants.

"The great thing about Florida is that it's quirky," the actor said, snorting as he recalled the moment an acquaintance's 80-something mother tried to pick him up in a bar. "People are here from all over the world, but Florida seems to be a character unto itself. There are certain things that only happen here."

The 'blue sky' genre

A day earlier and 40 miles south, the Miami set where Fox Television Studios cranks out Burn Notice didn't look very blue, after all.

Midway through filming the season's fourth episode, that day's production was mostly stuck inside the sprawling Coconut Grove Convention Center — an aging, once-public venue still boasting signs pointing to now nonexistent concession stands.

The sets were draped with old palm tree fronds and debris to mimic the aftermath of a hurricane for the episode "Center of the Storm." Yes, this famously blue sky show finally has tackled a storm story line in its fourth season.

As star and executive producer Jeffrey Donovan strode through scenes, tweaking a line or suggesting a different way to position actors, it was obvious: This is a show secure in its focus and success, with a fresh interpretation on a genre that has formed the backbone of TV schedules since the 1950s.

Let CSI: Miami and Dexter "cheat" the look of the city by filming a few outdoor scenes locally and faking the look of Florida in California. One look at Burn Notice's rich skies, white sandy beaches and blazing bright visuals reveals a new take on "blue sky" fantasies, best tapped by filming all over the Magic City.

"I do say one of the stars of the show is Miami, they use it so beautifully," said Sharon Gless, the former Cagney & Lacey star who plays the mother of Donovan's "burned" spy Michael Westen. She has lived on nearby Fisher Island for 10 years.

A cast member since its 2007 debut, Gless didn't actually see an episode until a few weeks ago, courtesy of a long-standing policy of not watching herself on-screen. ("All I would see is, 'Boy are you old, boy are you fat,' " said the actor, who relented and viewed last season's finale during a public event. Her verdict now: "I didn't realize how many things we blow up.")

While relating stories on reconnecting with old acquaintance Burt Reynolds during his recent guest stint — he will play a grizzled spy tangling with Westen later this season — Gless also compared Burn Notice's blend of glamor, gritty action and sex appeal with shows from her Cagney & Lacey heyday, sporting a touch of Magnum P.I. here and a dash of MacGyver there.

In fact, that blend of action and glamor has been on TV since at least 1959, when ABC aired the series Hawaiian Eye, featuring two handsome, swinging detectives solving crimes in a Pacific playground.

"It set a pattern that blue skies equated to light and frothy and fun," said Tim Brooks, a former research executive at the Lifetime cable channel and co-author of the Complete Directory to Prime Time and Network Cable Shows. "Ever since then, just like there's a place for medical shows and cop shows, there's a place for one or two of these shows on television."

Each generation finds a new version of this formula, which worked for Hawaii Five-O in the 1970s and Magnum P.I. and Miami Vice in the '80s.

USA Network found a very specific way to re-create that formula in the 21st century, developing a checklist for new series ideas, according to the Los Angeles Times. Among the requirements: a fun sensibility, a tone of hopefulness and a quirky lead character with a moral and ethical center.

On Burn Notice, "the hero has been ousted from the CIA and all these guys are trying to kill him, but he's never really in danger," Brooks said. "It's like we're all in on the joke."

A&E once featured grittier dramatic fare, including Patrick Swayze's last series, The Beast, and The Cleaner, a show featuring Law & Order alum Benjamin Bratt as a former junkie who forces people into rehab. But Tana Nugent-Jamieson, A&E's head of scripted programming, said the country's economic downturn made such fare less popular with viewers.

"We were in a depression and people were looking for escapism, which is where the blue sky element comes in," said the executive, citing The Glades as a middle ground between USA's purer approach and tougher TNT series, such as Dark Blue and Saving Grace. "We learned from where the world was at the time . . . (We don't do) stories that are overly complicated or stories with people who are not accessible . . . overly wealthy or business types."

The goal for The Glades: be fun enough to capture the blue sky trend while still connecting with fans of A&E's harder-edged unscripted shows, such as Intervention, Hoarders and The First 48. In the niche-oriented world of cable TV, drawing an early crowd of 1.4 million — about the audience for an average Mad Men episode — would be considered success for a new show with a relatively unknown leading man.

A look at The Glades pilot reveals the dynamic, as show creator Campbell leverages a macabre sense of humor to highlight Passmore's enormously self-assured character — a professional irritant who uses his talent for snarking off people to push criminals into revealing themselves, like a good-looking, unrumpled Columbo.

"Being a Florida native, I always felt like shows done in the state only captured the beach part of it," Campbell said. "There were whole environments that haven't been tapped yet. I think for A&E this was a chance to hit the reset button on their drama efforts and lighten things up with a show that has a look you don't see on TV every day."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

ON TV

Tune in

The Glades debuts at 10 tonight on A&E. Burn Notice airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on USA Network.

Ambitious new A&E series 'The Glades' looks beyond Florida's blue skies 07/09/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 11, 2010 1:38pm]

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