The old pineapple plantation 40 miles west of Honolulu looks like Jurassic Park with a touch of Tara. Khakied camera crews are lugging lighting equipment into an aging antebellum-style mansion, while mammoth flying insects dive-bomb out of prehistoric-size trees. All that’s missing from the scene is a velociraptor — although a creature called Steven Bochco is due on the island in a few days, and in some circles the controversial producer is considered just as scary.
This is one of the tropical sets of ABC’s new series The Byrds of Paradise, starring thirtysomething‘s Timothy Busfield as a single dad who moves to Hawaii. Byrds is Bochco’s sixth series for ABC since 1989 (his multimillion-dollar deal with the network calls for 10), and it couldn’t be more different from his last — the groundbreaking hit NYPD Blue, which last fall had affiliates screaming over its rear-view nude scenes and crypto-dirty dialogue. This time around, Bochco is really going to shake up his critics: He’s producing a G-rated family drama, or at least as close as he’s come to one in years.
”You won’t be seeing Busfield’s bare ass, that I can promise you,” the producer says, sipping diet soda in his cushy Beverly Hills office, 2,500 miles from the set. ”We’re not pushing the envelope. We’re just doing a show about how families wire up to each other in the 1990s.”
Busfield plays Sam Byrd, a Yale ethics professor who drags his three children — 16-year-old Harry, 15-year-old Franny, and 11-year-old Zeke (Seth Green, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Ryan O’Donohue) — to the islands after his wife is murdered by muggers at a cash machine in New Haven. Taking a new job as the headmaster at a private school, he deals with his loss, copes with his kids (and new students, including the world’s oldest high schooler, played by Ur-hippie Arlo Guthrie), and adjusts to the cultural challenges of living in the land of the mai tai and the hula skirt. ”It’s a side of Bochco that hasn’t been shown before,” offers Busfield. ”It’s like when the Beatles started doing ballads and songs with violins in them. Byrds is Bochco’s ballad.”
Actually, the idea of setting a family drama in the tropics belongs to Byrds co-executive producers Charles Eglee (Moonlighting) and Channing Gibson (St. Elsewhere), who pitched the concept to Bochco after working on his 1991-93 law-firm drama Civil Wars. ”The blue-water Hawaiian series has been a staple of TV for decades,” says Gibson. ”But most of the old shows just plugged a franchise into the place — a cop show or an adventure series — and used the pretty scenery for a backdrop. We want the setting to actually inform the stories. We want Hawaii to be part of the show.”
In other words, expect plenty of meaningful subplots about Hawaiian history, indigenous spiritual practices, and the stormy relations between natives and haoles (Hawaiian for honkies) — sort of a South Seas Northern Exposure. Also expect lots of local talent on display, including former Miss Hawaii Elizabeth Lindsey, who plays a dean at Sam’s school (and his possible love interest if the series lasts long enough). ”When I heard Bochco was doing a show in Hawaii, I wrote him a letter and asked him to have what we call pono (translation: to be a mensch). Usually when you see Hawaiians on TV, they’re servants in sarongs or big aunties in muumuus. I asked Bochco to have more respect for the land and the people.”
For Bochco, respecting the show’s time slot might turn out to be the tougher challenge. It’s been years since the creator of Hill Street Blues has ventured into the kid-infested waters of early prime time, where even the words hell and damn are taboo. His notion of wholesome family viewing may not follow the usual network formulas. For example: The episode being filmed today at the pineapple plantation — now transformed into the set for the school — involves a panties-stealing dog who uncovers a bag of marijuana in Franny’s underwear drawer. Hardly Full House material.
”With Bochco producing, it’s going to be more challenging than other 8 o’clock shows, no question,” Busfield concedes. ”We’ll be dealing with drugs, birth control, sex. We even use the word penis in one episode.”
Bochco gives a tamer spin: ”Sure, we want to deal with real issues, but Byrds is still an early-evening, family-oriented series. We’re not doing this show to rattle any cages.”
Some critics may interpret those words as an apologia — Bochco doing a family drama to make amends for that Mariel Hemingway nude scene on Civil Wars and all his other so-called crimes against prime time. Certainly it’s hard to find a producer who has drawn more flak for exploring the frontiers of bare skin and rough language on TV. Conservative media activists like the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his Mississippi-based American Family Association have been boycotting Bochco’s shows for years. Last summer, the producer also took some heat from the U.S. Senate, which singled out NYPD Blue in the TV-violence debate, even though no episodes had yet aired. Could Bochco be buckling under pressure and cleaning up his act?
”My biggest fear,” he says, ”is that with all the shrieking and hollering about violence and sex and bad language on TV, with all these idiotic solutions proposed by lawmakers who’d rather make a splash than take care of real business — my biggest fear is that this series will disappear in all the noise. It’s a nice, subtle drama. In a way, I’m giving the Senate exactly the sort of show it says it wants.”
But it’s not an apology. ”To me Byrds is a natural extension of what I did with Doogie Howser (his 1989-93 baby-doc drama), which also had a family as its focus. I’ve raised two kids. I’ve been married for 25 years. I draw on a significant body of experience about being a husband and father — and surviving it.”
Meanwhile, back at the plantation, Busfield is surviving his own ordeal. ”The hardest part about doing this show isn’t that it’s in an 8 o’clock time slot,” he says, swiping at a bugosaurus. ”It’s that it’s filmed in a tropical zone. I come from Michigan, second-highest cloud cover in the nation. I have to wear sunblock to bed. I’ve got melanomas on my melanomas.”
At least there’s one place he won’t have to worry about the sun shining: ”It’s bad enough I have to take my shirt off. I’m not dropping my pants for anyone, not even Bochco.”