TV's Top Gun

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Jerry Bruckheimer shouldn't be able to make television shows. Television characters deal with issues by having conversations; guys in Bruckheimer movies solve problems by blowing them up. If all TV shows were Bruckheimerian, Ross Geller's brains would have been splattered all over that giant Friends apartment by season two. But somehow Bruckheimer, the most successful producer in film history, with $12.5 billion in worldwide box-office receipts from movies such as Top Gun, Armageddon and Con Air, is on his way to becoming the most successful producer in the history of TV. He's the first to have three shows hit the Top 10 simultaneously: CBS's CSI, CSI: Miami and Without a Trace. And he has done it with shockingly few large-scale weapons.

Lots of people from the feature-film business have tried to create television shows, and the vast majority have failed. Most of them, deep down, thought network television was a wasteland that would be awed by 44-minute versions of their films. But Bruckheimer likes TV. He just wants to make TV that looks better and moves faster. "I don't want my butt to hurt," says Bruckheimer, 57. "I just want to keep the story moving. I try to take the air out, just like in our movies." All three of his shows start at point A and end, completely resolved an hour later, at point B. "The pitch for Without a Trace was a magazine thrown on my desk with the headline WHERE IS CHANDRA LEVY?" says Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth about the missing-persons show. "The one-line pitch was 'Whoever finds her.' I thought, Absolutely, yes, yes, yes." CSI, a forensics-lab cop show, was inspired by Barry Scheck's testimony in the O.J. Simpson case. Like Law & Order, which steals from the New York Times, Bruckheimer also steals from the news, only his source material is the tabloid New York Post.

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What separates Bruckheimer shows from the competition is a big-budget ethic. "I remember trying to imagine the world of the show in preproduction," says CSI: Miami star David Caruso. "My wife and I were driving toward the set, and we saw these four brand-new pewter-colored hummers. Then we realized they were for our show, and we said, 'That is Jerry Bruckheimer.'" The CSI set could serve as one of the country's best crime labs, since it boasts cutting-edge equipment donated by publicity-seeking manufacturers. Bruckheimer films might be mocked by other producers for being simpleminded but never for being simply executed. "Not all of his movies represent the highest quality," says Without a Trace star Anthony LaPaglia, who was hesitant about acting in a television show, Bruckheimer or not. "But they always look amazing. I knew at least with Jerry that at worst I'd have a show with great postproduction."

The best news for CBS is that although Bruckheimer isn't afraid to spend, he does spend wisely. CSI looks like an hour-long car ad but costs a little more than $2 million an episode. While that's not cheap, an episode of ER costs $13 million (though you do get Noah Wyle). Bruckheimer is able to do this because he's an expert at making everything look rich, even if it's just the equivalent of putting a Target bracelet in a Tiffany box. It's also because he doesn't hesitate to call in favors. The Black Hawk Down special-effects team does odd jobs on all three Bruckheimer shows. After all, who would turn down a request from a guy who has $200 million to blow on his feature films? It would be like not leaving cookies out for Santa.

Bruckheimer's first few attempts at television were disastrous. Dangerous Minds (1996) made the classic mistake of trying too hard to mimic its film progenitor, and Soldier of Fortune, Inc. (1997) finally overestimated America's interest in killing foreigners. Then he hired Jonathan Littman, the Fox executive who oversaw The X-Files and Beverly Hills, 90210, to run his TV company and instructed him to develop a show about a crime-scene-investigation lab. "We basically said we wanted to make Quincy for people who don't need an oxygen mask," Littman says. "We go into the body, making it almost three-dimensional. We have made TV director-centric as well as writer-centric. TV is moving toward high definition. We'd all better develop a more visual attitude."

To emphasize the importance of director-driven TV, Bruckheimer hired film director Danny Cannon (Judge Dredd, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) for CSI and also made him a writer on the show. "We're doing feature television," says Carol Mendelsohn, an executive producer on CSI and a co-creator of CSI: Miami. "The one thing Jerry Bruckheimer said to us from the beginning is, 'When people are surfing, I want them to stop and say, "That's a Bruckheimer show."' Brand identification — that's what we strive to do."

They're able to accomplish this because many of their directors, set designers, costumers and even makeup artists come from movies. "We have all this expertise and talent we draw on for our features," Bruckheimer says. "Some of these art directors weren't getting a chance to move up. We've been able to corral guys who are feature directors who needed a break and are about to explode." Explode, they hope, a planet or two in the next Bruckheimer feature.

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