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Henry Bromell and His Legacy of Literary Television
March 26, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 4 comments

Henry Bromell passed away last week, and if you don't know this writer-producer by name, you surely know the trail of hit shows he left behind, including Northern Exposure, Homicide: Life on the Streets, I'll Fly Away, Rubicon, Homeland and many others.

It's fair to say that Bromell is among that handful of writers and producers — an elite group also including such artistic writer-producers as Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, David Simon (and, more recently, Graham Yost and Vince Gilligan) — who took serial television beyond its accepted, conventional episodic limits at the time, shaping them into a more literary, novelistic style.

As reported by the LA Times, Bromell died of a heart attack on March 18 in Los Angeles. That story pointed out that Bromell, as a writing disciple of Fontana and Levinson on Homicide, was an important branch of the so-called "Family Tree" — writers and producers descended from the landmark MTM Productions series St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues that made modern dramas like The Sopranos and The Wire possible.

Those shows blazed new territory for television with ensemble casts, fractured anti-heroes, and interwoven plot lines that sometimes lasted an episode, stretched to a month of shows, and sometimes even carried on for years. There was plenty of tarnish upon the heroes, plenty of characters failing, and well, what everyman couldn't relate to that?

Bromell, with early success as a fiction writer, began publishing short stories in the 1970s for The New Yorker. He started writing for television in the 90s for Northern Exposure, then moved on to write for Levinson and Fontana's Homicide (co-starring Andre Braugher, right), where he eventually took over as executive producer in 1996. It's difficult to scan his writing credits, including the gritty Brotherhood and landmark Carnivále, without thinking he had at least one finger in almost every important series on television since he entered the field.

Bromell's background in short and long fiction shaped what he did in television — stretching out plot pace, and revealing deep facets of leading characters that weren't always complimentary.

This may never have been more true than on Rubicon (AMC's 2010 drama starring James Badge Dale, below). It was an ambitious show built on small steps, steeped in its novelistic, domestic spy-thriller atmosphere. Almost counter to the usual giant leaps television series usually take, Rubicon artfully inched forward, maybe losing part of its audience in the process.

Bromell's life, growing up with a father who worked at the CIA, gave him the background and experience for that series, as well as his last, the domestic terrorism tale of Homeland, for which he shared the 2012 Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 2012 with Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa and Gideon Raff. The first season of Homeland, perhaps, was as pristine and well-crafted as any other series before it.

It's no secret around here that TVWW was an early, enthusiastic fan of Rubicon — writing about it in length. The show still has not been released on DVD, and hopefully, now that Bromell has passed, there will be more urgency to memorialize one of his greatest works.

It was, at times, a demanding show, but its literary power was its core strength. Cancelled after one season, it was gone too soon. And now, sadly, the same can be said of Henry Bromell.

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This is so sad. Ever since I watched Rubicon I became a huge fan of Henry Bromell and I was always excited when I heard that he was going to write a show.

It was only a few weeks before he passed away that I wrote to Amazon asking them to please put Rubicon back on instant streaming. And every few months I search the Net for the DVDs.

I remember when Homicide first aired, I told my mother about the show and she watched and loved every episode. She still talks about it to this day, when we discuss great TV .

My mother searched high and low for, I'll Fly Away, without success, because she thought that I would love it as much as she had. Neither of us knew that he had written the other show until he died. (I hope they make I'll Fly Away available too.)

I'm glad that you wrote this, so that people are able to learn about other shows that Henry wrote and they too can enjoy them.

He will be missed.
Apr 4, 2013   |  Reply
Angela - A very fine tribute. Thank you. –EG
Apr 4, 2013
You have named my favorite dramatic programs over the years. Now I know why.
These shows had great character development & dialogue, as well as, unexpected, yet reasonable plot. I was so disappointed to lose Rubicon. I hope those who wrote with him will continue to carry on these fine writings.
Mar 26, 2013   |  Reply
Thanks for the lovely tribute. What a legacy he leaves behind; he was involved in the finest television of the last two decades. This kind of talent is rare, and he passed too soon.
Mar 26, 2013   |  Reply
Honestly, it was a bit of a shock, and more than a bit of a loss since I've had such deep connection with his work. 'Homicide' is a show I still reference frequently, and maybe stands alone as one of the best police shows, ever. I haven't watched an episode since it went off the air, but I well remember the actors and much of the plot. -EG
Mar 26, 2013
Thanks for doing this. I hadn't realized how many great series he had had a hand in.
Mar 26, 2013   |  Reply
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