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Costarring New York

The city is considered a key character in the NBC suspense series. So for the cast and crew, it's out into the boroughs and ... action!

September 17, 2006|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — "NAKED CITY," which debuted in 1958, eventually left its mark on the cultural vernacular with its sign-off, "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." But the show's real novelty was something else -- how it took viewers into the nooks and crannies of New York.

Though much live TV originated here back then, as now -- from morning talk shows to the evening news -- only one other prime-time series was being produced in the city, "The Phil Silvers Show," which got its laughs from its star's wisecracking Sgt. Bilko, who presided over the motor pool of Ft. Baxter, Kan.

"Naked City," in contrast, displayed "extraordinary authenticity in that it is filmed on the streets of New York using genuine backgrounds," a Los Angeles Times critic wrote at the time.

Four decades later, that's the sort of praise the new NBC series "Kidnapped" hopes to win as it goes to the corners of the five boroughs to tell the ticktocking tale of a wealthy Upper East Side couple, the Cains, whose 15-year-old son is kidnapped before the first commercial break and who, by the second, have turned for help to a lone wolf ex-FBI agent, Knapp, whose motto is "suspect everything."

Whenever possible, the creators of "Kidnapped" eschew indoor sets to place the action -- or even brief exchanges of dialogue -- on a riverside helipad, say, or a Central Park bridge or in the bowels of the subway. They want the city to become "another character" as the whodunit, which arrives Wednesday, unfolds, they hope, over 22 weeks. That will be a drama within the drama, though, for, as with any new show, the audience quickly will determine whether "Kidnapped" wins a full season.

In the end, that verdict is likely to be determined by how viewers take to the key characters (Timothy Hutton and Dana Delany as the wealthy parents; "Six Feet Under's" Jeremy Sisto as their hired kidnap-solver) and whether they are hooked by the Cains' ordeal during a TV season when a parallel universe missing-person serial, "Vanished," is being offered on Fox. But the team behind "Kidnapped" believes the ever-present city can make a difference, giving it a more visceral feel than shows like "NYPD Blue," which actually was made in L.A. and got its New York street cred by shipping the actors here to shoot a week or so of exteriors each August.

"You can absolutely create the illusion of being in New York from L.A. or Toronto or Montreal, but in New York, you don't have to create an illusion," says Jason Smilovic, the series' 32-year-old writer-creator.

"You can shoot an alleyway in L.A. and say, 'This is New York,' but you can't cheat the Statue of Liberty. You can't cheat the Chrysler Building."



ON a recent morning, Smilovic was overseeing a location shoot with just that landmark Manhattan skyscraper in the background. He and 140 others -- doing this is expensive -- were across the East River in Queens, at waterfront Gantry Park, doing two scenes for their seventh episode. The kidnap investigator played by Sisto first is taken by limousine to meet a senator who is finishing an outdoor press conference. The pol pulls away from the media swarm, climbs in the limo and says, "Mr. Knapp, I'm Senator Ross -- I'm the man you think is .... " It seems he knows Delany's character, the rich mom.

That's enough of a tease to lead into a commercial break, and after it comes the next scene, a walk-and-talk between the two men along the waterfront, as barges chug up the river and traffic whizzes up Manhattan's FDR Drive.

To Smilovic, that sort of image makes the city more than mere window dressing for a suspense tale. For while the main characters' lives and perceptions have been profoundly altered by the kidnapping, "One of the metaphors is that all of this has happened, but the cars are still driving along the FDR. Nothing has changed."

Smilovic grew up on suburban Long Island, the son of an insurance salesman who owned video stores on the side. He flunked out of Buffalo State before passing through a community college, picking up a "tribal tattoo" on his right bicep and absorbing "The Godfather's" message that most people are a blend of good and evil ("Leave the gun. Take the cannoli"). The wandering kid finished his studies at the University of Maryland and by 28 was creating a series for ABC, "Karen Sisco," based on the Elmore Leonard book and Steven Soderberg film "Out of Sight."

Smilovic's co-executive producer of "Kidnapped" is veteran director Michael Dinner, who transplanted his family here from Santa Monica for two months to shoot the pilot and first episode but more recently has been in the editing room in Los Angeles, where the post-production team is based.

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