Amherst Magazine

Funny, Bleak and with No Easy Answers

By Amelie Hastie

A novelist, short-story author, screenwriter and director, Henry Bromell ’70 entered into television in the early 1990s with the critically acclaimed Northern Exposure, going on to work as executive producer and/or writer on some of the most innovative television series of the past two decades, including I’ll Fly Away and Homicide: Life on the Street in the 1990s and, in just the past three years, Rubicon and Homeland.

Bromell taught creative writing at Amherst in the late 1970s, and his television work always revealed his literary roots. His TV film Last Call is about the final years of F. Scott Fitzgerald and, in fact, about the very process of writing—not surprising fodder for a man who, it seemed, was always writing himself. Thus it was appropriate that during the time he visited my “Knowing Television” course at Amherst in 2010, Bromell joined the company of René Descartes and Jorge Luis Borges.

The television series of which Bromell was a part—some of which he ran—offered no easy answers, whether to civil rights, to crime and police work or to our present-day culture of terrorism and surveillance. These series challenged the viewer aesthetically and narratively: Homicide brought the style of the French New Wave to ’90s TV; Rubicon’s roots are in the paranoid thrillers of 1970s American film.

Rubicon

Bromell’s writing was often funny and bleak at once, such as in the Christmas-themed Homicide episode that involves the shooting death of a sidewalk Santa Claus, or in the award-winning episode of Homeland in which CIA operative Carrie and suspected ex-Marine terrorist Brody begin their messy and heart-wrenching affair. Bromell’s television made us think; at its best, his television made us ask what we can be sure of knowing.

Homeland

Two weeks after I met Bromell in person for the first and only time—when he spoke to my class at the bequest of my colleague Jack Cameron—I opened the latest issue of The New Yorker and, much to my delight, saw Bromell’s name in the table of contents. Almost 30 years prior, he had published his first story in the same magazine, a story that he wrote at Amherst as part of his work as an independent scholar—work that Jack had advised.

I'll Fly Away

The 2010 article is an autobiographical story about books and what they might mean to us (and what they meant to Bromell as a teenage boy in a Welsh castle-turned-boarding-school). It reads like an amalgamation of true crime and a 19th-century ghost story (think The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins). Titled “Something Borrowed,” it is about borrowing books from his school’s library. “I read and I read and I read. At the same time, I began my life of crime,” Bromell writes. The borrowed books took up residency in his room, where he inscribed his name on the title pages. Inevitably caught, he was threatened with expulsion.

“For the rest of the day,” he tells us, “kids carried heavy pillowcases of books across the medieval quad to the library. Hundreds of books. Others, terrified that this was all a trick, hid them throughout the castle [in bathtubs, floorboards, closets]. … They even buried books in the woods surrounding the castle, as awkward as gravediggers among the brooding trees. Under duress, a shame to myself, I gave back what I had borrowed, though I feel in my heart that nothing was ever really returned, and that the debt remains unpaid.”

A professor of English, Hastie chairs film and media studies.