"Evidence" of a Breakthrough

Samuel D. Baum ’98 describes himself as “a short-order cook in a diner” when it comes to his current writing career—many different projects are cooking, and he’s serving a number of ravenous customers.

Currently, he is, along writing partner Dustin E. Thomason ’98, the creator and executive producer of “The Evidence,” a new detective series on ABC and set in San Francisco.

In every episode, the audience is first presented with all the necessary clues to solve the week’s mystery, but there is always a twist—for example, a man may be having an affair, or he may have cancer.

“The show hinges on the idea that how you see the world is not the only way to see it,” says Heather J. Thomason ’05, a writers’ assistant on the series. “The pieces of evidence don’t come together the way you think they do.”

But will the average viewer want to solve crime along with detectives, or would he rather turn to the “CSI” franchise or one of its many other spin-offs? The network put the show to the test, and the results were surprising.

According to Baum, testing episodes in a “dead average” audience of 100 viewers and registering their every response from behind glass was an “Orwellian experience,” but demonstrated that audience members were drawn in by the action.

“I’m very optimistic about the level of sophistication of the average American audience,” says Baum. “The feedback that the audience gave was really, really intelligent. Television audiences have become fairly savvy. When there’s a badly written scene, they let you know.”

Thomason concentrated in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and was active in the Radcliffe Union of Students and the non-for-profit women’s organization, The Seneca, Inc., while at Harvard. She also co-founded the Athena Theater Company, which focuses on staging plays relevant to women with the goal of prompting discussion of women’s issues on campus.

Her job as a writers’ assistant entails everything from fleshing out ideas in notes recorded during meetings to getting coffee. She hopes to become a writer for a television series in the future, although she cautioned that “sheer talent” is not enough to make the transition from Harvard to Hollywood.

“If you’ve got talent, that’s great. But you have to work your ass off to make things happen out here,” says Thomason. “When you get out here and see how many people are trying to do the exact same thing that you’re doing, it can be a little scary, and frustrating. But when you remember that most of this is about how hard you work, you realize you have a lot more control than you thought you did.”

While at Harvard, Baum appeared in “The Shaughraun” with the Huntington Theatre Company, as well as a handful of independent and feature films. After graduation, he moved to New York to pursue acting and screenplay writing, performing in “As You Like It” with Gwyneth Paltrow and “Camino Real” with Ethan Hawke.

Ideas rarely turn into television series — network cuts ensure that few pitches ever make it even to a pilot episode. Still, Baum says talented students should not automatically jump into investment banking, management consulting, or “lawyering” without considering jobs in the arts.

“It’s useful to know that there’s opportunity and possibility for a career that pays bills and is really creatively stimulating,” says Baum. “It is true that theater companies don’t recruit at the Charles Hotel or the Inn at Harvard and buy everyone lunch. While it takes a certain amount of industriousness to find your own way, it really is possible — particularly in Los Angeles.”