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Philadelphia Roots for Survival of TV Series <i>Hack</i>

The month of May is one of the most critical times for American television producers and casts. It's the month when the networks air their most exciting shows often with 'cliffhanger' plots to lure viewers to watch a series during next fall's new TV season. And May is when network executives eventually announce which shows actually get renewed for another season. In the case of the CBS drama Hack, it's not just the series' cast and producers that are concerned about its survival. It's an entire city that's rooting for Hack.

The voices of producer-director Phil Sgriccia and assistant directors echo through the several sets built within the cavernous old Philadelphia Civic Center. Full-scale rooms for the CBS-TV series Hack are constructed within the building: One is a diner with fake menus and ketchup packets scattered throughout. In another section are several rooms representing homes where the lead characters live. It's part of the extraordinary effort in bringing an entire television production to the city of Philadelphia, generating more than $60 million for the East Coast city during its first year. It's the first time such a production has been moved outside of Los Angeles or New York City since the show Homicide was brought to Baltimore, Maryland, more than a decade ago.

Hack is about a disgraced cop, Mike Olshansky, who turns to driving a cab to make a living, but keeps his crime-fighting instincts. Portraying him is actor David Morse, veteran of the long-running series St. Elsewhere and numerous movies. Standing nearly two meters tall, Mr. Morse towers over most of the cast and crew, but he's just as much a "gentle giant" in person as he is in the series. He was largely responsible for bringing Hack, originally set in New York City, to Philadelphia, so he could spend more time with his family, who live near the city.

David Morse says that, as a city resident, he feels a special bond with locals. "People here feel as if they own the show in a way. We're in their neighborhoods and I feel that everyplace I go, they embrace this as they would their sports teams. It's a great feeling and great for the city," he says.

As the 'hometown kid,' actor Morse says he advises his Hollywood and New York-based colleagues on some Philadelphia locations. "People who are writing the show and created the show have never spent time in Philadelphia. They all know New York; if we had written it for New York, they could probably [write] it in a second," he says. "So everybody has had to be educated. Unfortunately, on the news, you tend to see the bad part of the city. So everyone has the impression, that's what the city is. It's not! The writers are being educated as we go along, and in turn, the audience is being educated."

As something of a "Hollywood celebrity," Morse says he appreciates the recognition from city residents, but at times it's a bit much. "In Philadelphia, they don't leave you alone. It's way more than a 'thumbs up.' Cars are screeching to a halt, and people are screaming out of their windows as you walk down the street," he says. "Literally, I just wanted to go around the block the other day, and think about some [script] lines. And the whole way around the block, people are walking out of their houses to say what a great show it is and how proud they are that it's in Philadelphia."

The cast's connection with Philadelphia even extends to its youngest member, Matthew Borish, who plays David Morse's son on the series. Matthew, 11, grew up in Philadelphia and says he wants to be a "part-time FBI agent" and make a film with actor Ben Stiller. In the meantime, he says working on Hack while still going to his hometown school is another plus for the show's Philadelphia base. "I think it's giving a lot of people work," he says. "There are so many 'extras' and Philadelphia actors. And most guest stars are from Philly too. So everybody is getting a lot of work and it's helping Philadelphia's economy. They [also] do a lot of shots of all the historic sights like the Ben Franklin Bridge and Fairmount Park."

Although some episodes seem to center around routine cop stories, Hack producer Sgriccia says the series focuses on relationships. "Is it a hit-and-run or is it a murder? There's that sort of thing. But it deals more with boys losing their fathers. It parallels Olshansky, which David plays, and his loss because he's separated from his son. And his wife has separated, so there are parallel lines. Plus, he hasn't spoken with his father, who is an ex-cop," he says. "And Olshansky is an ex-cop, so there's [added] stress there."

Lead actor Morse adds that he likes the way the series shows the challenges facing a separated couple sharing their son's custody. And he enjoys working with Emmy-Award-winning actor Andre Braugher, as his former police partner, and actor George Dzundza, as a priest with his own unique demons. "The character is what I'm going to live with. If it's a successful show, you live with it for years. It has to be a character that really has some dimension and potentially go in many different directions. There are some shows that are really [just] about the plot. And [the actors] serve the plot each week," he says. "[But] the roles I've done are because the character somehow means something to me. This is a guy who has lots of character and a real history. He's done some really bad things, and some really good things. His life is lived somewhere between those bad and good things. That, to me, is really appealing."

And actor Morse says he likes the underlying character thread of the dual careers he leads. "This guy does not think of himself as a cab driver. In his heart, he's [still] a cop. He grew up in a family of cops," he says. "That's really his identity. Suddenly, that's all ripped away from him: his family is taken away, his community. He's isolated in his cab, as he drifts through the city and finds his way into other people's lives."

David Morse says that although critics misunderstood the first episodes of Hack, many viewers seem to like the show. "A lot of critics who looked at the first episodes of the show, saw it as a vigilante show. They got it into their heads that this is what it's got to be. And they reviewed it along those lines," he says. "We knew that wasn't going to be where [the show] goes. There's a certain satisfaction now that we each [have], as audiences are really connecting with us. The women who watched didn't see the vigilante aspect of it. What they saw was a man, his son, and his wife in a difficult situation. At the same time, extraordinary things come out of the situation. That's the fun of it."

Whether or not Hack is renewed for next season, David Morse says he would like to encourage more TV projects in his city. "[Director] M. Night Shamalyan has been writing and producing his films here in Philadelphia and is really committed to doing things here. I share a similar feeling," he says. "It's a really rich area with a lot of talented people here. I would like to keep finding projects to do here in Philadelphia, whether it's a series or something else."

Actor David Morse, star of the CBS-TV series Hack. The drama has averaged nearly ten million viewers a week in its debut season a very respectable number that series producers hope will translate into a second season of shows later this year.