Like an episode of "Columbo" that shows you the crime and the villain in the first scene, tonight's ABC movie "The Boys" gets its main business out of the way right off the bat.
James Woods plays Walter Farmer, half of a successful television writing team, and, without much ado, you learn in the first few minutes of the film that he's got lung cancer and is given six months to live.
You find that out when he tells his writing partner, Artie Margulies, played by John Lithgow, before he tells anyone else. Farmer and Margulies had developed that sort of relationship during decades of collaboration and, as it explores the endgame of their years together, "The Boys" becomes a fascinating meditation on friendship, mortality and the craft of writing itself.
The resemblance to "Columbo" is no accident. "The Boys," which will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) tonight at 9 o'clock, was written by William Link whose longtime writing partner Richard Levinson died of a heart attack in 1987.
For a couple of decades, Levinson and Link was an imprimatur of quality on a television mystery. "Columbo" might have been the best of their creations, but they were also behind a number of other quality series, including "Murder, She Wrote," and scripted some excellent television movies.
Like a good creative writer Link was not content simply to record his friend's last days, but used them as an inspiration, a jumping off point, for this film. For instance, in real life, it was Levinson who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. In "The Boys," it is the survivor Margulies who chain smokes and the recurring theme of the film is the attempt by the condemned Farmer, presumably the victim of inhaling his partner's smoke for all those years, to get Margulies to quit.
If the trademark of a Levinson and Link production was the fact that it contained a genuine surprise, then "The Boys" does not disappoint. Link takes the death of his partner and turns it into -- surprise! -- a comedy.
Oh, this isn't some raucous laugh-a-rama or even a studied black comedy, but it uses the oddly-angled light that this impending death shines on these peoples' lives to expose, among other things, a variety of amusing human foibles.
It would have been easy for Link to have written a "Brian's Song" type of tribute that would have had, instead of an athlete dying young, a writer and friend going before his time. That could have been a guaranteed three-hankie tear-jerker, but it would have followed the tried-and-true-and-trite formula and Link must have known that Levinson would never have approved.
Instead, since "The Boys" avoids manipulating your emotions, those that it does evoke are genuine.