Ed Burns wanted to make a show that made him smile, so he went home to Long Island.
The six-episode EPIX drama “Bridge and Tunnel,” premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., was envisioned as a series set in 1980: half on Long Island, half in Manhattan. Burns, who wrote, directed and stars in the show, had everything planned.
“It was these bridge and tunnel kids going into the city to pursue their big dreams while also living their smaller lives at home in their backyards and on their front stoop,” Burns told the Daily News.
Then COVID-19 hit and 20% of his budget was redirected to testing and PPE. Suddenly, dreams of recreating CBGB and a bustling LIRR were dashed.
“Forget about a nightclub scene where you might have 80 extras; that scene had to be turned into three people sitting at a backyard picnic table having the same conversation,” Burns, 52, explained.
Instead, “Bridge and Tunnel” turned into a quieter affair, a simple story of six recent college graduates figuring out what comes next.
It’s a little “Freaks and Geeks” and a little “The Graduate,” but for Burns, who grew up in Valley Stream, it just felt like home.
“The time in New York that I have overly romanticized has always been the late ’70s going into the early ’80s. The birth of punk and new wave and early hip hop and the fashion scene and the art scene at that time,” he told The News.
“I didn’t get to experience that — I’m 11, 12 years old in 1980 — so I kind of looked at that as when New York was at its coolest. This was an opportunity for me to selfishly recreate that world so I could experience it.”
The pandemic cut out the noise and focused the show on the group of six who grew up together and were faced with separation and, for some, leaving the island for the first time.
Burns started at the end, working backwards from where he wanted his characters to land. Jill (Caitlin Stasey) would be a fashion designer, maybe working in the Garment District or maybe the next Donna Karan. Pags (Brian Muller) will manage a band or be an A&R guy for a studio.
Jimmy, Burns’ on-screen son played by Sam Vartholomeos, is taking photographs, a journey on which he begins “Bridge and Tunnel” with a six-month trip to Alaska for National Geographic.
“Do I have him being a photojournalist working for the Daily News or does he end up becoming an assistant for Richard Avedon or does he end up becoming a sports photographer?” Burns said.
First jobs and first loves are as high-stakes as “Bridge and Tunnel” gets. Jimmy and Jill, the central love interests, have broken up and made up a half-dozen times before and will do so a half-dozen more by the time the first season is over.
“The strength of the story relies very heavily on believing they love each other,” Stasey, a 30-year-old Australian actress who worked with a dialect coach to nail Jill’s nasally accent, told The News. “When someone loves someone and you’re young and naive, you can justify a lot of choices they make, even if you disagree with them.”
Vartholomeos, the Queens native who plays Jimmy, joked that it’s every actor’s dream to “play a New Yorker in the ’80s with Ed Burns as his dad.” But showing off his hometown was even more special.
“It’s really easy, as a New Yorker, to just look at this place and be like, ‘Ayyy, there’s freakin’ garbage everywhere and everybody freakin’ sucks but I love ‘em,’” the 25-year-old actor said, exaggerating his natural New York accent. “But there’s something super kinetic here. There’s a mold to this city that we love to break.”
“Bridge and Tunnel” isn’t a true story. The most biographical tidbit Burns wrote in is the all-girl punk band Wildfire, an homage to the license plate on his sister’s friend’s ’77 Camaro. But in its simplicity, it could be anyone’s true story.
“There’s that line in ‘The Great Gatsby’ about going over the (Queensboro) Bridge and the city holds such ‘wild promise,’” Burns told The News.
“For most bridge and tunnel kids like me, eventually you learn to wear (the name) as a badge of honor. Especially if you came into New York and you were able to make it happen.”