Homicide: Life on the Street


Isn’t it funny how murder can make you feel better?

It’s been a difficult couple of days and it’s not likely to improve just yet. I’ve been finding it difficult to concentrate, or to find things worth concentrating upon which, given the number of things I’m involved in writing at present, for this blog, and otherwise, is frustrating. So I decided to pull out my box-sets of the superb 1991-97 American police drama series Homicide: Life on the Street and rewatch the first episode. As always, it’s been utterly absorbing and, in its unique and black fashion, absolutely hilarious.

An awful lot of praise has been, deservedly, heaped on The Wire, but if you were a fan of that absorbing, horrifically realistic series, you should really check-out Homicide, a forerunner in a very true sense. Like The Wire, it is set in Baltimore, centred upon the Homicide Division and its impossible task in sweeping up after the City’s horrendous murder rate and, like The Wire, it stems from David Simon and his 1988 non-fiction book, Homicide – A Year on the Killing Streets, recounting in intense detail the year that young crime reporter Simon spent ’embedded’ in the Baltimore Police Homicide Division.

Originally, film producer and Baltimore native Barry Levinson optioned the book as a film but, given its level of detail, its intensity and its absurdity, he chose instead to present it for television, so that its subtleties could be explored. Despite initial promotion by NBC, the series perennially struggled for an audience, by refusing to be safe, sofa-friendly, crime-of-the-week cop TV, and trying to hew far more closely to the reality of Policing in a major American city, and judging by the praise it got from cops across the nation, Homicide succeeded spectacularly.

Of course, compared to The Wire, it’s a tv series, without the swearing, without the degree of brutality, but still with the same ultra-violet sense of cynical humour, and with an astonishingly brilliant cast and razor-sharp writers.

Opening episode “Gone for Goode” performs the task of introducing you to a cast of nine without strain or artificiality, introducing the viewer to this world by the expedient of Detective Tim Bayliss’s (Kyle Secor) first day on the Squad. We see Detectives Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Crosetti (Jon Polito) investigating a late night shooting that unexpectedly expands into a multiple Black Widow homicide case, all the time bitching about their job and about life, Detectives Howard (Melissa Leo) and Felton (Daniel Baldwin) picking up a dead body in a basement where the killer virtually leaps into their arms, Detective Munch (Richard Belzer) being badgered into pursuing an overlooked death whilst denying throughout that he wants the approval of his partner, Detective Stan “the Big Man” Bolander (Ned Beatty), and above them all Lieutenant Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), the only undercooked character in this episode.

We also meet, for the first time, the loner, the individualist Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), the man who hasn’t got a partner, doesn’t need a partner, definitely doesn’t want a partner, and especially not the rookie, Bayliss. Pembleton’s is the most overt performance, but paradoxically he allows the naive Bayliss to shine. There’s the first of the series’ several interrogation scenes in which Pembleton slickly talks a frightened, slow-witted, guilty suspect into confessing to murder by sailing smoothly over his constitutional rights, during which Secor sits silently in the background, with only his eyes telling of his bafflement, outrage and astonishment.

And there’s that ending, as Bayliss decides himself ready to take on a case of his own, heading out in the rain to an alley crowded by people, soaked to the skin, looking down at the body of a dead ten year old black girl. Little did we know then that Homicide would last seven series, and little did we expect that moment in the alley to be as relevant to the series in its final episode. Cop shows didn’t do that, not even the great Hill Street Blues. But Homicide: Life on the Street, destined to fight for its life and its integrity until the end, would go many places that TV hadn’t been before.

It’s been a pleasure, and an object lesson in how you can laugh at something so serious, on a Saturday night that isn’t going well.

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