Paul Attanasio wrote the pilot episode of Homicide. It was his only script for the series, but it was the most important. It was Attanasio’s job to take the book, and work out the best means of translating its qualities to the screen, and establishing the characters who would populate the series, in a manner that would make them immediately familiar to viewers, whilst setting them up for future development by the series writers.
Pilot episodes are crucial to the success of a series. They have the enormous responsibility of getting over to the viewer a colossal amount of information, about who these people are, what affects or moves them, where they stand and what world they live in. It has to infodump, without being boring, dry, pedantic or overloading. It was Attanasio’s moment and his work was immaculate.
‘Gone for Goode’ set out to establish nine central characters of equal importance, whilst delivering the essential background to the reality of life in the Baltimore PD Homicide Squad, whilst simultaneously establishing the realistic police procedure aspect of a Homicide Squad and the unique personalities occupying it. And all in 48 minutes.
The central thing Attanasio does is to use the vehicle of the rookie as the audience’s eyes and ears for most of the episode. The rookie is Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), on his first day as a member of the Homicide Squad. Bayliss is a fresh-faced, innocent, eager and slightly naive character, approaching Homicide with a degree of wide-eyed wonder. He has romantic visions of thinking cops, solving puzzles, has set his career up to get himself into Homicide.
He’s there to have things explained to: his fellow Detectives briefly introduced by his Shift Commander, Lieutenant Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), the squad’s partnering and rotation system outlined, and to be introduced to the Board, which is given its rightful place as Homicide‘s distinguishing feature. The Board, a fact of the real Baltimore PD’s life, is a whiteboard headed by Gee’s name and divided into columns, one for each Detective. Under each column is a list of names and numbers: the surnames of murder victims, and their place in the order of murders since January 1. Unsolved cases are written in red, solved cases in black. By itself the Board is a silent witness to death and the avenging of death, and a measure of each Detective’s success.
Cannily, however, Attanasio does not open with Bayliss, who appears for us after the title credits. Upfront, we are to be given a brief but effective demonstration of how and why Homicide: Life on the Streets will not be just another cop show of the kind with which we are inordinately familiar.
We open with a very familiar scene, a back alley at night, in the rain, and two Detectives, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito), attending a murder victim. All very familiar. The Detectives have flashlights in their hands, are searching for a bullet. Except that they’re not discussing the case, the victim, anything like that. They are arguing about personal concerns, about where they are, about anything but the latest dead body on their hands. Everyone’s waiting for them to release the scene, so the body can be removed and everyone can get in out of the rain. When they do, it’s with a casualness that suggests they have better things. Welcome to being a Murder Police.
The jolt is surprising, and Attanasio builds on this throughout the episode. Bayliss enters, with his box of effects, his text-books, his eagerness and innocence already a contrast to Detectives who speak and think with practiced cynicism. Even the ones we don’t know yet, lounging around at their desks, are infinitely different from the newbie, who starts by mistaking Crosetti for the Lieutenant, who then shows him round.
Everybody performs superbly. The excitable, overweight, breathless Crosetti is obsessed with the Lincoln Assassination, constantly nagging at the laid-back Lewis over it. But he shines when his friend, up-and-coming patrolmen Chris Thorman, is shot and blinded in episode 4, not merely forcing himself into the investigation but in supporting Thorman and his young wife through the trauma of events.
The acerbic John Munch (Richard Belzer) competes for the attention of veteran Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty) but is more of a nagging toothache to the Big Man, who, recently divorced, is finding himself interested in the new Medical Examiner, Dr Blythe, whilst the thrice-divorced Munch is constantly on the edge of breaking-up with his (never seen) girl-friend, Felicia.
As for Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), they’re a contrast in competence. Howard, skinny, a mass of red curls, is the only detective with a 100% list in black under her name. After the first few episodes, Leo, growing to understand her character better, stopped wearing any make-up as Kay, horrifying NBC’s executives – she was the token woman, she needed to be looking glam – and focussed her intensity on where it needed to be, on being a woman in a male environment and having to be twice as good as everyone else to be treated as an equal.
Felton, on the other hand, was sloppy and second-rate, a drinker and a womaniser, despite being married with three kids. Though he can focus on his job, for much of the time he’s riding on Howard’s coat-tails, and both Giardello and the squad’s loner, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) treat him with contempt.
And Gee: much of the early filming had to be redone as Yaphet Kotto found it difficult to adapt to the long, repeated takes, his very deep voice not being pitched enough to be captured on tape. But the finished episodes show no sign of uncertainty. Gee is the boss, genial and aggressive as the need or the mood takes him: his men respect him for the way he will protect them from the brass further up the chain of command.
The individual cases that go into forming our opinions are dealt with necessarily briefly, but very effectively. On the one hand, Lewis and Crosetti’s body is accompanied by a survivor, Dolly Withers, who, with a curious sense of inevitability, identifies her Aunt Calpurnia as trying to have her killed for the insurance money: Lewis and Crosettti have lucked onto the most unlikely of serial killers here.
In contrast, Howard and Felton pull a dead rent-collector, found in a basement. Their job is made simple when the basement owner phones home whilst they’re investigating, and presents himself at the station where he shows very little resistance to interrogation.
Bolander taunts Munch into taking seriously the investigation of a girl’s death that hasn’t even been officially declared a murder. Stung, Munch puts in the long hours that lead him to a clue identifying some guy whose only answer to all the questions, as it is absolves him, is “I was drinking.”
Last to be introduced in Pembleton: Pembleton the loner, the eccentric, the New Yorker. Cool and immaculate, rejecting the idea of a partner, Pembleton is the master of the Box, the master of interrogation. At first, Gee tries to break Bayliss in gently, pairing him with Howard, forcing Pembleton to work with Felton, but the investigation of the strangulation of a guy cruising for rent boys leaves Pembleton with a seriously unwanted shadow.
We get our first chance to see Pembleton at work, an interrogation technique that would have cops the nation over asking how many interrogations showrunner Tom Fontana had carried out to get it so right. To the silent outrage of Bayliss – a tour-de-force from Secor, who gets no lines but tells a complete story of his own in his face, as he studies Pembleton and not the suspect – Pembleton charms, bullies and tricks a punk kid into a confession and still has the energy to shouted down Bayliss as too naïve to survive.
Three cases fall. The Calpurnia Church case rumbles on.
What the above account doesn’t convey is that, in addition to establishing both these people and their milieu as worthy of our time and attention, the pilot episode is gloriously funny. Homicide would always lean on the humour to be found in David Simon’s books, some of it the black, dry, ironic humour of the cops themselves, and those who are near to their world, others from the implausible and absurd cases the Detectives work, that are funny and stupid and unbelievable and true to real life.
Lewis describes his excitable partner as a salami-brain, leading Crosetti to write up a complaint of racial harassment, calling on his and Gee’s shared heritage, causing considerable consternation over crabs at lunch. Felton pretends outage to stiff everyone for the check. Bolander barrels down the morgue to complain that the ME was incompetent in not pronouncing Jenny Goode a murder victim only to be silenced by discovering Dr Blythe to be an attractive Australian woman: in response to his query about what a woman like her is doing in a place like this, Carol gives the only possible answer: Looking for Mr Right.
Bolander and Munch
That’s not to say that the Pilot is perfect, either in itself or in establishing Homicide as a series. Crosetti is given an absurd fixation on the Lincoln assassination and the lies supposedly surrounding it that is artificial and unreal: no-one else gets a tv-style crank personality, everybody else is very down-to-earth.
And there’s a scene in the garage where Pembleton, having keys but not the tags that identify which of the several dozen identical units they’re for, insists on trying every car, over the catcalls of Felton, which demeans the character by throwing a stupid obsession over him, which was rightly ignored in all future episodes.
Of less import is a minor confusion over how to pronounce the Big Man’s name. Ned Beatty introduces himself as Bolander with a short ‘o’ (as if spelt ‘Bollander’) but everyone pronounces it with a long ‘o’ (as if spelt Bowlander). It’s an uncharacteristic mistake.
Series 1 would be dominated, over its first half-dozen episodes, by the Adena Watson case. It is led into at the end of the Pilot when the phone rings in a near empty squadroom. Bayliss hesitates. Howard offers to take it, if he feels he isn’t ready. He’s been partnered with the unwilling Pembleton, he’s worked alongside Howard and Felton, he’s been shocked and outraged by Pembleton in the Box.
He’s not ready, we know he’s not ready. But he takes the call. And with a precise symmetry, the episode ends where it began, in an alley at night in the pouring rain. But a different detective stands over the body, his mouth agape, his voice cracking as he introduces himself. Because the victim is a ten year old black girl, raped and strangled.
Adena Watson (based on a real-life unsolved case) haunted Bayliss, haunted Homicide right until the very end of the Movie. Bayliss’s failure to close the case marked him, was but the first step in the changes that would put paid to the fresh-faced rookie with the books. Incidentally, the uniformed officer who shows the body in the alley to Bayliss was played by real-life Homicide Detective Tom Pellegrini, the squad rookie who caught the case Adena Watson was based upon.
The Adena Watson case dominated season 1: it also featured the kind of interference from NBC that would continue until cancellation.
The show always operated an internal continuity, but NBC would ignore this in favour of promoting more conventional or sensational episodes into earlier slots. This was applied as early as the third episode, ‘Night of the Dead Living’, a deliberately experimental episode in which the squad is on night shift in a very hot squadroom. Nothing happens, not a single case is reported, and the detectives swelter and argue the hour out. NBC postponed broadcasting this episode until the end of the series, even though the episode clearly takes place in the middle of the Adena Watson case. It was prefaced by a card, saying, “One hot night, last September…” which is retained, incongruously, for the DVD box set, which shows the series in the intended order.
Series 1 saw the show at its purest, even though NBC were trying to change it, drag it back into the realms of the predictable and conventional from the outset. Despite network interference in the broadcast order of episodes, despite dismay at the (deliberately) washed out colours, the show progressed at its own pace, determined to be as loose, inconvenient and messy as real-life Policing.
There are no neatly tied-off ends. The Adena Watson case went unsolved, ending with a tour-de-force episode set almost entirely in the Box as Bayliss and Pembleton try to break down their only suspect, Risley Tucker, the Araber. Bayliss is convinced he has the killer, Pembleton doubts. Moses Gunn, in his final television role, holds out, stolid, resistant, finally overwhelming the detectives when he at last begins to speak. But he won’t confess and time runs out, ending the case without a conclusion, with Pembleton convinced and Bayliss now uncertain.
Officer Thorman, introduced trying to cope with an elderly couple who hate each other in episode 2, is shot and blinded in episode 4. He’s Crosetti’s protegé and friend, and the story doesn’t shrink from what is done to Thorman: one scene involves him shitting himself in bed, to his self-hating shame. But Crosetti, wheezing, excitable and weirdly obsessed as he may be, is at his stoic finest, lending unflappable help to Thorman and his wife (emphasised by how Crosetti is so often seen with one or the other, but never the pair together).
On the other hand, Bayliss and Pembleton’s first case after the Adena Watson investigation is officially shelved involves the death of a Police dog, with Bayliss barely able to take it seriously.
The out-of-sequence shuffling of ‘Night of the Dead Living’ to last gave season 1 an artificially upbeat ending, as the Homicide Squad, having survived night shift in the midst of a heatwave, frolic in the dawn light on the roof with a hosepipe. Those watching the show on DVD will watch Homicide in the order its producers intended: the season ends in a much more downbeat manner as Bolander sits over a drink in a quiet bar, having unloaded his troubles to an uncaring barman (played by cult Director John Waters), and humming Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me Tender’ to himself.
All told, in dribs and drabs, NBC ordered a total of thirteen episodes, although only nine would be shown. The series’ initial high ratings fell away rapidly, although critically the show was a massive hit. It couldn’t stay in that shape, however, not and survive on Network TV in the Nineties. Though Fontana and his team would resist mightily, NBC would constantly demand changes, constantly pressurise the series to conform to what everybody already knew, to break away from the awkward demands of reality and honesty and be just another run-of-the-mill glossy Hollywood money-making machine.
The story of Homicide over the next six seasons is one of small concessions, made reluctantly, gradually forcing the show of its unique and centre ground. It never entirely sold out, indeed even in its last season, enough of the original show was clear and present to maintain its reputation, and it never got jerked around as badly as Hill Street Blues did after Stephen Bocchco was forced out: Fontana made sure of that. And in years to come the series would, in its acting, its characters, become even deeper.
But it would never be quite so pure as in that shining moment of first realisation.