Homicide‘s second season was not really a second season. It consisted of only four episodes, which places it in the record books jointly with the first season of Seinfeld as the shortest-ever fully-commissioned network season, but it consisted of the four latest episodes commissioned for season 1, hived off and used later.
Both series appear together on a single DVD box-set, and Channel 4 broadcast them consecutively without any indication to the contrary, causing much confusion when the programme returned with its Third season.
Not much can be done with a season consisting only of four episodes, but even then NBC managed to interfere with the running order. The first three episodes formed a semi-continuous narrative and the fourth was a standalone, starring Robin Williams in an unforgettable role. But NBC trumpeted Williams’ guest role and broadcast the episode first, over all the protests from Fontana and co.
Nevertheless, this affords an opportunity to look at Homicide‘s interleaving technique in a little more detail. The first two episodes focus upon a redball case, a young black guy shot in the back in an alley whilst fleeing a police raid on a crack house. It has all the hallmarks of a police shooting, except that any such shooter has failed to stand by the body and own his killing.
It’s Pembleton’s case, and his instincts are with a police killing. The bosses back his conduct of the investigation (but then all they’re concerned about is how it will play with public opinion), but it leads to intense clashes with Giardello, who is angered by the concentration on their own. It’s police vs police, brother against brother, and he sees Pembleton as betraying the essential solidarity the police need.
But that’s not where the episode starts. The Homicide Squad have been ordered to undergo Sensitivity Training, and the attractive blonde counsellor is talking to Kay Howard abut the difficulty of being a female in Homicide. Howard agrees, cynically: she spends all her days investigating brutal, horrible crimes inflicted by man upon man, then she’s supposed to go out and date one?
It’s a serious point and though the series never returns directly to that point, it builds on the issues the Training raises. There’s a lot of comedy about Bolander’s refusal to attend his appointment, even to the point of handing in his badge, though when he’s finally cornered, his initial contempt for the whole idea is overturned instantly when the counsellor sympathises with him over his divorce and the lack of respect with which he was treated.
In fact, he’s so convinced that by the end of the session, he’s asking her out to dinner!
Though that doesn’t happen, Bolander does go on to start a relationship with a young waitress, half his age (an early and vibrant performance by Julianna Margulies, pre-E.R.), bonding with her over a shared interest in music – she is a violinist and Bolander an out-of-practice cellist.
Meanwhile, back at the redball, Howard is discovered to be a friend of Lieutenant Tyree, whose squad is being decidedly uncooperative with Pembleton’s investigation. Howard worked under Tyree and, as she is quick to confirm to Pembleton, displaying the professionalism we would expect from her, had an affair with him.
Her talk with the Counsellor has affected her. There’s a moment at which she meets Tyree privately, in which it looks as if she might be about to warn him, but her insight has developed, and she delivers a quiet, extremely stinging line that suggests Tyree felt far less for her than she did for him: by the following episode she’s seeing Ed Danvers, the Assistant DA who would be Homicide‘s most frequent guest star over seven seasons. There’s locker room boasting to Pembleton about Davers’ prowess, and by the third episode they’re double-dating with Bolander and his waitress-violinist, Linda.
But the case is getting difficult as the tension between Pembleton and Giardello peaks. Pembleton and Bayliss have brought in a friend of the dead guy, trying to turn him as a witness. Gee is still badgering Pembleton to look at the possibility that it was a civilian killing.
Pembleton snaps. In an astonishing performance, he seduces, teases, rages and pleads with the kid, bamboozling him into not just admitting to the murder but signing a confession. He hands the confession to Giardello and rewrites the victim’s name in black, but both of them know that it’s complete bullshit. Pembleton feels dirty as a consequence.
But despite having what he wants, Gee can’t accept it. He tears the confession up, re-re-writes the name on the Board in red, and sends Pembleton back to do the job properly. It produces the goods: the kid becomes a witness and fingers, to no-one’s great surprise, Lieutenant Tyree.
If the outcome is a trifle perfunctory, what we have seen is the process and the tension.
Whilst it’s the continuum of Bolander and Howard’s relationships that melds the third episode with its predecessors, the cases dealt with are a perfect study in contrasts. Crosetti and Lewis investigate a barely believable instance of murder in a library over a pen (barely believable, but perfectly true to real life!), Pembleton and Bayliss investigate the death of a sex worker that takes them into the world of fetishes and leather.
It’s also a study in contrasts between the two detectives. Pembleton takes it in his seen-it-all before stride, but Bayliss comes over as puritanical and petrified at the same time, existing in a miasma of disgust and fear of the more outre aspects of sexual attraction. In the light of how his character would develop in later seasons, in directions unsuspected at this point, his story here is an astonishingly effective base-line. The final scene, as Bayliss, wearing a leather jacket given him as a gift by a grateful store owner, ‘cruises’ the strip at night, trying to get the feel of things, is extraordinarily prophetic.
But whether seen as a season opener, or a finale, the final episode, ‘Bop Gun’, is an astonishing hour on network television, and would prove to be Homicide‘s highest-rated episode ever. In a list of five essential episodes, it would be impossible to omit.
Robin Williams plays Robert Ellison, a tourist, a visitor to Baltimore with his wife and two young children. The pre-credits sequence sees them sight-seeing at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles. Three black men, of differing ages, see them and start to move in their direction. One is carrying a gun.
It’s as simple as that. The show itself starts with Ellison, blood on his jacket, carrying his littke girl, entering the station with his boy in tow. His wife is dead, shot in the face before all of us, during a mugging. Felton pulls the case, a redball. The culprits are not hard to find. There is no mystery, except in one respect: the teenager who goes down for it is the one without a record. Though both Felton and Howard are convinced he’s covering for one of the more obvious others, it’s Howard who can’t let go, who keeps digging to try to find the truth.
But the truth is that the kid did it. Despite his clean record. Despite asking to hold the gun so that something like this wouldn’t happen. Because he didn’t know himself before he held the gun. And he found out he wasn’t who he thought he was. Which is why he’s pleaded guilty, requested life without parole.
It’s a subtle, spare story in this respect. Admirably, the kid doesn’t explain except in the oblique terms I’ve put above: the audience has to read between the lines.
But that’s an extra, lagniappe. This episode is about Williams, about Robert Ellison, about the nightmare, about being pitch-forked into that world, about not understanding, about holding things together because you have children to care for when all you want to do is fall apart. Williams is flawless throughout, downbeat, in shock, exhausted. There’s no hysteria, no histrionics. He gives way to anger on overhearing Felton talk gleefully about racking up the overtime on this one, demands he be replaced but allows Giardello to talk him down, explaining that Felton can’t care like Ellison does, but that he needs someone who doesn’t care.
And there’s one moment, getting his kids off to bed in the hotel, dealing with their arguing, with a little girl unwilling to accept her mother’s not coming back, a boy filled with fear and anger and withdrawing into himself, when Ellison puts the kids to bed and finally allows himself to cry, painful sobs torn out, in another room: in bed, the children listen fearfully and put their arms around each other.
No, this was one of the ones you remember, and it’s as beautifully written as it’s played.
Four episodes, across four weeks in January 1994. Four episodes originally shot to form part of season 1 but withheld and put out separately. If there is a distinction to be drawn in the second season it is in the filming. The early episodes of Homicide had gone for a very washed out look, deliberately bleeding colour out of the film (except in the case of Adena Watson’s body in the alley, where her red coat remained vibrant, by way of deliberate contrast). Instead, season 2 is riotous in colour by contrast, as Levinson reconsidered, and decided to abandon that approach. Bolander’s astonishingly pink face comes as a complete shock!
Would there be a third season?