Season 4 cast
Homicide: Life on the Street had now lived for three years in conditions of imminent cancellation and, despite the security of a full season order, two of its cast had had enough of the insecurity. Both Ned Beatty and Daniel Baldwin believed in their series, and Baldwin had spent a considerable amount of his own time and money in doing interviews, talk and radio shows, plugging Homicide everywhere. Both had now had enough of being at the mercy of a network that seemed to have no faith in the programme.
Beatty, who disliked the necessity of living in Baltimore for nine months of the year, was offered film and stage roles, the latter giving him the chance to return to his love of musical theatre. Baldwin too had offers of film roles. He had burned himself out fighting for the series, and wanted a change. Both actors left the series.
Homicide‘s response was to tie Felton and Bolander’s absence into a real-life event, an inter-series National Police Convention that had aroused national scandal over the rowdy and juvenile behaviour of the attendees. So Season 4 started with both detectives on 22 weeks unpaid suspension for their parts in the convention. The length of the seemingly arbitrary suspension exactly covered the full season, leaving the door open for either or both to return if they wished.
With Crosetti never having been replaced, this left the Homicide Division seriously undermanned and Gee anxious to recruit. The season-opening two-parter featured a redball over a series of deaths in fires. Pembleton and Bayliss work and clash with the cocky, abrasive arson Detective Mike Kellerman, who plays a big part in obtaining a confession from the culprit, prompting Gee to offer him a transfer to Homicide. After initially doubting himself, Kellerman, played by Juilliard trained Reed Diamond, accepts the transfer, and finds himself partnered with Lewis.
The season opener was yet another example of Homicide at its immeasurable best. The absence of Beau and the Big Man is dealt with up front, as is the pressure on the now seriously understaffed Division. The double-episode serves as a showcase for Kellerman, who clashes with Pembleton throughout over the widely differing interpretations the detectives bring to the death of a sixteen year old boy in a warehouse fire, but Kellerman demonstrates enough game from the very start that Gee is eager to bring him on board.
But the episodes, as any good series demands, are showcases for other issues. Howard has decided to study to take the Sergeant’s Exam and Munch, stung by this, and by the loss of his partner, follows suit. Naturally, the squadroom immediately takes the action on Kay’s side.
Lewis complains about having had to solo the longest: he will gain Kellerman, and their partnership will add a new undercurrent, alongside the continued relationship of Pembleton and Bayliss, which has its initial difficulties: Frank confides in his partner that Mary is pregnant, a secret that Bayliss immediately blabs everywhere, which does not go down well with Pembleton.
There was one more, less overt thing. The opening episode plainly showed that NBC had made further inroads into wearing down Homicide‘s originality. Reed Diamond, the new cast member, was plainly a very telegenic figure, fresh and clean-lined of face, young and fit, and if we didn’t immediately get that here was a sexy addition to the cast, there was the sexy young guest actress who called him over to her flat, not to give any further information about the fire, but to drop a red silk dragon robe to demonstrate that she was plainly naked beneath it (this not being The Wire, only Kellerman got the benefit of it).
And as for Captain Russert, here was Isabella Hofman wandering around the Homicide Department in a fetchingly pastel jacket and skirt combination, only instead of season 3’s near-ankle-length dresses, this skirt has crept a good four inches above the knee. It was the flaunting of a sexy blonde that NBC had wanted from the start, and now could be gratified by.
The series gained a recurring character early in the season in the form of freelance videograher J H Brodie, played by Max Perlich. Brodie inadvertently taped a killing, and lost his job when he disobeyed his Editor’s instructions not to hand the tape to the Police until it had been aired on the news. Though the squad in general, and Gee in particular, disliked the little man, he was taken on as Police videographer, to shoot crime scenes. Brodie proceeded to get on everyone’s wick, but to establish himself as part of the team, with a sense of ethics about his role that definitely conflicted with those of the more pragmatic Munch.
Kellerman and Luther Mahoney
The compromises necessary to work with NBC’s demands showed themselves in the seventh episode, which featured a ‘thrill-killer’ (i.e. serial killer) working his way north into Baltimore where the Police work with the FBI to locate him, only for there to be a sting in the tail. It’s an excellent 40 minutes of TV drama, taut, atmospheric, foreboding, but it’s TV drama, conventional cop show material, a betrayal of everything Homicide was meant to be about.
And it was followed immediately by a two-parter about another serial killer, this time a Texas Corn Tower type sniper. Bayliss tracks him down, but is unable to talk him down: the killer shoots himself. And no sooner is the crisis over than a copycat appears.
Unfortunately, Homicide was still struggling to accommodate Russert, and this two-parter exemplified the problem. Though she’s done nothing wrong in her handling of the redball, Barnfather scapegoats Russert for the benefit of the media, demoting her to Lieutenant. When she protests, he demotes her back to Detective and wants her out of Homicide. Gee protects her, and Russert is central to getting a confession out of the copycat, but this double demotion was still awkward, and was again more a television plot than the naturalistic approach of Homicide.
Russert’s demotion from Captain should have resulted in Giardello being promoted, but once again he was passed over, because of his refusal to be a ‘political’ Police: this time, the Deputy Commissioner’s active interference was made explicit. Instead, the role went to Roger Gaffney: yes, the incompetent, lazy, racist detective forced out of Russert’s squad early in Season 3 was now put in charge of Homicide, and making it plain that power, in his hands, would not corrupt, since the slimey Gaffney arrived in that state.
Interestingly, the moment Russert is demoted, the short skirts vanish, to be replaced by wide-leg trousers.
But that troubling trio of episodes did not keep Homicide from following its own groove. Stories like the quirky ‘The Hat’, which netted Lily Tomlin an award as best Guest Star for her role as a chatterbox, opera-signing murderess traveling cross-country with Lewis and Kellerman, and the two-part ‘Justice’ with Bruce Campbell guesting as a cop whose father is murdered at random, and who does not receive justice from a jury who came to a verdict they didn’t believe in, just so as to be able to go home for the weekend, were as strong as any in earlier seasons, whilst Russert’s demotion back to Detective lent some welcome diversity to a show that had suddenly lost half its strength.
Losing Beatty and Baldwin had more impact than just losing two detectives. Two of the show’s four (or rather three-and-a half) partnerships were cut off. Lewis gained Kellerman to form a new partnership, but for the first half of the season, these and Pembleton/Bayliss were the only pairings, and Homicide suffered from the lack of other perspectives.
The two remaining partners, Munch and Howard, could have teamed up, but it was obvious that would never have worked. The decision to send Kay Howard in to seek a Sergeantship was an elegant one at the outset, but its effect, of separating her from her fellow detectives, of giving her a superior status that raised her above them whilst never remotely giving her any of Gee’s authority, would be fatal in the long run.
Munch, in contrast, was content to be something of a cypher, class clown and irritating with it. This was something that never bothered Richard Belzer, who went on record several times that he loved working on Homicide, and was happy to support such great actors and be part of such superb writing.
However, Russert’s demotion opened things up. She was partnered with Munch, immediately expanding the opportunities available to the show. Though you had to sympathise with Russert, Hoffman’s calm and phlegmatism about her fate stood her in good stead.
The most unhappy person during the second half of the season was Andre Braugher. In a show without stars, he was Homicide’s undoubted star, but he was beginning to get bored with his role. Pembleton in the box was the show’s standard trope, and the steadily growing run of successes for him and Bayliss were beginning to get repetitive.
Fontana recognised this and held discussions with Braugher about possible approaches to keep him fresh. A line was worked out, for Season 5, that intrigued Braugher, and the first hint towards this was dropped into ‘Stake-Out’. This was a superb episode in which the Squad stakes out a private house to await the return of a neighbour wanted to murdered. The entire show consists of various pairs of detectives sitting around and talking, embarrassedly observing the deteriorating relationship of the house-owners, and debating this and that. When the murderer arrives home, his capture takes all of five seconds: archetypal Homicide.
But season 4 had done what was asked of it: it had upped its ratings. Sufficiently so that NBC gave the show the biggest vote of confidence it ever received, an order for 44 episodes: two full series, in the bank, guaranteed.
It was this security that enabled Fontana to make Braugher the proposal he had, which was even more openly foreshadowed in an episode that featured a killing sadly similar to that of Adena Watson, so long ago, an episode that reminded us just how deeply scarred Bayliss was by that experience and an episode that would throw up deep differences between Pembleton and the partner he may well have accepted but whom he had never truly accepted.
Next up, Lewis and Kellerman found themselves handling a multiple drug-related homicide that, though officially solved, left the true villain untouched and untouchable. It was meant as a one-off, but in the scant minutes allowed to teflon Drug Lord Luther Mahoney, Eric Todd Nellums walked away with such commanding smoothness that the writers were determined to make more of it. What they made would underwrite those two series.
Before we get to its end, let’s also celebrate Homicide‘s first official crossover with fellow NBC series, Law & Order. The crossover began on Law & Order with Bayliss and Pembleton travelling to New York to investigate a subway explosion with ties to a similar explosion at a Baltimore Church, with the more procedural series’ Lennie Briscoe, Rey Curtis and Claire Kincaid returning the favour on Homicide. I’ve not seen the first half of the crossover, but the second is a dream if only for the interplay between Munch and Briscoe, especially after John discovers that Lennie has slept with his ex-wife Gwen!
Incidentally, it’s amusing to record that the White Supremacist responsible, who crushes Pembleton by dying of a heart attack before trial, is played by J. K. Simmons, who would go on to become a Law & Order regular as a psychologist.
As the season’s end drew near, there were some great moments. Lewis announced his marriage at shift-end, provoking a great stir among his colleagues as he tries to get everything set up, with Munch at his irritatingly sceptical worst convinced, even after the mystery bride has appeared and the knot been tied, that it’s some colossal and impossibly convoluted practical joke on all of us. Meanwhile, Melissa Leo has great fun appearing as her bubbly, fun-loving sister Carrie, all the way from Italy, for which she masqueraded as actress ‘Margaret May’.
An episode dominated by racial tensions also saw Russert take the decision to press charges through Internal Affairs, against Patrolman Stuart Gharty (played by Peter Gerety) for dereliction of duty. Gharty, a 54 year old, overweight cop with an otherwise clean record, had simply lost it for the street. His refusal to intervene in a shooting incident led to two deaths, both young men, one of which might have been preventable. But since they were drug-dealers, no-one, least of all Gharty, who was reprieved, really cared. Set against the private justice being employed by Black Muslims, it made for a complex episode, lightened only by Munch’s crowing over the return of the silent Stanley Bolander, and his puppy dog disappointment that the Big Man will not call at the Waterfront for a beer.
Whatever else Season 4 had done, with its compromises amongst its efforts to stick to its own straight and narrow, it was secure for a further two years. So it was able to end in spectacular fashion, with a cliff-hanger. In the middle of an interrogation, Penbleton collapses in the Box, holding his head, screaming and spasming. By the end of the episode it is established that he has suffered a stroke: will his brilliant mind survive?