Until the end of its sixth season, Homicide: Life on the Street had had the security of a two season order. Ratings had not improved, however, though the show had taken the chance to go into some intense and daring areas. Nevertheless, it had ended Season 6 anticipating, not for the first time, cancellation.
But once more the series was reprieved. This time it was down to external factors: NBC had lost Seinfeld, gone deep into the hole to retain E.R. and couldn’t afford further destabilisation, so Homicide was renewed for a seventh, but ultimately final series.
Once again there were changes. Andre Braugher and Reed Diamond had left, the one because he’d grown bored with the part, the other because the logic of his story had left Kellerman nowhere to go.
Terri Stivers had been rotated into Homicide in the middle of Season 6, only for Toni Lewis to remain a Guest Star, but now she received an overdue promotion into the cast, but Michael Michelle and Giancarlo Esposito were brand new, and would be the show’s final additions.
Michelle appeared as Detective Rene Sheppard, another rotation into Homicide, from the Fugitive Squad, whilst Esposito joined the show as Mike Giardello, Al’s estranged son (despite previous reference to him having been as Al Jr.)
In keeping with the previous two seasons, Season 7 opened with the return to duty of Tim Bayliss, after his bullet wound of the previous season. Kyle Secor had already let it be known that this would be his last year with Homicide: he would not be renewing his contract for any season 8. It was going to be interesting to see how he would go forward without Pembleton, who, we were quickly advised, had enrolled as a lecturer at a Jesuit College, and who had spoken to nobody in Homicide since the end of the Mahoney affair.
And there were external changes. The squadroom had changed after the Junior Bunk shoot-out: it had been repainted, the desks rearranged. Gee’s office had been shifted, the Box had gone, to be replaced with two interview rooms. Worst of all, because it was demeaning, was the change to the opening credits, which were drastically shortened, the music truncated, the cast’s images scrolled by with barely enough time to take them in. Suddenly, Homicide became a perfunctory thing.
I have only seen the seventh season twice before. It’s noticeably weak in comparison to the series as a whole, and if this was the standard to which Homicide had slipped, there were few among the audience who regretted this being its final outing.
It’s not just the absence of Pembleton, which in turn leaves Bayliss out on a limb, forming no relationships to equal that with his previous sparring partner and slipping into the background. Instead, it’s the entire ethos of the show. All its principles seem to be sacrificed at once. Overnight, it became a soap opera, more concerned with the detective’s private lives, their relationships and issues than it is with any of the crimes that occur.
Rene Sheppard has been rotated into Homicide, but she’s a photogenic, tall, confident, sexy woman and initially the male detectives on the squad can only think of her in sexual terms. Lewis, her partner, fancies her, Falsone fancies her (and is oblivious to the fact that Ballard fancies him), Bayliss fancies her. The woman herself is strong and self-reliant, and wants to be taken seriously as a detective, but – perhaps in reaction to having one of NBC’s pretty people forced on them – the show makes her attractiveness a theme of the series, introducing midway the question of whether she – or any of the female detectives – are physically fit to face the streets.
Even Mike Giardello’s introduction, in the opening episode, is a matter of personal relationships. It’s Bayliss’s first day back since his shooting, though little is made of this in contrast to the past two seasons, just an offhand remark, and there are three deaths in Little Italy, the result of a Sicilian vendetta, one of whom is Gee’s cousin, Mario.
The funeral brings Mike (an FBI Agent based in Arizona) to Baltimore, where he is elemental in solving the case. Mario, who was as much as if not more of a father to Mike, leaves his house to MGee who, in order to improve his strained relationship with his work-obsessed father, transfers to Baltimore as FBI liaison or, as Gaffney and Barnfather expect it to be, their spy in Gee’s squadroom.
It rolls on. Munch is seeing Billie Lou, the Waterfront barmaid, and gets engaged to her. Gharty leaves his wife, turns to drinking, strip clubs and attempts to pull Billie Lou. Falsone and Ballard get together and, when Gee warns them that they cannot have a relationship whilst on the same shift, officially break things off but carry on shagging anyway. Munch, in a tiresome and irritating manner, takes violently against Gharty over his supposed experiences in ‘Nam, which leads to some unpleasant sneaking around to expose Gharty’s less than stellar military records, and the latter is forced to reveal a telling experience that puts everything into a different, and entirely admirable light.
The one really bright spot in the season is the new medical examiner, Dr Griscom, played with a toothy grin and excellent brio by Austin Pendleton.
Approaching the midway point, the series went in for two, back-to-back, two-part episodes. The first features a team of Bounty Hunters, led by a southern accented Chris Meloni (who would soon be co-starring with Richard Belzer in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), which further broke Homicide‘s mould by ending the first half with a long car chase and a crash in which Lewis is seriously injured, and which zoomed off to Florida in its second half.
This was immediately followed by a return for Reed Diamond in a two-parter focusing on a case where he ended up opposing the Squad – and especially Falsone – in his new role as a P.I. Though this was a rare instance where the case itself formed the greater part of the story, nevertheless it still centred itself upon Kellerman’s relations with his former colleagues. Stivers was furious with him, Lewis distant, the rest of the squad uncommunicative. Everybody’s been affected by him, and Kellerman, just like he was last season, is self-justifying.
But when the case went down the wrong way, when the rich girl turned on the poor boy she supposedly loved, Kellerman dug for evidence that would support the boy. Though he committed suicide before it could be examined didn’t change the fact that Kellerman did the right thing, and even Falsone was prepared to give him credit for not being all scum.
Diamond became only the second, and last cast member to return in a guest role after they left the series, after Isabella Hofmann in season Five.
But by this time it was much too late. Gharty ploughed on, getting further and further lost in drink. Falsone and Ballard eventually split up, finding the secrecy too much for them, though Falsone appeared to find it the harder to accept. Lewis kept going on and on about the beat-down, raking it up at every opportunity, and going on to be resistant to working with Ballard or Stivers.
This storyline ended up neutralising Sheppard for the back half of the series. There was no escape from it, and no new, strong storylines to accommodate her character.
And Toni Lewis would up short-changed too. She was Falsone’s partner and made a good, solid job of it, but there were no stories for her to be anything other than one of a pair of cops. The series did bring the feminist question to a head in ‘The Why Chromosome’, in which Sheppard and Ballard teamed up, successfully, as the first pair of female Homicide Detectives to work a murder together: it could have been Stivers and Sheppard, but she naturally effaced herself, having nothing to prove. A good team role, but the show had run out of ideas of what to do with her.
This switch of emphasis to soap opera also downgraded what could have been good stories by simply creating an atmosphere in which the crime, the victim, were of secondary interest. That was particularly evident in ‘Lines of Fire’, an otherwise intense, and tragic story which was almost a Mike Giardello solo, but one in which, despite the stripping away of every vestige of personal issues, failed to reach the level of season 6’s ‘The Subway’ because the show had lost its aura.
As the series neared its end, thought had to be given to writing out Bayliss, given Kyle Secor’s intention to leave. This was set up quite carefully, but a long way from the end. The seed was planted in ‘Homicide.com’, in which Luke Rylands, a sicko killing women in Internet broadcasts was arrested by Sheppard, on her first redball. Bayliss is her secondary, and part way through the episode, Rylands piggy-backed onto a real-life internet site, ‘In Plain Site’, that had been set up for the series. The site anonymously discussed Buddhism and bisexuality, and it was run by Bayliss.
(The episode also introduced two detectives from the Web-only Homicide: Second Shift, which ran during season 7 for those with reliable web access. I deeply regret not finding that in time.)
Two episodes later, a pair of episodes started turning the screw very hard on Bayliss. First, his site came to the attention of Captain and Mrs Gaffney, after 12 year old Master Gaffney located it. The Gaffneys wanted it shut down, pronto. Tim was prepared to resist, based on his First Amendment Rights, but his reputation as a ‘Homo’ cop, a ‘fag’, quickly spread. Gee advised it was career suicide, a sergeant who’d fancied Tim enough to book a dinner date denounced him out of fear he’d also be ‘out’. In the end, the crushed Bayliss deleted a web-site that had clearly been of great use to him in recovering from his gunshot.
The next episode featured the murder of a Buddhist Monk. Over Lewis’s reservations, Bayliss was brought in as an expert. The two clashed over Lewis’s liking for the culprit being one of the other Monks and Bayliss’s insistence that none of them could have done it. Bayliss was right, but he was forced into a corner where, to preserve his own life, he had to kill the suspect, violating his every Buddhist belief.
Disappointingly, there was no follow-up to these episodes until the curtain-closer, ‘Forgive us our Trespasses’. Luke Rylands, the internet Killer, went free on a technicality, for which Bayliss blamed Ed Danvers, shoving him down the courtroom steps and giving him a head injury.
It’s a big day. Munch and Billie Lou are marrying, Gee’s getting his promotion to Captain and taking over the Property Division, there are cases and cases and Bayliss, for the first and only time all season, admits that he misses his friend, that he misses Frank.
And then, in the last seven minutes, Homicide: Life on the Street lifted itself to match its best ever moments. It excelled everything in the whole of season 7, and ended on the highest of high notes, and a mystery.
Rylands comes home to find Bayliss waiting for him. He’s there to tell Rylands that he’ll be watching, every day, that they’ll get him. Hope you like New Orleans, Rylands says: I hear the girls and pretty, and easy. You’ll be able to see it all on the internet.
Gee’s turned down the captaincy to stay in Homicide. It may be his wedding night but Munch is down the Waterfront, looking to get loaded. After seven weeks of celibacy pending the wedding night, he’s gone off too soon, and at his age you don’t get two in a night.
Bayliss arrives, asks Munch to walk with him. He recalls Gordon Pratt, the guy who shot Bolander, Felton and Howard in season 3, and who was found shot shortly afterwards: Bayliss caught the case but not the killer. Munch is all in favour of that. Bayliss, who has slightly too beatifical a smile on his face says he always suspected Munch killed Pratt, and admires him for it. Munch says nothing.
Bayliss then turns up at Danvers’ home, come ‘to apologise for what I’ve done’. Danvers is still mad, but accepts the apology, assuming its about what happened at the courthouse. Maybe it is.
It’s the next morning and the squadroom’s buzzing. Stivers and Gharty are both going on leave and Falsone suggests partnering with Ballard. Lewis gets a call and, having thought over a lot of what Bayliss has said, invites Sheppard to partner him. Bayliss is clearing stuff out of his desk. Springcleaning, he calls it to Gee, but he tosses his nameplate in there too. He takes one last long look at the Board then takes his box and leaves. At the door, he looks back. An intense, hyper-dense sixty second long flashback covers seven seasons of Homicide. He leaves.
Despite the fact it’s morning, Lewis and Sheppard’s crime scene is an alley at night, like the first shot of the Pilot. The body is that of Luke Rylands. Lewis and Sheppard start down the alley, looking for clues. Their dialogue repeats the dialogue of Lewis and Crosetti a very long time ago. We watch them hunt in silence.
Homicide might even yet have been renewed for an eighth season. All Tom Fontana had to do was agree to sack everybody in the cast except Munch and the two beautiful women, Sheppard and Ballard, move the trio to Miami with lots of beach clothes, and turn them into Private Investigators, operating out of a fishing boat. Any resemblance to Homicide: Life on the Street would have been ruthlessly exterminated.
Needless to say, Fontana wouldn’t play ball. Nobody would.
Richard Belzer had a plan. He was well aware that Benjamin Bratt was leaving Law & Order as of that season and, seeing how well he and Jerry Orbach had worked together in the three crossovers, he proposed transferring Munch to become Lennie Briscoe’s new partner. It would have worked like a dream, but Jesse L. Martin had already been signed up for the role. Munch ended up in the franchise’s first, but by no means last, spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, in which Munch would be, for the most part, utterly wasted for the next fifteen years.
Belzer would go on, however, to set a record for playing John Munch on the most number of different TV shows, on the most number of Networks, in American TV History, even down to Homicide‘s true heir, The Wire (another David Simon creation, still using settings and dialogue from Homicide: A Year on the Killing Street.)
It had lasted seven seasons, even if the first couple of seasons were very short, and it had kept a large part of its soul intact, not to mention Richard Belzer, Clark Johnson, Yaphet Kotto and Kyle Secor (it doesn’t count if you leave in the last ever episode).
But this was not the end of the story. Just eighteen months later…