Officially, it’s Homicide: the Movie but for those of us who were there to hear that it was being done, eighteen months after the end of the series, and those of us who took advantage of the opportunity to download the shooting script, it was and always will be Homicide: Life Everlasting. After all, this was the ultimate end, the point beyond which things could go no further.
It’s not unknown for a long-running TV series to get a TV movie, a ‘Return to…’, though these usually come years later, and tend to be incapable of capturing anything that made the series memorable in any way. To my knowledge, Homicide: Life on the Street, is unique in being given such a follow-up to deal with loose ends, so soon in its own wake.
The very idea intrigues, especially after it was confirmed that the Movie would feature everyone. Everyone who had, in one series or another, been members of the cast of the show. Everyone, including Jon Polito and Daniel Baldwin, whose characters were, let us remember, dead. Were there going to be flashbacks? No, there weren’t.
I have mixed feelings about Homicide: the Movie. Sometimes, when I watch it, I find much of it unsatisfying, and not a fitting end to the overall series. It runs for just under 90 minutes, of which the first hour doesn’t reach the heights the series achieved, although the final thirty minutes is excellent.
And other times, like now, I absorb it all and enjoy it for what it is, a final chance to spend time with old favourites, a meshing of people whose times and stories overlapped and diverged and never came near each other before.
The story is relatively simple, as well it might be, given the need to provide a self-contained crime. Lt Al Giardello has resigned from the Police to run for Mayor: a week before the election, he is the overwhelming favourite, when he is shot at an early morning Press rally. The news spreads and all of Gee’s old detectives gather spontaneously to help track down his would-be killer.
The major logistical problem for the film as a whole is how to cope with seventeen leads (it’s actually 18: Zelcko Ivanek, never a cast member but Homicide’s most frequent regular, is fittingly promoted). Something has to be found for everyone to do, and something has to give: some detectives are short-changed, working as they do on dead ends. Not so Bayliss and Pembleton: they get the lion’s share of the spotlight, working in defiance of Pembleton’s ejection by Gaffney (obnoxious to the last) and, inevitably, solvinghe crime.
The tone of the film is uneven to begin with. It makes a good start by reinstating the old, black and white credits, and the full-length theme music, but much of the film takes place under bright sun and in upmarket areas of Baltimore that just don’t look like our familiar Fell’s Point backgrounds. And it’s too damned bright.
Comparing film with script reveals hosts of cuts. Few of these are significant, but each cuts detail that thickened the story, supported the characters rather than the relatively minimal plot. In particular, the scene where Pembleton boasts of his new found wealth as a teacher should have been retained.
Two cuts are significant. Megan Russert’s entrance simply vanishes, and Stan Bolander’s half of the conversation with her is shifted to later in the movie, and with Munch, costing one of Homicide‘s traditional in-jokes. Instead, Megan is simply there at the hospital, with no sense of her arriving, and without an introduction to the viewer. It undermines her.
The other comes in one of Pembleton and Bayliss’s conversations, when Pembleton ruminates on why he resigned: a line is struck out which prefigures the final, and rather more dramatic, conversation between these old partners, to the detriment of the latter.
The show recognises the gap in time since the final episode of season 7. Gharty has been promoted to Lieutenant after Giardello, but he is a weakling, a put-upon stooge for Gaffney and Barnfather, playing his part from fear that being on the street will kill him. Lewis, Falsone, Ballard, Stivers and Sheppard are still in Homicide but new names on the Board are Detectives Hall and Overton. The latter is no more than a name but Hall plays a part: Giardello’s shooting is his case but he’s a rough, crude, stupid, fist-wielding thug, played with great glee by Jason Priestly, happy to wallow in his stereotype for a chance to work on the show.
Munch, we know, is a Detective in New York now, who told his new colleagues on Day 1 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that he was never setting foot in Charm City again after Billie Lou ran off with one of his colleagues. Homicide takes great delight in overturning this as a lie (and it sure as hell wasn’t Gharty).
Mike Giardello gets a fair amount of time. He’s a beat cop now, looking to win his Detective’s shield, but he spends most of his time in impotent rage at how the hospital won’t tell him anything, put in splendid perspective by a cameo guest role from Ed Begley Jr (playing but not credited as his St Elsewhere role, Victor Erlich).
But it’s that last half hour that puts the film into its real stride. Bayliss and Pembleton finally locate the clue that leads them to the killer, a cameraman who was filming the rally for a local TV station, and who had a gun strapped to his camera. He is a father who, three months earlier, lost his son to a drugs overdose and, slightly unhinged, wanted to prevent Gee from carrying forward his proposals to legalise drugs, and open the door for other kids to die and leave parents bereft. That he’s unhinged by grief is plain, and his nervous energy is infectious, but it brings Bayliss to a point he’s been edging around all the way since Frank turned up.
Season 7 left the issue of whether Bayliss had executed Luke Ryland, the Internet Killer, in the air, but long before his confession that he did indeed execute, it is obvious that he is responsible and that it is preying at his conscience. Bayliss sees his actions mirrored by those of the cameraman. He has been waiting for Frank, his partner, his friend, the person who means more to him than anyone else, to confess.
Pembleton is aghast. He doesn’t want to hear it, let alone believe it, and he keeps trying to find ways to explain it that avoid having to accept that Bayliss,, a cop, has committed a stone-cold murder. When he finally gcannot squirm away, his reaction is of betrayal: “You son of a bitch!”
Frank isn’t a cop anymore. He’s a lecturer at a Jesuit college. He doesn’t want to bring anyone else in. But Bayliss is by now too deeply enwrapped in himself. He refuses to allow Pembleton to escape from being a cop. He’s got to bring Bayliss in, save his life. He threatens to commit suicide if he is not taken in.
Even here, Homicide‘ s traditional refusal to wrap things up clearly is apparent: a white hand erases Ryland’s name in red and rewrites it in blue: a solved murder from an earlier year. Does Pembleton take Bayliss in? Is it Bayliss, filling in a detail before going on to eat his gun? Or has he confessed to someone else? No answers are given. In a very short time, when all this has ceased to be our concern, Pembleton mumbles, bitterly, about catching a couple of big ones today, but we don’t know what hhe means by that.
From here, we move swiftly towards the end. Gee survived the surgery, the killer has been caught, everyone’s together again, even Kellerman is accepted in the Waterfront, until Brodie arrives. Gee has survived the surgery, but but he has died, of an aneurysm. It’s a hammer blow for everyone.
Inside the squadroom, Mike is hanging a rosarie on his father’s photograph. Pembleton introduces himself, commiserates. They talk for a moment or two then leave together in silence. As they reach the exit, Giardello walks in, between them, in full health and vigour. He does not see them: they do not see him.
Instead, he sees a ghost environment, peopled by those who, in some manner, are fixed here. Police who died, victims: though we know it is coming, there is still a considerable frisson, as a happy, 10 year old black girl skips down the hall and round Gee: we don’t need his stunned breathing of her first name to tell us that this is Adena Watson.
She skip round him and into the coffee-room. Standing, grinning, at the machine, looking not a bit changed, is Steve Crosetti, hailing the Lieutenant, calling him in. Four chairs are set at a table, a game of cards is in hand, Beau Felton sits at the table. Fans speculate that the empty chair means a place set for a soon-to-arrive Bayliss: Gee is afraid for Mike.
Nothing matters any more. This is where they go. The concerns of life are just that, the concerns of Life and this is not Life. In the shooting script, Crosetti explains that nothing is fixed: had Gee overslept by five minutes that morning, he’d have wound up half an hour late and the shooter would have succumbed to his nerves and left before then.
Gee takes a card, puts his money down. The poker game resumes. In a strange way, we are consoled.
After the melodramatic announcement at the end of Season 5, Homicide: Life on the Street chose to start Season 6 in a similar manner to the previous year. Instead of Pembleton returning from surgery after his stroke, the episode begins with Bayliss and Pembleton returning to Homicide after their temporary re-assignment to the Robbery Squad: three months of routine, nine-to-five shifts, regulation cases, undemanding work: they can’t wait to get back!
Both detectives are imagining a welcome party, and indeed they walk into the middle of one, but it’s Barnfather holding a press conference to celebrate the cracking of a major case by Detectives Ballard and Gharty.
Yes, as we surmised, Peter Gerety has joined the cast as Stu Gharty, transferring from Internal Affairs, as has Jon Seda, as Paul Falsone, from Auto. Ballard is the third new cast member for the season: Callie Thorne playing Laura Ballard, who has transferred over from the Pacific North West, the Seattle Police, and making a name for herself as a fine detective: you can just feel the sparks between her and Pembleton before they are even introduced.
The new trio comes at the expense of two departing cast members, both of whom were written out as a response to outside scandals. Max Perlich’s departure was long-known: the young actor had gone on a cocaine-fuelled binge, barricaded himself in his Baltimore rooms with a gun and faced down the Police: Pembleton called for Brodie only to discover he’d gone west, to Hollywood, after winning an award for his Documentary in season 5 (cue sarky in-joke referencing Homicide‘s record of multiple nominations and no awards.
And Kay Howard has chosen to stay with the Fugitive Squad. Melissa Leo’s departure was unfortunate, for she had been swept into a national scandal involving her partner and a custody battle with his ex-wife. And Tom Fontana commented that they had gone as far as they could with the character, which was, to an extent, true. Howard’s promotion to Sergeant had isolated her from her former fellow-detectives, and the genuine role a Baltimore PD Sergeant played had had to be twisted to keep her in the cast.
So, sweeping changes.
But season 6 was to prove both rewarding and difficult for the show, even as it was still running on the back half of its confidence-boosting two season order.
In Britain, Homicide had been running on Channel 4 since the early Nineties. It was, in many ways, an ideal Channel 4 programme, in the way that Hill Street Blues, with its greater elements of conventional Police melodrama, and strong soap opera content, was archetypal ITV.
But Homicide had never been a strong ratings item for C4, and by Season 6 it was obvious that they wanted as little to do with it as they could. Almost from the beginning it was dumped into a midweek 12.30am slot, and in its back half, C4 began to speed it along with double bills. For someone working a 9 to 5 job it was out of the question to sit up until 1.30am for single episodes, let alone compound that demand, and I ended up videotaping most of the series to watch the following evening after work: all except the two parter centring upon Ballard and Gharty that had actually been broadcast in America as a double-length episode, for which something went wrong on the timer.
It was a horribly disrespectful way to treat a series that had been a strong part of C4’s image for so many years, but it was worse to hear that it would not be renewed. There was going to be a Season 7, and it was going to be the last season, without fail. I felt betrayed that I was going to miss this further series: even 12.30am double bills would have been acceptable if I could only see the thing. In the end, though, the Channel outdid itself, billing the final episode of Season 6 as the last ever episode of Homicide, a blatant lie designed to shield them from any complaints.
The opening episode, kicking off a three-parter, saw not just Pembleton and Bayliss returning from Rotation. Lewis and Kellerman were also due back at later stages in the day, Lewis first, and immediately asking Giardello for a re-partnering: he would fetch up with the new boy, Falsone. Kellerman, last in, was partnered with Munch, who was once again solo, Russert having tendered her formal resignation after realising how out of place she was amongst her ex-colleagues when dealing with Felton’s death.
Infodumps having been handled with Homicide’s customary naturalness, we are soon into action. The body of a woman is found in the toilets of a swanky hotel where the great and good of Baltimore have gathered to honour Felix Wilson (James Earl Jones), a prominent black businessman and philanthropist, not to mention friend of Giardello, who is sitting with the family. Unfortunately, the victim is their maid.
Equally unfortunately, Pembleton pulls the case. I say unfortunately because Pembleton, in awe of Wilson and what he has done for the black community, starts with the presumption that neither he nor his family, by virtue of who they are, can be involved, and any attempt to investigate him is a racist slur. Gee concurs in this, initially at first, and only Ballard, who Pembleton contemptuously refers to a ‘Seattle’ wants to see proper procedures applied.
As may have been expected, the case eventually does find its way back to the Wilsons. The case is solved but not cleared when Pembleton meets Felix and his son for an interrogation in which their rights are not read, thus invalidating anything they say as evidence. The son is the killer: he was in love with Malala but killed her in a jealous rage when he discovered she was also sleeping with his father. The Wilsons are going to protect their son: what’s more, they are leaving Baltimore, and pulling out their holdings. Pembleton, in the end, is forced to make an apology, of sorts, to Ballard.
It was an intriguing story. What I took from it was the customary message that the rich – even such ‘good’ rich as a black couple who have not forgotten their roots – are ultimately intent on being above the Law. Their son is a murderer: he has killed someone known to and liked by them, someone under their protection. But he is to be protected from what he has done, justice is to be denied, because they have the money to confront it. And in what I can only interpret as a fit of pique that they should even be questioned about this crime, they will take their toys and go away.
Amongst all this, the new season made it plain that it had not forgotten Luther Mahoney: his sister, Georgia Rae, is making waves, refusing to believe the official account, and there is a motorcycle gunman taking pot-shots at cops: specifically Kellerman, the car containing Lewis and Falsone, and a woman shot through the head as she talked with a Drugs Squad detective, Terri Stivers.
The aftermath of Mahoney’s killing, and the knowledge that affects the three detectives involved is a canker that underlines the whole season. Georgia Rae Mahoney maintains the pressure on the Department throughout. It is her hapless son, Junior Bunk, Luther’s nephew, who is the motorcycle shooter, and despite his protestations of being hard, he cracks like an eggshell. But Georgia Rae not only keeps up the legal pressure, suing the City, the Department, the detectives, but she tricks Kellerman into more or less admitting that the shoot was bad. She also provokes Lewis into an assault that sees him suspended for most of the series and off the official scene.
For Kellerman, things go only downhill. The pressure is on him from the beginning, when he is rejected by his partner Lewis, and things worsen when it appears that the new boy, Falsone, is investigating the Mahoney killing. The new boy gets himself shot at on his first day partnering with Lewis: he is naturally concerned about what he’s gotten into.
And Jon Seda got all kinds of promotion during this season, his brash, aggressive personality brushing up against everything, his custody battles with his ex-wife running on. It was known by now that Andre Braugher was in his last season, seeking fresh challenges: in a ‘show without stars’ he was the clear star, and there was some resentment at the relentless way Falsone was being groomed as the new ‘star’.
As for Reed Diamond, he would also end up leaving the show at the end of the season, because the screws that tighten upon Kellerman end up leaving his story with no future. His killing of Luther Mahoney creates an inexorable trail. Kellerman’s attitude, his sense of responsibility, his concern for the dead, even his appearance suffer the longer things go on, as he tries at one and the same time to take sole responsibility for his actions, reassuring Lewis and Stivers that he will sort out everything, whilst blaming everybody else under the sun for what has happened.
The storyline is beautifully paced, simmering in the background, developing towards a fiery conclusion.
But at the same time, Homicide showed itself capable of strong stories that had nothing to do with the Mahoney case. Having established the ongoing effects of the Mahoney shooting, the show had the chutzpah to switch direction completely, centring upon Bayliss and Pembleton, with a minimal role for Lewis and Falsone. ‘The Subway’ was an incredible one-off: Vincent d’Onofrio, in his first TV role, guested as a murder victim, a man who, one morning in the subway station, is jostled on the platform and falls in front of the train. He isn’t killed outright, but his body is caught between the train and the platform. He is conscious, lucid, talking. But beneath platform level, the lower half of his body has been twisted round by 180 degrees. He is being kept alive because the pressure of the train is holding his guts in, but once the train has been moved to enable the emergency services to extract him, he will die literally within seconds. That is a cast iron certainty.
Did he fall or was he pushed? Bayliss works the crowd, eventually tracking down the madman who pushed him, an innocent, random victim. Pembleton interviews the dead man. It’s so far out of his experience, that the articulate Pembleton is all but speechless, completely bereft of ideas of what to say: he’s not used to the dead being able to talk back.
Lewis and Falsone are pulled into the case on a mercy mission: the guy’s girlfriend is jogging in the park and they are asked to find her and get her to the station so that they can say their farewells. It’s not an easy task, given the size of the park, and the pair don’t exactly go at it whole-heartedly.
In the end, the subway is moved, the victim dies, his assailant is arrested and, the final irony, as everyone starts to wind down and remove the gear from outside the station, a lone female jogger, with headphones, jogs out of the park and gives the action a wide berth as she heads home.
Coincidentally, d’Onofrio’s future co-star in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Kathryn Erbe, was principal guest star later in the season, as a full-blown, dying AIDS victim who has murdered the HIV-positive lover who, impliedly deliberately, passed on the disease to her and several other woman through unprotected sex.
Whilst ‘The Subway’ was the highlight of the series, there were two other one-off episodes that had no relation to anything else in the season, these being the mid-season ‘Abduction’, guest-starring Elizabeth Marvel as a mother whose four year old boy is kidnapped in the park, and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, airing immediately before the final two-parter, in which Falsone, assisted by a retired detective who is a monster of old-fashioned attitudes, solves the oldest open crime on the Baltimore P.D.’s books.
I’ve already referred to Falsone’s prominence as the next Homicide ‘star’, but whilst he’s up front throughout the series, the other two newbies, Ballard and Gharty, do not fare half so well. Despite Ballard’s direct and challenging role in the Felix Wilson case, she and Gharty are very much side-lined until mid-season. The partnership doesn’t cross over much into other cases, and apart from introducing Callie Thorne’s real-life allergy to fish dishes, she and Gharty only start to come to the fore in the two-part ‘Something Sacred’, investigating the murders of Catholic Priests, a case that causes the former altar boy and practicing Catholic Gharty several issues.
In America, this was broadcast as a double-length episode, which was the latest example of NBC disrupting the show’s longer term plans. Lewis had been put on suspension the previous episode and throughout this two-parter, he is missing, uncontactable. The viewer is meant to fear he’s been killed by the Mahoney gang but the tension is not given room to develop when he turns up at the end of the two-parter.
For several weeks, whilst Clark Johnson was directing episodes, Lewis was making only fleeting appearances, dressed casually, slouching in his car, occasional meets with Falsone, who is feeding him information on the Mahoney gang. Slowly the screw begins to turn on Georgia Rae Mahoney as well.
Elsewhere, Bayliss and Dr Julianna Cox have a brief affair over Xmas and New Year, that Cox ends abruptly. Hurt and a little bitter, Bayliss becomes intrigued with his next case, the hate-murder of a gay man, and starts to explore other sides to his character, starting with a dinner date with the handsome, relaxed club owner who is so helpful to him and Pembleton.
Though the two are not connected, this is actually a prelude to the departure of Michelle Forbes. Tired of the awkwardness of shoehorning her into episodes, the show had Cox coming under pressure to falsify an Intoxication report on the victim of a fatal road rage incident by a City employee that looks to cost the city millions. Cox, after a long debate with herself, attempts to alleviate the pressure by leaking it to the press: she is summarily fired.
Just as she arrived during Season 5, Dr Cox departs Baltimore in her fast car, during Season 6. The producers have openly regretted the waste of Michelle Forbes by not introducing her as another detective.
As in Season 4, Homicide organised another crossover with Law & Order, with Munch and Falsone going to New York, and Lennie Briscoe, Rey Curtis and Jack McCoy coming to Baltimore in the second half. The case was a typical Law & Order ‘ripped from the headlines’ affair, riffing on the JonBenet Ramsay murder, a teenage model dying in New York following an attack made in Baltimore. Munch and Briscoe again hit it off perfectly, and Homicide played off that by introducing, a few weeks later, Munch’s ex-wife (and Briscoe’s ex-lover) Gwen , played superbly by Carol Kane.
Kellerman is also campaigning against Georgia Rae Mahoney, reporting a Judge in her pay to the FBI only to find that he’s already under investigation. Unfortunately, Kellerman makes a too obvious threat in a too obvious place and the Judge is taken out abruptly.
This is the unexpected signal for the endgame, in two of the most intense episodes of the series ever, though amazingly the finale starts with an in-joke. Bayliss and Pembleton, en route to the murder that will prove to be that of the Judge, precede the credits by discussing a new book by a couple of writers who spent a whole year on a Baltimore drug corner before writing it all up, and using everybody’s real names! Pembleton wonders if, one day, someone will write a book about him.
The joke is that the co-writer of ‘The Corner’ is David Simon, writer of ‘Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets’ and now an Executive Producer and scripter on our favourite programme.
The Judge’s killer is Junior Bunk, only he’s not the soft pushover he was at the beginning of Season 6. Bunk’s been inside and has toughened up, emotionally and physically. Handcuffed in the squadroom, he sees a chance to seize a weapon. An uncharacteristically bloody shoot out ensues: three uniforms are killed, Ballard and Gharty are seriously wounded and Bunk himself is shot down by a four pronged assault by Pembleton, Bayliss, Giardello and Kellerman.
It’s more than enough for Gee, who declares war on the Mahoney gang. In their decimated state, the gang cannot stand up to the cops. Georgia is found shot dead by her guards, one of whom in escaping confronts Pembleton, one-to-one. Pembleton freezes, unable to pull the trigger, and his life is saved by Bayliss, pushing him aside, but taking the bullet in his back. He is rushed to hospital.
The pressure of everything is too much for Stivers, who goes to Giardello and confesses that the Mahoney shoot wasn’t clean. Gee has to deal with this once and for all: though Pembleton wants to be at the hospital for news of Bayliss, Gee orders him back to the squadroom where, with Falsone, he takes first Lewis, then Kellerman into the box. Lewis initially lawyers up, but under Pembleton’s urging that they need to get the truth between them, dismisses his lawyer and silently points the finger at Kellerman.
The interrogation is intense, but despite Kellerman’s denials, the truth comes out, his body unconsciously betraying him by forming a gun hand pointing to the floor, giving Pembleton the vital clue. Kellerman’s astonishment at how he has given himself away is palpable.
Pembleton asks Kellerman for his badge and gun, but cannot bring himself to look at him. Lewis refuses Kellerman the loan of his gun and a moment alone in the Box. Pembleton writes it up straight and goes back to the hospital.
Giardello talks to Kellerman, advising him that he could fight it with lawyers, and maybe even win, but if he does he takes down Lewis and Stivers, who signed false reports to cover him. Trapped in an inescapable hole, Kellerman resigns so that the whole thing can be buried. When the news reaches the hospital, Pembleton does the same. The truth of the job has been lost to him: he can never go back in the Box. Bayliss is taken into surgery, and the season ends.
When C4 broadcast the final episode, they announced it as the last ever episode, in full knowledge that there was another season to follow, a season that I eventually got to see on DVD, several years later, slowly building up a library of the whole series.
Homicide‘s fifth season began with immediate changes, as NBC insisted upon a completely revised credit sequence, in which the cast members actually appeared in association with the actors’ names.
As was beginning to become familiar, there were cast changes from the preceding season. Isabella Hofman had moved on, having become pregnant by Daniel Baldwin, although the main reason for her being dropped was that, after her rollercoaster rise and descent of the promotion ladder, the production team had very little they could credibly do with her character anymore.
Directly replacing her was Max Perlich, promoted from recurring to star cast as Brodie, though misbehaviour on the actor’s part would make that elevation short-lived. In addition, the team decided to ring the changes by bringing in another new cast member in mid-season, or rather five episodes in: Michelle Forbes, at that time best known for her recurring role as Ensign Ro on Star Trek – The Next Generation, agreed to her first cast role as Dr Julianna Cox, the new Medical Examiner.
Dr Cox was introduced as another attempt to broaden the basis of the show: her character’s intent on creating closer links between Homicide and the ME’s department, was intended to give an even wider perspective on death in Baltimore, but the production team have gone on record as regretting that decision. Cox was an outsider who often had to be inserted by contrivance, or through her relationship with Kellerman, and the team later bemoaned the waste of a good actress through not making her another detective.
Guest-starring a future Hobbit
There was no return for either Stan Bolander or Beau Felton. The Big Man would be written out as having resigned, but there was simply no word of Felton. Until much later.
After Pembleton’s dramatic collapse in the final episode of Season 4, the question of whether he would regain all his old skills was meant to be an underlying theme of the series in general. Certainly, it was what Andre Braugher wanted to explore.
The series began with Pembleton’s first day back in Homicide after his stroke. Everybody, except Munch, welcomes him effusively, whilst simultaneously condescending to his slower perceptions. Munch’s refusal to make allowances is based upon a surer understanding of Pembleton, who hates being treated as a slower child.
C4 refused to broadcast the first two episodes of the series, which dealt with a hostage situation at a high school: it was only a matter of weeks since the shootings of children at Dunblane, and the subject matter was insensitive.
It was an interesting cat-and-mouse game, and whilst Braugher does a superb job of incarnating a different Pembleton, who not only talks more slowly, checking his words before saying them, but is also slower and more hesitant in his gait. He’s clearly not fit to be a detective again yet, but he refuses to accept that. Giardello’s pulled in every marker, exhausted every favour in even getting Pembleton back to Homicide, in the face of Barnfather and Gaffney’s, opposition, in fear of a lawsuit if another stroke happens.
But Pembleton isn’t grateful. If anything, he’s contemptuous of the fact that he can’t go out on the street again until he passes his firearms test – the least useful component of his role. By the end of episode 2, he’s already quit his medicine to try to sharpen himself.
But audiences – and especially NBC! – did not want to see a near-crippled Pembleton. Andre Braugher was the acknowledged star of this show without stars, and the viewers wanted him back to normal: by the end of episode 9, Tom Fontana had been forced to bring Pembleton back in full strength. It’s a welcome move too: the stroke-affected Pembleton is a one-note, whiny, self-entitled and self-pitying mess.
This isn’t going to be a happy season. The fourth episode sees the return of Luther Mahoney (Eric Todd Dellums is just so good in the part), setting the tone for a recurring feud that involves not merely Lewis and Kellerman but also Narcotics Squad Detective Terri Stivers (Toni Lewis, starting a three season long involvement with the show that, despite her moving into the Homicide Division halfway through season 6, doesn’t see her added to the cast until season 7).
It also introduces another running subplot, as Kellerman is sidelined, like Pembleton, into administration duties, when he is accused of taking graft during his time at Arson. More so even than Pembleton, Mike ends up self-pitying and whiny, combined with a resentment at the fact that he isn’t getting a free pass just because of who he is: for weeks on end, Kellerman bristles at anything that isn’t a whole-hearted endorsement.
Whilst the Pembleton story-line doesn’t go on long enough for a realistic portrayal of recovery from stroke, Kellerman’s strop is dragged out entirely too long, well beyond the point it continues to be interesting, and to the detriment of the show in depriving it of detectives able to take an active role in investigations.
But both stories, whatever their episode-by-episode limitations, continue to underpin the whole series. Pembleton’s return to form, to his old arrogance, causes problems with the two most important relationships in his life. His wife, Mary, too-long sidelined by Frank’s devotion to his job, leaves him in the back half of the season, an unforeseen step that is a massive blow to the detective.
It’s made worse by the fact that, already, he and Tim have not simply returned to the super-efficient Pembleton/Bayliss team of season 4. Pembleton’s certainly gone back to being Pembleton at his worst, and this is seen especially when Bayliss pulls another case – his third – of child abuse and murder. Once again, it fails to go down, but this time it leads to Tim’s confession as to why such cases affect him so much, because he too was abused, as a young boy, by his Uncle George, and because his Dad refused to believe him. Tim doesn’t want to partner with Frank any more.
At first, Pembleton acts like Pembleton; he’s free of the partner he never wanted, free to return to being the loner he was first introduced as being. But this doesn’t even last an episode: Frank wants his partner back, and it’s like a game as he tries to tempt Tim into working with him again. But Bayliss stays at a distance, until Mary pleads with him, by which time it’s all but too late for Pembleton and his marriage.
The move also affects Bayliss. Something Frank says in relation to a case they’re working, partnering, but not as partners, leads him to confront his past, confront his Uncle George. The idea of revenge dissipates in the reality of what George now is, old, broken, fragile, with nothing to be taken away. Bayliss becomes his carer, taming his demons by that route. It’s a rite of passage that will lead the naïve, straight-arrow detective much further on in remaining seasons.
As for Pembleton, he and Mary, pregnant with their second child, reconcile in the last episode, as Frank restates just what truly is most important to him.
Kellerman is not in line for any such redemption. He is released from his ordeal in somewhat contrived circumstances, a last minute, defiant offer to the DA to testify and throw away the only career he wants improbably leads her to abruptly drove Kellerman from the case. Mikey can go back on the streets.
But though he may be cleared, Kellerman hasn’t been vindicated. He’s only not Guilty, not Not Guilty. Gaffney, the shitheap that walks like a man, taunts him in the squadroom. Street scumbags look on him with disgust. And Kellerman can’t get past the fact that none of his colleagues gave him a whole-hearted, unequivocal pass before he was cleared. There’s no going back from what has happened, no way to restore the unblemished existence he had. Things that were starting to go well with Julianna Cox now turn lumpy (by the end of the series, the pair’s relationship will be poisoned beyond recovery by the increasing amounts of booze they each consume).
A very vulnerable Police
It comes to what might have been an early head when Lewis, going in search of his partner, finds Kellerman obsessively cleaning his boat, with his service revolver in plain sight. Lewis, who has already had one partner commit suicide on him, jumps to the correct conclusion, and succeeds in pulling Kellerman back (though the scene itself is overlong, and is spinning its wheels for several minutes before reaching its inevitable end).
And almost immediately, the partners are confronted with the murder of a Korean grocer for trying to shift drugs-sellers from in front of his store. Only the sellers are working for Luther Mahoney…
Both detectives take yet another defeat deeply to heart, as does Stivers, but it is Kellerman who is the most angry.
Before going any further, although this is a season in which underlying currents flow through most of the stories, Homicide continued to fulfil its promise to NBC that there would always be one story complete in each episode. There are crimes in each episode, but as usual, there are also individual episodes of great strength. These come mostly in the first half of the season, as plots are being wound out, and their consequences are as yet far from fruition.
As early as the third episode, the squad are called to investigate the death of two inmates at the State Penitentiary, an episodes that reintroduces killers caught in previous seasons, lets us see them as they have become in prison. It’s a very thoughtful experience.
But not as much as is the seventh episode, ‘The Heart of Saturday Night’ (taken from an early Tom Waits song). A therapy group meets, victims who have all lost family members – husband, wife, daughter – to random, inexplicable death. Their discussion of their feelings, of loss, hurt, anger, misery and more, are interwoven with the investigation of the crimes by the Homicide Squad, the feel of these segments being completely different, these being past cases, completed, names in black. Late in the episode, the missing member of the group arrives, apologising for being held up: she is the relatively new ME, Julianna Cox, who returned to Baltimore to be nearer the father who we saw died in her first episode: only now do we learn that he was a victim of crime.
It’s a patient, thoughtful episode whose nerve-endings are exposed, for it is the families, the ones left behind, who are the focus here, the other, too often barely seen victims of homicide.
The new title caption
In total contrast, ‘The Documentary’ (episode eleven, midpoint of the season) is primarily comic, even as it is deadly serious. It’s New Year’s Eve, the squad are on the graveyard shift but, just as in ‘Night of the Dead Living’, so long ago in season 1, the phones aren’t ringing. So Brodie pulls out his video-tape, and shows the squad the documentary he has made of them, warts and all. Working, talking, arguing. Quoting David Simon directly in his advice from the book as to why you shouldn’t waive your right to silence.
It’s funny, its fearsome, it’s deeply disturbing to all assembled, especially Gee, who confiscates the tape, only to learn that it’s not the master: Brodie has already sold that to PBS, for broadcast.
The two best moments come when Brodie reveals the identity of the infamous Lunchtime Bandit, thief of hundreds of lunches from the Squadroom refrigerator, and who else could it be but Gaffney? (The aural commentary to this episode praises actor Walt McPherson as being the absolute opposite of his walking offense character, as one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet).
And, in the grand Homicide tradition of taking events directly from real-life, there’s a scene where Lewis and Kellerman, in hot pursuit, chase a runaway into the arms of uniformed Police – a location shot for an episode of a TV series called Homicide, directed by Barry Levinson himself: it’s a steal from an incident where Baltimore Police chased a felon onto a Homicide: Life on the Street shoot, with the runaway giving himself up to John Munch/Richard Belzer.
But let’s now turn or attention to the end of the series. Homicide: Life on the Street had the security of a 44 episode order, a two season renewal. The security this gave enabled them to take more risks than before, gave them the freedom to do things that were irrevocable.
Episode 19 returned to the running war with Luther Mahoney. By sheer luck, an angle opens up. A dead body in a motel turns out to be a carrier for Mahoney: his stomach is full of 77 condoms packed with pure heroin (the 78th burst, which killed him). The decision is taken to replace the package with baking soda, deliver it, and hope that the fall-out will give them a lead. It works almost perfectly. A no-longer cool, smooth, detached Luther calls a meet in the open, in the park, for himself, the lieutenant who let this get by him and the Nigerian suppliers. Everyone’s denying responsibility. Luther blames his lieutenant, who tries to walk away, but Luther takes a gun for his bodyguard and guns him down: a third shot misses the already dead man and kills a woman playing ball with her young son.
It’s suddenly a freaking disaster. Luther’s running. Lewis is tearing after him, Kellerman and Stivers in a third car. Lewis catches Mahoney at his penthouse, interrupting his flight, but before taking the drugs lord in, Lewis is going to administer a beat-down. For Mahoney’s arrogance. For the unnecessary deaths. It’s a brutal, thuggish, one-sided kicking, until Mahoney snatches Lewis’s gun and points it at him.
Which is when Kellerman and Stivers, guns trained on Mahoney, arrive, telling him to drop the gun. The beaten, bloody, dishevelled Luther, half-crazy with anger, looks still ready to shoot, but, recovering his poise, he lowers the gun until it points at the floor, turns to Kellerman and sneers, “What are you going to do, detective? Read me my rights?” He’s already laughing, he’s beaten so many raps before, and Lewis’s assault will no doubt see him through this one, he’s already convinced. He’s Luther Mahoney.
“You have the right to remain silent,” Kellerman says. And shoots him, once, through the heart.
“Anyone have a problem?” he asks. Lewis has none. Stivers, shocked by what she’s seen, eventually agrees.
It’s a moment that is both shocking, yet inevitable. And it’s a moment that, having taken place, will have to be pushed aside. Very intelligently, episode 20 is about something else entirely, a one-ff episode, written by Yaphet Kotto, beautifully played, all the better for being totally out of line with what’s preceded it, except for one very short scene in which it appears that Stivers is having problems, despite the fact that everything has been wrapped up. Their stories have been accepted. The Mahoney shooting has been written up as good. There’s an abyss, yawning, beneath our feet, but for now we will step around it, pretend nothing is wrong, pretend nothing has changed.
And this is further emphasised by the season-ending two-parter. It begins simply enough, comically enough, a conversation between Pembleton and Brodie en route to a dead body, a clear suicide, a man whose face has been blown off by a shotgun. Clean, simple, an obvious dunker. Except, it’s Beau Felton.
All hell breaks loose. Auto-Squad Detective Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) angrily accuses Felton of having been dirty: his team has been chasing a car-theft ring for two years now, but someone kept tipping Cantwell off. And Beau Felton was working for Cantwell since he left the Police.
Everyone has memories of Beau, none more so than Kay Howard, who defends him doggedly. Even more so after Julianna Cox is able to prove the suicide was faked, that Felton was murdered. This is enough to bring Russert back from Paris (dressed for that city, not Baltimore), to help the investigation.
And there’s another twist, as the investigation is briefly put on hold by the arrival of IID (Internal Investigations Division) in the form of Detective Stu Gharty (Peter Gerety). Felton was not dirty. He was working undercover, for IID, trying to identify the real dirty cop. And yes, that is Gharty, the overweight patrolman whom Russert charged with neglect of duty in season 4, the one who failed to intervene to stop two kids killing each other. No-one likes him, no-one trusts him.
But in the end it will be Gharty and Falsone, who share the same stoolie, unbeknownst to either, who bring the case home. The stoolie betrayed Felton to Cantwell, who executed him. The stoolie goes down, Cantwell is raided, but everybody and everything has gone. Felton’s case will forever remain red.
The season was over. Change would, once again, be in the air. A stupid, drug-fuelled and very public incident with Max Perlich meant that his contract wasn’t being renewed, and nor was that of Melissa Leo, officially because the team decided that, as Sergeant, she was an anomaly that no longer worked, unofficially because she too had suffered bad publicity, indirectly, linked to a national scandal over a custody case affecting her partner. Jon Seda and Peter Gerety were presented in the season closer as a backdoor introduction to characters who would join the cast in season 6.
And the vehicle for such change was introduced in an unnecessarily melodramatic manner right at the end. Echoing the real-life step taken by Baltimore PD, Gee announces that the brass have introduced a policy of rotation: some detectives will be rotated into other divisions for three months spells (three months being the length of time the series would be off the air).
“In three months time,” Gee intoned, “We none of us may be here.”
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?
Homicide had made an uncertain start, commercially, but the figures for the ‘second’ season had been positive enough for NBC to recommission it for thirteen episodes, with an option for a further nine that would go to make a full network season. However, they were insistent upon changes.
It was the same request: shorter stories, resolved in an episode, more conventional camerawork, younger and more telegenic actors, together with a plea for a lighter tone. Fontana resisted stubbornly, protective of the show’s integrity, but to secure the re-order, did agree to two points: that each episode would include a story that ended in that episode, and that there would be a cast change.
The unlucky actor was Jon Polito, who played Steve Crosetti. Short, bald, fat, wheezing, Crosetti was one of two veteran detectives, and as the other was Ned Beatty, Polito was the obvious target. I have also heard it rumoured that Polito had been a disruptive influence on set, and that this was also taken into consideration.
Polito’s replacement was Isabella Hofmann, who might have been designed for the show by NBC. She was cool, blonde, attractive, in her mid-thirties, everything they asked for, and as such a means of introducing sex into the series (the show acknowledged as much in its initial ‘open’ – the segment prior to the theme music and opening credits – with a barbed discussion arising out of Bolander’s disgust at gratuitous sex on the coffee room TV, allowing Munch to insist that it’s the networks who force TV shows to insert sex where it’s not needed).
There was, no-one in David Simon’s book that Hofmann remotely resembled, so her character, Megan Russert, became the first cast member to be wholly invented. Though Hofmann’s playing of the role was excellent, it was unfortunately misconceived from the start.
Russert – who has an almost too good background in Naval Intelligence and ten years as a Detective in Narcotics – is newly-promoted to Lieutenant and a belated replacement for Giardello’s old friend Sinta, as Commander of Homicide’s other shift. When the series started, with a three parter based on a Redball case, Russert has been in command for only a week.
Just to remind everyone that a Redball is a high-priority case, frequently because of its PR implications, at which all resources are thrown. These would be more frequent henceforth, new co-Executive Producer Henry Bromell having recognised their appeal as commercial TV.
Baltimore’s ‘Samaritan of the Year’ was found in a dumpster at the back of a church, stripped naked except for a pair of white cotton gloves, hit with a blunt instrument and strangled. The case came in on Russert’s shift, and Colonel Grainger and Captain Barnfather, wanted Giardello to oversee her: Russert herself was grateful for the assistance from Gee and his squad (saving only Crossetti, who had gone off on vacation to Atlantic City that morning, owing Bayliss $10.00).
It was only a start: two more bodies were found in identical circumstances, ratcheting up the pressure. The primary – Roger Gaffney – was incompetent: lazy, sloppy and overtly racist towards Pembleton, and when he was taken off the case by Russert in Pembleton’s favour, was offensive to her, leading to his being slung out of Homicide (he’d be back, though: there’s a future for Gaffney).
Pembleton himself had difficulty with the case, its religious elements deeply affecting his own, schooled by Jesuits, catholic sensibilities, leaving him questioning his religion. Not that it keeps him from resolving the case when a ‘witness’ came forward: an attractive young woman with Multiple Personality Disorder, who eventually ‘confessed’, throwing the blame to one of her ‘alternates’.
But it was a defining moment, as Pembleton pursued the woman in the Box in an extraordinary interrogation (Police would marvel at how true to life even such bizarre-seeming interrogations would be, from writers and actors with no actual experience of real-life Boxes). Frank was at his most mercurial, and came close to drawing out a real confession, despite Russert’s failure of instinct in backing him.
It was an instructive story in introducing Russert as a Lieutenant, with the character generally distinguishing herself in command, though her handling of Kay Howard, who was something of a hero-worshipper about Russert’s achievements demonstrated that there would be no sympathy along gender lines. But it rather skated around the basic problem of the role: Russert was Commander of the other shift, meaning that by definition she was on duty when the rest of the cast were not! From that point onwards, making her available was a job of shoe-horning awkwardly. I do rather wonder if, at least sub-consciously, the need to bring in a primarily photogenic role was resented to the point where the show was not prepared to make proper accommodation for the character?
I don’t want to be seen as belabouring this season-opening three-parter, but in addition to the case, it also used its time carefully to set up underlying stories that would ruin through the entire season.
Lewis and Munch have gone in together to buy the Waterfront, a bar virtually opposite the Police HQ. Unfortunately, they’re short on the cash required and are trying to hit up their fellow detectives (and even Gee) as a third partner. They end up with Bayliss, who starts off wanting to be a silent partner only, but who quickly becomes just as involved in the long, stumbling process of bar purchase and ownership that runs throughout the series, but which provides a venue for the detectives to meet up, off-shift, for years to come.
A less palatable development was that Felton reveals to Howard that his wife, Beth, has thrown him out, but that he has another woman with whom he’s staying. His marital problems would escalate, and after his wife disappears with his children, Felton starts the long slide towards the skids.
It’s not, in itself, a bad story, nor is it played with heavy hands, but there is a serious problem when the first episode ends by revealing that Felton’s other woman is Russert. That touch is too much of the soap opera that NBC wanted, and though the relationship ends by the third episode, it’s already mired by the sheer implausibility of the rough and ready, hard-drinking Felton getting involved in the first place with the elegant, well-dressed, clearly more prosperous Russert: what the hell have they in common? It’s another black mark in the process of establishing the new girl.
And then there’s Crosetti.
It was meant as the fourth episode, but NBC intervened, postponing it into the New Year in favour of some more ‘life-affirming’ (and overtly sexy) episodes, despite the damage it did to the season’s continuity. But Crossetti’s overdue from his vacation, Lewis is covering for him, and Bolander and Munch pull a floater out of the harbour: the body’s unrecognisable after several days, but the wallet tells the unwanted story: it’s Crossetti.
It was a powerful episode. It was up to the investigating detectives to call the case murder or suicide. Bolander’s convinced, but Lewis is angry, frantic almost to have the case be treated as a murder, avoid his partner’s name being blackened. He interferes with the investigation, full of righteous fury, which lasts until the ME’s report makes it impossible to sustain the fiction. Lewis’s breakdown, and Bolander, the butt of his anger, is the first to hold him, to try to contain his grief.
There was no explanation, not then never. No honour guard from the bosses, as was Crosetti’s normal right, but as the funeral, following a lone jazz saxophonist, passes HQ, Pembleton – whose issues with religion have kept him from the church – is there on the steps, in dress blues, completing the salute.
The intensity of those opening episodes couldn’t be maintained, indeed shouldn’t be maintained for a whole season, and the show was canny enough to release the pressure in several ways. A string of ‘opens’ were used to depict the detectives conversing about things that had no relation to the meat of the episode. The classic example was the episode that started with Howard and Felton, Bolander and Munch discussing the cancellation, after 41 years, of the long-standing TV kids show, Romper Room, an exchange made all the funnier for it taking place at the morgue whilst each pair was waiting on the Medical Examiner’s report on a corpse.
The stories themselves were the typical Homicide mixture of cases, still being taken from Simon’s book, built around the frame of ongoing issues such as the hoops through which Lewis et al. were jumping to get the Waterfront off the ground, and Felton’s disintegration after his wife Beth takes off with his kids.
Bolander and Munch have to face a 10 year old kid on Christmas Eve whose father is thought dead, Pembleton gets burned by inter-departmental intrigue when he undertakes a virtually private case for Deputy Commissioner Harris, even going to far as to resign for an episode, and the show finally gives up on finding ways to insert Russert into the other shift’s territory and gives her her own story, dealing with domestic violence issues relating to her ex-partner in Narcotics, who is newly-transferred into her shift.
This last one came on the eve of the at last Grand opening of the Waterfront, which provided a very happy ending to episode twelve. Then all Hell broke loose.
In planning the season, Fontana and his team decided to throw down a gauntlet to NBC by scheduling episode thirteen – last of the guaranteed order – as the first of a three part story. Four detectives (the quartet of the Romper Room discussion) execute a routine arrest and search warrant on suspected paedophile Glenn Holten. From the landing above, shots are fired. Three detectives – Bolander, Felton and Howard – are hit. Cancel us if you dare.
The melodrama of the story was at odds with Homicide‘s principles, but it made for a very effective story, though not quite the challenge originally envisaged: long before episode thirteen was due to broadcast, NBC had taken up its option for additional episodes, although oddly for only seven of the possible nine.
Nevertheless, the drama went ahead, dominating the back half of the season. The first two episodes concentrated upon the shooting, and the angry, aggressive response of the Police, as they hunt for the suspect Holton. It was a mirror reflection of the season opener: a Redball case, this time with Russert pulling in her shift to back up the main cast. The safety of the detectives haunted the action: it was clear fairly early on that Felton (shot in neck and thigh) was in no danger, but Bolander (head) and Howard (heart) remained at risk until the end of the second episode.
By that point, Holten had been tracked, captured and has confessed to the shooting. Unfortunately, his confession was so inaccurate that it was evident he didn’t do it. Strictly, the case should have passed to Violent Crimes, nobody being dead, but Giardello got another 48 hours out of Barnfather for his men (but not Russert’s). Attention focussed on Gordon Pratt, tenant of the flat outside which the detectives were shot. Pratt (a brilliant guest performance by Steve Buscemi) is an overt racist with a superiority complex. It’s clear that he is the would-be killer, but his arrogance and racism winds Pembleton up into concentrating on puncturing his supposed superiority: as soon as he does, Pratt clams up, demands his lawyer and, to everyone’s chagrin, and a background of anger and dissension among the detectives, Pratt walks.
But not for long. Everybody’s gone but Bayliss, and he catches a call from the landlord, who can’t get the Police to come out otherwise. To the body in his hallway, shot dead through the head at close range, only two hours after being released. The body of Gordon Pratt.
The story moved into a fourth episode, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pratt case was just one of several strands, and not the most important. Pembleton and Lewis argued about where to start investigating a white woman killed by a random shot, Felton struggled on his return to work and Munch was embarrassed by an old picture from his hippie days. Meanwhile, the Police turned their backs, collectively and individually, on Gordon Pratt, except for the unlucky Bayliss, who had to work the murder, without back-up, evidence, leads or the least goodwill.
Pratt’s name is doomed to stay in red on the Board from the outset, but there were two moments in the weary, reluctant investigation that stood out. The first came when Bayliss, forced to consider his colleagues as suspects, queried Munch’s alibi: Munch reacted by handing over his gun, inviting Bayliss to test it for ballistics. A clear line is being drawn, and Tim balks at crossing it.
But for fans, who have followed the series to its end, who know what is to come, what was, in 1995, unimagined and unimaginable, the true frisson comes later, at Bayliss’s defeated face, when he tries to engage Pembleton in a philosophical debate about the danger of cops becoming executioners: Frank won’t give an atom of concern: Bayliss is completely alone.
The series wound down towards its end, with Bolander coming to the fore in a pair of fine episodes, and Tim’s cousin Jim Bayliss (guest star David Morse) appearing in a seemingly simple story – inspired, Law and Order style, by a true life, non-David Simon incident – that dealt with under-the-skin racial attitudes.
Russert’s situation was finally dealt with: she’d been dumped upon once more in the shooting three-parter, ordered by the brass to investigate how the matter had come about, with a view to scapegoating Giardello for signing off on a warrant with a mistyped address. Reluctant it might have been, and Russert did valiantly defend her co-worker, but not before she had been further painted as a bosses patsy.
The solution was promotion: Giardello exposed Colonel Grainger over having used his relatives to carry out sloppy repairs, Barnfather was promoted to Colonel and, instead of the obvious choice as the new Captain, with his thirty years of experience, Gee was passed over in favour of Russert and demographics. There would be no further strain about bringing her into the storylines.
Though the underlying lack of trust the show demonstrated towards Russert as a character was demonstrated by having virtually her first act as a Captain undermined by Giardello.
That left the question of renewal. Homicide had thrown down the gauntlet over the option for a back half season, but it was still not delivering the audience NBC wanted, nor even the audience earned by the ‘second’ season. Cancellation seemed imminent. So convinced were the team of this that Barry Levinson himself returned to direct the season finale, typical only in its atypicality, an oddball story, low key, distant, focussing not on the detectives but on guest star Bruno Kirby, playing a recently released landlord who’d been put away by Pembleton when his failure to repair gas systems killed tenants. Kirby’s character stalked Pembleton, intent on killing him, eventually trapping him, but finding himself incapable of killing.
It was quirky, but it was an unsatisfactory season finale and an even more unsatisfactory series closer, so it’s a very good thing that NBC showed faith in the series by finally commissioning a full twenty-two episode season for season 4.
Overall, it was a good season. Though Homicide had had to compromise upon its basic principles, it had stood its ground in its central determination to reflect the reality of policing in modern America, and in its determination to see its subject from as many different directions as possible. The series developed a core of committed, talented writers, who kept characterisation consistent, and attracted a series of guest stars who would add to the show’s reputation for mixing frequently very dark comedy into its take on the grimness of the industrial city.
The show enjoyed its first, unofficial crossover with the much more procedural Law and Order when Chris Noth turned up in an ‘open’ as Detective Mike Logan, delivering a prisoner (himself played by cult Director John Waters) to Frank Pembleton whilst maintaining a studied New Yorker’s superiority over no-mark Baltimore.
My own favourite guest appearance came from Gary d’Addario as Lieutenant Chris Jaspers, head of the Quick Response Team, who clashed with Pembleton over police tactics during the pursuit of Glen Holten. Not a major scene of any kind, except that d’Addario wasn’t an actor, though he held his own flawlessly, amongst superb actors like Andre Braugher. Gary d’Addario was a serving Baltimore Police Officer: he is the original of Al Giardello in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
So the show had survived its first change of cast and, despite the uncertainty still underlying that change, was renewed and stronger than ever. But Homicide was never destined to be stable, and when it returned it would be without two members of its cast.
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?
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.
Those who read David Simon’s landmark non-fiction book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, will in its closing pages come across a dialogue between a Baltimore PD Homicide squad detective and a young, black witness, concerning the violent death of an individual known on the street as Snot Boogie.
Those who are reading the book because Simon, over a decade later, co-created The Wire (which really is as good as they all say, people) will recognise the dialogue as having been lifted, word for word, for the first scene of episode 1 of series 1, in which the detective’s portion is spoken by Jimmy McNulty. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was the product of the year between 1988/9 that Baltimore Sun crime reporter Simon, after long and patient negotiations, spent observing the Homicide Division at work: what we would now call ’embedded’. Simon’s intention was to create as honest and accurate a portrayal of the work of Murder Police in a major American industrial city as it was possible to do, and the testimony of police all across America confirmed that Simon had more closely depicted their job, in all its respects, than anyone before him.
But whilst the Snot Boogie dialogue was used in The Wire, the book had been thoroughly mined for an earlier police series, the superb Homicide: Life on the Street, which ran for seven seasons between 1992 and 1998, most of which were broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. The success of The Wire – an altogether denser, more realistic drama – has overshadowed Homicide to a large extent, but the earlier series was a thing of beauty and a joy of its own, and against all the pressure put on it by NBC to conform, like Simon’s book it succeeded in translating the best achievable interpretation of the real Murder Police’s experience to its faithful, indeed devoted, audience. Of whom I am one.
Apart from the decade or so between the two series’ running, the major difference between the two was that Homicide was the product of Network television and The Wire came from Home Box Office. The freedoms the latter enjoyed, to depict the streets and the detectives that sought to control them, with honesty as to the attitudes, the brutality, the sexual mores, the language and the corruption, were denied to Homicide, which also suffered under the creative strait-jacket of Network commercial television, which was fearful of presenting its audience with anything they hadn’t seen before.
Nevertheless, The Wire could not have existed as it did with Homicide: Life on the Street to actively demonstrate that, with care, patience, commitment and sheer blazing talent, it was possible to do more.
The transition from non-fiction book to television series was entirely due to Director Barry Levinson, a Baltimore native, famous for directing films such as Diner, Tin Men and Rain Man. A lot of Levinson’s work centres upon his home town and uses semi-autobiographical elements, and he has a standing arrangement to be sent all kinds of creations directly relating to Baltimore. Thus he got to read A Year on the Killing Streets and recognise in it the potential for a superb film.
However, Levinson soon recognised that the book could not possibly be properly presented, in all its depth and richness, in a two hour film and, for the first time, turned his thoughts towards television, and development of the book as a series.
To this end, he formed a production company with writer/producer Tom Fontana, who had established himself working on the hospital drama, St Elsewhere. Fontana would become the showrunner for Homicide, though that term had not then gained its common currency. NBC, then the third of the three networks, agreed to finance a pilot.
No doubt they were expecting a show along the lines of Hill Street Blues, the ground breaking hit police procedural series NBC had broadcast in the Eighties. Hill Street was a landmark series, the first truly ensemble drama series outside of soap opera, with an astonishingly wide cast, offering multiple simultaneous storylines running from episode to episode. Though the influence of Hill Street would be visible in Homicide, NBC would not get what they expected.
Their influence does show in the series’ somewhat awkward title. Levinson and Fontana proposed to call the series simply Homicide. NBC objected, asking if they couldn’t come up with something more positive, something life-enhancing? Given that the series was set in a Homicide squad, investigating murders on a daily basis, the request was ridiculous. But NBC was placated by adding the somewhat clumsy suffix, Life on the Street.
Every episode of Homicide says “created by Paul Attanasio”. Tom Fontana may have been Executive Producer, Head Writer and show-runner, but it was Attanasio to whom he and Levinson turned, to create a viable TV series out of Simon’s book, to extract what events, characters and format would best serve to tell the multiple believable – and unbelievable – stories from the book.
Based on the pilot, NBC ordered a further five episodes, and based in the show’s initial ratings when the much-promoted pilot was broadcast, a further three episodes. Based on the ratings for the following episodes, another four episodes were commissioned, but when ratings started to dip, reflecting the audience’s uncertainty at getting a show that defied expectations instead of moulding itself to them, these last four episodes were held back, and broadcast in 1993 as Homicide‘s official second series.
Critically, the show was a hit, especially among Police across the whole of the United States. Homicide was the most realistic, most honest and faithful portrayal of their job ever to be seen in Network TV to that point. But it performed according to its own tenets. There were to be no shoot-outs or car chases. The detectives would arrive in the scene when the body was already dead, exactly as they did in real life, and the programme was going to concentrate on investigation and interrogation. There would be none of the soap opera aspect of Hill Street Blues: the detectives would be seen in the context of their jobs, not their private lives. Nor was each case wrapped up in a 48 minute episode. Just like Police investigations, cases would roll over week after week, and sometimes they would not be resolved at all.
What’s more, Homicide looked different. Levinson chose to film using a single, hand-held 16mm camera, with the cameraman getting into the scene, wandering around between the actors. Instead of short takes, focussed solely on the active participants in any scene, the show was built from longer, repeated takes, in which everybody was present, and playing their parts, whether directly involved or not. The best, most effective and passionate takes would be edited together, and important points would be emphasised in a kind of stutter, repeating the point three times rapidly, from different takes. Emotional continuity was more important than physical continuity.
Another aspect that distinguished the show from every other on network was that it was not filmed in Hollywood. Hill Street Blues had been set in an un-named city (using Chicago street names) and had been filmed in Burbank, like all the others. Homicide was filmed in Baltimore.
There were no ‘sets’. The closest the series got to that was taking over the old Port Authority building and fitting it out as the Homicide squadroom. All other filming was done on location: if a scene called for a particular type of property, the production team found the right kind of property and negotiated to use it. A stake-out set in a private home was filmed in a private home.
The underlying reality of everything we saw was a perfect counter-balance to the implausibility of storylines that would have been completely unbelievable if they hadn’t actually happened. Homicide debuted with a cast of nine: eight detectives, partnering in pairs, one Lieutenant as Shift Commander. The pilot episode started with a typical Homicide scene, two detectives, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) and a body in an alley, talking and arguing, about anything but the case itself. The following morning, rookie Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) starts his first day in Homicide, transferring in from the Mayor’s Security Detail. Bayliss is our viewpoint character: the squadroom, the Board with its array of name sin red (for open cases) and black (for closed cases), the partnering system is explained to him and to us.
We are also introduced to Stan “The Big Man” Bolander (Ned Beatty) and John Munch (Richard Belzer), and Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), but in a show without stars, Homicide‘s real star is introduced as a loner, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), who will end up being Bayliss’s partner, very much against his will.
With the exception of Kay Howard, each cast member, including Yaphet Kotto as Lieutenant Al “Gee” Giardello, was based on a member of the real-life Homicide squad in 1988, when Simon was researching his book. This would lead to friction as the show characters began to develop away from their templates, with the detectives very concerned that anything ‘their’ character did reflected back upon them.
Nevertheless, the detectives had no real objection to acting as technical consultants for the series: after all, the stories were based, usually very directly, on cases they themselves had worked! Ultimately, Gee’s real-life counterpart Gary D’Addario, became the series’ technical consultant and even acted in it from time to time, as Lieutenant Jasper, head of the Emergency Action Team: D’Addario was a natural, able to hold his own amongst actors of the quality Homicide commanded.
D’Addario went on to play a role on The Wire as did his fellow Homicide officer Jay Landsman, who played an odd dual part: his name was given to the Homicide department Sergeant played by Delaney Williams in all fives seasons, whilst Landsman himself joined the cast in Season 2 as Lieutenant Dennis Mello: sadly, no scenes were filmed featuring ‘Landsman’ and Landsman.
From the outset, NBC tried to change Homicide, make it conform to their narrow rules, their low expectancy of what the audience could/would understand (an expectancy that appeared to be born out by the show’s ratings). The second re-order of four episodes was held back to form 1992’s second season and a third season was ordered only when Fontana agreed to make at least a gesture towards more telegenic actors and a slightly more simplified approach to storytelling. Jon Polito was sacrificed for Isabela Hofman, a lovely-looking blonde in her mid-thirties, who was introduced as Lieutenant Megan Russert, a high-flyer given her first command on the shift opposite that of Giardello.
NBC were still playing cautious: their order was for thirteen episodes, with an option for a further nine, to make up a complete season. Fontana’s team threw down a gauntlet to the network, scheduling episode thirteen as the first of a three-parter, in which three of the detectives were shot and wounded: cancel us now!
But long before that point had been reached, NBC had been sufficiently encouraged by the early ratings to take up their option, albeit for only seven episodes and not the full nine. Nevertheless, as the series end approached, everybody anticipated cancellation, and Levinson returned to direct the final episode, a deliberately unconventional, low-key story that would have been characteristically Homicide but which would have been completely inadequate as a series closer.
Nevertheless, NBC chief Warren Littlefield retained a belief in the series and renewed Homicide for a fourth season, for the first time with a twenty-two episode order.
It came too late to save the patience of two of the cast. Ned Beatty and Daniel Baldwin, both of whom thought the series brilliant, had grown frustrated at the lack of faith and promotion Homicide received from the network. Beatty, who resented the need to live in Baltimore nine months of the year, had been offered the chance to return to the stage and musical comedy. Baldwin had spent so much of his own time, money and energy in promoting the series, was burned out. Both left.
A fortuitous off-season Police convention provided a convenient excuse to write both detectives out in a manner that didn’t preclude them from returning: Bolander and Felton, having misbehaved, were placed on twenty two weeks suspension, enabling either or both to return for season if they chose. It was delightfully self-referrant,though neither actor took up the option.
Reed Diamond, as Detective Mike Kellerman, was added for season 4, and partnered with Lewis. Despite the fact that the show deliberately did not have stars, almost unconsciously the Pembleton/Bayliss partnership had started to dominate the show, and the deliberately lighter weight, ‘frat boy’ pairing of Lewis and Kellerman was a very fruitful counterbalance to that. Season 4 would be very successful commercially, enough so for NBC to give Homicide the luxury of a two season order, forty-four episodes. The show would seize that opportunity with both hands.
It made up for another change insisted upon by the network. The pressure to standardise, to restrict episodes to single stories, solved in 48 minutes, to bring in more telegenic actors, even monkeying around with running orders on a series that utilised an underlying continuity: these things never changed throughout the seven seasons. For season 5, NBC insisted on a change of opening credits.
Gone were the original smoky, hazy, black and white credits, the swirling, half-shadowed close-ups on actors faces as their names were shown. NBC wanted something clearer, jazzier, more colourful, and simpler to identify the cast. The incredible, atmospheric music was left untouched, thankfully, though it closed on Richard Belzer’s voice, answering the phone with the word ‘Homicide’, in case the viewer had missed the title. Nobody liked it, except NBC, but the show accepted these little defeats in order to preserve the more of its higher aims.
There were more cast changes. Isabella Hofman, pregnant, moved on, appearing only as a guest in the final two episodes. Her place was taken by Max Perlich, who’d been a recurring character throughout most of season 4 as J.H. Brodie, a weasely videographer hired by the police to document crime scenes. Intriguingly, the team had signed up Michelle Forbes to play the new Medical Examiner, Dr Julianna Cox, but delayed her arrival until six episodes in.
The underlying story that would ultimately form the spine for seasons 5 and 6 was discovered by accident. Drugslord Luther Mahoney, polite, immaculate, civicly lauded, was meant to appear in a single episode, frustrating Lewis and Kellerman, but guest actor Erik Todd Dellums was so good in the role that the rivalry between him and the Police grew into a fascinating battle that would end explosively in season 5, but overhang almost all of the following year.
Cast changes at the end of each season were by now a regular element. Melissa Leo and Max Perlich were dropped after season 5, both as a result of off-screen scandals, though Perlich was rather more culpable for his downfall than Leo. Two of their replacements, Jon Seda as Detective Paul Falsone and Peter Gerety as Detective Stu Gharty, were introduced as guests in the season-closing two parter, whilst Callie Thorne as Detective Laura Ballard made her debut in season 6.
Though Gerety was an older man, Seda and Thorne were firmly in the mould of NBC’s ceaseless demands for pretty people. The former would feature so heavily in season 6, when it was known that Andre Braugher was leaving at the end of the season, that several fans resented his obvious grooming as a replacement star.
Sadly, Michelle Forbes also moved on, ten episodes into season 6. The team bemoaned their decision to cast her as Medical Examiner, instead of as a detective, wasting such a good actress and restricting her storylines.
Virtually all the team expected cancellation, which contributed to their building season 6 up to an intense, dramatic release that was truly memorable. It was a fitting send-off for Braugher, and also for Diamond.
Because the series was saved by changes forced on NBC elsewhere in their schedules. Having been forced to absorb the loss of three established programmes, the network decided it could not afford to further denude the line-up of established shows and offered Homicide a seventh season.
There were changes. Braugher had left because he had had enough, grown tired and seeking a fresh challenge. Diamond had to leave, because the inexorable logic of his story, developed over the past two seasons, left Kellerman with no ground to stand upon, though he would guest as a PI in a two-parter in season 7.
Channel 4, who had begun to treat Homicide very badly, scheduling double bills starting at 12.30am, openly announced the ending of season 6 as the last ever episode of the show, lying to an audience that it gamble would not be aware of the final season.
With Kellerman and Pembleton out, there were more cast changes. Giancarlo Esposito debuted as FBI Agent Mike Giardello, Gee’s son, and the new FBI liaison with the Baltimore PD, unaware that he was being used by his superiors. Michael Michelle joined as Detective Rene Sheppard, a former beauty queen, and Toni Lewis, who had been a recurring character since early in season 5, was finally elevated to the cast as Detective Terri Stivers. Homicide‘s final season is generally agreed to be its worst. Soap opera plotlines, especially the affair between Falsone and Ballard, dominate. Bayliss, who has taken up both Buddhism and his bisexuality, is lost throughout most of the season: with Kyle Secor having decided to leave irrespective of the show’s fate, pressure is put upon him throughout the back half of the series to provide a memorable exit that leaves an astonishing question open.
But by then it was known that everyone was going with Secor. Fontana went to NBC to discuss renewal for season 8, which NBC were prepared to do, only if the show made more drastic changes. These were to fire everyone but Belzer, Thorne and Michelle, move the show to Florida and set it on a boat.
In short, chuck out Homicide, set up a spin-off as a comedy-thriller with the sardonic, wise-cracking Munch and the two sexiest women (no doubt spending a lot of their time in bikinis or halter top/shorts combinations) as private eyes. Fontana said no.
So after seven seasons and 121 episodes, Homicide: Life on the Street ended, in fitting manner with stories left unresolved. But this was not the end of the story.
Eighteen months after the cancellation of the series, Homicide returned in a 90 minute television movie. The story is commonly known as Homicide – Life Everlasting after the title of the script that was published over the internet, but it was officially Homicide – The Movie. It answers the outstanding question from season 7’s finale, but leaves the rest of the story open. It features the entire cast, everybody who was a cast member, including Polito and Baldwin, whose characters were dead, and fittingly it elevates series-long recurring character Zeljko Ivanek (DA Ed Danvers) to cast for this last outing.
The need to find something for eighteen cast members, not to mention other series regulars, to do in ninety minutes distorts the story, though it’s wonderful to see Pembleton and Bayliss, both of whom are now outsiders in all senses, strut their stuff one last time. But it is in the movie’s climax that it transcends all possible complaints.
When the show ended, four members of the cast – Richard Belzer, Clark Johnson, Yaphet Kotto and Kyle Secor – had appeared in all seven seasons. And Munch lived on: he and Richard Belzer were pinched to star in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Actually, Belzer had originally pitched to partner with Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order itself, the two having worked wonderfully well together in three crossovers with Homicide, but was shifted to the spin-off since Briscoe’s new partner had already been cast. As a result, Belzer has gone on into the record books for portraying Munch on no less than ten different TV shows and five networks (albeit that one show and one network are represented by an ‘in character’ appearance on a late night talkshow). And Belzer has now portrayed Munch for 22 years, outdoing James Arness as Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke and Kelsey Grammar as Frasier Crane, who each played their characters for 20 years.
I’ll be going on to look in a little more detail at each of Homicide‘s seven seasons and, of course, the movie. But I’d suggest you start equipping yourself with the DVDs, especially if you’re a fan of The Wire. I promise you you won’t be disappointed.
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.