Homicide: Life in Season Seven


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

Homicide: Life in Season Six


This year’s Crew

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.

Talking to a living dead man

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.

Ballard and Gharty

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.

Junior Bunk is no longer a sad-ass punk

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: Season 4 on the Street


Season 4 cast

Homicide: Life on the Street had now lived for three years in conditions of imminent cancellation and, despite the security of a full season order, two of its cast had had enough of the insecurity. Both Ned Beatty and Daniel Baldwin believed in their series, and Baldwin had spent a considerable amount of his own time and money in doing interviews, talk and radio shows, plugging Homicide everywhere. Both had now had enough of being at the mercy of a network that seemed to have no faith in the programme.
Beatty, who disliked the necessity of living in Baltimore for nine months of the year, was offered film and stage roles, the latter giving him the chance to return to his love of musical theatre. Baldwin too had offers of film roles. He had burned himself out fighting for the series, and wanted a change. Both actors left the series.
Homicide‘s response was to tie Felton and Bolander’s absence into a real-life event, an inter-series National Police Convention that had aroused national scandal over the rowdy and juvenile behaviour of the attendees. So Season 4 started with both detectives on 22 weeks unpaid suspension for their parts in the convention. The length of the seemingly arbitrary suspension exactly covered the full season, leaving the door open for either or both to return if they wished.
With Crosetti never having been replaced, this left the Homicide Division seriously undermanned and Gee anxious to recruit. The season-opening two-parter featured a redball over a series of deaths in fires. Pembleton and Bayliss work and clash with the cocky, abrasive arson Detective Mike Kellerman, who plays a big part in obtaining a confession from the culprit, prompting Gee to offer him a transfer to Homicide. After initially doubting himself, Kellerman, played by Juilliard trained Reed Diamond, accepts the transfer, and finds himself partnered with Lewis.
The season opener was yet another example of Homicide at its immeasurable best. The absence of Beau and the Big Man is dealt with up front, as is the pressure on the now seriously understaffed Division. The double-episode serves as a showcase for Kellerman, who clashes with Pembleton throughout over the widely differing interpretations the detectives bring to the death of a sixteen year old boy in a warehouse fire, but Kellerman demonstrates enough game from the very start that Gee is eager to bring him on board.
But the episodes, as any good series demands, are showcases for other issues. Howard has decided to study to take the Sergeant’s Exam and Munch, stung by this, and by the loss of his partner, follows suit. Naturally, the squadroom immediately takes the action on Kay’s side.
Lewis complains about having had to solo the longest: he will gain Kellerman, and their partnership will add a new undercurrent, alongside the continued relationship of Pembleton and Bayliss, which has its initial difficulties: Frank confides in his partner that Mary is pregnant, a secret that Bayliss immediately blabs everywhere, which does not go down well with Pembleton.
There was one more, less overt thing. The opening episode plainly showed that NBC had made further inroads into wearing down Homicide‘s originality. Reed Diamond, the new cast member, was plainly a very telegenic figure, fresh and clean-lined of face, young and fit, and if we didn’t immediately get that here was a sexy addition to the cast, there was the sexy young guest actress who called him over to her flat, not to give any further information about the fire, but to drop a red silk dragon robe to demonstrate that she was plainly naked beneath it (this not being The Wire, only Kellerman got the benefit of it).
And as for Captain Russert, here was Isabella Hofman wandering around the Homicide Department in a fetchingly pastel jacket and skirt combination, only instead of season 3’s near-ankle-length dresses, this skirt has crept a good four inches above the knee. It was the flaunting of a sexy blonde that NBC had wanted from the start, and now could be gratified by.
The series gained a recurring character early in the season in the form of freelance videograher J H Brodie, played by Max Perlich. Brodie inadvertently taped a killing, and lost his job when he disobeyed his Editor’s instructions not to hand the tape to the Police until it had been aired on the news. Though the squad in general, and Gee in particular, disliked the little man, he was taken on as Police videographer, to shoot crime scenes. Brodie proceeded to get on everyone’s wick, but to establish himself as part of the team, with a sense of ethics about his role that definitely conflicted with those of the more pragmatic Munch.

                                                                              Kellerman and Luther Mahoney
The compromises necessary to work with NBC’s demands showed themselves in the seventh episode, which featured a ‘thrill-killer’ (i.e. serial killer) working his way north into Baltimore where the Police work with the FBI to locate him, only for there to be a sting in the tail. It’s an excellent 40 minutes of TV drama, taut, atmospheric, foreboding, but it’s TV drama, conventional cop show material, a betrayal of everything Homicide was meant to be about.
And it was followed immediately by a two-parter about another serial killer, this time a Texas Corn Tower type sniper. Bayliss tracks him down, but is unable to talk him down: the killer shoots himself. And no sooner is the crisis over than a copycat appears.
Unfortunately, Homicide was still struggling to accommodate Russert, and this two-parter exemplified the problem. Though she’s done nothing wrong in her handling of the redball, Barnfather scapegoats Russert for the benefit of the media, demoting her to Lieutenant. When she protests, he demotes her back to Detective and wants her out of Homicide. Gee protects her, and Russert is central to getting a confession out of the copycat, but this double demotion was still awkward, and was again more a television plot than the naturalistic approach of Homicide.
Russert’s demotion from Captain should have resulted in Giardello being promoted, but once again he was passed over, because of his refusal to be a ‘political’ Police: this time, the Deputy Commissioner’s active interference was made explicit. Instead, the role went to Roger Gaffney: yes, the incompetent, lazy, racist detective forced out of Russert’s squad early in Season 3 was now put in charge of Homicide, and making it plain that power, in his hands, would not corrupt, since the slimey Gaffney arrived in that state.
Interestingly, the moment Russert is demoted, the short skirts vanish, to be replaced by wide-leg trousers.
But that troubling trio of episodes did not keep Homicide from following its own groove. Stories like the quirky ‘The Hat’, which netted Lily Tomlin an award as best Guest Star for her role as a chatterbox, opera-signing murderess traveling cross-country with Lewis and Kellerman, and the two-part ‘Justice’ with Bruce Campbell guesting as a cop whose father is murdered at random, and who does not receive justice from a jury who came to a verdict they didn’t believe in, just so as to be able to go home for the weekend, were as strong as any in earlier seasons, whilst Russert’s demotion back to Detective lent some welcome diversity to a show that had suddenly lost half its strength.
Losing Beatty and Baldwin had more impact than just losing two detectives. Two of the show’s four (or rather three-and-a half) partnerships were cut off. Lewis gained Kellerman to form a new partnership, but for the first half of the season, these and Pembleton/Bayliss were the only pairings, and Homicide suffered from the lack of other perspectives.
The two remaining partners, Munch and Howard, could have teamed up, but it was obvious that would never have worked. The decision to send Kay Howard in to seek a Sergeantship was an elegant one at the outset, but its effect, of separating her from her fellow detectives, of giving her a superior status that raised her above them whilst never remotely giving her any of Gee’s authority, would be fatal in the long run.
Munch, in contrast, was content to be something of a cypher, class clown and irritating with it. This was something that never bothered Richard Belzer, who went on record several times that he loved working on Homicide, and was happy to support such great actors and be part of such superb writing.
However, Russert’s demotion opened things up. She was partnered with Munch, immediately expanding the opportunities available to the show. Though you had to sympathise with Russert, Hoffman’s calm and phlegmatism about her fate stood her in good stead.
The most unhappy person during the second half of the season was Andre Braugher. In a show without stars, he was Homicide’s undoubted star, but he was beginning to get bored with his role. Pembleton in the box was the show’s standard trope, and the steadily growing run of successes for him and Bayliss were beginning to get repetitive.
Fontana recognised this and held discussions with Braugher about possible approaches to keep him fresh. A line was worked out, for Season 5, that intrigued Braugher, and the first hint towards this was dropped into ‘Stake-Out’. This was a superb episode in which the Squad stakes out a private house to await the return of a neighbour wanted to murdered. The entire show consists of various pairs of detectives sitting around and talking, embarrassedly observing the deteriorating relationship of the house-owners, and debating this and that. When the murderer arrives home, his capture takes all of five seconds: archetypal Homicide.
But season 4 had done what was asked of it: it had upped its ratings. Sufficiently so that NBC gave the show the biggest vote of confidence it ever received, an order for 44 episodes: two full series, in the bank, guaranteed.
It was this security that enabled Fontana to make Braugher the proposal he had, which was even more openly foreshadowed in an episode that featured a killing sadly similar to that of Adena Watson, so long ago, an episode that reminded us just how deeply scarred Bayliss was by that experience and an episode that would throw up deep differences between Pembleton and the partner he may well have accepted but whom he had never truly accepted.
Next up, Lewis and Kellerman found themselves handling a multiple drug-related homicide that, though officially solved, left the true villain untouched and untouchable. It was meant as a one-off, but in the scant minutes allowed to teflon Drug Lord Luther Mahoney, Eric Todd Nellums walked away with such commanding smoothness that the writers were determined to make more of it. What they made would underwrite those two series.

                                                                                            Crossover!
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?

Spam 3: The American Connection


Apparently, it’s been decided out there in Spamland that I no longer need to be bombarded with detoxification contacts: I am once again considered clean, which is nice to know, having been clean throughout (except for that day the water pressure was horribly low and I couldn’t get a shower before going to work).

Nor, it appears, am I considered to need impossible quantities of Canadian diamonds to hand out to that adoring legion of lovelies that dog my footsteps wherever I go (you must be joking, I still haven’t got up the nerve to ask out the friendly blonde who works until 10.00 pm nearly every night in my local Co-op).

No, what the Spam Brigade has decided that I desperately need, more than anything under the sun, is Home Inspectors in Baltimore, Maryland, or air-conditioning tube experts in Tucson, Arizona.

Sadly, I do not now, nor have I ever lived anywhere in America, nor visited that strange and far away land, though ever since Homicide: Life on the Street a matter of twenty-odd years ago, I have had a hankering to visit the decaying city of Baltimore (it is not a matter of coincidence that this was also the backcloth for the legendary HBO series, The Wire, since both series have their roots in the same David Simon nonfiction book, and I will at some point seek to impress upon you just how wonderful Homicide was). Therefore, having neither property in Baltimore, nor air-conditioning in Tucson, the latest spam wave is, as usual, singularly inappropriate.

Get your algorhythms checked, boys! (or girls). Cheap trips to Austin, Texas, to see the lovely and wonderful Shawn Colvin play live, yes! Then you might be on to something…

Homicide: Life on the Street


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.