Homicide: Life Everlasting


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.

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: Life in Seven Seasons


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.

Seasons 1-2

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.

Bayliss and Pembleton (and Gee)

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.

Detective Ballard

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.

The inexhaustible John Munch

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.