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.
Actor Jon Polito is best known for his roles in various Coen Brothers films, but to those of us who have followed Homicide: Life on the Street, he will always be known as Detective Steve Crosetti, partnered with Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) for the first two, truncated series.
Polito, who doesn’t seem to have changed in the twenty years since being one of the founder members of the cast, played Crosetti as an excitable, wheezing veteran, a fan of jazz, a divorced man with a daughter he couldn’t understand, and a conspiracy theorist with an obsession with the Lincoln Assassination.
He was the first cast member to leave the series, partly down to disputes with the producers, but principally as part of the conditions for the show’s renewal for a Third Season, NBC insisting on at least a gesture towards introducing younger, more photogenic actors.
And he’s the first among Homicide‘s seventeen cast members over its seven season run to leave us in real life. I rarely saw him in anything else, supporting roles in occasional films, so I can only think of him as Crosetti, and to me that’s enough. He was written out as a suicide, for reasons never determined, but he was there at the very end, a rotund and very substantial ghost in a squadroom coffee room, dealing out the cards for an endless game of Five Card Stud, free from concerns and waiting for the next one to turn up.
Here’s hoping that his card game is Solitaire for a very long time. Crosetti wouldn’t mind.
Homicide‘s second season was not really a second season. It consisted of only four episodes, which places it in the record books jointly with the first season of Seinfeld as the shortest-ever fully-commissioned network season, but it consisted of the four latest episodes commissioned for season 1, hived off and used later.
Both series appear together on a single DVD box-set, and Channel 4 broadcast them consecutively without any indication to the contrary, causing much confusion when the programme returned with its Third season.
Not much can be done with a season consisting only of four episodes, but even then NBC managed to interfere with the running order. The first three episodes formed a semi-continuous narrative and the fourth was a standalone, starring Robin Williams in an unforgettable role. But NBC trumpeted Williams’ guest role and broadcast the episode first, over all the protests from Fontana and co.
Nevertheless, this affords an opportunity to look at Homicide‘s interleaving technique in a little more detail. The first two episodes focus upon a redball case, a young black guy shot in the back in an alley whilst fleeing a police raid on a crack house. It has all the hallmarks of a police shooting, except that any such shooter has failed to stand by the body and own his killing.
It’s Pembleton’s case, and his instincts are with a police killing. The bosses back his conduct of the investigation (but then all they’re concerned about is how it will play with public opinion), but it leads to intense clashes with Giardello, who is angered by the concentration on their own. It’s police vs police, brother against brother, and he sees Pembleton as betraying the essential solidarity the police need.
But that’s not where the episode starts. The Homicide Squad have been ordered to undergo Sensitivity Training, and the attractive blonde counsellor is talking to Kay Howard abut the difficulty of being a female in Homicide. Howard agrees, cynically: she spends all her days investigating brutal, horrible crimes inflicted by man upon man, then she’s supposed to go out and date one?
It’s a serious point and though the series never returns directly to that point, it builds on the issues the Training raises. There’s a lot of comedy about Bolander’s refusal to attend his appointment, even to the point of handing in his badge, though when he’s finally cornered, his initial contempt for the whole idea is overturned instantly when the counsellor sympathises with him over his divorce and the lack of respect with which he was treated.
In fact, he’s so convinced that by the end of the session, he’s asking her out to dinner!
Though that doesn’t happen, Bolander does go on to start a relationship with a young waitress, half his age (an early and vibrant performance by Julianna Margulies, pre-E.R.), bonding with her over a shared interest in music – she is a violinist and Bolander an out-of-practice cellist.
Meanwhile, back at the redball, Howard is discovered to be a friend of Lieutenant Tyree, whose squad is being decidedly uncooperative with Pembleton’s investigation. Howard worked under Tyree and, as she is quick to confirm to Pembleton, displaying the professionalism we would expect from her, had an affair with him.
Her talk with the Counsellor has affected her. There’s a moment at which she meets Tyree privately, in which it looks as if she might be about to warn him, but her insight has developed, and she delivers a quiet, extremely stinging line that suggests Tyree felt far less for her than she did for him: by the following episode she’s seeing Ed Danvers, the Assistant DA who would be Homicide‘s most frequent guest star over seven seasons. There’s locker room boasting to Pembleton about Davers’ prowess, and by the third episode they’re double-dating with Bolander and his waitress-violinist, Linda.
But the case is getting difficult as the tension between Pembleton and Giardello peaks. Pembleton and Bayliss have brought in a friend of the dead guy, trying to turn him as a witness. Gee is still badgering Pembleton to look at the possibility that it was a civilian killing.
Pembleton snaps. In an astonishing performance, he seduces, teases, rages and pleads with the kid, bamboozling him into not just admitting to the murder but signing a confession. He hands the confession to Giardello and rewrites the victim’s name in black, but both of them know that it’s complete bullshit. Pembleton feels dirty as a consequence.
But despite having what he wants, Gee can’t accept it. He tears the confession up, re-re-writes the name on the Board in red, and sends Pembleton back to do the job properly. It produces the goods: the kid becomes a witness and fingers, to no-one’s great surprise, Lieutenant Tyree.
If the outcome is a trifle perfunctory, what we have seen is the process and the tension.
Whilst it’s the continuum of Bolander and Howard’s relationships that melds the third episode with its predecessors, the cases dealt with are a perfect study in contrasts. Crosetti and Lewis investigate a barely believable instance of murder in a library over a pen (barely believable, but perfectly true to real life!), Pembleton and Bayliss investigate the death of a sex worker that takes them into the world of fetishes and leather.
It’s also a study in contrasts between the two detectives. Pembleton takes it in his seen-it-all before stride, but Bayliss comes over as puritanical and petrified at the same time, existing in a miasma of disgust and fear of the more outre aspects of sexual attraction. In the light of how his character would develop in later seasons, in directions unsuspected at this point, his story here is an astonishingly effective base-line. The final scene, as Bayliss, wearing a leather jacket given him as a gift by a grateful store owner, ‘cruises’ the strip at night, trying to get the feel of things, is extraordinarily prophetic.
But whether seen as a season opener, or a finale, the final episode, ‘Bop Gun’, is an astonishing hour on network television, and would prove to be Homicide‘s highest-rated episode ever. In a list of five essential episodes, it would be impossible to omit.
Robin Williams plays Robert Ellison, a tourist, a visitor to Baltimore with his wife and two young children. The pre-credits sequence sees them sight-seeing at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles. Three black men, of differing ages, see them and start to move in their direction. One is carrying a gun.
It’s as simple as that. The show itself starts with Ellison, blood on his jacket, carrying his littke girl, entering the station with his boy in tow. His wife is dead, shot in the face before all of us, during a mugging. Felton pulls the case, a redball. The culprits are not hard to find. There is no mystery, except in one respect: the teenager who goes down for it is the one without a record. Though both Felton and Howard are convinced he’s covering for one of the more obvious others, it’s Howard who can’t let go, who keeps digging to try to find the truth.
But the truth is that the kid did it. Despite his clean record. Despite asking to hold the gun so that something like this wouldn’t happen. Because he didn’t know himself before he held the gun. And he found out he wasn’t who he thought he was. Which is why he’s pleaded guilty, requested life without parole.
It’s a subtle, spare story in this respect. Admirably, the kid doesn’t explain except in the oblique terms I’ve put above: the audience has to read between the lines.
But that’s an extra, lagniappe. This episode is about Williams, about Robert Ellison, about the nightmare, about being pitch-forked into that world, about not understanding, about holding things together because you have children to care for when all you want to do is fall apart. Williams is flawless throughout, downbeat, in shock, exhausted. There’s no hysteria, no histrionics. He gives way to anger on overhearing Felton talk gleefully about racking up the overtime on this one, demands he be replaced but allows Giardello to talk him down, explaining that Felton can’t care like Ellison does, but that he needs someone who doesn’t care.
And there’s one moment, getting his kids off to bed in the hotel, dealing with their arguing, with a little girl unwilling to accept her mother’s not coming back, a boy filled with fear and anger and withdrawing into himself, when Ellison puts the kids to bed and finally allows himself to cry, painful sobs torn out, in another room: in bed, the children listen fearfully and put their arms around each other.
No, this was one of the ones you remember, and it’s as beautifully written as it’s played.
Four episodes, across four weeks in January 1994. Four episodes originally shot to form part of season 1 but withheld and put out separately. If there is a distinction to be drawn in the second season it is in the filming. The early episodes of Homicide had gone for a very washed out look, deliberately bleeding colour out of the film (except in the case of Adena Watson’s body in the alley, where her red coat remained vibrant, by way of deliberate contrast). Instead, season 2 is riotous in colour by contrast, as Levinson reconsidered, and decided to abandon that approach. Bolander’s astonishingly pink face comes as a complete shock!
Would there be a third season?
Paul Attanasio wrote the pilot episode of Homicide. It was his only script for the series, but it was the most important. It was Attanasio’s job to take the book, and work out the best means of translating its qualities to the screen, and establishing the characters who would populate the series, in a manner that would make them immediately familiar to viewers, whilst setting them up for future development by the series writers.
Pilot episodes are crucial to the success of a series. They have the enormous responsibility of getting over to the viewer a colossal amount of information, about who these people are, what affects or moves them, where they stand and what world they live in. It has to infodump, without being boring, dry, pedantic or overloading. It was Attanasio’s moment and his work was immaculate.
‘Gone for Goode’ set out to establish nine central characters of equal importance, whilst delivering the essential background to the reality of life in the Baltimore PD Homicide Squad, whilst simultaneously establishing the realistic police procedure aspect of a Homicide Squad and the unique personalities occupying it. And all in 48 minutes.
The central thing Attanasio does is to use the vehicle of the rookie as the audience’s eyes and ears for most of the episode. The rookie is Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), on his first day as a member of the Homicide Squad. Bayliss is a fresh-faced, innocent, eager and slightly naive character, approaching Homicide with a degree of wide-eyed wonder. He has romantic visions of thinking cops, solving puzzles, has set his career up to get himself into Homicide.
He’s there to have things explained to: his fellow Detectives briefly introduced by his Shift Commander, Lieutenant Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), the squad’s partnering and rotation system outlined, and to be introduced to the Board, which is given its rightful place as Homicide‘s distinguishing feature. The Board, a fact of the real Baltimore PD’s life, is a whiteboard headed by Gee’s name and divided into columns, one for each Detective. Under each column is a list of names and numbers: the surnames of murder victims, and their place in the order of murders since January 1. Unsolved cases are written in red, solved cases in black. By itself the Board is a silent witness to death and the avenging of death, and a measure of each Detective’s success.
Cannily, however, Attanasio does not open with Bayliss, who appears for us after the title credits. Upfront, we are to be given a brief but effective demonstration of how and why Homicide: Life on the Streets will not be just another cop show of the kind with which we are inordinately familiar.
We open with a very familiar scene, a back alley at night, in the rain, and two Detectives, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito), attending a murder victim. All very familiar. The Detectives have flashlights in their hands, are searching for a bullet. Except that they’re not discussing the case, the victim, anything like that. They are arguing about personal concerns, about where they are, about anything but the latest dead body on their hands. Everyone’s waiting for them to release the scene, so the body can be removed and everyone can get in out of the rain. When they do, it’s with a casualness that suggests they have better things. Welcome to being a Murder Police.
The jolt is surprising, and Attanasio builds on this throughout the episode. Bayliss enters, with his box of effects, his text-books, his eagerness and innocence already a contrast to Detectives who speak and think with practiced cynicism. Even the ones we don’t know yet, lounging around at their desks, are infinitely different from the newbie, who starts by mistaking Crosetti for the Lieutenant, who then shows him round.
Everybody performs superbly. The excitable, overweight, breathless Crosetti is obsessed with the Lincoln Assassination, constantly nagging at the laid-back Lewis over it. But he shines when his friend, up-and-coming patrolmen Chris Thorman, is shot and blinded in episode 4, not merely forcing himself into the investigation but in supporting Thorman and his young wife through the trauma of events.
The acerbic John Munch (Richard Belzer) competes for the attention of veteran Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty) but is more of a nagging toothache to the Big Man, who, recently divorced, is finding himself interested in the new Medical Examiner, Dr Blythe, whilst the thrice-divorced Munch is constantly on the edge of breaking-up with his (never seen) girl-friend, Felicia.
As for Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), they’re a contrast in competence. Howard, skinny, a mass of red curls, is the only detective with a 100% list in black under her name. After the first few episodes, Leo, growing to understand her character better, stopped wearing any make-up as Kay, horrifying NBC’s executives – she was the token woman, she needed to be looking glam – and focussed her intensity on where it needed to be, on being a woman in a male environment and having to be twice as good as everyone else to be treated as an equal.
Felton, on the other hand, was sloppy and second-rate, a drinker and a womaniser, despite being married with three kids. Though he can focus on his job, for much of the time he’s riding on Howard’s coat-tails, and both Giardello and the squad’s loner, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) treat him with contempt.
And Gee: much of the early filming had to be redone as Yaphet Kotto found it difficult to adapt to the long, repeated takes, his very deep voice not being pitched enough to be captured on tape. But the finished episodes show no sign of uncertainty. Gee is the boss, genial and aggressive as the need or the mood takes him: his men respect him for the way he will protect them from the brass further up the chain of command.
The individual cases that go into forming our opinions are dealt with necessarily briefly, but very effectively. On the one hand, Lewis and Crosetti’s body is accompanied by a survivor, Dolly Withers, who, with a curious sense of inevitability, identifies her Aunt Calpurnia as trying to have her killed for the insurance money: Lewis and Crosettti have lucked onto the most unlikely of serial killers here.
In contrast, Howard and Felton pull a dead rent-collector, found in a basement. Their job is made simple when the basement owner phones home whilst they’re investigating, and presents himself at the station where he shows very little resistance to interrogation.
Bolander taunts Munch into taking seriously the investigation of a girl’s death that hasn’t even been officially declared a murder. Stung, Munch puts in the long hours that lead him to a clue identifying some guy whose only answer to all the questions, as it is absolves him, is “I was drinking.”
Last to be introduced in Pembleton: Pembleton the loner, the eccentric, the New Yorker. Cool and immaculate, rejecting the idea of a partner, Pembleton is the master of the Box, the master of interrogation. At first, Gee tries to break Bayliss in gently, pairing him with Howard, forcing Pembleton to work with Felton, but the investigation of the strangulation of a guy cruising for rent boys leaves Pembleton with a seriously unwanted shadow.
We get our first chance to see Pembleton at work, an interrogation technique that would have cops the nation over asking how many interrogations showrunner Tom Fontana had carried out to get it so right. To the silent outrage of Bayliss – a tour-de-force from Secor, who gets no lines but tells a complete story of his own in his face, as he studies Pembleton and not the suspect – Pembleton charms, bullies and tricks a punk kid into a confession and still has the energy to shouted down Bayliss as too naïve to survive.
Three cases fall. The Calpurnia Church case rumbles on.
What the above account doesn’t convey is that, in addition to establishing both these people and their milieu as worthy of our time and attention, the pilot episode is gloriously funny. Homicide would always lean on the humour to be found in David Simon’s books, some of it the black, dry, ironic humour of the cops themselves, and those who are near to their world, others from the implausible and absurd cases the Detectives work, that are funny and stupid and unbelievable and true to real life.
Lewis describes his excitable partner as a salami-brain, leading Crosetti to write up a complaint of racial harassment, calling on his and Gee’s shared heritage, causing considerable consternation over crabs at lunch. Felton pretends outage to stiff everyone for the check. Bolander barrels down the morgue to complain that the ME was incompetent in not pronouncing Jenny Goode a murder victim only to be silenced by discovering Dr Blythe to be an attractive Australian woman: in response to his query about what a woman like her is doing in a place like this, Carol gives the only possible answer: Looking for Mr Right.
Bolander and Munch
That’s not to say that the Pilot is perfect, either in itself or in establishing Homicide as a series. Crosetti is given an absurd fixation on the Lincoln assassination and the lies supposedly surrounding it that is artificial and unreal: no-one else gets a tv-style crank personality, everybody else is very down-to-earth.
And there’s a scene in the garage where Pembleton, having keys but not the tags that identify which of the several dozen identical units they’re for, insists on trying every car, over the catcalls of Felton, which demeans the character by throwing a stupid obsession over him, which was rightly ignored in all future episodes.
Of less import is a minor confusion over how to pronounce the Big Man’s name. Ned Beatty introduces himself as Bolander with a short ‘o’ (as if spelt ‘Bollander’) but everyone pronounces it with a long ‘o’ (as if spelt Bowlander). It’s an uncharacteristic mistake.
Series 1 would be dominated, over its first half-dozen episodes, by the Adena Watson case. It is led into at the end of the Pilot when the phone rings in a near empty squadroom. Bayliss hesitates. Howard offers to take it, if he feels he isn’t ready. He’s been partnered with the unwilling Pembleton, he’s worked alongside Howard and Felton, he’s been shocked and outraged by Pembleton in the Box.
He’s not ready, we know he’s not ready. But he takes the call. And with a precise symmetry, the episode ends where it began, in an alley at night in the pouring rain. But a different detective stands over the body, his mouth agape, his voice cracking as he introduces himself. Because the victim is a ten year old black girl, raped and strangled.
Adena Watson (based on a real-life unsolved case) haunted Bayliss, haunted Homicide right until the very end of the Movie. Bayliss’s failure to close the case marked him, was but the first step in the changes that would put paid to the fresh-faced rookie with the books. Incidentally, the uniformed officer who shows the body in the alley to Bayliss was played by real-life Homicide Detective Tom Pellegrini, the squad rookie who caught the case Adena Watson was based upon.
The Adena Watson case dominated season 1: it also featured the kind of interference from NBC that would continue until cancellation.
The show always operated an internal continuity, but NBC would ignore this in favour of promoting more conventional or sensational episodes into earlier slots. This was applied as early as the third episode, ‘Night of the Dead Living’, a deliberately experimental episode in which the squad is on night shift in a very hot squadroom. Nothing happens, not a single case is reported, and the detectives swelter and argue the hour out. NBC postponed broadcasting this episode until the end of the series, even though the episode clearly takes place in the middle of the Adena Watson case. It was prefaced by a card, saying, “One hot night, last September…” which is retained, incongruously, for the DVD box set, which shows the series in the intended order.
Series 1 saw the show at its purest, even though NBC were trying to change it, drag it back into the realms of the predictable and conventional from the outset. Despite network interference in the broadcast order of episodes, despite dismay at the (deliberately) washed out colours, the show progressed at its own pace, determined to be as loose, inconvenient and messy as real-life Policing.
There are no neatly tied-off ends. The Adena Watson case went unsolved, ending with a tour-de-force episode set almost entirely in the Box as Bayliss and Pembleton try to break down their only suspect, Risley Tucker, the Araber. Bayliss is convinced he has the killer, Pembleton doubts. Moses Gunn, in his final television role, holds out, stolid, resistant, finally overwhelming the detectives when he at last begins to speak. But he won’t confess and time runs out, ending the case without a conclusion, with Pembleton convinced and Bayliss now uncertain.
Officer Thorman, introduced trying to cope with an elderly couple who hate each other in episode 2, is shot and blinded in episode 4. He’s Crosetti’s protegé and friend, and the story doesn’t shrink from what is done to Thorman: one scene involves him shitting himself in bed, to his self-hating shame. But Crosetti, wheezing, excitable and weirdly obsessed as he may be, is at his stoic finest, lending unflappable help to Thorman and his wife (emphasised by how Crosetti is so often seen with one or the other, but never the pair together).
On the other hand, Bayliss and Pembleton’s first case after the Adena Watson investigation is officially shelved involves the death of a Police dog, with Bayliss barely able to take it seriously.
The out-of-sequence shuffling of ‘Night of the Dead Living’ to last gave season 1 an artificially upbeat ending, as the Homicide Squad, having survived night shift in the midst of a heatwave, frolic in the dawn light on the roof with a hosepipe. Those watching the show on DVD will watch Homicide in the order its producers intended: the season ends in a much more downbeat manner as Bolander sits over a drink in a quiet bar, having unloaded his troubles to an uncaring barman (played by cult Director John Waters), and humming Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me Tender’ to himself.
All told, in dribs and drabs, NBC ordered a total of thirteen episodes, although only nine would be shown. The series’ initial high ratings fell away rapidly, although critically the show was a massive hit. It couldn’t stay in that shape, however, not and survive on Network TV in the Nineties. Though Fontana and his team would resist mightily, NBC would constantly demand changes, constantly pressurise the series to conform to what everybody already knew, to break away from the awkward demands of reality and honesty and be just another run-of-the-mill glossy Hollywood money-making machine.
The story of Homicide over the next six seasons is one of small concessions, made reluctantly, gradually forcing the show of its unique and centre ground. It never entirely sold out, indeed even in its last season, enough of the original show was clear and present to maintain its reputation, and it never got jerked around as badly as Hill Street Blues did after Stephen Bocchco was forced out: Fontana made sure of that. And in years to come the series would, in its acting, its characters, become even deeper.
But it would never be quite so pure as in that shining moment of first realisation.
Those who read David Simon’s landmark non-fiction book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, will in its closing pages come across a dialogue between a Baltimore PD Homicide squad detective and a young, black witness, concerning the violent death of an individual known on the street as Snot Boogie.
Those who are reading the book because Simon, over a decade later, co-created The Wire (which really is as good as they all say, people) will recognise the dialogue as having been lifted, word for word, for the first scene of episode 1 of series 1, in which the detective’s portion is spoken by Jimmy McNulty. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was the product of the year between 1988/9 that Baltimore Sun crime reporter Simon, after long and patient negotiations, spent observing the Homicide Division at work: what we would now call ’embedded’. Simon’s intention was to create as honest and accurate a portrayal of the work of Murder Police in a major American industrial city as it was possible to do, and the testimony of police all across America confirmed that Simon had more closely depicted their job, in all its respects, than anyone before him.
But whilst the Snot Boogie dialogue was used in The Wire, the book had been thoroughly mined for an earlier police series, the superb Homicide: Life on the Street, which ran for seven seasons between 1992 and 1998, most of which were broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. The success of The Wire – an altogether denser, more realistic drama – has overshadowed Homicide to a large extent, but the earlier series was a thing of beauty and a joy of its own, and against all the pressure put on it by NBC to conform, like Simon’s book it succeeded in translating the best achievable interpretation of the real Murder Police’s experience to its faithful, indeed devoted, audience. Of whom I am one.
Apart from the decade or so between the two series’ running, the major difference between the two was that Homicide was the product of Network television and The Wire came from Home Box Office. The freedoms the latter enjoyed, to depict the streets and the detectives that sought to control them, with honesty as to the attitudes, the brutality, the sexual mores, the language and the corruption, were denied to Homicide, which also suffered under the creative strait-jacket of Network commercial television, which was fearful of presenting its audience with anything they hadn’t seen before.
Nevertheless, The Wire could not have existed as it did with Homicide: Life on the Street to actively demonstrate that, with care, patience, commitment and sheer blazing talent, it was possible to do more.
The transition from non-fiction book to television series was entirely due to Director Barry Levinson, a Baltimore native, famous for directing films such as Diner, Tin Men and Rain Man. A lot of Levinson’s work centres upon his home town and uses semi-autobiographical elements, and he has a standing arrangement to be sent all kinds of creations directly relating to Baltimore. Thus he got to read A Year on the Killing Streets and recognise in it the potential for a superb film.
However, Levinson soon recognised that the book could not possibly be properly presented, in all its depth and richness, in a two hour film and, for the first time, turned his thoughts towards television, and development of the book as a series.
To this end, he formed a production company with writer/producer Tom Fontana, who had established himself working on the hospital drama, St Elsewhere. Fontana would become the showrunner for Homicide, though that term had not then gained its common currency. NBC, then the third of the three networks, agreed to finance a pilot.
No doubt they were expecting a show along the lines of Hill Street Blues, the ground breaking hit police procedural series NBC had broadcast in the Eighties. Hill Street was a landmark series, the first truly ensemble drama series outside of soap opera, with an astonishingly wide cast, offering multiple simultaneous storylines running from episode to episode. Though the influence of Hill Street would be visible in Homicide, NBC would not get what they expected.
Their influence does show in the series’ somewhat awkward title. Levinson and Fontana proposed to call the series simply Homicide. NBC objected, asking if they couldn’t come up with something more positive, something life-enhancing? Given that the series was set in a Homicide squad, investigating murders on a daily basis, the request was ridiculous. But NBC was placated by adding the somewhat clumsy suffix, Life on the Street.
Every episode of Homicide says “created by Paul Attanasio”. Tom Fontana may have been Executive Producer, Head Writer and show-runner, but it was Attanasio to whom he and Levinson turned, to create a viable TV series out of Simon’s book, to extract what events, characters and format would best serve to tell the multiple believable – and unbelievable – stories from the book.
Based on the pilot, NBC ordered a further five episodes, and based in the show’s initial ratings when the much-promoted pilot was broadcast, a further three episodes. Based on the ratings for the following episodes, another four episodes were commissioned, but when ratings started to dip, reflecting the audience’s uncertainty at getting a show that defied expectations instead of moulding itself to them, these last four episodes were held back, and broadcast in 1993 as Homicide‘s official second series.
Critically, the show was a hit, especially among Police across the whole of the United States. Homicide was the most realistic, most honest and faithful portrayal of their job ever to be seen in Network TV to that point. But it performed according to its own tenets. There were to be no shoot-outs or car chases. The detectives would arrive in the scene when the body was already dead, exactly as they did in real life, and the programme was going to concentrate on investigation and interrogation. There would be none of the soap opera aspect of Hill Street Blues: the detectives would be seen in the context of their jobs, not their private lives. Nor was each case wrapped up in a 48 minute episode. Just like Police investigations, cases would roll over week after week, and sometimes they would not be resolved at all.
What’s more, Homicide looked different. Levinson chose to film using a single, hand-held 16mm camera, with the cameraman getting into the scene, wandering around between the actors. Instead of short takes, focussed solely on the active participants in any scene, the show was built from longer, repeated takes, in which everybody was present, and playing their parts, whether directly involved or not. The best, most effective and passionate takes would be edited together, and important points would be emphasised in a kind of stutter, repeating the point three times rapidly, from different takes. Emotional continuity was more important than physical continuity.
Another aspect that distinguished the show from every other on network was that it was not filmed in Hollywood. Hill Street Blues had been set in an un-named city (using Chicago street names) and had been filmed in Burbank, like all the others. Homicide was filmed in Baltimore.
There were no ‘sets’. The closest the series got to that was taking over the old Port Authority building and fitting it out as the Homicide squadroom. All other filming was done on location: if a scene called for a particular type of property, the production team found the right kind of property and negotiated to use it. A stake-out set in a private home was filmed in a private home.
The underlying reality of everything we saw was a perfect counter-balance to the implausibility of storylines that would have been completely unbelievable if they hadn’t actually happened. Homicide debuted with a cast of nine: eight detectives, partnering in pairs, one Lieutenant as Shift Commander. The pilot episode started with a typical Homicide scene, two detectives, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) and a body in an alley, talking and arguing, about anything but the case itself. The following morning, rookie Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) starts his first day in Homicide, transferring in from the Mayor’s Security Detail. Bayliss is our viewpoint character: the squadroom, the Board with its array of name sin red (for open cases) and black (for closed cases), the partnering system is explained to him and to us.
We are also introduced to Stan “The Big Man” Bolander (Ned Beatty) and John Munch (Richard Belzer), and Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), but in a show without stars, Homicide‘s real star is introduced as a loner, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), who will end up being Bayliss’s partner, very much against his will.
With the exception of Kay Howard, each cast member, including Yaphet Kotto as Lieutenant Al “Gee” Giardello, was based on a member of the real-life Homicide squad in 1988, when Simon was researching his book. This would lead to friction as the show characters began to develop away from their templates, with the detectives very concerned that anything ‘their’ character did reflected back upon them.
Nevertheless, the detectives had no real objection to acting as technical consultants for the series: after all, the stories were based, usually very directly, on cases they themselves had worked! Ultimately, Gee’s real-life counterpart Gary D’Addario, became the series’ technical consultant and even acted in it from time to time, as Lieutenant Jasper, head of the Emergency Action Team: D’Addario was a natural, able to hold his own amongst actors of the quality Homicide commanded.
D’Addario went on to play a role on The Wire as did his fellow Homicide officer Jay Landsman, who played an odd dual part: his name was given to the Homicide department Sergeant played by Delaney Williams in all fives seasons, whilst Landsman himself joined the cast in Season 2 as Lieutenant Dennis Mello: sadly, no scenes were filmed featuring ‘Landsman’ and Landsman.
From the outset, NBC tried to change Homicide, make it conform to their narrow rules, their low expectancy of what the audience could/would understand (an expectancy that appeared to be born out by the show’s ratings). The second re-order of four episodes was held back to form 1992’s second season and a third season was ordered only when Fontana agreed to make at least a gesture towards more telegenic actors and a slightly more simplified approach to storytelling. Jon Polito was sacrificed for Isabela Hofman, a lovely-looking blonde in her mid-thirties, who was introduced as Lieutenant Megan Russert, a high-flyer given her first command on the shift opposite that of Giardello.
NBC were still playing cautious: their order was for thirteen episodes, with an option for a further nine, to make up a complete season. Fontana’s team threw down a gauntlet to the network, scheduling episode thirteen as the first of a three-parter, in which three of the detectives were shot and wounded: cancel us now!
But long before that point had been reached, NBC had been sufficiently encouraged by the early ratings to take up their option, albeit for only seven episodes and not the full nine. Nevertheless, as the series end approached, everybody anticipated cancellation, and Levinson returned to direct the final episode, a deliberately unconventional, low-key story that would have been characteristically Homicide but which would have been completely inadequate as a series closer.
Nevertheless, NBC chief Warren Littlefield retained a belief in the series and renewed Homicide for a fourth season, for the first time with a twenty-two episode order.
It came too late to save the patience of two of the cast. Ned Beatty and Daniel Baldwin, both of whom thought the series brilliant, had grown frustrated at the lack of faith and promotion Homicide received from the network. Beatty, who resented the need to live in Baltimore nine months of the year, had been offered the chance to return to the stage and musical comedy. Baldwin had spent so much of his own time, money and energy in promoting the series, was burned out. Both left.
A fortuitous off-season Police convention provided a convenient excuse to write both detectives out in a manner that didn’t preclude them from returning: Bolander and Felton, having misbehaved, were placed on twenty two weeks suspension, enabling either or both to return for season if they chose. It was delightfully self-referrant,though neither actor took up the option.
Reed Diamond, as Detective Mike Kellerman, was added for season 4, and partnered with Lewis. Despite the fact that the show deliberately did not have stars, almost unconsciously the Pembleton/Bayliss partnership had started to dominate the show, and the deliberately lighter weight, ‘frat boy’ pairing of Lewis and Kellerman was a very fruitful counterbalance to that. Season 4 would be very successful commercially, enough so for NBC to give Homicide the luxury of a two season order, forty-four episodes. The show would seize that opportunity with both hands.
It made up for another change insisted upon by the network. The pressure to standardise, to restrict episodes to single stories, solved in 48 minutes, to bring in more telegenic actors, even monkeying around with running orders on a series that utilised an underlying continuity: these things never changed throughout the seven seasons. For season 5, NBC insisted on a change of opening credits.
Gone were the original smoky, hazy, black and white credits, the swirling, half-shadowed close-ups on actors faces as their names were shown. NBC wanted something clearer, jazzier, more colourful, and simpler to identify the cast. The incredible, atmospheric music was left untouched, thankfully, though it closed on Richard Belzer’s voice, answering the phone with the word ‘Homicide’, in case the viewer had missed the title. Nobody liked it, except NBC, but the show accepted these little defeats in order to preserve the more of its higher aims.
There were more cast changes. Isabella Hofman, pregnant, moved on, appearing only as a guest in the final two episodes. Her place was taken by Max Perlich, who’d been a recurring character throughout most of season 4 as J.H. Brodie, a weasely videographer hired by the police to document crime scenes. Intriguingly, the team had signed up Michelle Forbes to play the new Medical Examiner, Dr Julianna Cox, but delayed her arrival until six episodes in.
The underlying story that would ultimately form the spine for seasons 5 and 6 was discovered by accident. Drugslord Luther Mahoney, polite, immaculate, civicly lauded, was meant to appear in a single episode, frustrating Lewis and Kellerman, but guest actor Erik Todd Dellums was so good in the role that the rivalry between him and the Police grew into a fascinating battle that would end explosively in season 5, but overhang almost all of the following year.
Cast changes at the end of each season were by now a regular element. Melissa Leo and Max Perlich were dropped after season 5, both as a result of off-screen scandals, though Perlich was rather more culpable for his downfall than Leo. Two of their replacements, Jon Seda as Detective Paul Falsone and Peter Gerety as Detective Stu Gharty, were introduced as guests in the season-closing two parter, whilst Callie Thorne as Detective Laura Ballard made her debut in season 6.
Though Gerety was an older man, Seda and Thorne were firmly in the mould of NBC’s ceaseless demands for pretty people. The former would feature so heavily in season 6, when it was known that Andre Braugher was leaving at the end of the season, that several fans resented his obvious grooming as a replacement star.
Sadly, Michelle Forbes also moved on, ten episodes into season 6. The team bemoaned their decision to cast her as Medical Examiner, instead of as a detective, wasting such a good actress and restricting her storylines.
Virtually all the team expected cancellation, which contributed to their building season 6 up to an intense, dramatic release that was truly memorable. It was a fitting send-off for Braugher, and also for Diamond.
Because the series was saved by changes forced on NBC elsewhere in their schedules. Having been forced to absorb the loss of three established programmes, the network decided it could not afford to further denude the line-up of established shows and offered Homicide a seventh season.
There were changes. Braugher had left because he had had enough, grown tired and seeking a fresh challenge. Diamond had to leave, because the inexorable logic of his story, developed over the past two seasons, left Kellerman with no ground to stand upon, though he would guest as a PI in a two-parter in season 7.
Channel 4, who had begun to treat Homicide very badly, scheduling double bills starting at 12.30am, openly announced the ending of season 6 as the last ever episode of the show, lying to an audience that it gamble would not be aware of the final season.
With Kellerman and Pembleton out, there were more cast changes. Giancarlo Esposito debuted as FBI Agent Mike Giardello, Gee’s son, and the new FBI liaison with the Baltimore PD, unaware that he was being used by his superiors. Michael Michelle joined as Detective Rene Sheppard, a former beauty queen, and Toni Lewis, who had been a recurring character since early in season 5, was finally elevated to the cast as Detective Terri Stivers. Homicide‘s final season is generally agreed to be its worst. Soap opera plotlines, especially the affair between Falsone and Ballard, dominate. Bayliss, who has taken up both Buddhism and his bisexuality, is lost throughout most of the season: with Kyle Secor having decided to leave irrespective of the show’s fate, pressure is put upon him throughout the back half of the series to provide a memorable exit that leaves an astonishing question open.
But by then it was known that everyone was going with Secor. Fontana went to NBC to discuss renewal for season 8, which NBC were prepared to do, only if the show made more drastic changes. These were to fire everyone but Belzer, Thorne and Michelle, move the show to Florida and set it on a boat.
In short, chuck out Homicide, set up a spin-off as a comedy-thriller with the sardonic, wise-cracking Munch and the two sexiest women (no doubt spending a lot of their time in bikinis or halter top/shorts combinations) as private eyes. Fontana said no.
So after seven seasons and 121 episodes, Homicide: Life on the Street ended, in fitting manner with stories left unresolved. But this was not the end of the story.
Eighteen months after the cancellation of the series, Homicide returned in a 90 minute television movie. The story is commonly known as Homicide – Life Everlasting after the title of the script that was published over the internet, but it was officially Homicide – The Movie. It answers the outstanding question from season 7’s finale, but leaves the rest of the story open. It features the entire cast, everybody who was a cast member, including Polito and Baldwin, whose characters were dead, and fittingly it elevates series-long recurring character Zeljko Ivanek (DA Ed Danvers) to cast for this last outing.
The need to find something for eighteen cast members, not to mention other series regulars, to do in ninety minutes distorts the story, though it’s wonderful to see Pembleton and Bayliss, both of whom are now outsiders in all senses, strut their stuff one last time. But it is in the movie’s climax that it transcends all possible complaints.
When the show ended, four members of the cast – Richard Belzer, Clark Johnson, Yaphet Kotto and Kyle Secor – had appeared in all seven seasons. And Munch lived on: he and Richard Belzer were pinched to star in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Actually, Belzer had originally pitched to partner with Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order itself, the two having worked wonderfully well together in three crossovers with Homicide, but was shifted to the spin-off since Briscoe’s new partner had already been cast. As a result, Belzer has gone on into the record books for portraying Munch on no less than ten different TV shows and five networks (albeit that one show and one network are represented by an ‘in character’ appearance on a late night talkshow). And Belzer has now portrayed Munch for 22 years, outdoing James Arness as Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke and Kelsey Grammar as Frasier Crane, who each played their characters for 20 years.
I’ll be going on to look in a little more detail at each of Homicide‘s seven seasons and, of course, the movie. But I’d suggest you start equipping yourself with the DVDs, especially if you’re a fan of The Wire. I promise you you won’t be disappointed.
Isn’t it funny how murder can make you feel better?
It’s been a difficult couple of days and it’s not likely to improve just yet. I’ve been finding it difficult to concentrate, or to find things worth concentrating upon which, given the number of things I’m involved in writing at present, for this blog, and otherwise, is frustrating. So I decided to pull out my box-sets of the superb 1991-97 American police drama series Homicide: Life on the Street and rewatch the first episode. As always, it’s been utterly absorbing and, in its unique and black fashion, absolutely hilarious.
An awful lot of praise has been, deservedly, heaped on The Wire, but if you were a fan of that absorbing, horrifically realistic series, you should really check-out Homicide, a forerunner in a very true sense. Like The Wire, it is set in Baltimore, centred upon the Homicide Division and its impossible task in sweeping up after the City’s horrendous murder rate and, like The Wire, it stems from David Simon and his 1988 non-fiction book, Homicide – A Year on the Killing Streets, recounting in intense detail the year that young crime reporter Simon spent ’embedded’ in the Baltimore Police Homicide Division.
Originally, film producer and Baltimore native Barry Levinson optioned the book as a film but, given its level of detail, its intensity and its absurdity, he chose instead to present it for television, so that its subtleties could be explored. Despite initial promotion by NBC, the series perennially struggled for an audience, by refusing to be safe, sofa-friendly, crime-of-the-week cop TV, and trying to hew far more closely to the reality of Policing in a major American city, and judging by the praise it got from cops across the nation, Homicide succeeded spectacularly.
Of course, compared to The Wire, it’s a tv series, without the swearing, without the degree of brutality, but still with the same ultra-violet sense of cynical humour, and with an astonishingly brilliant cast and razor-sharp writers.
Opening episode “Gone for Goode” performs the task of introducing you to a cast of nine without strain or artificiality, introducing the viewer to this world by the expedient of Detective Tim Bayliss’s (Kyle Secor) first day on the Squad. We see Detectives Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Crosetti (Jon Polito) investigating a late night shooting that unexpectedly expands into a multiple Black Widow homicide case, all the time bitching about their job and about life, Detectives Howard (Melissa Leo) and Felton (Daniel Baldwin) picking up a dead body in a basement where the killer virtually leaps into their arms, Detective Munch (Richard Belzer) being badgered into pursuing an overlooked death whilst denying throughout that he wants the approval of his partner, Detective Stan “the Big Man” Bolander (Ned Beatty), and above them all Lieutenant Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), the only undercooked character in this episode.
We also meet, for the first time, the loner, the individualist Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), the man who hasn’t got a partner, doesn’t need a partner, definitely doesn’t want a partner, and especially not the rookie, Bayliss. Pembleton’s is the most overt performance, but paradoxically he allows the naive Bayliss to shine. There’s the first of the series’ several interrogation scenes in which Pembleton slickly talks a frightened, slow-witted, guilty suspect into confessing to murder by sailing smoothly over his constitutional rights, during which Secor sits silently in the background, with only his eyes telling of his bafflement, outrage and astonishment.
And there’s that ending, as Bayliss decides himself ready to take on a case of his own, heading out in the rain to an alley crowded by people, soaked to the skin, looking down at the body of a dead ten year old black girl. Little did we know then that Homicide would last seven series, and little did we expect that moment in the alley to be as relevant to the series in its final episode. Cop shows didn’t do that, not even the great Hill Street Blues. But Homicide: Life on the Street, destined to fight for its life and its integrity until the end, would go many places that TV hadn’t been before.
It’s been a pleasure, and an object lesson in how you can laugh at something so serious, on a Saturday night that isn’t going well.