Homicide: Season 4 on the Street


Season 4 cast

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

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

                                                                                            Crossover!
Before we get to its end, let’s also celebrate Homicide‘s first official crossover with fellow NBC series, Law & Order. The crossover began on Law & Order with Bayliss and Pembleton travelling to New York to investigate a subway explosion with ties to a similar explosion at a Baltimore Church, with the more procedural series’ Lennie Briscoe, Rey Curtis and Claire Kincaid returning the favour on Homicide. I’ve not seen the first half of the crossover, but the second is a dream if only for the interplay between Munch and Briscoe, especially after John discovers that Lennie has slept with his ex-wife Gwen!
Incidentally, it’s amusing to record that the White Supremacist responsible, who crushes Pembleton by dying of a heart attack before trial, is played by J. K. Simmons, who would go on to become a Law & Order regular as a psychologist.
As the season’s end drew near, there were some great moments. Lewis announced his marriage at shift-end, provoking a great stir among his colleagues as he tries to get everything set up, with Munch at his irritatingly sceptical worst convinced, even after the mystery bride has appeared and the knot been tied, that it’s some colossal and impossibly convoluted practical joke on all of us. Meanwhile, Melissa Leo has great fun appearing as her bubbly, fun-loving sister Carrie, all the way from Italy, for which she masqueraded as actress ‘Margaret May’.
An episode dominated by racial tensions also saw Russert take the decision to press charges through Internal Affairs, against Patrolman Stuart Gharty (played by Peter Gerety) for dereliction of duty. Gharty, a 54 year old, overweight cop with an otherwise clean record, had simply lost it for the street. His refusal to intervene in a shooting incident led to two deaths, both young men, one of which might have been preventable. But since they were drug-dealers, no-one, least of all Gharty, who was reprieved, really cared. Set against the private justice being employed by Black Muslims, it made for a complex episode, lightened only by Munch’s crowing over the return of the silent Stanley Bolander, and his puppy dog disappointment that the Big Man will not call at the Waterfront for a beer.
Whatever else Season 4 had done, with its compromises amongst its efforts to stick to its own straight and narrow, it was secure for a further two years. So it was able to end in spectacular fashion, with a cliff-hanger. In the middle of an interrogation, Penbleton collapses in the Box, holding his head, screaming and spasming. By the end of the episode it is established that he has suffered a stroke: will his brilliant mind survive?

Homicide: Season 3 on the Street


Season 3’s cast

Homicide had made an uncertain start, commercially, but the figures for the ‘second’ season had been positive enough for NBC to recommission it for thirteen episodes, with an option for a further nine that would go to make a full network season. However, they were insistent upon changes.
It was the same request: shorter stories, resolved in an episode, more conventional camerawork, younger and more telegenic actors, together with a plea for a lighter tone. Fontana resisted stubbornly, protective of the show’s integrity, but to secure the re-order, did agree to two points: that each episode would include a story that ended in that episode, and that there would be a cast change.
The unlucky actor was Jon Polito, who played Steve Crosetti. Short, bald, fat, wheezing, Crosetti was one of two veteran detectives, and as the other was Ned Beatty, Polito was the obvious target. I have also heard it rumoured that Polito had been a disruptive influence on set, and that this was also taken into consideration.
Polito’s replacement was Isabella Hofmann, who might have been designed for the show by NBC. She was cool, blonde, attractive, in her mid-thirties, everything they asked for, and as such a means of introducing sex into the series (the show acknowledged as much in its initial ‘open’ – the segment prior to the theme music and opening credits – with a barbed discussion arising out of Bolander’s disgust at gratuitous sex on the coffee room TV, allowing Munch to insist that it’s the networks who force TV shows to insert sex where it’s not needed).
There was, no-one in David Simon’s book that Hofmann remotely resembled, so her character, Megan Russert, became the first cast member to be wholly invented. Though Hofmann’s playing of the role was excellent, it was unfortunately misconceived from the start.
Russert – who has an almost too good background in Naval Intelligence and ten years as a Detective in Narcotics – is newly-promoted to Lieutenant and a belated replacement for Giardello’s old friend Sinta, as Commander of Homicide’s other shift. When the series started, with a three parter based on a Redball case, Russert has been in command for only a week.
Just to remind everyone that a Redball is a high-priority case, frequently because of its PR implications, at which all resources are thrown. These would be more frequent henceforth, new co-Executive Producer Henry Bromell having recognised their appeal as commercial TV.
Baltimore’s ‘Samaritan of the Year’ was found in a dumpster at the back of a church, stripped naked except for a pair of white cotton gloves, hit with a blunt instrument and strangled. The case came in on Russert’s shift, and Colonel Grainger and Captain Barnfather, wanted Giardello to oversee her: Russert herself was grateful for the assistance from Gee and his squad (saving only Crossetti, who had gone off on vacation to Atlantic City that morning, owing Bayliss $10.00).
It was only a start: two more bodies were found in identical circumstances, ratcheting up the pressure. The primary – Roger Gaffney – was incompetent: lazy, sloppy and overtly racist towards Pembleton, and when he was taken off the case by Russert in Pembleton’s favour, was offensive to her, leading to his being slung out of Homicide (he’d be back, though: there’s a future for Gaffney).
Pembleton himself had difficulty with the case, its religious elements deeply affecting his own, schooled by Jesuits, catholic sensibilities, leaving him questioning his religion. Not that it keeps him from resolving the case when a ‘witness’ came forward: an attractive young woman with Multiple Personality Disorder, who eventually ‘confessed’, throwing the blame to one of her ‘alternates’.
But it was a defining moment, as Pembleton pursued the woman in the Box in an extraordinary interrogation (Police would marvel at how true to life even such bizarre-seeming interrogations would be, from writers and actors with no actual experience of real-life Boxes). Frank was at his most mercurial, and came close to drawing out a real confession, despite Russert’s failure of instinct in backing him.
It was an instructive story in introducing Russert as a Lieutenant, with the character generally distinguishing herself in command, though her handling of Kay Howard, who was something of a hero-worshipper about Russert’s achievements demonstrated that there would be no sympathy along gender lines. But it rather skated around the basic problem of the role: Russert was Commander of the other shift, meaning that by definition she was on duty when the rest of the cast were not! From that point onwards, making her available was a job of shoe-horning awkwardly. I do rather wonder if, at least sub-consciously, the need to bring in a primarily photogenic role was resented to the point where the show was not prepared to make proper accommodation for the character?

Goiardello and Russert office-sharing

I don’t want to be seen as belabouring this season-opening three-parter, but in addition to the case, it also used its time carefully to set up underlying stories that would ruin through the entire season.
Lewis and Munch have gone in together to buy the Waterfront, a bar virtually opposite the Police HQ. Unfortunately, they’re short on the cash required and are trying to hit up their fellow detectives (and even Gee) as a third partner. They end up with Bayliss, who starts off wanting to be a silent partner only, but who quickly becomes just as involved in the long, stumbling process of bar purchase and ownership that runs throughout the series, but which provides a venue for the detectives to meet up, off-shift, for years to come.
A less palatable development was that Felton reveals to Howard that his wife, Beth, has thrown him out, but that he has another woman with whom he’s staying. His marital problems would escalate, and after his wife disappears with his children, Felton starts the long slide towards the skids.
It’s not, in itself, a bad story, nor is it played with heavy hands, but there is a serious problem when the first episode ends by revealing that Felton’s other woman is Russert. That touch is too much of the soap opera that NBC wanted, and though the relationship ends by the third episode, it’s already mired by the sheer implausibility of the rough and ready, hard-drinking Felton getting involved in the first place with the elegant, well-dressed, clearly more prosperous Russert: what the hell have they in common? It’s another black mark in the process of establishing the new girl.
And then there’s Crosetti.
It was meant as the fourth episode, but NBC intervened, postponing it into the New Year in favour of some more ‘life-affirming’ (and overtly sexy) episodes, despite the damage it did to the season’s continuity. But Crossetti’s overdue from his vacation, Lewis is covering for him, and Bolander and Munch pull a floater out of the harbour: the body’s unrecognisable after several days, but the wallet tells the unwanted story: it’s Crossetti.
It was a powerful episode. It was up to the investigating detectives to call the case murder or suicide. Bolander’s convinced, but Lewis is angry, frantic almost to have the case be treated as a murder, avoid his partner’s name being blackened. He interferes with the investigation, full of righteous fury, which lasts until the ME’s report makes it impossible to sustain the fiction. Lewis’s breakdown, and Bolander, the butt of his anger, is the first to hold him, to try to contain his grief.
There was no explanation, not then never. No honour guard from the bosses, as was Crosetti’s normal right, but as the funeral, following a lone jazz saxophonist, passes HQ, Pembleton – whose issues with religion have kept him from the church – is there on the steps, in dress blues, completing the salute.
The intensity of those opening episodes couldn’t be maintained, indeed shouldn’t be maintained for a whole season, and the show was canny enough to release the pressure in several ways. A string of ‘opens’ were used to depict the detectives conversing about things that had no relation to the meat of the episode. The classic example was the episode that started with Howard and Felton, Bolander and Munch discussing the cancellation, after 41 years, of the long-standing TV kids show, Romper Room, an exchange made all the funnier for it taking place at the morgue whilst each pair was waiting on the Medical Examiner’s report on a corpse.
The stories themselves were the typical Homicide mixture of cases, still being taken from Simon’s book, built around the frame of ongoing issues such as the hoops through which Lewis et al. were jumping to get the Waterfront off the ground, and Felton’s disintegration after his wife Beth takes off with his kids.
Bolander and Munch have to face a 10 year old kid on Christmas Eve whose father is thought dead, Pembleton gets burned by inter-departmental intrigue when he undertakes a virtually private case for Deputy Commissioner Harris, even going to far as to resign for an episode, and the show finally gives up on finding ways to insert Russert into the other shift’s territory and gives her her own story, dealing with domestic violence issues relating to her ex-partner in Narcotics, who is newly-transferred into her shift.
This last one came on the eve of the at last Grand opening of the Waterfront, which provided a very happy ending to episode twelve. Then all Hell broke loose.

Pembleton, Bayliss and the Board

In planning the season, Fontana and his team decided to throw down a gauntlet to NBC by scheduling episode thirteen – last of the guaranteed order – as the first of a three part story. Four detectives (the quartet of the Romper Room discussion) execute a routine arrest and search warrant on suspected paedophile Glenn Holten. From the landing above, shots are fired. Three detectives – Bolander, Felton and Howard – are hit. Cancel us if you dare.
The melodrama of the story was at odds with Homicide‘s principles, but it made for a very effective story, though not quite the challenge originally envisaged: long before episode thirteen was due to broadcast, NBC had taken up its option for additional episodes, although oddly for only seven of the possible nine.
Nevertheless, the drama went ahead, dominating the back half of the season. The first two episodes concentrated upon the shooting, and the angry, aggressive response of the Police, as they hunt for the suspect Holton. It was a mirror reflection of the season opener: a Redball case, this time with Russert pulling in her shift to back up the main cast. The safety of the detectives haunted the action: it was clear fairly early on that Felton (shot in neck and thigh) was in no danger, but Bolander (head) and Howard (heart) remained at risk until the end of the second episode.
By that point, Holten had been tracked, captured and has confessed to the shooting. Unfortunately, his confession was so inaccurate that it was evident he didn’t do it. Strictly, the case should have passed to Violent Crimes, nobody being dead, but Giardello got another 48 hours out of Barnfather for his men (but not Russert’s). Attention focussed on Gordon Pratt, tenant of the flat outside which the detectives were shot. Pratt (a brilliant guest performance by Steve Buscemi) is an overt racist with a superiority complex. It’s clear that he is the would-be killer, but his arrogance and racism winds Pembleton up into concentrating on puncturing his supposed superiority: as soon as he does, Pratt clams up, demands his lawyer and, to everyone’s chagrin, and a background of anger and dissension among the detectives, Pratt walks.
But not for long. Everybody’s gone but Bayliss, and he catches a call from the landlord, who can’t get the Police to come out otherwise. To the body in his hallway, shot dead through the head at close range, only two hours after being released. The body of Gordon Pratt.
The story moved into a fourth episode, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pratt case was just one of several strands, and not the most important. Pembleton and Lewis argued about where to start investigating a white woman killed by a random shot, Felton struggled on his return to work and Munch was embarrassed by an old picture from his hippie days. Meanwhile, the Police turned their backs, collectively and individually, on Gordon Pratt, except for the unlucky Bayliss, who had to work the murder, without back-up, evidence, leads or the least goodwill.
Pratt’s name is doomed to stay in red on the Board from the outset, but there were two moments in the weary, reluctant investigation that stood out. The first came when Bayliss, forced to consider his colleagues as suspects, queried Munch’s alibi: Munch reacted by handing over his gun, inviting Bayliss to test it for ballistics. A clear line is being drawn, and Tim balks at crossing it.
But for fans, who have followed the series to its end, who know what is to come, what was, in 1995, unimagined and unimaginable, the true frisson comes later, at Bayliss’s defeated face, when he tries to engage Pembleton in a philosophical debate about the danger of cops becoming executioners: Frank won’t give an atom of concern: Bayliss is completely alone.
The series wound down towards its end, with Bolander coming to the fore in a pair of fine episodes, and Tim’s cousin Jim Bayliss (guest star David Morse) appearing in a seemingly simple story – inspired, Law and Order style, by a true life, non-David Simon incident – that dealt with under-the-skin racial attitudes.
Russert’s situation was finally dealt with: she’d been dumped upon once more in the shooting three-parter, ordered by the brass to investigate how the matter had come about, with a view to scapegoating Giardello for signing off on a warrant with a mistyped address. Reluctant it might have been, and Russert did valiantly defend her co-worker, but not before she had been further painted as a bosses patsy.
The solution was promotion: Giardello exposed Colonel Grainger over having used his relatives to carry out sloppy repairs, Barnfather was promoted to Colonel and, instead of the obvious choice as the new Captain, with his thirty years of experience, Gee was passed over in favour of Russert and demographics. There would be no further strain about bringing her into the storylines.
Though the underlying lack of trust the show demonstrated towards Russert as a character was demonstrated by having virtually her first act as a Captain undermined by Giardello.
That left the question of renewal. Homicide had thrown down the gauntlet over the option for a back half season, but it was still not delivering the audience NBC wanted, nor even the audience earned by the ‘second’ season. Cancellation seemed imminent. So convinced were the team of this that Barry Levinson himself returned to direct the season finale, typical only in its atypicality, an oddball story, low key, distant, focussing not on the detectives but on guest star Bruno Kirby, playing a recently released landlord who’d been put away by Pembleton when his failure to repair gas systems killed tenants. Kirby’s character stalked Pembleton, intent on killing him, eventually trapping him, but finding himself incapable of killing.
It was quirky, but it was an unsatisfactory season finale and an even more unsatisfactory series closer, so it’s a very good thing that NBC showed faith in the series by finally commissioning a full twenty-two episode season for season 4.

Kay Howard

Overall, it was a good season. Though Homicide had had to compromise upon its basic principles, it had stood its ground in its central determination to reflect the reality of policing in modern America, and in its determination to see its subject from as many different directions as possible. The series developed a core of committed, talented writers, who kept characterisation consistent, and attracted a series of guest stars who would add to the show’s reputation for mixing frequently very dark comedy into its take on the grimness of the industrial city.
The show enjoyed its first, unofficial crossover with the much more procedural Law and Order when Chris Noth turned up in an ‘open’ as Detective Mike Logan, delivering a prisoner (himself played by cult Director John Waters) to Frank Pembleton whilst maintaining a studied New Yorker’s superiority over no-mark Baltimore.
My own favourite guest appearance came from Gary d’Addario as Lieutenant Chris Jaspers, head of the Quick Response Team, who clashed with Pembleton over police tactics during the pursuit of Glen Holten. Not a major scene of any kind, except that d’Addario wasn’t an actor, though he held his own flawlessly, amongst superb actors like Andre Braugher. Gary d’Addario was a serving Baltimore Police Officer: he is the original of Al Giardello in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
So the show had survived its first change of cast and, despite the uncertainty still underlying that change, was renewed and stronger than ever. But Homicide was never destined to be stable, and when it returned it would be without two members of its cast.

Homicide: 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.