Film 2019: Toy Story 3


There is a Neil Gaiman quote that I’m having difficulty tracking down. It goes something like, “There is room for stories to mean more than they seem.” All good stories, of whatever nature or media, have this element to them.

Toy Story 3 is famous for meaning more than it seems. It seems to be an adventure story in which the toys that belong to Andy are accidentally thrown out when he’s prepring to go to College, and about the scrapes and perils they go through to find a new home. It’s an engaging story with a happy ending, basic film fare, and enough good fun to keep the kids happy.

But you and I and we all know that it’s about much more than that, that there’s an adult subtext, a meaning more than it seems, only this subtext is the heart and soul of the film, so much so that for one adult on a grey and wet Sunday morning it inverts subtext into the only meaning of the film. The symbolism drops away and the conflicts are the film’s only point, to the extent that I frequently felt that the little kids had been squeezed out of their own picture.

Of course they weren’t, as the Box Office and DVD/BluRay sales more than demonstrated. Nor can I now see the film as I might have seen it at age 10, dazzled by the sheer wonder of toys that come to life and play out of sight. I can only see the themes of loss, and its concomitant, commitment. I can only see the grief of things not lasting forever when your very being is built upon eternity. I can only see the transformation that age brings and the severing of oneself from your own past that is both necessity and tragedy at the same time.

And I see especially the loyalty to friends who have become an extended family, in the moment that Andy’s toys come to the end of the road, the end of invention, lost in the trash and heading for the incinerator with no longer any bright schemes for getting just one stage further, and slowly they turn and face the fire, hand in hand in hand, going together as they have been together.

Toy Story 3 is about all these things. The beauty of fantasy, and what is a CGI film about toys being alive if it’s not a fantasy, is that it can strip a human situation down to its elemental reality and rebuild the same in dramatic terms using symbols. The Toy Story films are predicated on the simple but glorious idea that toys are committed to their owners, that their life exists in symbiosis with the child who plays with them. They are servants whose service is their one ideal and their lifeline.

So inevitably, the series had to deal with growing up. We all of us grow, and the toys that sustain our childhoods become obsolete as we find other needs to pursue. What then the afterlife of toys dependent upon a love that is now one-sided? Andy’s favorites remain, and their destiny is the attic, and the maybe-dream of his nostalgia or introduction to his children in some generation to come.

Instead, an understandable misunderstanding sees them dumped as would-be trash, until the toys take matters into their own hands and re-allocate themselves to the box going to Sunnyside Daycare Centre and a life of permnent play. Woody is different: like my old, scruffy, much-battered grey teddy bear, Woody is the representative of childhood, the one permitted talisman to be carried forward into the future, the bridge from one life to another. Woody’s going to College where he’ll be the ironic mascot.

But seeing his friends, his allies, his community, his family sending themselves away from Andy, betraying their duty, Woody tries to lead everyone home. He’s frustrated by two things, their own sense of betrayal on Andy’s part, the rejection (felt most keenly by Jessie who has been through this before) and the slow realisation that Sunnyside is not a haven but a prison, governed by Lotso-Huggin’-Bear (Lotso, a great performnce by Ned Beatty), a toy himself broken by rejection, twisted by hatred and determined to inflict his nihilism on everyone else.

Woody, after failing to persuade his family back to conformism, abandons them. They are promptly punished, having been tricked into the littlest kids’ room, where they are battered and beaten and smeared and smudged and threatened with death by overkill, a state that, probably unconciously, is represented as the consequence of not knowing ones place. Whereas Woody’s attempt to return to Andy and his role as the toy is temporarily diverted to a terrestrial paradise, with the little girl, Bonnie.

Bonnie is a delight. She’s happy, she’s funny, she’s imaginative, she’s a bundle of everything we like best to see in children. It’s just that she’s not Andy. But Woody’s path of duty is disrupted by another duty. As soon as he learns of Lotso’s tyrrany, he has to return and rescue his family. He is their leader, even in mutual separation.

So begins the Great Escape. It’s lit up by the most purely funny part of the film for me. In Woody’s absence, Buzz Lightyear has stepped up as pater familias but he is captured and factory reset to erase his memories. When Woody et al re-reset him, they accidentally switch on Spanish mode, and Spanish Buzz is a hoot! His sub-titled dialogue, his expressive body language, his overt romanticism from the moment he spots Jessie had me laughing out loud.

Despite the cleverness of the escape, Lotso is there ahead of the family, offering the alternatives of life under his dictatorship or commitment to the trash. Woody breaks Lotso’s spell, overcoming the brainwashing of the Bear’s powerful ally, Big Baby, who throws Lotso into the trash. But the inevitable twist sends the family after him, to the dump, the landfill, the trash compactor. Woody’s leadership gets everyone, even Lotso, through all these, until the incinerator looms. And everybody prepares to go together until the weird three-eyed aliens save the day and provide the eucatastrophe.

The film has not finished with us, though. The toys return to Andy, in time to be frozen, lifeless, in the attic. But this is again separation from Woody, this time a ‘happy’ one, but still a breaking of the Fellowship. Though they’ll all still belong to Andy, the sense is that they will never be together again, that they are just going into Limbo.

Woody can’t stand that. Against all his loyalty, he scribbles a note to take the toys away from Andy. Limbo in ownership is not enough, toys need to play and belong, actively not passively. Thinking it’s his mother’s idea, Andy donates the toys, not to Sunnydale (which we will see, in the credits, is now a place of fun, harmony, laughter and joy, with Lotso replaced by Ken and Barbie), but to the kid who will love them as Andy did: Bonnie.

The sentimentality wells up here as Andy introduces the toys one-by-one to a shy little kid growing less shy  and more wondering. She will love them. And bottom of the box is Woody, forsaking his future with ‘his’ Andy for his friends, his family, for the active life with Bonnie, who plays a contented afternoon with Andy, until the latter drives off. His toys gather to watch him leave.

All of these things, brought to us by pixels in a computer, invested with life by our own recognition and reaction, and our own understanding of love, commitment and rejection. I wonder how a little kid sees all this. I know how an adult does.

 

Film 2019: Superman


We begin Phase 2 of Film 2019 here: for the remainder of this series I’ll be watching and commenting on films I have in box sets of differing numbers. Some of these box sets are of films that tell a complete story between them, trilogies if you want to call them that without giving away the least clue, oh no, gollum. These will be watched over consecutive weekends. Others, like the film that starts this sequence, are part of compilations, and these I will dip into serendipitously, at random. Let us begin.

For me, Superman, the Mario Puzo scripted, Richard Donner diected, Alexander and Ilya Suskind produced, Christopher Reeve starring film, is a glory and a nostalgic dream. It’s not perfect, it’s not impervious to criticism, but it represents something that goes deep inside me and for that it will always soar above its flaws.

Superman was released forty years ago this year, on January 1, 1979. It had been promoted for months, and the tag-line was You will believe a man can fly. And we did. I saw it within a week of it arriving in Nottingham, on the ABC1 screen, a big, old-fashioned cinema that foresook the intimacy of today’s multiscreens for the gigantic spaces of old and was thus the best ever venue for a film like this. I took my best friend, the woman I was in love with and from whom I was concealing my feelings (I thought) because she was in love with someone else. We both loved it. And despite the occasional green screen mismatch, of colours, usually, we believed.

Superman was the big daddy of them all, the first big budget effort at putting a superhero on screen and taking him seriously. You look at it forty years on and see the roots of what is present in the Marvel Extended Cinema Universe films. You see the relatively primitive special effects, you see the naivete of many elements in the film, you see where the courage of convictions wears thin and the film just has to resort to silliness because, after all, we’re grown-ups, aren’t we? And you watch the film take a time over things that would have audiences poring over their smartphones long before the scene is over. And if you are me, you say a great big flaming So What?

Because this was the great big validation. This was all of us who loved comics and who kept that love, or even the very merest mention of interest, concealed from everyone we worked with. This was Superman, first of them all, and this was Superman being taken seriously, in a way that let us openly celebrate what we otherwise hid, without being exposed. Before I got to see the film, I was hearing Barristers in their Robing Room discussing the film delightedly.

Speaking of slowness: the film opts for a very long introduction/origin. We begin on Krypton (after that glorious John Williams theme has played out to its full) with Jor-El conducting the trial of General Zod and Co.  This is very much a teaser for Superman 2 which Donner, in the manner that he’d taken with The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, was filming simultaneously. But it also establishes Krypton for us, or a film Krypton, of a massive and frozen aspect, an ice and snow planet with elegant crystal technology (a controversial departure from the comics Krypton, a planet of glorious, abounding life and wonders). And it establishes Jor-El for us, in Marlon Brando’s massively expensive, impassively composed performance, as the classic story plays out and baby Kal-El is placed in a star-shaped rocket to be sent to Earth where, as we are told twice round, his Kryptonian metabolism will make him super-powerful.

Then we cut to Smallville, Kansas, childless middle-aged couple Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopt the baby that crashes in a falling satellite, raise him, teach him honesty, humility and a sense of purpose that will be built upon doing good. It’s old-fashioned, it’s hokey, but it’s unashamedly presented as natural, and it captures an essential part of the superhero DNA that’s so badly overlooked in these cynical times when everything is insistent on exploring the dark heart of the myth, that these brightly lit fantasies of superiority are about being good and doing good, because that’s what is important.

All of this is seen through the life of Clark Kent aged 18, and played so far by Jeff East (with dialogue redubbed by Christopher Reeve), and but for an unrealistic scene where the Special Effects aren’t up to convincingly showing you Clark running faster than a speeding locomotive (it had to be) it’s superb. The Kansas setting is evoked wonderfully in its sheer massiveness, a spaciousness that subconsciously echoes the grandeur of Clark’s powers.

Then, after Jonathan dies of a heart attack, Jeff East goes away for twelve years, to the Arctic, his Fortress of Solitude, and further holographic education from Jor-El, and, forty five minutes in, yes, a whole forty-five minutes, we get a brief glimpse of the Superman costume, and then it’s a cut to Metropolis, to the Daily Planet, and finally Christopher Reeve comes onscreen, not as the hero, but as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter.

Christopher Reeve, poor damned Christopher Reeve. He is the movie. A more or less complete unknown, at first rejected for the part for being too young and too skinny, Reeve is Superman, and he is Clark Kent, and he is two completely different people and he brings total authority, complete conviction and massive authenticity to both. As Superman, you believe a man can fly not because the Special Effects show it but because Christopher Reeve shows it: he’s brilliantly adept at working with the machinery that supports him, and when we watch him in flight, we believe we are seeing this, because Reeve treats it as the most natural thing on Earth.

And as Clark, he is funny, clumsy, klutzy and sincerely outdated to the exact point before his performance could turn into parody. His posture changes, his apprehension of an unkind world increases, his voice is higher-pitched and light without sounding unnatural. To demonstrate my point, there is a scene in Lois Lane’s apartment that condenses Reeve’s performance into about sixty seconds: Reeve has just left Lois as Superman and returned as Clark Kent for their ‘date’. She is still in a haze of distraction. As Clark, he looks at the room into which she has just disappeared, to fix her hair. He takes off his glasses, straightens up, his voice drops in register. With no make-up or effects, he has turned from one man into the other. Then doubt affects him, he restores his glasses, shrinks and dissolves into Clark. All in one scene, no cuts.

Margot Kidder, poor damned Margot Kidder, plays Lois Lane. There’s an early and nasty attempt to undermine her by portraying her as obsessed with violence and sex and unable to spell properly, and she ends the film as the classic victim, dependent upon the hero to rescue (please bear in mind that this version of Superman is based on the pre-1986 John Byrne reboot), but she’s perfect in the role, mixing the character’s underlying independence and forthrightness with the effect of being thunderstruck in love (and lust). Kidder was a lovely woman then, with a wonderfully throaty way of speaking. Like Reeve, she was an unknown, but the pair have chemistry that leaps off the screen at you, and the film was so right to cast unknowns in these two vital roles, since that enables us to see them as Clark/Superman and Lois, instead of actors.

These two carry the film. There are, as I said, flaws. Gene Hackman plays an ebullient, imperious, self-congratulatory Lex Luthor (the original Luthor, the openly criminal scietist). He gets the two best lines in the film, one of them the justly celebrated “Everyone has their faults. Mine’s in California”.

The other’s a bit self-referential, “Why does the world’s greatest criminal surround himself with nincompoops?” which, having already seen Ned Beatty’s face-stuffing Otis, is surely being said before the audience can ask the same question. His other assistant is Valerie Perrine as Miss (Eva) Teschmacher, and we all know why Luthor keeps her around: Miss Teschmacher is a cartoon sexpot (if she were a real cartoon, she’d be a Hentai).

The ending to the film was also very controversial. Luthor’s nuclear missile hits the San Andreas Fault, causing massive earthquakes, collapses and a lot of work by Superman in saving people. So much so that by the time he realises Lois is in a car being swallowed up by the Earth, it’s too late, she has been crushed to death.

Comes the moment. Superman struggles with his loss, his grief. He looks into the sky, screams, “Noooooooooooooo!” and takes off faster than at any time in the film. He flies into space. He is challenged by the image of Joe-El, reminding him that it is forbidden to change the course of human history (isn’t he already doing that, the way all of us do, just by being here day after day?), he recalls the words of Jonathan Kent, that he is here for a purpose and that is to use his powers to help people. Two fathers, two philosophies, two cultures. Kal-El chooses Earth. He spins round the planet so fast and persistently that it begins to turn backwards. Footage rolls backwards. Cracks in the earth close up, dams heal themselves, boulders roll uphill. Superman lands by Lois’s car and she’s alive. They’re about to kiss when Jimmy Olsen turns up.

I don’t care. I loved it, then and now, the eucatastrophe. Of course it’s a cheat. It was called as such then, the action of a big baby, stamping his widdle foot and screaming, and I don’t care. Above all else, this is a peculiarly comic book film in a way none of  the modern breed are. It plays by comic book rules, not cinema rules. It has a sense of wonder unpunctured by too much realism. The DC Cinema Universe may one day run to 100 films, and I still won’t have watched Man of Steel, but this will still be greater than all of them, because we do believe a man can fly, and we can go fly with him and feel that first thrill over and over again. It can even tell us that Superman fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way and not have us laugh with embarrassment.

One final comment. My DVD has the amended credit sequence. When I saw this in Nottingham in January 1979, there was no line crediting Superman as the creation of Jerry Seigel and  Joe Schuster. Truth and Justice did, eventually, triumph over the American Way.

Film 2018: Hear My Song


When I was sorting out the DVDs for Film 2018, I automatically included the 1991 feelgood film, Hear My Song, about the famed Irish tenor, Joseph Locke, starring Ned Beatty in the Locke role, with Adrian Dunbar (who co-wrote the script), Tara Fitzgerald, James Nesbitt, David McCallum and Shirley Anne Field.

Watching it though, I have my doubts as to whether it should have been included. It’s a FilmFour production, and whilst they were also behind The Madness of King George, which was released theatrically, I’m not sure if Hear My Song was ever released in the cinema in the UK, though it certainly was overseas. One look at a single scene clearly confirms that it’s shot on TV stock, and the profusion of tight, close-up shots of characters with their heads together, gives the film the feel of something whose natural setting is a TV set, not a cinema screen.

The story is very simple. Dunbar plays Mickey O’Neill, an Irish club manager struggling to make a go of Hartley’s, a Liverpool club owned by the Ryan family. Mickey’s an easy-going, free-wheeling kind of guy, a talker, a dreamer. in short, a bullshitter. When he books Mr X, who may or may not be the fabled Josef Locke, he comes a cropper. Locke, a very popular tenor of the Forties and Fifties, made headlines in the late Fifties by fleeing to Ireland to avoid tax demands in Britain, and is a wanted man still, especially by Chief Constable Jim Abbott (McCallum), the officer who failed to prevent Locke escaping twenty-five years earlier.

Mr X is indeed a fake. The problem is that Mickey’s girlfriend, Nancy Doyle (Fitzgerald) is the daughter of Cathleen (Field), who was Locke’s beauty queen girlfriend in 1958 when he fled. She’s still in love with Locke, and she exposes Mr X as a fake, to Mickey’s complete ruination.

So Mickey skips to Ireland where, with the aid of his old buddy, theatrical agent Fintan O’Donnell (Nesbitt), he tracks down the reclusive Locke and eventually persuades him to return and sing at Hartley’s. This gets him back with Nancy, secures Cathleen’s favour, and gives Abbott another shot, only to be foiled by an elaborate deception involving Mr X…

Jut above half the film is shot in the Emerald Isle, though during a spell of bad weather, where the colours are depressed and hazy, and the lovely scenery is far from looking its best. This is where the televisual roots of the film really sting.

For all that I enjoy the film, and enjoyed it again today, its shortcomings are many. For a start, and to use the favourite word of not just Mickey or Fintan but the entire Irish community, it’s bollocks. I’ve always accepted it at some kind of face value, at least to the point of its premise that once Locke had fled, he was forever exiled from the UK, at least in the 1983 or thereabouts of the film’s setting. Bollocks. A quick bit of research reveals that Locke settled his differences with the tax authorities and was singing in Britain again as early as 1969.

Remove that plank, and everything else falls into the hole. Fitzgerald is her usual lovely self, and a pleasure to see each time her sweet face appears onscreen (nor is her then-characteristic nude scene hard to bear, though it’s completely out of keeping with the rest of the film), but she’s a plot device and nothing more. Field, whose role is much more pivotal, is also absolutely lovely (aged 55 at the time, but looking at least a decade younger without seeming in any way artificial). She’s much more defined as a character, even though ultimately she’s no more than an appendage to her man, as Nancy is to Mickey.

And whilst I’ve never been to Ireland, and not rural Ireland, and not lived amongst its people, the Irishness of that length of the film is laid on with the trowel of eccentricity, to the point where it’s a fine question as to whether it is Irish or Oirish.

As for the ending, it doesn’t hold up to any kind of logical scrutiny, but then neither does the film. It’s a feelgood fantasy, resolutely retrograde in its intent, and unsurprisingly sparked a revival of interest in Josef Locke’s singing, duplicated in the film by Vernon Midgeley, though Beatty is himself an accomplished star of the musical stage. The story might be set in or about 1983, but it’s never left the Fifties and The Beatles have never happened.

I still like it, and I will put it on again, and not just for Mesdames Fitzgerald and Field. It deserves its place, although to be honest it’s one of the weakest films of the series. Sunday lightweightedness.

Homicide: Life Everlasting


Officially, it’s Homicide: the Movie but for those of us who were there to hear that it was being done, eighteen months after the end of the series, and those of us who took advantage of the opportunity to download the shooting script, it was and always will be Homicide: Life Everlasting. After all, this was the ultimate end, the point beyond which things could go no further.
It’s not unknown for a long-running TV series to get a TV movie, a ‘Return to…’, though these usually come years later, and tend to be incapable of capturing anything that made the series memorable in any way. To my knowledge, Homicide: Life on the Street, is unique in being given such a follow-up to deal with loose ends, so soon in its own wake.
The very idea intrigues, especially after it was confirmed that the Movie would feature everyone. Everyone who had, in one series or another, been members of the cast of the show. Everyone, including Jon Polito and Daniel Baldwin, whose characters were, let us remember, dead. Were there going to be flashbacks? No, there weren’t.
I have mixed feelings about Homicide: the Movie. Sometimes, when I watch it, I find much of it unsatisfying, and not a fitting end to the overall series. It runs for just under 90 minutes, of which the first hour doesn’t reach the heights the series achieved, although the final thirty minutes is excellent.
And other times, like now, I absorb it all and enjoy it for what it is, a final chance to spend time with old favourites, a meshing of people whose times and stories overlapped and diverged and never came near each other before.
The story is relatively simple, as well it might be, given the need to provide a self-contained crime. Lt Al Giardello has resigned from the Police to run for Mayor: a week before the election, he is the overwhelming favourite, when he is shot at an early morning Press rally. The news spreads and all of Gee’s old detectives gather spontaneously to help track down his would-be killer.
The major logistical problem for the film as a whole is how to cope with seventeen leads (it’s actually 18: Zelcko Ivanek, never a cast member but Homicide’s most frequent regular, is fittingly promoted). Something has to be found for everyone to do, and something has to give: some detectives are short-changed, working as they do on dead ends. Not so Bayliss and Pembleton: they get the lion’s share of the spotlight, working in defiance of Pembleton’s ejection by Gaffney (obnoxious to the last) and, inevitably, solvinghe crime.
The tone of the film is uneven to begin with. It makes a good start by reinstating the old, black and white credits, and the full-length theme music, but much of the film takes place under bright sun and in upmarket areas of Baltimore that just don’t look like our familiar Fell’s Point backgrounds. And it’s too damned bright.
Comparing film with script reveals hosts of cuts. Few of these are significant, but each cuts detail that thickened the story, supported the characters rather than the relatively minimal plot. In particular, the scene where Pembleton boasts of his new found wealth as a teacher should have been retained.
Two cuts are significant. Megan Russert’s entrance simply vanishes, and Stan Bolander’s half of the conversation with her is shifted to later in the movie, and with Munch, costing one of Homicide‘s traditional in-jokes. Instead, Megan is simply there at the hospital, with no sense of her arriving, and without an introduction to the viewer. It undermines her.
The other comes in one of Pembleton and Bayliss’s conversations, when Pembleton ruminates on why he resigned: a line is struck out which prefigures the final, and rather more dramatic, conversation between these old partners, to the detriment of the latter.
The show recognises the gap in time since the final episode of season 7. Gharty has been promoted to Lieutenant after Giardello, but he is a weakling, a put-upon stooge for Gaffney and Barnfather, playing his part from fear that being on the street will kill him. Lewis, Falsone, Ballard, Stivers and Sheppard are still in Homicide but new names on the Board are Detectives Hall and Overton. The latter is no more than a name but Hall plays a part: Giardello’s shooting is his case but he’s a rough, crude, stupid, fist-wielding thug, played with great glee by Jason Priestly, happy to wallow in his stereotype for a chance to work on the show.
Munch, we know, is a Detective in New York now, who told his new colleagues on Day 1 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that he was never setting foot in Charm City again after Billie Lou ran off with one of his colleagues. Homicide takes great delight in overturning this as a lie (and it sure as hell wasn’t Gharty).
Mike Giardello gets a fair amount of time. He’s a beat cop now, looking to win his Detective’s shield, but he spends most of his time in impotent rage at how the hospital won’t tell him anything, put in splendid perspective by a cameo guest role from Ed Begley Jr (playing but not credited as his St Elsewhere role, Victor Erlich).
But it’s that last half hour that puts the film into its real stride. Bayliss and Pembleton finally locate the clue that leads them to the killer, a cameraman who was filming the rally for a local TV station, and who had a gun strapped to his camera. He is a father who, three months earlier, lost his son to a drugs overdose and, slightly unhinged, wanted to prevent Gee from carrying forward his proposals to legalise drugs, and open the door for other kids to die and leave parents bereft. That he’s unhinged by grief is plain, and his nervous energy is infectious, but it brings Bayliss to a point he’s been edging around all the way since Frank turned up.
Season 7 left the issue of whether Bayliss had executed Luke Ryland, the Internet Killer, in the air, but long before his confession that he did indeed execute, it is obvious that he is responsible and that it is preying at his conscience. Bayliss sees his actions mirrored by those of the cameraman. He has been waiting for Frank, his partner, his friend, the person who means more to him than anyone else, to confess.
Pembleton is aghast. He doesn’t want to hear it, let alone believe it, and he keeps trying to find ways to explain it that avoid having to accept that Bayliss,, a cop, has committed a stone-cold murder. When he finally gcannot squirm away, his reaction is of betrayal: “You son of a bitch!”
Frank isn’t a cop anymore. He’s a lecturer at a Jesuit college. He doesn’t want to bring anyone else in. But Bayliss is by now too deeply enwrapped in himself. He refuses to allow Pembleton to escape from being a cop. He’s got to bring Bayliss in, save his life. He threatens to commit suicide if he is not taken in.
Even here, Homicide‘ s traditional refusal to wrap things up clearly is apparent: a white hand erases Ryland’s name in red and rewrites it in blue: a solved murder from an earlier year. Does Pembleton take Bayliss in? Is it Bayliss, filling in a detail before going on to eat his gun? Or has he confessed to someone else? No answers are given. In a very short time, when all this has ceased to be our concern, Pembleton mumbles, bitterly, about catching a couple of big ones today, but we don’t know what hhe means by that.
From here, we move swiftly towards the end. Gee survived the surgery, the killer has been caught, everyone’s together again, even Kellerman is accepted in the Waterfront, until Brodie arrives. Gee has survived the surgery, but but he has died, of an aneurysm. It’s a hammer blow for everyone.
Inside the squadroom, Mike is hanging a rosarie on his father’s photograph. Pembleton introduces himself, commiserates. They talk for a moment or two then leave together in silence. As they reach the exit, Giardello walks in, between them, in full health and vigour. He does not see them: they do not see him.
Instead, he sees a ghost environment, peopled by those who, in some manner, are fixed here. Police who died, victims: though we know it is coming, there is still a considerable frisson, as a happy, 10 year old black girl skips down the hall and round Gee: we don’t need his stunned breathing of her first name to tell us that this is Adena Watson.
She skip round him and into the coffee-room. Standing, grinning, at the machine, looking not a bit changed, is Steve Crosetti, hailing the Lieutenant, calling him in. Four chairs are set at a table, a game of cards is in hand, Beau Felton sits at the table. Fans speculate that the empty chair means a place set for a soon-to-arrive Bayliss: Gee is afraid for Mike.
Nothing matters any more. This is where they go. The concerns of life are just that, the concerns of Life and this is not Life. In the shooting script, Crosetti explains that nothing is fixed: had Gee overslept by five minutes that morning, he’d have wound up half an hour late and the shooter would have succumbed to his nerves and left before then.
Gee takes a card, puts his money down. The poker game resumes. In a strange way, we are consoled.

Homicide: 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: Season 2 on the Street


Bolander and Howard

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.

Gee and the Board

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?

Homicide: Season 1 on the Street


Crosetti and Lewis

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.

Felton

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.

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.

Homicide: Life on the Street


Isn’t it funny how murder can make you feel better?

It’s been a difficult couple of days and it’s not likely to improve just yet. I’ve been finding it difficult to concentrate, or to find things worth concentrating upon which, given the number of things I’m involved in writing at present, for this blog, and otherwise, is frustrating. So I decided to pull out my box-sets of the superb 1991-97 American police drama series Homicide: Life on the Street and rewatch the first episode. As always, it’s been utterly absorbing and, in its unique and black fashion, absolutely hilarious.

An awful lot of praise has been, deservedly, heaped on The Wire, but if you were a fan of that absorbing, horrifically realistic series, you should really check-out Homicide, a forerunner in a very true sense. Like The Wire, it is set in Baltimore, centred upon the Homicide Division and its impossible task in sweeping up after the City’s horrendous murder rate and, like The Wire, it stems from David Simon and his 1988 non-fiction book, Homicide – A Year on the Killing Streets, recounting in intense detail the year that young crime reporter Simon spent ’embedded’ in the Baltimore Police Homicide Division.

Originally, film producer and Baltimore native Barry Levinson optioned the book as a film but, given its level of detail, its intensity and its absurdity, he chose instead to present it for television, so that its subtleties could be explored. Despite initial promotion by NBC, the series perennially struggled for an audience, by refusing to be safe, sofa-friendly, crime-of-the-week cop TV, and trying to hew far more closely to the reality of Policing in a major American city, and judging by the praise it got from cops across the nation, Homicide succeeded spectacularly.

Of course, compared to The Wire, it’s a tv series, without the swearing, without the degree of brutality, but still with the same ultra-violet sense of cynical humour, and with an astonishingly brilliant cast and razor-sharp writers.

Opening episode “Gone for Goode” performs the task of introducing you to a cast of nine without strain or artificiality, introducing the viewer to this world by the expedient of Detective Tim Bayliss’s (Kyle Secor) first day on the Squad. We see Detectives Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Crosetti (Jon Polito) investigating a late night shooting that unexpectedly expands into a multiple Black Widow homicide case, all the time bitching about their job and about life, Detectives Howard (Melissa Leo) and Felton (Daniel Baldwin) picking up a dead body in a basement where the killer virtually leaps into their arms, Detective Munch (Richard Belzer) being badgered into pursuing an overlooked death whilst denying throughout that he wants the approval of his partner, Detective Stan “the Big Man” Bolander (Ned Beatty), and above them all Lieutenant Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), the only undercooked character in this episode.

We also meet, for the first time, the loner, the individualist Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), the man who hasn’t got a partner, doesn’t need a partner, definitely doesn’t want a partner, and especially not the rookie, Bayliss. Pembleton’s is the most overt performance, but paradoxically he allows the naive Bayliss to shine. There’s the first of the series’ several interrogation scenes in which Pembleton slickly talks a frightened, slow-witted, guilty suspect into confessing to murder by sailing smoothly over his constitutional rights, during which Secor sits silently in the background, with only his eyes telling of his bafflement, outrage and astonishment.

And there’s that ending, as Bayliss decides himself ready to take on a case of his own, heading out in the rain to an alley crowded by people, soaked to the skin, looking down at the body of a dead ten year old black girl. Little did we know then that Homicide would last seven series, and little did we expect that moment in the alley to be as relevant to the series in its final episode. Cop shows didn’t do that, not even the great Hill Street Blues. But Homicide: Life on the Street, destined to fight for its life and its integrity until the end, would go many places that TV hadn’t been before.

It’s been a pleasure, and an object lesson in how you can laugh at something so serious, on a Saturday night that isn’t going well.