TV: Homicide: Life on the Street

Even if you’re not a fan of cop shows, and especially if you are, do yourself a favor and check out Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-2000). I went into it looking for a diverting background show, wholly convinced it couldn’t possibly be as good as its direct descendant, The Wire. But coming away from its final scenes, I stand converted. It’s not The Wire, true; but it’s damn close, and while they share certain similarities, they’re also differently outstanding

Based on David Simon’s nonfiction opus Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, Homicide — in its TV incarnation — is a gritty, compelling police procedural set in Baltimore, shown in all its decaying urban glory. From a monolithic waterfront headquarters building, the city’s Homicide unit, led by stalwart shift commander Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), handles the city’s appallingly steady murder workload. The unit is populated by a vast and varied group of flawed, jaded, resilient detectives who’ve seen every kind of street craziness during their careers. There’s Stanley “Big Man” Bollander (Ned Beatty), the veteran winding down his career; John Munch (Richard Belzer), a sardonic, reformed hippie conspiracy theorist; Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), a determined case-solver navigating a male-dominated landscape with hardnosed attitude; Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), a fast-talking and likable “knockaround” cop; and more, each character as distinctive, real, and memorable as the last.

The series is owned and anchored, however, by two detectives in particular: Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), an individualistic, intense, intellectual veteran and the unit’s go-to guy on the tough cases; and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), an ambitious and idealistic rookie whose journey through the series’ seven-season run spirals through turns both quirkily comic and tragically dark. It’s a reluctant partnership, and an argumentative one, but in many ways both their combined and individual journeys through the series serve as solid anchoring through-lines for the show. It’s certainly an ensemble series, but Pembleton and Bayliss are always at the heart of things. (When Pembleton leaves at the end of season six, that lack of a counterweight is striking, and when he returns for the final feature-length movie, the show feels right again.)

Homicide also feels authentic, thanks to its inspirational source material, and also, crucially, because it was shot entirely in Baltimore, which lends an unmistakeable atmosphere of geographic realism. It’s also the least formulaic cop show I’ve ever seen. Some episodes feature one case, others multiple cases, and the cases can last anywhere from one act to several seasons. To me, the casework is often the least interesting part of a cop show, but not only does Homicide keep its crimes varied and interesting, it rarely makes the mistake of relying too much on the casework to drive things. The episodes are generally more interested in the characters and their reactions to the crimes, or — and here, The Wire comparisons are inevitable — how the system reacts based on the nature of the crime, the inherent politics of police work and the justice system. Solving the case can be a matter of personal triumph, or a Pyrrhic victory; rarely is it simply a matter of tidying up a mystery storyline in fifty minutes. And, as the dry erase board in the Homicide unit constantly reminds us, many cases never get solved.

The show mines its source material vigorously; Simon’s book is also excellent, and for all the liberties the show takes in the name of dramatization, the observations of the book permeate the series and contribute to its authenticity. It’s very nearly a series Bible, and throughout the run bits and pieces of the book — from concepts to characters to whole cases — find their way into the episodes. Reading the book makes for an interesting window into the world of the show.

After two abbreviated, powerful seasons at the beginning of the run, the series really hits its stride in seasons three and four, and maintains a high standard right through to its explosive season six finale. Alas, season seven shows a marked drop-off in quality, particularly at the beginning, when the writers seemed to be performing under a mandate of conventionalizing the show and playing up romantic entanglements within the unit. (It doesn’t help that the show loses its two most dynamic characters at the end of season six: Pembleton, and Mike Kellerman, a troubled cop played by Reed Diamond. Neither are adequately replaced.) Fortunately, a handful of solid episodes crop up late in the run, and the series-closing TV movie redeems the seventh season missteps by reuniting every member of the cast for one last hurrah.

Even in light of its weaker moments, I never fell out of love with Homicide: Life on the Street, groundbreaking, addictive, and first-rate television, well worth a “complete series” investment. Its writers, directors, and actors would go on to shape the landscape of series television well into the twenty-first century, on other shows, and based on their work here, it’s easy to see why.

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