A&E // 1996 // 1034 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Gutierrez (Retired) // November 3rd, 2004
"Do you and Lewis hug?" -- Baltimore Homicide Detective Tim Bayliss
Homicide: Life on the Street exemplifies the best television has to offer. Steeped in characterization and blessed with incredible writing, acting and production values, Homicide sets new expectations for the cop genre.
Coming into its fifth year, Homicide had its share of challenges; the most noteworthy being the personal frustrations of actor Andre Braugher (Glory), who felt his Detective Frank Pembleton's behavior in the box grew repetive and was no longer challenging him as an actor. Writer David Simon once said that everyone wanted to see the same episode of Homicide over and over again, they wanted to see Frank Pembleton beat a suspect in a mental wrestling match. The writers and Braugher got a bit tired of repeating themselves and gave Pembleton a stroke at the close of Season Four. Homicide: Life on the Street, Season Five deals heavily with Pembleton's return to work. He has to prove himself all over again, constantly being watched by his superiors and partner, Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor St. Elsewhere). Pembleton, the master of the Box, is no longer the golden boy in the department -- and it is killing him.
Two additional story arcs cover the bulk of the season. One arc focuses on Detective Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond, Judging Amy) facing corruption charges from his days in Arson. The second arc looks at drug lord Luthor Mahoney's (Erik Todd Delums, The Wire) war with the Baltimore Homicide and Narcotics department. Smaller arcs focus on Detective Munch's (Richard Belzer, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) inability to keep a partner, and documentarian Brody's (Max Perlich, Angel) quest to complete his film and find a place to stay.
Like Law & Order and its numerous spawn, Homicide: Life on the Street sees its share of casting shifts. Introduced this season are Detectives Paul Falsone (Jon Seda, I Like it Like That) and Terri Stivers (Toni Lewis, 10-8) along with Chief Medical Examiner Juliana Cox (Michelle Forbes, Swimming with Sharks). Unfortunately, the show loses some if its heart with the departure of Sergeant Kay Howard (Melissa Leo, 21 Grams).
Given the changes and dense storytelling of the series, can Homicide: Life on the Street, Season Five maintain its reputation of excellence?
It doesn't get much better than this. Season Five doesn't break any new ground for the show, but keeps it running. Since the show is already near perfect, maintaining its standard is quite a task. Season Five is Braugher's penultimate season; the season where most of the core cast remains, before -- as my favorite lady in Wisconsin says -- Bayliss gets weird and becomes the "Zen Detective."
Let's look at the evidence, but be aware that spoilerish details lurk within:
*"Hostage Part 1"
Gee (Yaphet Kotto, Live and Let Die) finds himself down a detective. Pembleton's back, but ends up chained to a desk. The squad springs into action during a hostage situation.
*"Hostage Part 2"
Bayliss and Munch's case may tie in to the hostage situation at the school. Pembleton foregoes his medication to keep his mind intact.
Bayliss pulls a Pembleton when he breaks out on his own. Gee has ordered him to close a homicide investigation at a prison, but Bayliss refuses to let it go. This episode became the inspiration for Tom Fontana's brilliant series, Oz. Watch for cameos by past characters that the department has put away. Additionally, watch for a real heart-wrenching performance by Charles Dutton (Roc) and a keen bastard performance by Dean Winters (Oz).
The Luthor Mahoney storyline begins here. A rash of drug-related murders breaks in Baltimore. Pembleton need only to pass his shooting range test to get back on the street. Kellerman gets chained to a desk while his past in the Arson department gets scrutinized.
*"M.E., Myself and I"
This episode introduces Chief M.E. Julian Cox to the series. Bayliss takes an interest in Dr. Cox and deals with a burial mix-up. Brody gets bounced around some more.
To prove his innocence, Kellerman takes a lie detector test. M.E. Cox takes a more proactive stance and does some digging of her own when her findings don't match Detective Munch's. Kellerman can't get a break. Reed Diamond's performance intensifies as things get hairy for the redhead. Look for a strong performance from Michelle Forbes. This is the only season she really gets to strut her stuff.
*"Heart of a Saturday Night"
Gee gets in on the investigative action when his force is short some bodies. Terrible things always seem to happen when Gee goes out on the street.
*"The True Test"
Kellerman's plight worsens when everyone has copped a plea but him. Bayliss and Lewis investigate a death at a private boy's school. Pembleton goes back to the firing range for the final time. Things get better for the series, as the inevitable Bayliss/Pembleton reunion nears. Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring) shows us he can easily play an over privileged, racist bastard. Watch his smugness get the better of him when Bayliss and Lewis take him into the Box.
Kellerman gets the old double whammy in the form of a summons from the court and from Dr. Cox. The team of Bayliss and Pembleton isn't as well oiled as it once was. Luthor Mahoney demonstrates his ruthlessness in front of the squad.
District Attorney Ed Danvers (Zeljko Ivanek, Oz) fiancé becomes Baltimore's latest homicide statistic. Danvers overdoes his involvement in the investigation. Gee does some digging to help out Kellerman. In a network enforced storyline, seeds are planted for the season's Cox-Kellerman romance. While the scenes involving their relationship are played and written well, their tone never fits with the rest of the series.
Brodie screens his documentary for the squad on New Year's Eve. Watch this episode for the resolution of the lunch room bandit. "The Documentary" allows the cast to shine as they quote passages word for word from David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Not since the first year of the show has so much material been lifted directly from the series' source. The only downside to the episode is the aforementioned Cox-Kellerman romance. It's a shame that Cox gets relegated to a trite romantic role. Still, even forced romance can't kill this episode.
Bayliss trusts Pembleton with a long held secret. Unfortunately, Bayliss' admission comes with a price -- he wants a divorce from Pembleton. Kellerman finally has his day in court.
*"Have a Conscience"
The countdown to Kellerman's meltdown begins here. Kellerman is back on the street investigating a Mahoney-related homicide. As go all things Mahoney, Kellerman is left holding the bag. Pembleton's not taking his split from Bayliss well.
Pembleton gets more misery when he's partnered with Lewis and finds his marriage is troubled.
No one works well with Pembleton except for Bayliss. The writers are smart in making unlikely pairs. Not since Pembleton partnered with the late Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin, John Carpenter's Vampires) has he been played against another detective so wonderfully.
*"Wu's On First"
The Brothers Kellerman (Tate Donovan, Love Potion No. 9; Eric Stolz, Mask) complicate Kellerman's life further when they try getting some fast cash to pay off a loan.
Pembleton's marriage gets worse. Meanwhile, the squad links two bombings to Luthor Mahoney.
Munch investigates an old girlfriend's murder. There just aren't enough episodes that focus on one of the more fascinating detectives in the unit. Munch was always best when played against the "Big Man" (Ned Beatty, Superman: The Movie) yet he manages to retain his paranoia and cantankerousness.
More of Bayliss' tragic childhood is revealed when he and Pembleton investigate a domestic homicide. Lewis, Chris Thorman (Lee Tergesen, Oz), and his wife (Edie Falco, The Sopranos) reflect on the shooting that blinded Thorman. One of the more emotionally heavy episodes this season, "Double Blind" sets the stage for Bayliss' coming absence in the episodes to follow. It'll make you wish that Kyle Secor had more Bayliss centered episodes.
The squad's Luthor Mahoney campaign doesn't go quite as planned.
As mentioned before, terrible things happen when Gee steps into an investigation. Gee steps into the middle of a nasty confrontation between the B.P.D. and an African-American organization. The aftermath of this episode comes into play in Homicide: The Movie.
*"Partners and Other Strangers -- Part 1"
Beau Felton turns up dead. Once part of Gee's squad, he's now a name on the board.
This episode introduces future regular cast member Detective Paul Falsone and the brief return of Detective Megan Russert (Isabella Hofman, Providence).
*"Partners and Other Strangers -- Part 2"
The season closes on a strong Howard episode (finally). As she tries to insert herself into the Felton investigation, Howard meets with resistance from all sides. She and Russert finally reach an understanding, as do Pembleton and his wife. The squad receives an announcement that results in a roster shake-up.
Sadly, this is the last time Kay Howard serves with the Homicide unit under Gee's command. She, Felton, Brodie and Russert won't be back until Homicide: The Movie.
The strongest asset to this series is character development. Pembleton's recovery gives us a nice reversal in the Pembleton/Bayliss dynamic. Both boys are still magic in the Box, but outside Bayliss has found his own footing and begins to assert himself as Pembleton's equal. After four years in the unit, Bayliss has proven capable of investigating a case on his own, answering only to himself -- just like his old partner. Not only must Pembleton adjust to his limited capacities -- though this lasts only a handful of episodes -- he has to get used to Bayliss' blooming confidence.
Also terrific are the Lewis/Kellerman/Stivers episodes centering on the Luther Mahoney storyline. Watching the slow, disturbing unhinging of Kellerman was one of the highlights of the season. It is a heavy load for a pair of detectives oft thought of as the frat boys of the squad. Kellerman tries to keep his stability while Lewis tries not to lose another partner. Even though the true Kellerman payoff happens next season, season five begins the Kellerman descent.
Munch, Gee and Howard don't get as much screen time as the others this season. Fortunately, the writing is strong enough to give each character strength. Be it through little revelations like Gee's way with the ladies or Howard's development as a sergeant, the characters feel like real, familiar people with actual lives and problems.
The writing would be for naught if it weren't for the actors. It's rare to have a cast that pulls off strong weekly performances, but this batch does it. While most reviews point to Braugher's performances as the show's anchor, his castmates are just as strong. Secor probably has the toughest job in trying to keep up with Braugher -- a job that appears effortless to him. Kotto's Gee remains one my favorite characters of all time. He plays Gee as man caught between loyalty to his squad and keeping the brass off his back. He's an incredibly complicated character that provides a backbone for the show. As Homicide: The Movie illustrates, you just can't have a Homicide: A Life on the Street without Gee. It's just not possible.
The directing and editing is top notch. Quick pans, repetitive cuts and the unpolished look and feel of the series add to its realism. Crime isn't shiny and slick. Murder is dirty, depressing and cold. The show visually represents the stark cruelty of taking another's life.
All of those police procedural shows that overuse the musical montage have the creators of Homicide to thank. The show's use of music over images is always well executed and never panders. The show's producers are smart enough never to use an obvious song to tell the story. Instead, they opt for the song to establish mood -- similar to its use in Mean Streets.
A&E is a bit light in the Special Features department. The single commentary track on "The Documentary" is extremely informative and frank. Listen to it for inside information on some of the politics in making the show, behind-the-scenes squabbles and why this show would have been a million times better if not for network interference. Also included is a featurette starring David Simon and James Yoshimura. Strictly for true show fans, the featurette focuses on Simon's experiences on becoming a staff writer for the show and on Yoshimura's experiences working with David Simon. Cast and crew biographies are included as well -- but these aren't anything to write home about. Normally, a lack of special features is a problem. On a show this powerful, it doesn't matter. A series this good doesn't need a slew of extras or special features to entice anyone to watch it.
Homicide: Life on the Street, Season Five is presented in full screen format. The transfer maintains the show's signature dull and flat color palette. The only visual problems I found were a few instances of grain. The sound is clear, though it's a simple stereo mix.
There must be something bad about this show. The only flaws in the entire season are the forced Cox-Kellerman romance and the departure of Kay Howard. Her character is sorely missed in the final seasons.
More extras would be nice -- perhaps a few more commentaries? I'd love to hear the cast's takes on their characters and experiences on the show.
People who haven't seen Homicide: Life on the Street are missing out on one of the finest examples of television since its invention. This show paved the way for The Wire, another fine, fine show. If you like strong acting, writing and direction, then Homicide is the show to see.
Case dismissed. Bring in Homicide: Life on the Street, Season Six.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Gutierrez; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 1034 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track on the "The Documentary"
* "Inside Homicide: An Interview with David Simon and James Yoshimura" featurette
* Cast and Crew Biographies
* Review of Seasons One and Two
* Review of Season Three
* Review of Season Four