A&E // 1994 // 960 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // January 9th, 2004
"Me, I'm gonna lock up a 14-year-old kid for what could be the rest of his natural life. I gotta do this. This is my job. This is the deal; this is the law; this is my day. I have no doubts and suspicions about it. Heart has nothing to do with it anymore. It's all in the caffeine." -- Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), over coffee
Welcome to Baltimore, homicide capital of the nation. In the squad room of the city's "murder police," a white board looms over the cluttered desks. At the top are the names the detectives working under fiery Lieutenant Al Giardello's (Yaphet Kotto): crusty Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty), paranoid John Munch (Richard Belzer), naïve Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), weary Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), driven Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), earnest Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), and the brilliant Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher). Under their names are numbers, each one cataloging a murder. Next to each number is the name of the victim. Cases in red are currently open, unsolved. Cases in black are closed, hopefully with some sense of justice.
Pray your name does not end up on The Board. And if it does, pray that these detectives can find your killer quickly, before your name gets lost in the endless shuffle.
If one scene sums up the blue-collar poetry that is Homicide: Life on the Street, it is the moment in the episode "Every Mother's Son," when the two mothers meet. A boy on the cusp of manhood shoots another boy in the back of the head. He thinks he should go free, because it was all a mistake: he meant to shoot a different boy. In a powerful, understated scene, the victim's mother and the killer's mother unknowingly sit next to one another in the squad room. They bond over their love for their children and their dread of loss. Then they learn the terrible truth about one another.
On any other show, this would be the climax of a "very special" episode. On Homicide, this is merely the second act.
Homicide: Life on the Street entered its third season hovering on the edge of cancellation. After two abbreviated but critically praised seasons, NBC was looking for the show to finally break through, even if the network was not willing to put forth much effort to promote it. They brought in Henry Bromell to executive produce, alongside original producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson. They insisted that the show tone down its notorious use of cinema vérité techniques (handheld cameras, jump cuts) and convoluted continuing storylines. Grouchy detective Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) was out; Lieutenant Megan Russet (Isabella Hoffman) was in, providing another female character and a second shift commander as foil for Yaphet Kotto.
But although the season began with the requisite high-profile "red-ball" case -- a serial killer with multiple personalities (an obvious effort to duplicate the ambiguity that made the Adena Watson murder in Season One so fascinating), the season really hits its stride with the death of Detective Crosetti by suicide in episode four. The shattering event highlights one of the key themes of the series: how the volatile partnerships of these detectives enable them to face the death they encounter every day.
Over the course of the season, stand-alone cases would intertwine with multi-episode subplots that would allow various characters the spotlight. Beau Felton's crumbling personal life, a twisted relationship for Bayliss with a sexy fetishist, Pembleton's battle with the department over a criminal cover-up -- none of these storylines would last more than a few episodes. Meanwhile, the series would feature quirky murder cases solved by quirky characters (based, oddly enough, on a fascinating mix of real-life Baltimore cops featured in David Simon's original book upon which the series is based). Watch Bolander solve the murder of a street-corner Santa Claus, while Munch tries to keep the victim's son distracted. Watch Pembleton work a racially motivated killing by Bayliss' cousin. Watch Kay Howard investigate a murder while on vacation in her rustic hometown. Like most episodic television, some of these cases are interesting, and some are pretty much filler. Where the series shines is in its marvelous dialogue between plot points.
Consider this moment, from "Partners." Pembleton has quit the squad over being the fall guy for a superior officer's attempt to bury a congressman's crime. Giardello, never one to mince words, sits down next to him, and we expect one of those heart-to-heart chats in which each man will bare himself to the other. Instead, Pembleton snaps, "You want me to come back? Why? Because we're friends? That's not true."
Giardello gives the detective a grimly ironic look and responds, "You're right. I've never been to your house. I've never met your wife. We are not friends. It ticks me off because you say what you think, and you don't give a damn what I think about what you think. But there's one thing I know for certain: you change red names to black. And for that reason, and that reason alone, I want you back."
No sentimentality. No soulful moment. And so when the time does come for Pembleton to pick his badge back up again and hit the street, as you know it will, that moment has more force than if it were diluted by false histrionics. This means that when Homicide does reach for a shattering dramatic moment, as when Lewis finally accepts the fact of his partner's death, or Felton vainly tries to hold his sanity together after his family has fallen apart, we buy it.
The most notable example comes in episode 13. Fearing the show might not get renewed after the first 13 episodes, the producers decided to try a cliffhanger to turn the heads of NBC execs. Apparently the ploy worked: the show was picked up for another seven episodes that season, and renewed for next year. In "The City That Bleeds," Bolander, Howard, and Felton are brutally shot while trying to serve a warrant on a suspected child killer. This leads to a four-part arc that features Steve Buscemi as (what else?) a creepy psychopath. Also look for cameos by Richard Belzer's wife Harlee McBride, Baltimore native John Waters, and Chris Noth in his role as Law and Order's Mike Logan, exchanging banter with Pembleton meant to highlight the two shows' friendly rivalry.
Indeed, on the subject of famous faces, look for Bruno Kirby in the season finale, "The Gas Man," in a fine turn as a loser who wants revenge on Pembleton for putting him in jail. The episode is directed by executive producer Barry Levinson himself, showing a deft hand at the sort of blue-collar black comedy he used to excel at in the days before dogs like Sphere and Disclosure.
Levinson was not the only name from the world of cinema that turned up behind the camera on Homicide. Thriller directors like Peter Medak (The Ruling Class, The Krays), Tim Hunter (River's Edge), and John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) were regular contributors. Writers like novelist Jane Smiley (a former student of Henry Bromell) helped out on scripts. And it comes full circle: series star Clark Johnson recently added a gritty, Homicide-like touch as director of the summer action film S.W.A.T.
So clearly Homicide: Life on the Street has the right pedigree, and it backs that up episode after episode. Unfortunately, for a boxed set of such a respected show, A&E does not do much with the extras here. Daniel Baldwin narrates a 14-minute featurette on the third season, focusing mostly on how producers Henry Bromell and Tom Fontana tried to maintain the show's stylistic integrity while bringing in enough viewers to ensure NBC would keep Homicide on the schedule. Crew members (no cast members though) candidly admit that NBC's promotion sucked and discuss major story points through the season, even expressing a little lingering anger over Jon Polito's departure. The only other major supplement is a commentary track on "The Gas Man" from Barry Levinson (who stepped in to direct what many thought would be the series finale) and Henry Bromell. Their comments are interesting, but intermittent and thin on real insight. They say nothing about the regular cast or the series in general. Come to think of it, where is the cast? Why not get Richard Belzer to do a commentary track? After all, he can talk for hours about nearly anything, probably comes at a reasonable price, and he still plays John Munch for producer Dick Wolf over at one of the growing army of Law and Order spin-offs.
Season Three would see Homicide at its creative peak. The stalwart Ned Beatty and the increasingly weary Daniel Baldwin would depart shortly, beginning a wave of defections -- and in some cases outright firings -- from which the series never quite recovered. Emmy grandstanding became more noticeable, as did ploys to gain ratings, as the show would begin to feature fewer stories about ordinary people and more showy "red-ball" cases.
Nevertheless, Homicide: Life on the Street, at least for its first three seasons, was -- and still is -- the one of the most realistic and influential police procedurals in the history of dramatic television. Its writing and direction is still cutting-edge, nearly a decade later. Its performances are consistently marvelous. If it were on today, it would simply bypass network television and go straight to some cable network still willing to take chances. But since all we have now are these A&E DVD sets, relish them and see what all the network police procedurals made since Homicide have been imitating all these years.
NBC is arraigned on charges of neglecting a fine series. Frank Pembleton is instructed to begin a thorough investigation as to why this show was not a success, and he is given free reign to interrogate anyone involved in "The Box," until we get some answers.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 960 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on "The Gas Man" by Barry Levinson and Henry Bromell
* "Homicide: Life in Season Three" Featurette
* Essay on "The Board"
* Cast and Crew Biographies
* Songs Credits
* Homicide Fan Page