A&E // 1995 // 1700 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // May 18th, 2004
"You don't have to get it. You'll sleep better if you don't know. Give me the where, the what, the when, the how. Why is a thing we can live without. You think you can do that? Homicide is the elite of the police force. There is no higher calling." -- Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto)
Welcome back to Baltimore. Just watch out for the arsonists and thrill killers and drug dealers and crazy old ladies and...
On second thought, you are much better off watching Baltimore on television.
What a difference a year makes. In its first three abbreviated seasons, the critical darling of police procedurals, Homicide: Life on the Streets skated on thin ice with NBC brass, much like imposing Lieutenant Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) often risked reprimand from his own bureaucratic superiors in the Baltimore police department. Network executives loved the good press, but hated the show's iffy ratings and frustrating insistence on documentary techniques and complicated continuing storylines. And so the word came down: make the show more audience friendly, or risk cancellation.
So for producers Henry Bromwell, Tom Fontana, and Barry Levinson, housecleaning was in order. First, drop Ned Beatty and Daniel Baldwin from the show with an in-joke: their characters get suspended without pay for 22 weeks (a television season, conveniently) for bad behavior. Bring in someone pretty: arson investigator Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) in a two-part "red ball" case involving a pair of deadly warehouse fires. "There's no absolutes in life, only in vodka," he quips early on, strutting around like, well, a Baldwin brother replacement.
Next step: give the women more to do. Demote Captain Megan Russet (Isabella Hofmann) back down to squad detective so you can get her out on cases with the rest of the cast, and promote overachiever Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) to sergeant so she can boss people around. Add some comedy relief to the mix, in the form of semi-regular unit videographer J.H. Brodie (Max Perlich). Occasional use of his documentary camera can also help sell network execs on the necessity of the show's vérité visual style.
Most importantly, cut out the continuing storylines and multi-episode cases, keeping things simple for the audience. One major case per episode, maybe with a more comical b-plot alongside, and be sure to wrap things up after your allotted 46 minutes.
Some things did not change on Homicide for that crucial fourth season. John Munch (Richard Belzer) still griped about conspiracies around him. Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) still whined and had bad luck. Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) still waxed philosophical about human nature. And Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) -- well, Frank was too stubborn, too sure of his perfection, to ever change.
Season Four of Homicide: Life on the Streets has its high points. In "Full Moon," Kellerman and Lewis spend the night stuck with the denizens of a seedy motel in a tale driven by characters and conversation rather than plot mechanics. Lily Tomlin turns up in "The Hat" as a woman who kills her philandering husband, carted around by Kellerman and Lewis. Why do those two get all the "funny" cases this season? Bayliss struggles with his memories of the Adena Watson murder from Season One when a copycat crime (look for Chris Rock in a cameo here) reminds him of his most painful failure. In "Stakeout," the ensemble take turns sitting in a suburban house, waiting for a mass murderer next door to come home, which kvetching about their problems to whomever will listen.
All these stories are classic Homicide, driven by the characters and not by the need to solve a case. Indeed, sometimes the case ended up a "stone-cold whodunit," and not even solved satisfactorily by the end. But in an effort to drum up ratings, Season Four also relies too much on "red balls," that is, high-profile cases with gunplay and dramatic fireworks. Over the course of its seven seasons, Homicide was always at its best as a series when it treated its version of Baltimore's "murder police" more or less like real cops. Most police work is pretty ordinary stuff, even for homicide detectives. Few cases are as convoluted as mystery novels or television detective shows make them out to be. Homicide thrived on the fascinating interplay of its ensemble cast in between the details of the investigation.
But in the fourth season, the show began to rely a bit less on character interaction and more on driving the plot forward. More two-part ratings-grabbers appeared. In "Fire," the squad deals with a serial arsonist. In "Sniper," there are actually two snipers preying on Baltimore residents. In "Justice," Bruce Campbell plays the son of a murdered cop who seeks revenge when the killer is acquitted by jury apathy. Homicide staged its first crossover with Dick Wolf's juggernaut Law and Order, as this boxed set features the second episode of a split story, "For God and Country." In a tale inspired by both the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attack and the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, future Law and Order regular J.K. Simmons plays a racist killer sought by both our heroes from Baltimore and the NYPD's Briscoe and Curtis.
All of these two-parters, as well as weakly written episodes like "Thrill of the Kill" (a serial killer races to Baltimore and a cheesy b-movie twist ending) and "Heartbeat" (a Poe fetishist walls up his victim) make it clear that the writing team on the show were having a hard time filling out a full season with material as strong as appeared in the first three shorter seasons. Still, strong guest stars (some of whom are mentioned above) and skillful direction by a host of feature film helmers (Peter Medak, John McNaughton, Michael Radford) and actors trying out the camera (Peter Weller, Bruno Kirby, Kathy Bates) keep the series on track for the most part. And surprisingly, Homicide only cut back slightly on its use of vérité techniques for this season, still using plenty of handheld cameras and even judicious jumpcuts.
On a brief overview of Season Four offered on the final disc of this six-disc set, series producers, joined by writers David Simon (who wrote the original book the series was based on) and James Yoshimura, are coy about their difficulties in transitioning the series from cult favorite to steady ratings performer. I sense a little lingering resentment here, as Tom Fontana notes that some of the actors did not leave on amicable terms over the course of the series, while Henry Bromwell, who left at the end of Season Four, hints that since Homicide was really about talk and not crime, the red balls and Law and Order crossovers did not sit well with him. The only commentary track this time out is oddly for "The Hat," a decent enough episode, but not one offering a good opportunity to reflect on the changes in the characters as the show progressed. Still, Clark Johnson and episode writer Anya Epstein do seem to have fun chatting.
The last two episodes of Season Four would mark the direction Homicide planned to go in its effort to endear itself to the tastes of an audience who thought NYPD Blue was how television cops should act. "Scene of the Crime" features an appearance by a cowardly beat cop named Gharty (Peter Gerety), who would later inexplicably join the homicide squad in Season Six. Making this clown a homicide detective was one of the reasons why I could not abide the last couple of seasons of the show. Ironically, his behavior in this episode is investigated by Russert, in her last major act on the series before leaving (and with what they did to her character this season, demoting her unjustly and all, can you blame her?).
But it is Frank Pembleton's stroke in the season finale, "Work Related," that radically changed the tenor of the series. Not to denigrate the seriousness of Frank's plight (I recall my own anxiety when my best friend suffered a sudden stroke a few years ago) or Andre Braugher's fine performance (and indeed, Braugher requested the change in his character to allow him something fresh to do). But without the intense Pembleton working his magic in "The Box," the show lost its white-hot center. Braugher would spend the next season pretty much focused on impressing Emmy voters -- nothing plays to awards voters like a disability. Of course, he would not win until Season Six. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast got mired in silly subplots, and red ball cases became routine business. And Homicide would begin its inexorable slide.
While the first three seasons of Homicide: Life on the Streets reinvented the police procedural on television, Season Four rode comfortably on what was already established without feeling the need to break any radical new ground. Of course, the performances by the entire ensemble cast continue to be as strong as ever, particular from Andre Braugher and Yaphet Kotto, and the new cast members manage to pull their own weight. A&E should have included more supplementary material showcasing the wonderful cast, but as it is, Season Four of Homicide: Life on the Streets still holds up after nearly a decade. Rewatching these, many for the first time since their initial run, I was surprised at how well I remembered the details, the conversations, the wonderfully small character-driven moments. Most of Homicide's competitors may have survived longer on the air, but does anyone remember an episode of any of them so well years later? That is the sign of good television.
Baltimore's murder police are ordered to work double-shifts until they discover who is responsible for the slow poisoning of one of the best cop shows ever to hit television. A&E and NBC are ordered to compensate the public with more thorough supplements on future boxed sets of the show.
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: 1700 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on "The Hat" by Clark Johnson and Anya Epstein
* "Homicide: Life in Season 4" Featurette
* Cast and Crew Biographies
* Songs Credits
* Homicide Fan Page