A&E // 1993 // 650 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // August 4th, 2003
"Crime makes you stupid."
"Can I quote you on that?"
Homicide: Life on the Street originated as a book by Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon. His book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets chronicled a year spent in the squad room and on the job with a squad of Baltimore PD homicide detectives. Director Barry Levinson and writer Paul Attanasio brought the book to life in a fictionalized but not entirely fictional setting.
Benefiting from ground that had been broken in the 1980s by Hill Street Blues, Homicide featured ongoing serial storylines, a device that had previously been relegated primarily to soap operas, at least on American television. Levinson and Attanasio, as the creators of the show, were adamant that it have a deliberately unpolished, unglamorous look that would reflect the real lives of the detectives it portrayed. Shooting the entire series on location in Baltimore was an essential part of this rough, gritty feel. The decision to shoot with Super 16 cameras, rather than conventional, cleaner-looking 35mm, was another. Not only did this give the show a grainier, muted look but it also made possible a lot of hand-held shooting, another element that led to a lifelike feel. Another signature of the series is its unconventional editing, with jump cuts, repeat cuts, unusual camera angles, and a frequent disregard of seemingly codified Hollywood continuity rules.
When Homicide debuted in 1993, it was a police drama like no other. There were no car chases, gunfights, or explosions. It did not take place in a sunny paradise, a la Miami Vice, or even the familiar streets of New York or even Chicago. Instead, there was a dedicated if somewhat quirky group of homicide detectives, working out of a run-down precinct house in Baltimore.
The premise behind Homicide: Life on the Street is simple. It follows the life of Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto, Alien, Brubaker) and his motley squad room of homicide detectives. The detectives all seem familiar; this is partially because they represent broad types, but also because these characters seem like people that one can imagine meeting in real life. We might not always catch their names, but we can recognize their individual characteristics immediately. There is Bolander (Ned Beatty, Deliverance), the recently-divorced, insecure middle-aged white guy. His partner is the cynical, edgy John Munch (Richard Belzer, Law and Order: SVU). Crosetti (John Polito, The Man Who Wasn't There) is the short, bald, somewhat rotund Italian detective who is always hatching wild conspiracy theories about the Lincoln assassination; his partner, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson, Iron Eagle II) remains cool and collected, even when he has to listen to Crosetti's theorizing. Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin, John Carpenter's Vampires) is a native Baltimore boy with a blue-collar background, a man who refuses to wear ties in spite of the departmental dress code. Felton's partner is Kay Howard (Melissa Leo, The Young Riders), the only woman in Homicide. Rounding out the squad is Andre Braugher (Gideon's Crossing) as Frank Pembleton, an upscale, yuppie-ish cop endowed with massive intelligence and an ego to match. Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor, Endsville) is the rookie, a guy too young to be working homicide and a recent transfer from the mayor's security detail. He doesn't even get a desk until he is in the heat of his first major case.
Hovering behind all of these hard-working cops is "the board," listing their names and the names of the homicide victims whose cases they are working. When a case comes in, the name goes up in red; when it is "cleared," the red changes to black. Everyone, except for Kay Howard, has a lot of red under their names.
Through their conduct on the job, their incidental conversations with their partners and colleagues, and the minor quirks of their characters viewers will come to know and even like these cops; I've only watched the first thirteen episodes, and they feel like old friends already.
Homicide: Life on the Street is simply a great show, and I am mystified that I never caught more than one or two episodes during the seven seasons it was on the air. The writing and direction are uniformly excellent. The entire ensemble cast is rock-solid. The entire show comes together so perfectly as to create an immersive sense of reality. The hand-held filming on grainy stock and rough editing give Homicide an almost documentary feel that few shows have ever matched. The stories are gripping and in some cases disturbing. Much of the time they have some basis in reality, as Fontana and Levinson mined Simon's book for every situation they could. Most important is the refusal to take the easy way out; the cases are not pretty and rarely simple, and the homicide detectives don't always get their man. The first case that Bayliss draws as a rookie, the Adena Watson case, is a good example. It's an ugly story: an eleven-year-old girl is found molested and murdered. Bayliss and Pembleton work the case across the first six episodes of the series, always on the verge of a momentous breakthrough that never comes. When they miss their last chance and the case goes cold, the audience feels the disappointment and tragedy as keenly as Detective Bayliss does.
With such an outstanding cast it is hard to single out any one performer or performance as more notable than the rest, but Yaphet Kotto deserves recognition for his role as Lt. Giardello. Giardello is enigmatic in many ways, but also has to provide leadership to this group of very strong-willed individuals. There is something about Kotto that is mesmerizing, something that makes him fascinating to watch, and this charisma lends an immense weight and authority to the character. The other outstanding performer is Andre Braugher. Pembleton is a bit of a prima donna and a loner, because he can be; he's that good at the job. Braugher understands this and pours just the right blend intelligence, arrogance, and intensity into his performance.
The caliber of guest stars on the show is outstanding as well. In the first two seasons the homicide unit was graced with appearances by Robin Williams, Julianna Margulies (E.R.), Steve Harris (later to rise to fame on ABC's The Practice), Edie Falco (The Sopranos) and Baltimore guerilla filmmaking legend John Waters. Williams in particular is hauntingly memorable in the episode "Bop Gun" as a naïve Midwesterner vacationing in Baltimore with his family when his wife is killed in front of him as part of a mugging gone bad.
Director Levinson and writer Tom Fontana recorded a commentary track for the pilot episode, "Gone for Goode." This is a very interesting track, and the pair give a good explanation of many of the things they tried to accomplish with the show. One of the key challenges the faced was the need to create energy through dialogue in the absence of all the usual cop show action scenes. They also discussed the decision to include a lot of dialogue and banter among the characters, conversations that don't always make a lot of sense in context of the plot but help to reveal character traits and idiosyncrasies. They knew they had to create a real world where the audience would accept that the characters had known each other and been working together for years. They also went on to discuss the difficulties they had with NBC in getting the show on the air and keeping it true to their vision.
The two brains behind the show cover much the same territory in an interview featurette -- narrated by Richard Belzer -- on Disc Two. The set also includes cast and crew bios, Super Bowl commercials for the series debut, and a song listing for all thirteen initial episodes. As an added plus, there is an episode of A&E's American Justice series dealing with homicide detectives.
Evaluating the audiovisual presentation on these episodes is a tricky thing. As noted earlier, it was intentionally shot it such a way as to make it look rough and unpolished. The DVD presentation seems to reproduce this look very faithfully. The picture looks grainy, colors are under saturated, and fine details just aren't there sometimes. In other words, it looks exactly like the series creators wanted it to look. I could not detect any flaws in the picture that were added by the DVD transfer process. Audio is presented in a Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix. Much like the Baltimore detectives in the show, it gets the job done adequately without much fanfare. Dialogue comes through cleanly, as do other background sounds. It is as understated as the video presentation, and is probably preferable to a pointless, manufactured 5.1 remix.
As a final note, the packaging that A&E has chosen for Homicide is quite nice. The episodes are split across four discs, each of which comes in its own slimline Nexpak keep case, with artwork made to look like a police case file folder. I for one am impressed with the new Nexpak cases; they appear to hold the discs securely, yet still provide for an easy release; more important, they look sharp and take up half the space of a conventional Alpha or Amaray case. Packaging is a fairly insignificant concern, and no one should base a purchasing decision based on the case style, but this at least deserves an honorable mention.
For such a rightly respected show, the relative lack of extras is a bit of a disappointment. A commentary track on one episode, an interview featurette that runs less than eleven minutes, cast bios, some commercials, and a song listing hardly seem an adequate exploration of such an excellent program. Sure, there's also the American Justice episode, but it is only tangentially related and really no different than the hours upon hours of true-crime programming one can watch in any given week on Discovery, A&E, Court TV, and the rest. It certainly doesn't provide any insight into Homicide: Life on the Street. How about a cast commentary on a few episodes? I'm sure Secor and Braugher would have a lot to say about "Three Men and Adena," the groundbreaking (and Emmy-winning) episode that takes place entirely within the confines of the interrogation "box." Belzer is certainly engaging and gregarious enough that he could fill a commentary track or two just by himself. A&E could have made something special of this DVD release, but it feels like they just threw something together to get it out the door and into the stores, and that is a pity.
With so much empty-headed fluff on American television these days, it is a rare pleasure to watch a show as good as Homicide: Life on the Street. It is clearly one of the best things to hit the airwaves in the past ten years.
Homicide: Life on the Street -- The Complete Seasons 1&2 and everyone involved in making it are acquitted and released with the thanks of the court. A&E is convicted of putting out a meager DVD package with much less supporting evidence than this fine series warrants.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 650 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Director Barry Levinson and Writer Tom Fontana on Pilot Episode "Gone for Goode"
* "Homicide: Life at the Start" -- Interview with Levinson and Fontana
* A&E's American Justice -- "To Catch a Killer: Homicide Detectives"
* Super Bowl XXVII Commercials for Season 1 Premiere
* Song Listing
* "The Board"