Our judges don't mess around in homicide cases. Judge David Gutierrez gets right to the point: This show is the epitome of television.
Our reviews of Homicide: Life On The Street: The Complete Seasons 1 And 2 (published August 4th, 2003), Homicide: Life On The Street: The Complete Third Season (published January 9th, 2004), Homicide: Life On The Street: The Complete Fourth Season (published May 18th, 2004), Homicide: Life On The Street: The Complete Sixth Season (published March 2nd, 2005), and Homicide: Life On The Street: The Complete Seventh Season (published July 13th, 2005) are also available.
"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.
Facts of the Case
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"
•"Hostage Part 2"
•"M.E., Myself and I"
•"Heart of a Saturday Night"
•"The True Test"
•"Have a Conscience"
•"Wu's On First"
•"Partners and Other Strangers—Part 1"
•"Partners and Other Strangers—Part 2"
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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track on the "The Documentary"
Review content copyright © 2004 David Gutierrez; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.