Homicide: Life On The Street

cast: Kyle Secor, Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto, Clark Johnson, Richard Belzer

producers: Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson

960 minutes (15) 1994
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart

Homicide is the police series that time forgot and every single one of its successors owes a debt of gratitude to. Based on David Simon’s seminal book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets Of Baltimore it followed a single Baltimore homicide unit, exploring the effect that dealing with the worst excesses of human life had on the police officers with a great deal of black humour and occasional moments of startling, wide-eyed horror.

With its roaming camera, grainy film stock and horribly flawed characters, Homicide was one of the most stylish shows of its time and The Shield and, more directly, The Wire, take a great many of their style plays from it. Even its characters have proved unusually long-lived, with Richard Belzer’s magnificently morose Detective John Munch appearing in a staggering eight TV series and currently a series regular on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

However, what Homicide really communicated, far more than its rival NYPD Blue, was the sheer banal normality of murder. Crimes were carried out for ridiculous, trivial reasons, lives ended on a whim and sometimes the murderer wasn’t brought to justice. Kyle Secor’s rookie detective Tim Baylis would find this out to his cost, haunted throughout his career by the murder of a teenaged girl and his agonising failure to bring her killer to justice. This wasn’t a world of blue knights who always got their man, but rather one inhabited by flawed, tired police officers that found it increasingly difficult to understand the world around them. It’s a show whose humour is always cut with tragedy and despite the phenomenal scripting and acting, it consistently struggled to find its feet, eventually coming to a close in its seventh year.

The second season arguably sees the show at its best. This is the year where the characters really began to gel, and some of the show’s best episodes revolve around little more than the detectives themselves. Crosetti in particular is one of the show’s finest hours, opening with the discovery of a body in the bay and closing with a scene that has the emotional impact of a sledgehammer. This continues through the next couple of episodes as characters adjust to the new status quo and Clark Johnson’s Meldrick Lewis in particular must find a way to continue with his life.

The detectives get even more to deal with in the three-part story that begins with The City That Bleeds. A routine investigation puts three of them in the hospital and the others find themselves, again, forced to contend with their own mortality. This unflinchingly dark storyline is cut with much needed humour from Lewis, Baylis and Munch’s plans to purchase a bar and Yaphet Kotto’s splendidly deadpan Al Giardello, a wilfully flamboyant, theatrical shift commander whose fierce loyalty to his detectives is matched only by his rage when they let him down. Kotto is an almost Shakespearean patriarch in this, a figure whose gravity is so vast everyone else orbits him. He even gets an episode largely to himself in The Old And The Dead and absolutely excels.

What really makes Homicide shine, however, is the acting. Kotto is impressive but he’s far from alone, with Secor’s passionate Baylis, Belzer’s splendidly laconic Munch, and Johnson’s amiably intimidating Lewis all highly memorable characters. However, Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton owns the series in its entirety. Fiercely intelligent, utterly uncompromising and completely uninterested in social relations of any kind, Pembleton is a pit-bull of a character, a man who is fascinating because he’s so unreliable. His best work would come in later seasons but here he’s on top form, especially in Colours. Guest starring David Morse as Baylis’ cousin, the episode follows the investigation into his murder of a Turkish exchange student and the effect it has on Baylis’ family and his relationship with Pembleton. Helped by a terrific performance from Morse, the episode is amongst the smartest dissections of race relations you’re ever likely to see and crackles with tension, in particular during the scenes where Pembleton is interrogating Morse. There are no easy answers, no clear-cut bad guys and the end result is a story that is both oddly hopeful and desperately sad.

Homicide remains one of the smartest pieces of TV drama ever produced. It caught lightning in a bottle, adapting a superb book and using some of the best actors working to fill out its cast. Endlessly intelligent, desperately sad and often extremely funny it was too good for the market of the day and was overshadowed by lesser but more accessible shows. In short, Homicide is the perfect show to discover on DVD.