Test Pilot #41: Homicide: Life on the Street
Debut date: January 31, 1993
Series legacy: One of the most well-respected series of all-time, but still, somehow, undervalued
Hey there, party people. Welcome back to the internet’s most popular discussion* of television pilots, Test Pilot. We’re still early into our contemporary police drama theme. Before you groan or immediately think of David Caruso-delivered puns, I think it’s important to point out that not all “cop shows” are generic, lowest-common-denominator fare. The police procedural is one of, if not the, most dominant scripted format in the television industry. We like to think of the “cop show” with very specific terminology and iconography in mind, but countless series have attempted to mix up the general framework of the police drama. My hope is that this theme will explore five series that personify the innovative and complex ways to approach a cop show, especially in the contemporary era of television that is so-defined by basic procedurals (mostly on CBS).
Today, we move forward with our exploration of the police drama with a series that actually debuted before NYPD Blue and regularly had trouble stepping outside Blue’s sexy and dangerous shadow: Homicide: Life on the Street.
Joining me today is Eric Van Uffelen. Eric studied cinema when film production classes were unavailable, and so finds himself writing amateur movie and TV reviews when he has the time, after his completely unrelated but rewarding day job. You can view his stuff at http://51percentkidding.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter. Eric, give the people what they want.
Thank you, Cory. When you wrote in the introduction to this theme in the NYPD Blue piece, of “so much promise and wide-eyed hope” that a beginning holds, I wondered if you had recently watched the Homicide pilot. Because when new detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) enters the Baltimore homicide division squad room, fresh off a two-year detail with the mayor’s security team, he embodies this sentiment, despite the grim realities that he thinks he’s ready for. Here he is talking to Lieutenant Al “Gee” Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) about how “This is where I’ve always wanted to be, you know what I’m saying, homicide? Thinking cops. Not a gun, this.”
However, Bayliss’s introduction to us, as audience surrogate / exposition device (which is rather subtle and underplayed, considering), isn’t how the series actually starts. It opens in a back alley at night, with detectives Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) looking for a shell casing. They’re alone, literally kicking through trash, with Lewis complaining, “If I could just find this damn thing I could go home.” They then come out into the wider crime scene, with uniform cops, ambo, nosy neighbors, and the murder victim. Crosetti observes of the work and the mystery before them: “that’s the problem with this job – it’s got nothing to do with life.” Then the victim’s name gets written in dry-erase red marker on a white board, and the credits begin. Let’s keep this opening, including Bayliss’s introduction, in mind – in red, pending – because I’ll come back to it.
Homicide: Life on the Street premiered on NBC after the 1993 Super Bowl. Its first season of nine episodes had already been off the air for six months when NYPD Blue came on the scene and dominated the water-cooler talk for procedurals. The second season of Homicide was ridiculously short – only four episodes, all airing in January 1994 – and probably did not gain many viewers. Season three, premiering in October of that year, finally got a full run of episodes, and the series went on for seven total seasons as well as a TV movie. But the series was mishandled by NBC throughout its run: all seasons but the fifth had episodes aired out of order, which led to egregious continuity errors; a character was killed off because he wasn’t “sexy”; it wasn’t promoted well and was regularly trounced in its Friday death-slot by CBS’s Nash Bridges (where are the criticism pieces on that?). Yet the series had a healthy critical respect at the time. The pilot won executive producer Barry Levinson an Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series, and the series won three Peabody Awards. It seems to me, however, that these days the show’s legacy is often relegated to “what David Simon did before The Wire.” In watching Homicide again, I can tell you this is unfair, not only because the series has a plethora of its own merits, but because The Wire employed many aspects strikingly similar to ones already captured in Homicide (such as scenes lifted wholesale from Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, filmic techniques, and the basis of certain characters and even their arcs), but less effectively. No, really – and I recognize, as is required by most TV fanatics, that The Wire is The Greatest Show Ever. It’s just that Homicide beat The Wire to a lot of punches, and it had better character dynamics, and it has the benefit of being a formative influence on my tastes and expectations in television.
When Homicide premiered, I was a junior in high school. I don’t think I really knew of the show until midway through season four, when it aired its first crossover two-parter with Law & Order [Classic Formula] in February 1996. I then came on board with fervor, because Homicide was certainly unlike my at-that-time go-to procedural L & O (which was reflected smartly in the clash between the series’ leads during this first of three crossover events). As I recall, I managed to mostly catch up with the show in syndication, on Lifetime of all places. By the time Andre Braugher finally won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1998, for his last season as Detective Frank Pembleton, I was a diehard fan of the show, and Braugher was my favorite actor – in TV or film. As much as Secor’s Bayliss was meant to be the audience’s empathetic hero in Homicide, Braugher’s Pembleton was the electric powerhouse that hooked me.
Pembleton is smartly built up in the pilot: an entire table of detectives at lunch (eating crab, naturally) talk about him before he’s ever seen, creating a low-level mythos so that when we first meet him – midway through the episode, in a discussion with Gee about clearance rates and partners (he likes to work alone, remember) – we can believe his bravado and confidence. This is quickly and comically subverted when he’s paired up with Detective Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) and he can’t find their car in the police lot. Felton of course gives him grief. Despite Pembleton’s at first subtle anticipation of racism (saying of the cars he’s methodically trying: “you know how it is, they all look alike”), and then outright baiting Felton with the presumption of “I don’t like being in the basement with that nigger,” Felton tries to explain that it’s more about ego and expectations.
This handling of racial tensions (including parts of the opening scene with Lewis and Crosetti) is just one thing that the series handled with finesse. What is most striking to me about the pilot is the way in which the audience is essentially thrown in – the exposition is handled exceptionally well. Bayliss does not even briefly learn about his new co-workers and fellow detectives, though there is a brief tour from Gee: The Box (the interrogation room); The Fishbowl (the on-deck circle for suspects); The Board (where all the recent cases, open [red] or closed [black], get put up under the respective detective’s name). Gee also informs Bayliss/us how the division uses the primary system: each case has one primary detective and one secondary. Most of the rest of the pilot is four different cases, that four different pairs of detectives work on. That’s a lot of storylines and characters for any episode of TV, let alone a procedural, let alone a pilot. The eight detectives also include partners John Munch (Richard Belzer) and Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty), as well as Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), who partners with Felton. (Leo was the sole female regular for a while, but by the end of the series there were multiple female detectives, and an even more ethnically diverse cast.) Everything we need to start is there. Aside from the cases and characters, there’s a distinct sense of place, since it was shot on-location in Baltimore, and the crime scenes, detective ride-alongs, and restaurant/bars help establish the world. There’s a feel of the look (shot on 16mm) and rhythm (a few instances of the series-constant three quick jump cuts are used for emphatic moments) that the show would maintain.
The focal point of the episode is Pembleton’s interrogation of a suspect, Johnny (Alexander Chaplin), in a strangling case that Pembleton, Bayliss, Howard, and Felton all drove out to, so that the new guy could see his first dead body. Bayliss becomes Pembleton’s de-facto partner, per his offer to Howard and Felton, “leave this rookie with me.” Nothing that I have written or could write can put across just how remarkable Braugher is, particularly in this scene in The Box. It’s his shining moment in the pilot. When Bayliss and Pembleton observe the suspect behind their two-way mirror, Bayliss says that he wants to sit in on the interrogation. Pembleton responds, smoothly, “Then what you will be privileged to witness will not be an interrogation, but an act of salesmanship: as silver-tongued and thieving as ever moved used cars, Florida swampland, or bibles. But what I am selling is a long prison term, to a client that has no genuine use for the product.” They enter and Pembleton introduces Bayliss to the suspect, nonchalantly dropping that Bayliss lives “next to the gas chamber.” Pembleton methodically has Johnny sign his rights away, and Bayliss is dumbfounded that it worked like that.
Pembleton gets his suspect to say what he wants him to say, interrupting him when need be, and never allowing him to properly ask for a lawyer. Look at Braugher’s face here, as Pembleton listens calmly, openly, sympathetically to Johnny’s story:
Hearing enough, Pembleton tires of toying with his prey and goes on the offensive. This happens in a moment – only a few seconds pass between the previous screencap and this:
“Johnny Johnny Johnny Johnny – Berger was strangled, huh?” Pembleton lays out the scenario for him. “You did a man’s crime, son, now act like a man.” Johnny cries and the confession is won, if coerced. Not only does Pembleton completely school Bayliss in how to break someone down, but when Bayliss confronts him out in the squad room (he’s at least smart enough to wait until then) about the suspect wanting a lawyer but being “tricked,” Pembleton lays out how the criminal trial might go down, because he’s experienced it enough times, and then when Bayliss naively pesters him with “what an innocent man would do with the same chance?” Pembleton goes off in one fluid moment: “What is that, what is that, what is that? Is that a line from your textbook, rookie? Stay out of my face!” Here the distinct staccato rhythm of the three quick jump cuts is expertly deployed in one uncut moment.
Beyond all I might rave about acting / character work, direction, editing, etc., the show’s strong suit is the actual police work itself – it doesn’t shy away from portraying how banal and dreary the work can be of solving murders. In a moment just before the end of the pilot, Munch, Lewis, and Crosetti commiserate about their work in Bodymore, Murderland: “It’s really getting to me, I wake up in the morning, I’m lying in bed, and I’m checking my own body to see if there’s a chalk outline […] Last year we had 325 cases, we solved three quarters […] it’s like mowing the lawn.” “It’s homicide, the one thing this country’s still good at.” When I watched the series while it was on the air, I never had a strong sense of “this will be wrapped up in 40-something minutes” that I did with other TV shows, especially procedurals. Homicide did not ultimately have the scope of The Wire (nor, despite Simon’s recent grumblings about ratings and fandom, the support of a premium cable network or an Internet community that could spread word-of-mouth) – any comments it made on the systemic problems of Baltimore were mainly through character moments – but that was not its intent, and it was still ambitious and daring. There were multiple-episode case storylines, strong character work (including villains), political machinations, domestic troubles of the detectives, and a revolving door of characters. Some cases were played for macabre comedy, some for aggravation at injustice and fatal randomness, and some for haunting, disturbing tragedy. It’s this last that we’re left with at the end of the pilot, when Howard prompts Bayliss to pick up the ringing phone and take his first case as primary. Even years later, watching this piece of fiction that I’d seen many times before, I still found myself saying “don’t pick up that phone, Tim.” But he does, and now it is raining, and Bayliss pushes his way through the neighbors and first responders, and there is a little girl in an alley, and it is a homicide.
This case, the murder of Adena Watson, would haunt Bayliss throughout the series. It worked to establish not only his character but also the methods of homicide detective work and the struggles of the job. Unlike his fictional contemporary from ER, Noah Wyle’s equally new and sympathetic John Carter, Bayliss never disappeared from the show, and so Homicide was able to build a clear arc for him, showing how the work changed him over the years. The series finale, in May 1999, focused on Bayliss, as he reflects on his start in the homicide division and all of the difficulties he’s faced (which were significant, but I won’t spoil them), as well as the current challenges. There are direct callbacks to the pilot through dialogue and imagery. Now to come back to that opening scene – what follows is a slight spoiler (no plot points are mentioned), but I think in calling for someone who’s seen the whole series for this entry in Test Pilot, this is something I couldn’t leave out: in the last scene of the series finale, we again find Detective Lewis, in an alley at night, looking for a shell casing. He remarks to his new partner, Rene Shepard (Michael Michele) “If I could just find this thing, I could go home.” She offers, “Life is a mystery, just accept it.” Then Lewis, echoing the words of his old partner, declares “Yeah well that’s wrong with this job – it ain’t got nothing to do with life.”
When this aired, I was just about to turn 23, and I still had my collection of VHS tapes that I had recorded from the syndicated airings, but I didn’t need to review the first one. I remembered the significance of the dialogue and imagery, but I knew that this wasn’t a cyclical return – a neat little bow tied on a complicated series lasting 122 episodes – it was a comment on the continuum of death, of the unglamorous, never-ending work that goes into seeking justice for those who can’t speak for themselves.
And now, my thoughts on the Homicide pilot, which will be less about the actual nitty-gritty details of the episode since Eric did such a wonderful job of exploring them:
When I was younger, and knew very little about television (or the world), I thought Law & Order was the best television series that could have ever existed. This is mostly because my parents loved Law & Order and watching the series, even in its early years, was something of a family ritual. As you do, I grew comfortable with the narrative and character conventions of L & O, which were easily consumable even for someone at my young age. Then, at some point, I found my dad watching an episode of Homicide. I still remember bits of the episode (Pembleton interrogating the hell out of someone, most notably), and I definitely remember how surprised as was to find that there was something else out there, a television series about cops interested more than just the boiler-plate formula. Clearly, at like seven years old, I didn’t know exactly what made Homicide “different” than Law & Order. I just…knew.
Although I never really got hooked on Homicide after that moment (again, I could barely do multiplication at this time, let alone stay invested in a grimy story about rough detectives), that single feeling has always stuck with me, and made me want to get hooked on the series. After watching the pilot episode, “Gone For Goode,” I’m happy to report that seven year-old me wasn’t as big of an idiot as I thought. This opening episode is a complicated, but not confusing. It has an edge to it, but it certainly isn’t trying too hard to be “dark.” The cases and the procedures matter, but the script gives the characters moments to shine amid those more traditionally appealing portions of the episode. “Gone For Goode” is, simply, a fine introduction to a group of characters, a world, and perhaps most importantly, a worldview.
Police dramas often attempt to explore the continuum of experiences and responses to the job by stuffing the cast with types: the new guy, the wily veteran, the borderline crazy one, etc. What I like about the beginning of Homicide is that the characters quickly exist in more complex spaces. As Eric astutely mentioned, the police work is both important to the series and to the characters themselves, but there’s also a sense that it’s wearing on some of the vets, and not just in a “I’m getting too old for this shit” Hollywood-like way. The Wire gets lots of credit for portraying a “realistic” portrayal of how detectives interact with not only one another, but criminals and crime scenes, but that’s certainly very present in the first episode of Homicide as well (and leads me to believe that Eric’s pro-Homicide agenda isn’t entirely insane).
What I found so impressive about this pilot (and the other, later episodes of Homicide I’ve randomly seen over the years) is how well Paul Attanasio’s script balances the procedure and the character. I love Hill Street Blues, but I would argue that the series’ first season (the only one I’ve seen) works so well because it steps away from the procedure so it can tell intriguing character stories. The procedure is certainly less important. Even NYPD Blue is more character-focused, at least in the pilot. And on the other end, we have the procedure-obsessed L & O. But of all those, Homicide manages both ingredients of the police drama the best. The job matters, but the pilot creates situations where we learn about the people as they do the job. That doesn’t always work, but it does here.
There are obvious strengths here, most of which Eric pointed out and I don’t need to go over in much detail. The performances are very, very strong. Andre Braugher is clearly the stand-out worker, but I also really enjoy Clark Johnson and Melissa Leo’s performances as well. Across the board, Homicide feels like a world full of real people, doing real jobs. Barry Levinson’s direction is another integral element of this opening episode. The on-location shooting certainly helped matters, especially considering said shooting took place in Levinson’s hometown, but I loved how the director established a very specific world, both inside the precinct and out and about in Baltimore. Both Law & Order and NYPD Blue work wonders with New York City, but I have to admit, I’m more partial to the working-class stylings of Baltimore. And finally, although not as apparent as it was in the NYPD Blue pilot, the editing here is quite strong and purposefully used.
It makes sense to me why NYPD Blue was more popular with mainstream audiences: It is flashier, louder, more overtly stylish and in-your-face-shocking. By just looking at the pilots, you can tell that Blue and Homicide are two different series interested in telling somewhat similar stories from different perspectives. Whereas Blue presents us with a dramatic representation of the impact detective work can have on someone (such as Sipowicz’s drinking and whores problem), Homicide is more concerned with the smaller ways in which the job takes over the life of a detective.
What is curious to me about Homicide is its place in history. I know that I mentioned that to a younger member of the online television criticism field, NYPD Blue feels left out, but that sentiment only applies more with Homicide. It would be hyperbolic and misguided to say that a series that was showered with Peabodies, Emmys and TCAs has been forgotten by history. However, the series definitely fell through the cracks when it was on the air and has arguably continued to do so, even amid an era of Netflix queues, DVD collections and Classic Rewatches. I have to imagine that a number of folks have turned to Homicide once their Wire fixes were satiated, but as Eric suggested, the comparisons between the two often give the upper-hand to David Simon’s newer (and some would say purer) vision of crime in Baltimore.
Moreover, if we look at the contemporary television landscape, there isn’t much of Homicide to be seen. Clearly, Law & Order’s influence shines brightly on today’s police dramas, especially on the broadcast networks, but I would argue that certain stylistic conventions (most notably the editing and sound) from NYPD Blue are still kicking around on current television. If we trace the trajectory of the police drama over the last 30 years, we tend to focus on Hill Street Blues, Law & Order and then CSI:/NCIS. And in many ways, we’ve learned to split the genre into two specific forms: the character-focused series like Hill Street Blues or to use something more contemporary The Shield, or the procedure-focused series like L & O and CSI:. Unfortunately, Homicide just happens to fall directly in the middle of those two poles, which is often a recipe for lukewarm mainstream reaction (not to belittle “typical” viewers).
No police drama I’ve watched has nailed the balance between procedure and character like Homicide,* and I’m wondering if audiences are just primed to expect a whole lot of one or the other, or at least expect that the stream of “character detail” be given in specific contexts amid the typical rhythms of procedure (special episodes, finales, etc.) or “plot” to happen around tons of character development, depending on what version of the contemporary police drama we’re discussing. By falling outside of those obvious boxes, Homicide doesn’t have much of a tangible legacy to stand entirely on its own (again, the connection The Wire is important, but that series typically supersedes everything else when discussed).
*The one current series that comes close to striking this balance is TNT’s Southland, which has a really strong core of characters. But even there, the focus has become less on the actual *doing* of the police work and more on just watching it unfold. I guess perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Southland struggled to find an audience and has almost been canceled a few times now.
Conclusions on legacy: Even more overlooked than NYPD Blue, and perhaps just as worthy of the praise that David Simon’s other baby receives