The Groundbreaking Brilliance of Homicide: Life on the Street

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Homicide-Credits

When Homicide: Life on the Street premiered in January 1993 after the Super Bowl, it leaped into a different world than the standard hour-long dramas. There were a few exceptions like Hill Street Blues that provided an inspiration, but Creators Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana were entering uncharted territory. The cast lacks the typical pretty faces and mirrors the balding and overweight guys you might expect to see as homicide detectives. This is a show about “thinking cops” who use their wits instead of muscle to catch the bad guys. Setting up a formula with no shootouts or car chases, Levinson and Fontana changed the game for cop shows and network dramas in general. While the dwindling ratings pushed the series towards cancellation many times, it actually survived for seven seasons. The viewership never matched those of a breakout hit like NYPD Blue, but its impact on the television landscape was a lot more significant. Dramas like The Wire and The Shield wouldn’t exist without Homicide. It ranks among my favorite TV shows and deserves renewed attention 20 years after its original premiere.

Our story begins with Baltimore journalist David Simon, who spent a year closely following that city’s homicide detectives. The result was the fascinating non-fiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets in 1991. This felt like the perfect source material for a series, but networks would certainly want a much-different tone than the morose atmosphere of Simon’s book. Amazingly, NBC took a chance and gave a major promotional push to a show that didn’t glamorize the detectives’ jobs. It received huge ratings after the Super Bowl, but they quickly dropped as mainstream viewers didn’t stick around. Even so, critics and audiences looking for something different raved about the nine-episode season. NBC messed around with the running order and made things more difficult, and that trend would continue in the future. The second season only received four episodes, and its future seemed dead in the water. Amazingly, the show returned for a third run with a complete 22 episodes, and that was the approach the rest of the way. The downside of this longevity was a change towards more action and prettier actors, but the original soul remained all the way to the end.

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Watching Homicide in the early seasons was a remarkable experience; it was appointment television because it looked so much different than everything else. First of all, it was shot in Baltimore in a time when most shows were produced in New York or L.A. By using the authentic locations of that city, it brings a realism that’s impossible to recreate on a sound stage. The department headquarters looks drab and spare, and that fits with the dour nature of their profession. These men and women see the worst parts of humanity every day and are paid very modestly for their efforts. Their work can decimate marriages and make it impossible to live a normal life. Simon captured those difficulties in his book, and it works even better in the visual medium. When NBC required the producers to make cast changes, they made the intriguing choice to remove a character by suicide. “Crosetti” is one of the most powerful hours and shows the depressing aspects of this work. This moment is referenced multiple times in future seasons, particularly when another detective contemplates a similar action in the harrowing “Have a Conscience”.

This material could easily become too difficult to watch, but it never falls into that trap. The main reason is the wonderful ensemble cast, who bring such unique approaches to each character. Our entry point is Kyle Secor’s Tim Bayless, a newcomer who’s transferred into the department. He begins the series with idealistic views about right and wrong but is slowly decimated by the job. The early culprit is the Adena Watson case, his first as a primary. She’s a young girl who’s brutally murdered, and he becomes obsessed with finding the killer. His partner is the brilliant and extremely arrogant Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), and their bond is one of the cornerstones of the series. Braugher commands the screen and has a style that contrasts sharply with Secor’s understated approach. One of the show’s pivotal episodes is “Three Men and Adena”, which takes place almost entirely in “The Box” while they interrogate a suspect in the Watson killing. The remarkably written script from Fontana reaches a crescendo of back-and-forth exchanges between Bayless, Pembleton, and Moses Gunn as the possible killer. This first-season episode is the perfect starting point into Homicide’s style and ranks among the best in its entire run.

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This is hardly a two-man show and includes excellent work from too many actors to mention. Richard Belzer’s John Munch is a steady comic presence throughout the show yet still fits in this world. He slides perfectly into the trickier material, starting with his “I am not Montell Williams!” rant in the pilot “Gone for Goode”. When his partner Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) and two other detectives are shot in the third season, Belzer plays Munch’s anger and thoughts of vengeance just right. Beatty is quite a find given his resistance to TV work prior to that point. Bolander is the grumpy yet lovable “big man” who brings such heart to the show. It’s too bad that Beatty grew tired of the network messiness and left after three seasons. Clark Johnson now makes his living behind the camera but has great screen presence as Meldrick Lewis. He’s such a distinctive character and balances the humor and drama as well as Belzer. NBC requested more sex appeal in the fourth season, and the result was the casting of Reed Diamond as Mike Kellerman. His start is a bit shaky, but he becomes a fascinating character. His involvement in the shooting of kingpin Luther Mahoney leads to one of the most intriguing storylines. Keeping everyone in line is Lieutenant Giardello, played with power and grace by Yaphet Kotto. When he takes charge and puts his foot down, even headstrong guys like Pembleton stop and listen.

Homicide does an excellent job with its female characters, particularly Melissa Leo as Kay Howard. She maintains a tough exterior and is a great detective with better clearance rates than all the guys. Long before she mastered overacting to get an Oscar, Leo reins in those tendencies and shows Howard’s frustrations at not getting equal respect. The show is also groundbreaking in its portrayal of African-Americans. Along with Kotto, Braugher, and Johnson, there are plenty of recurring characters that rarely fit into the standard formula. Giancarlo Esposito joins the cast as Giardello’s son in the final season and brings an interesting personal connection for that character. Few shows in this era of television give such great roles to African-Americans without forcing them into a certain mold. There is only one Frank Pembleton, and his middle-class Jesuit background differs sharply from Lewis’ history.

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Although it shares a general framework with today’s procedurals, Homicide differs because its characters are so damn distinctive. They’re likable even when they do the completely wrong thing, and the writers rarely let them down. Simon joined the show as a staff writer in the later seasons, and that experience certainly shaped his work creating The Wire. There are so many great episodes to recommend from the entire seven-year run. The first two seasons are nearly flawless, and even the slight dips are counteracted by stunning individual stories as the show moves forward. An episode like season six’s “The Subway” diverges considerably from the normal structure and ranks among the best entries. Pembleton spends most of it just talking with a guy trapped by a subway car who’s played by Vincent D’Onofrio. Other standout examples delve into Bayless’ dark past of abuse, specifically “Betrayal” in season five. All the main actors get a chance to expand their characters, and that keeps the show rolling. The seventh season loses some steam, but the finale and movie epilogue close the stories in just the right fashion. They show the persistence of the original vision and give it a well-deserved send-off. It remains the classic police drama and transcends its genre in the best way possible.

Ten Essential Homicide: Life on the Street Episodes
“Gone for Goode”
“Three Men and Adena”
“Bop Gun”
“Crosetti”
“The Gas Man”
“The Documentary”
“Deception”
“Subway”
“Fallen Heroes”
“Forgive Us Our Trespasses”

16 Comments
  1. Jeff Rona says

    Just found your article. Brilliant work. I was the composer for the series for the first few seasons. Barry Levinson gave me incredible latitude to try new things and it was truly some of the most experimental music for a tv series to that time. I was grateful for the experience of working with such a great group of artists.

    1. Dan Heaton says

      Jeff, thanks so much for the comment. The music is such an essential part of the show, especially in the first two seasons. Excellent job helping to make Homicide the great show that it was in a much different TV era.

  2. Chris says

    And, Dan….the board…THE BOARD!..Just a stunning, simple, repeated, effectual background/foreground shot that means everything to, and almost defines the show.

    1. Dan Heaton says

      So true! The simple image of a name going from red to black is brilliant, and the haunting names (i.e., Adena Watson) that remain on the board work so well. It actually was a real thing in Baltimore for a while from what I remember reading. It’s designed for great effect but doesn’t feel like it’s something that wouldn’t exist in real life.

  3. Tori says

    I am so glad Homicide is still getting talked about to this day. It is an u derrated show. I watched it will in High School. Used to watch it and tape it at the same time. Would watch the tapes none stop. Is easily my favorite drama of all time. The Bayliss charater was my favorite. The show was way ahead of it’s time.

    1. Dan Heaton says

      Tori, it’s great to hear that you’re also a fan. I like Bayliss and think Kyle Secor did a great job. However, my favorite character is the obvious one with Pembleton. I also like all the original cast, particularly Richard Belzer, Yaphet Kotto, Melissa Leo, and Clark Johnson. I had so many VHS tapes of Homicide when I was younger. It felt kind of silly when they all came out on DVD.

      1. Tori says

        Pembleton/Andre Braugher demands such respect as an actor. He is extremely gifted. It’s a smae that he can’t find a series worthy of his talents. The same could be said for Kyle. Clark does a wonderful job ofmdirecting. Reed seems to show up on every show and is usually the bad guy. Butmeven he has a full time show. I wish the would re-release the dvds with up to date interviews and commentaries.

  4. Chris says

    Excellent article, Dan. Homicide was brought to my attention by a college professor in a television class for its groundbreaking originality, mostly in storyline,character development, and filming effects. (The staple ‘circle shot’) I was hooked! Braugher, Secor, Leo, Belz….just a heavy hitting lineup of great actors playing deep, wonderful characters, and a storyline that kept on giving. I watch the series start to finish on DVD at least once a year! Thanks for the article and your thoughts!

    1. Dan Heaton says

      Chris, I’m glad you mentioned the filming effects, which I barely touched on in the review. The repeated shots of the same moment are classic and were especially jarring in the early ’90s. Along with the great acting and writing, it’s one of the main reasons Homicide is still so interesting today.

  5. Jack Deth says

    Hi, Wordschat:

    You forgot a brief cameo of Belzer’s Detective Munch from his ‘Homicide’ days in Baltimore towards the end of an episode of ‘The X-Files’.

  6. Ricky says

    Brilliant article!

    1. Dan Heaton says

      Thanks Ricky! Glad you liked it.

  7. Wordschat says

    An excellent series. I bought the complete series box set. It is also the only series I know off that without being spun off a character continues with the same actor on the same network in a new cop drama years later. This of course is Richard Belzer as Detective Munch in Law and Order SVU. Sadly I feel that show has run its course while Law & Order the parent was ended prematurely.

    1. Dan Heaton says

      What amazes me is that Belzer has played Munch in so many shows, including the X-Files. I watched some SVU at the start because I was curious about his role, but I didn’t stick with it. I also really liked the crossover episodes of Homicide with Law and Order. Belzer had great chemistry with Jerry Orbach. I also have all the seasons on DVD and the movie. I had recorded most on VHS off syndicated re-runs, so it was nice to set those aside.

  8. Jack Deth says

    Hi, Dan and company:

    ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’ Is another prime example of “Film Quality Television”. Very far ahead of its time for its topics, excellent cast and execution of stories.

    The show did not grab me immediately. That took about five episodes (Very much like HBO’s ‘The Wire’), but once its cast characters started becoming defined (Especially Yaphett Kottp and Richard Belzer)the series became “Must watch”!

    Excellent work and critique!

    1. Dan Heaton says

      Thanks Jack! I had a similar reaction to The Wire, where I liked it but wasn’t really hooked until about five or six episodes. I feel like Homicide is sometimes forgotten or not given credit because it was a network show in a different era. I’m glad to hear that you’re a fan.

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