Homicide: Life on the Streets is by some miracle entering its seventh season on NBC. Shows with higher ratings, with bigger stars, haven't lasted as long as Homicide has. And Homicide, produced by film director Barry Levinson (Wag The Dog, Avalon, Rain Man), has never, and will never be popular, not as a hit show in the ratings like South Park. I can only attribute its continued existence to the largesse of NBC executives. But their desire to remold into it something commercially palatable, combined with the departure of a key cast member, may do more to destroy what was unique about Homicide than five years of viewer indifference could manage.
One of the more striking features of Homicide, which follows the investigations of a Baltimore Homicide Squad, is the makeup of its cast and crew. For a show about law and order type, it seems strange that it's produced by legendary Hollywood liberal Barry Levinson, stars High Times cover star and stand-up comedian Richard Belzar, activist and writer Yaphet Kotto and recent addition Giancarlo Esposito. But most Homicide has always been interracial in a way that no other show
has been before, or since. It's not that half the cast is black, but that they are different individual characters who don't exist, in the words of critic John Leonard, "to teach white people a lesson," or to be sidekicks to the white characters.
The writers and actors manage to catch the individual rhythms of each character, from the laid back Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), to the intimidating and gravel voiced Lieutenant Al Giardello (Kotto), to the extraordinary Frank Pembleton.
Pembleton, played by André' Braugher, who left the show at the end of last season, has been the only real breakout character on the show. The detective, arrogant, standoffish and not prone to making friends, Frank Pembleton is an unlikely choice to center a show around. His extraordinary intelligence and wit, combined with his ironclad morality often tempted the writers to turn him into a kind of Sherlock Holmes, but Braugher tempers that by the pressure of anger and frustration in his head: anger at the world for being as corrupt as it is, anger at himself for not being able to solve a particular case, and later on in the series, anger at his own body for constantly failing him after his stroke (too much pressure in the head.) His is the best portrayal I've ever seen of the murderous limitations in the kind of person we all pretend to be: a decent man stuck in an uncaring world.
Homicide at its best is about how we deal with death, from the perspective of men and women who work with it every day. The detectives joke around the dead bodies, and don't generally take the obsessive interest in cases that cops in movies take, because they'd go nuts if they cared about every dead body, particularly because cases aren't always solved, and the guilty aren't always convicted. But as Pembleton said in one episode, "We speak for those who have no voice." The camera always circles slowly around the dead bodies, which have an unknowable quality to them- no matter how many cases the detectives close, they never feel resolved on the issue of death.
A recent PBS documentary on the making of a particularly good episode of Homicide revealed the constant pressure NBC puts on the creators, from cutting down on the number of times they say "ass," to making the show more upbeat.
This season has been a disappointment, with the focus on romantic relationships among members of the squad, and silly, meaningless cases. Last week's episode, a tired film-noir spoof, included a court room plot twist stolen directly from Miracle on 34th St. The show lacks the intensity that Braugher gave it, and feels compromised. Nonetheless, I still hold out hope on the corpse rising.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 8, November 6, 1998
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