Reviewed by David Williams (June 24, 2003)
Inspired by Baltimore Sun writer David Simon’s award-winning account of Baltimore Homicide Detectives, Homicide: Life on the Street was brought to television by acclaimed director Barry Levinson and St. Elsewhere writer Paul Attanasio. The duo felt very strongly that Simon’s book would make great TV and they were right, as Homicide threw out all of the normal cop show conventions to create something that was truly unique for its time. The show used hand-held camera work and drab palettes and focused more on the emotional and mental toll of solving a murder case rather than the car chases, shootouts, and other tenets of the genre. While the show never received the high viewer ratings it rightfully deserved, it has been rewarded critically with multiple Emmy Awards, Writer’s Guild Awards, and even three Peabody Awards.
Debuting after the 1993 Super Bowl on NBC, we were introduced to the incredible ensemble cast that makes up the show. There’s Lieutenant Al “Gee” Giardello (Yaphet Koto), a veteran officer and loyal commander who will do whatever it takes to fight for the detectives working under him. While he maintains a very strong interest in the cases, he spends most of his time fighting political battles and cutting through the red tape for his investigators. The investigators include Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito), as well as Stanley Bollander (Ned Beatty) and rookie Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) is the loner of the group who prefers to solve cases on his own when at all possible, while the solitary female detective, Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), is a consistent performer who’s always on top of her game. Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) is the department’s outwardly brash and inwardly self-doubting cop whose troubles at home only amplify his insecurities about his skills on the job and finally there’s John Munch (Richard Belzer), the comic relief of the crew who’s serious about his job, but doesn’t mind flying off the handle about his views on life, love, happiness, and in general, the way things ought to be. It’s this eclectic collection of characters that gives Homicide: Life on the Street its emotional core and make the show – and its incredible writing – come to life.
The episodes are spread out over four discs and are shown in the order that they were intended to be seen by the show’s principals – which is slightly different from their original airdate. A&E/NBC have packaged the discs perfectly, as a cardboard slipcase encloses the four slim keep cases that each DVD is housed in.
Gone for Goode (Original Air Date: January 31, 1993)
The opening episode for the series introduces us to all of the major players and also starts us out on several different story arcs. Bollander wants Munch to reopen a month old murder case, while rookie detective Bayliss is teamed with the difficult Pembleton to investigate the brutal murder of 11-year-old Adena Watson.
A Ghost of a Chance (Original Air Date: February 3, 1993)
Bayliss’ investigation of the Adena Watson murder is challenged and he’s quickly becoming frustrated with the lack of progress and movement on the case. Bollander and Munch arrive at a crime scene only to discover that the victim is still alive – much to the surprised chagrin of the victim’s wife.
Night of the Dead Living (Original Air Date: March 31, 1993)
This show is a flashback back to an insufferably warm night in the squad room when the air conditioning was out; Bayliss is still hopeful about the Adena Watson case, while Bollander and Munch are fretting over women problems. Gee finds a baby unattended in the basement.
Son of a Gun (Original Air Date: February 10, 1993)
Edie Falco guest stars as the wife of an officer, Chris Thormann, who has been shot in the line of duty and his good friend, Crosetti, has been assigned to the case. Felton and Howard interrogate a widow, while Bayliss and Pembleton raid a home where Adena Watson’s murder may have taken place.
A Shot in the Dark (Original Air Date: February 24, 1993)
Pembleton and Felton continue following leads on the Adena Watson murder case and spend a lot of time discussing racial issues, while Crosetti closes in on the gunman who killed his good friend, Officer Thormann. In the meantime, Bollander and Munch probe a double homicide.
Three Men and Adena (Original Air Date: March 3, 1993)
In this Emmy-winning episode for writer Tom Fontana, Bayliss and Pembleton have only 12 hours to interrogate the prime suspect (Moses Gunn) in the Adena Watson case. If the duo can’t get a confession, they must release him and lose their prime suspect for good. (One of the best, if not the best, episodes in the entire series.)
A Dog and Pony Show (Original Air Date: March 10, 1993)
With the Adena Wilson case behind them, Bayliss and Pembleton are sent to investigate the killing of a police dog, while Howard and Felton track down a drug dealer, “Pony” Johnson, suspected in two brutal killings.
And The Rockets Dead Glare (Original Air Date: March 17, 1993)
Howard awaits her opportunity to testify against “Pony” Johnson and makes a big mistake that almost jeopardizes the whole case, while Crosetti and Lewis head to Washington in order to investigate the execution-style murder of a Chinese dissident and college student. It seems that the main suspect in the murder case is declaring “diplomatic immunity” and it hampers Crosetti and Lewis’ investigation severely.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Original Air Date: March 24, 1993)
Munch and Bollander investigate the beating death of a teenager who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Initially, the teenager’s parents are suspected, but some interesting clues lead the investigators elsewhere. In a somewhat funny side story, Bayliss and Howard are trying to kick their smoking habit and it’s driving everyone around them crazy. John Waters makes a guest appearance in the episode as a bartender whom Bollander chats with at the end of the episode.
After a heaping of critical acclaim for the first season, the show barely survived for a second season and NBC only ordered four episodes. While the studio would see the error of their ways by the third season and order a full roster of episodes, the seeds of frustration were already sewn and the cast would see some turnover by the end of season three. You’ll notice that the show became slightly more mainstream beginning in season two, but it still maintained an edgier look-and-feel than anything else on television during that time.
See No Evil (Original Air Date: January 13, 1994)
Bayliss and Pembleton work together to determine whether or not a police officer is responsible for shooting a man during a drug bust, as his actions reek of foul play. Felton learns that a good friend of his, with a very sick father (Wilford Brimley), plans to assist in his dad’s suicide. Bollander has problems when asked to speak with a “sensitivity consultant”.
Black and Blue (Original Air Date: January 20, 1994)
Gee and Pembleton remain at odds over whether or not a drug dealer was shot in the back by a police officer. A confession is made in the case, but Pembleton is still suspicious and keeps his investigation open. Bollander’s spirits are raised when he meets someone with similar interests, as Julianna Marguilles guest stars.
A Many Splendored Thing (Original Air Date: January 27, 1994)
Bayliss and Pembleton investigate the death of a young girl who works as a phone sex operator and in her hands, she clutching a note that implicates her boss in the killing. Lewis and Crosetti investigate the shooting death of a man who was killed over a pen at the library. Bollander convinces Howard and Danvers to join him on a double date, but when Munch –jealous of Bollander’s happiness - shows up, things take a turn for the worst.
Bop Gun (Original Air Date: January 6, 1994)
This was actually aired as the first episode of the second season because of Robin Williams’ considerable drawing power. This show focuses only on this one case, as all the detectives work together in order to solve the shooting death of Williams’ wife who was killed in a holdup while the family was vacationing in the area. Williams is distressed that he didn’t do more during the holdup and blames himself and when some suspects are rounded up, Howard is convinced that the youth who confesses didn’t do it.
As the show wore on, it would become more and more audience-friendly, but still remained true to its roots. However, the first two seasons are the more original and gritty of the bunch. A&E/NBC have done fans of great TV an enormous service by bringing the first two seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street to DVD and this is one of those rare occasions where I can absolutely recommend a series and its corresponding DVD boxed set sight unseen. Who’s to blame for Homicide being one of “the best shows on TV you’re not watching”? I don’t know … but what I do know is that NBC has given the show a new start and a new home on DVD. Make sure you check it out as soon as possible.