Homicide: Life on the Street - The Complete First Series Review

Why do Channel 4 bother? Not, you'll understand, is this a general question over their turning their corporate back on their original broadcasting remit to provide original, unique programming with the likes of Celebrity Big Brother, Ten Years Younger or the recently put-to-bed Wank Week. Nor is this a question over the wisdom of continuing with the Film Four brand, which once meant Hal Hartley, Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman films showing on a weekday evening but which now isn't much more than yet another showing of Trainspotting or a film that, six months ago, was being shown on Sky. No, this question has to do with the channel's habit of ill-treating its imported shows, doing so to give its cheap and very tawdry homegrown product some space to succeed. Five may well be sniggered at by those whose televisions rarely make it away from ITV but at least it treats the likes of CSI, Law & Order and House with a sufficient enough of respect to give them a regular slot. Channel 4, on the other hand, make something of a success out of a show and either lose it entirely to Sky One to punt it about the schedules in the manner of a difficult foster child, giving it some with a 10am slot before pushing it later and later into the night. Devoted fans of The West Wing, The Sopranos and Sex And The City will have to have been downing gallons of Red Bull to have kept themselves sufficiently awake to follow these shows in the Channel 4 schedules.

They've gotten no better with the passing years. Those opening paragraphs were written in Spring 2007 but could well have been written some years ago when Homicide: Life On The Street was first shown, which soon departed from a relatively respectable evening broadcast and into the early mornings. Funny how it's this show that we remember and not...well, actually not whatever Channel 4 chose to put in its place. Perhaps a forerunner to Relocation, Relocation, The Friday Night Project or, worst of all, Bo! Selecta. As much as one might dislike Battlestar Galactica being on Sky One, at least it's likely to find itself in an late-evening slot and not, as the years pass, showing at half-ten, half-eleven and, for its third season, one-thirty in the morning. So it was when Homicide was first broadcast on Channel 4, a show that, by only making it onto the air at a ridiculously early time in the morning is, like The West Wing, best enjoyed on DVD.

Hugh David has written a number of very comprehensive reviews of the Region 1 releases of Homicide: Life On The Street for this site, albeit that he holds the show with a little more regard that do I. I won't be expanding on those reviews very much so I suggest that you link to them via the Related Content box on the left and enjoy an in-depth selection of writings on an often excellent show by one who has an impressive knowledge of Homicide. And it is a frequently wonderful show but more than simply being something to enjoy as regards the cases that it throws up, which go from the death of a police dog to the murder of a twelve-year-old girl, it feels very complete, with a familiarity to the characters, the plotting and even the nature of their investigating right from the beginning. Pembleton (Andre Braugher) is, almost as soon as we first meet him, revealed to be a perfectionist, one who is almost as difficult to work with as he is successful in his investigation of cases of homicide. Bolander (Ned Beatty, one of two well-known actors who came early to Homicide) is lonely, straightforward in his efforts in the squad and looking for love. Munch (Richard Belzer) is an ex-hippy conspiracy nut whose own tendency towards misery prevents him from enjoying seeing anyone else happy. Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is the new kid, too quick to come to a conclusion. Howard and Felton (Melissa Leo and Daniel Baldwin) are boorish on the surface but use this to hide a deep friendship for one another. Lewis (Clark Johnson) is a street cop who tends towards taking a practical line in police business rather than the black-and-white of the law. Finally, Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) is the strong back needed by the department, as much to keep eight willful cops working as one as to protect them from commissioners unhappy with their progress on red ball cases, not least as regards the murder of Adena Watson.

That might make it sound quite ordinary. After all, how many police procedurals don't have a renegade cop or two, a perfectionist or the new kid whose arrival coincides with the premiere of the first episode. Homicide isn't, from any brief description, very much different from a lot of other cop shows, not least any one of the three main Law & Order shows, the original, Criminal Intent or Special Victims Unit, which would, in turn, bring in Detective John Munch come the end of Homicide. It certainly wasn't the first police show to revolutionise the genre as Hill Street Blues invariably did all that Homicide did some ears before. But it's fair to say, though, that Homicide did everything with remarkable style and in such a way that, from the off, one cares about these people. Regardless about his petty whinges about not having a desk, one wants Bayliss and Pembleton to somehow find a way to work together and to solve the Adena Watson case just as one so enjoys the prickly relationship between Bolander and Munch, which has a satisfying denouement as one crashes a date that the other has long looked forward to while the normally solid friendship between Felton and Howard threatens to come apart when the latter stops smoking. Like life, what one wants doesn't necessarily always come to pass and just as Jack McCoy doesn't always get a conviction in Law & Order so it is that those we suspect as guilty sometimes leave The Box after the apparent collapse of a case. As disappointing as that is, one wouldn't have it any other way.

Behind all of this, Baltimore becomes more than just a setting. Where other shows might break from the action to show a scene or two from within a local bar, Homicide places several key scenes there, none more important than when Pembleton investigates the shooting dead of a suspect by a uniformed police officer, with his isolation from the rest of the squad is indicated by his not being able to enjoy lunch with them. The streets of Baltimore are gritty, miserable when overcast and a place where violence is never far away. But that mix of humour, of the warmth of the friendships within the squad and of the careful pace at which their investigations unfold all make for a superb cop show, one that makes up for its moments of bloody murder with good humour and irreverent chatter. Just the way that a police department actually works, one would think. And the way that an audience might well have come to think of the police procedural had it ever been given a chance, as much here as in its home country.



Episode Guide

Although given the title of "The Complete First Series" it should be noted that the 13 episodes included on this set actually make up the first two seasons of the show (7 for Season 1, 4 for Season 2) so the episodes included match the Region 1 "Complete Seasons 1 & 2" box set.

Gone for Goode (47m32s): Detective Tim Bayliss arrives in the squad room of the Homicide unit run by Lieutenant Al Giardello and is immediately partnered with Detective Frank Pembleton, who, as he makes clear, prefers to work alone. Bayliss spends the day on his own as his new partner does things his way. Elsewhere, Bolander and Munch look to close and old case and Lewis and Crosetti get involved in a series of 'black widow' killings. Finally, Bayliss picks up a call and is assigned his first case, the killing of eleven-year-old Adena Watson.

A Ghost of a Chance (47m56s): Called out by a uniformed officer, Bolander and Munch find that the deceased is still very much alive and that he's in a foul mood. Driving around, Bolander wonders how well he's doing so soon after his divorce. Sex is on his mind but he's at a loss as to what to do next, even to turning down a proposition on board a flight when 'iguana style' was on offer. Meanwhile, Bayliss struggles with the Adena Watson killing, not helped by Pembleton wanting to take over. Against all the advice given to him by others, Giardello sticks by Bayliss but with the press picking up the scent of a case going nowhere, he's under pressure. Then, Bolander and Munch get called back to the same scene by the same uniformed cop. But this time, the victim really is dead.

Night of the Dead Living (46m47s): It's September but it feels like Christmas in the squad room what with a lone candle burning, a depressed Santa Claus dropping in and the finding of an abandoned baby. But, with the air conditioning broken, the temperature is like summer and tempers are fraying, not least between Bayliss and Pembleton after the new cop brings in a 12-year-old kid as his suspect in the Adena Watson killing. Elsewhere, Munch mulls over the breakup of his relationship with Felicia, Bolander wonders if he should ask Dr Blythe out on a date and everyone wants to know who lights the candle.

Son of a Gun (47m54s): As Detective Steve Crosetti explains his conspiracy theory on the Lincoln assassination, he's called out to the hospital where his friend Chris Thormann is in surgery after being shot in the head. Crosetti pleads with Giardello to let him take the case but he's not sure, asking if Crosetti doesn't feel himself too close. Elsewhere, Bolander shares a beer with his neighbour before his date with Blythe but the date is a disaster and the neighbour shows up dead. Things are going just as badly for Bayliss and Giardello begins to feel the heat from the commissioner, who's desperate to get a result.

A Shot in the Dark (47m57s): Munch is tired. Tired of Bolander throwing up the name of his old partner at him and eventually he makes his feelings plain. In full sight of the crowd that gathers around a murder scene, the two have it out. No more Mitch...but it isn't helped when Munch loses the witness to a murder. A sick Bayliss sifts through the evidence in the Adena Watson killing but a frustrated Pembleton takes Felton out to look for other leads. Captain Barnfather, however, lets something slip to the press that threatens Bayliss' case but then Pembleton makes a late-night call on Bayliss that leads them to a suspect.

Three Men and Adena (46m47s): That same night, Pembleton and Bayliss bring in their suspect but have only twelve hours to get a confession. After that, it counts as harassment. Taking him to the interview room, Pembleton and Bayliss begin their interrogation. Outside the room, Giardello watches with interest. But as the night goes on, the interview turns to and away from their favour and time is running out.

A Dog and Pony Show (46m49s): Pembleton and Bayliss are now partners. Like it or not, that's what Giardello is telling the pair of them and together they work their first case, that of the killing of a police dog! Neither are exactly happy but as his owner tells them, that dog worked for every cent that he cost the American taxpayer. Elsewhere, Crosetti tries to assist Chris with his recovery while Howard and Felton follow up a murder with an investigation into Pony Johnson, a known drug dealer. But it might just be that Johnson isn't guilty of just the one killing.

And the Rockets Dead Glare (46m47s): The events of Tianamen Square come to Baltimore when a Chinese man is found murdered. Wong joins the list of unsolved murders but Lin Chang (Bai Ling) tells the cops that they're powerless against the Chinese authorities who, she claims, had him murdered. A visit to the Chinese embassy follows. Elsewhere, Howard and Felton are called to court to assist in the conviction of Pony Johnson while Bolander and Munch investigate the death of a man whilst on a drugs deal. But the drugs are still there and there isn't much evidence at the scene. Lost in what Munch has to say about hemp and its place in US history, Bolander tells him that he knows way too much about it.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (47m00s): "Oh my God, you've stopped smoking!" After hearing her lecture a witness to a murder about her smoking, Felton is shocked to find out that Howard has quit. Air quality be damned, he's not going to stop. The quality of the air the homicide squad is breathing comes home to them all when the building is checked for asbestos and is shut down whilst its removal is engineered. Bolander and Munch investigate the murder of a young boy and find a novel way of interrogating the suspect. Finally, Pembleton tries to light up after a coffee but Bayliss won't give him a light. Turns out he's given up smoking as well. As Pembleton says later to Felton, "Self-righteous bastards!"

Bop Gun (46m44s): The team have to deal with something more than just a murder when the cops bring in the distraught widower of a murdered woman, who felt that he stood by as he watched his wife killed. Bayliss and Pembleton work with the husband as he grieves while Felton and Howard bring in a suspect and take the case to court. But there's something about a note that the suspect writes that makes Howard doubt any conviction that might come.

See No Evil (47m06s): The soft, caring hands of the police come to Homicide when Giardello brings in a counsellor, who, he tells the squad, must be seen by everyone. Bolander, who claims an allergy to departmental stupidity, isn't so sure. On the street, Pembleton begins an investigation that calls into question the brutality of beat cops while Felton is called by a friend of his whose terminally ill father wants to kill himself. Or to have his son pull the trigger, which Felton tells him would be murder. When the body of the old man is brought in, Lewis gets the case but Felton can't leave it alone.

Black and Blue (47m07s): The police brutality and murder case carries on with Pembleton and Giardello closing ranks against the beat cops, which is made difficult when a couple of the uniformed suspects join the homicide cops for lunch. Pembleton declines the invitation. Bayliss and Howard join in the case but their efforts to get a witness is met with accusations of police guilt. Meanwhile, Bolander gets lucky in love and picks up the cello again to prove it. Munch, on the other hand, is not.

A Many Splendored Thing (47m00s): Bolander waxes lyrical when he and Munch investigate the finding of a couple of dead bodies in the woods, who overdosed on prescription drugs come that morning's sunrise. Munch, however, does not and wonders if there's any drugs left in the bottles. When Bolander double-dates with Howard, a miserable Munch makes himself unwelcome by crashing it. Meanwhile, Bayliss and Pembleton investigate the death of a phone-sex operator while Crosetti and Lewis check out the killing of a man over the theft of a pen from the library.



Transfer

There's a comment on Hugh David's review of the Region 1 release of Seasons 1 and 2 regarding its lack of subtitles, which is fine thing to point out. Regardless that the cast were clearly speaking English throughout, I tended to enable the subtitles regardless, not only for the speed with which some of the dialogue was delivered but for the show's use of slang and more obscure police terms. Unlike the Region 1 release, this issue of the show's first two seasons has subtitles throughout and they're generally of a very high standard. The actual DD2.0 audio track is a straightforward one with the dialogue front and centre. What music there is does sound good, which suggests that the audio track is a very reasonable one but that the dialogue, given the style of the show, is occasionally and deliberately lost in the ambient noise.

Filmed on handheld 16mm cameras, there's a rough quality to Homicide: Life On The Street, which is captured accurately here in its 1.33:1 aspect ratio. As one who came to Homicide a little later than in these two seasons, I can't remember if the show always looked this brown and grey. Washed-out is how it might be described if one suspected a fault in the DVD transfer but this does look fairly true to what I remember of Homicide. Again, it doesn't look particularly clean either but there are very little telltale signs of a fault in the transfer, which implies this is very much how Homicide was meant to look.



Extras

Unlike the Region 1 release, there are no extras on this DVD.



Overall

Law & Order has much in common with Homicide. There was, most obviously, a crossover between the two shows but Detective John Munch would show up in Special Victims Unit come the end of Homicide. More than that, you suspect that, though they have a good deal in common, Robert Goren from Criminal Intent and Frank Pembleton would be at one another's throats in next to no time. Stylistically, they do look very similar with these first two seasons not looking very different from Law & Order a few years back, those shows of the Jamie Ross and Abbie Carmichael eras. Given that Law & Order is still enjoying a healthy run, even with Five giving it a 10pm slot after CSI: New York, there's plenty of hope for this on DVD, finding an audience that might have been either dedicated or casual viewers at the time. Indeed, one wouldn't mind at all if Five began broadcasting Homicide in the next few months, coming off this DVD release by finally giving this show the chance that it deserved on a broadcast station.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
0 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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