Homicide: Life On The Street Season 3 Review

"Finding love is like solving the perfect crime. You look at every shred of evidence; you talk to every witness; follow up every lead; but more often than not, what wins in the end is pure dumb luck. And you my friend, are just not lucky."
Detective Frank Pembleton

The Show
NBC in the early 90s followed in the path of other networks in their ongoing quest for ratings-grabbing product, turning to a known cinema auteur teamed with a proven TV talent for something new yet familiar. Long since the home of the realistic cop show (Dragnet in the 50s, Police Story in the 70s, Hill Street Blues in the 80s), NBC risked an endeavour from director Barry Levinson (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon) and screenwriter Paul Attanasio. Famed for characters, performances and dialogue in authentic Baltimore settings, Levinson, Attanasio and showrunner Tom Fontana (St.Elsewhere) developed from former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon’s non-fiction reportage Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (in which Simon had lived and worked alongside the elite Homicide detective unit of the Baltimore City PD for 12 months) the first year of Homicide. Levinson & Fontana’s series brief broke the 70s & 80s TV mould, being a cop show without car chases or gun battles, the actual commission of the crime was not shown, extensive location shooting, actual night shooting, and directors drawn from the emerging new indie scene as well as proven TV talent looking to participate in breaking the mould. The show was cancelled almost every season it was on air, only to be brought back at the last minute, supported in its early years by then network president Warren Littlefield, but not, crucially, by the Promotions Department or other levels of management. The second season found the producers having to meet the Network’s requirements partway – but setting the Homicide pattern of never doing quite what the network wanted with whatever the Production had agreed to. For the third year, an LA-based producer was sought to come in to Baltimore and be co-executive producer – but in playwright Henry Bromell, Levinson & Fontana found a kindred creative spirit, interested in using the genre as well as challenging the form, and together they took Homicide to a new level in a 20-episode run.

As part of the new approach, actor Jon Polito would leave the show, robbing the show of one of the most unique voices in the squadroom, but giving us both an absolute blinder of an episode in “Crosetti”, and character material for the hugely underrated Clark Johnson for the rest of the series. Johnson’s Meldrick Lewis would not find a suitable foil until season four, but would provide great comic moments, emotional peaks to the show, and the voice of Baltimore’s streets that brought the raw material of David Simon’s journalism to the screen.

The network’s demand for further female characters led to increased screen time for Beau Felton’s wife played by Mary B. Ward, the introduction of shift commander Lieutenant Megan Russert, and the tragic intertwining of their storylines, as well as partners or girlfriends for other leads. Other characters gained time in the spotlight through homicides linked to family members – Kay Howard and Tim Bayliss would both suffer this, in stories that illuminated these characters, sometimes in dark ways. Rather than softening the show, or making it more like NYPD Blue (which attracted viewers across the demographics), these additional elements highlighted the emotional lives of the characters and the toll taken on them by “the job”.

The core cast then was the same as the previous seasons, losing Jon Polito (Steve Crosetti) but gaining Isabella Hofmann as Lieutenant, later Captain, Megan Russert. Many fans and critics at the time felt that both the character and the actress cast were together too much of a network imposition on the show, but this viewer felt that she not only provided an interesting contrast to tough-as-nails Kay Howard, she also gave Yaphet Kotto’s G an ally in the command structure with whom he could communicate. This enabled the viewer to not only penetrate some of the loneliness surrounding command, but also to delve further into the politics of policing, something that was never explored in anything other than the most simplistic terms in other shows. The manoeuvring required by shift commanders just to get adequate resources and staffing is horrific when juxtaposed with the crimes detectives investigate and the increasing dominance of some neighbourhoods by the drug trade.

The guest cast continued to be the superb mix of experienced and up-&-coming talent, including the great Steve Buscemi (Miller’s Crossing, Reservoir Dogs, Trees Lounge, The Sopranos to name but a few), the equally great but criminally underrated Tony Todd (Candyman franchise, The Rock, Star Trek: TNG and DS9), the equally underrated Joe Morton (Terminator 2, Speed), Edie Falco and Lee Tergesen again, Tony LoBianco (The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, classic 70s cop show Police Story), the also underrated David Morse (The Rock, The Negotiator, The Green Mile, Proof of Life), Bruno Kirby and Chris Noth as Law & Order’s Detective Mike Logan, handing over prisoner John Waters to Andre Braugher – a precursor of the actual crossover storylines with the Dick Wolf franchise that became an annual television event in later seasons. Recurring characters include Clayton LeBoeuf’s Captain Barnfather, Walt MacPherson’s Roger Gaffney and Zeljko Ivanek’s ADA Ed Danvers, all of whom in this season demonstrate why in any series overview of Homicide they all deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the regulars.

Apart from the cast, what drew me to the show originally were the quality of directors Homicide attracted, and the quality of the writing that drew in both them and the acting talent. The direction was given over as before to a mix of indie and now mainstream cinema names, including Levinson himself, Tim Hunter (River’s Edge, Twin Peaks), John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wild Things), Peter Medak (The Krays, Romeo Is Bleeding), the late Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls, Blow), and future TV stalwart Kenneth Fink (NYPD Blue, Millennium, Oz, Third Watch, CSI). The writing team this season included, alongside original line-up Exec Producer Tom Fontana, Exec Script Editor James Yoshimura, Jorge Zamacona, David Mills, and Noel Benn, such new faces as Exec producer Henry Bromell, Julie Martin, Bonnie Mark, and scripts from TV regulars such as Eugene Lee, David Rupel, Rogers Turrentine and even award-winning novelist Jane Smiley. All continued pushing themselves and the show in new directions from the short span of seasons 1 and 2, and in doing so they cemented the triple-attack of great writing, great acting, great direction (the show’s hallmark) with a willingness to creatively never sit still as long as it was on air, something that remains rare in the production-line mentality of US television.

There are some minor spoilers in the next paragraph.

The network demand for more PR-friendly stories led to a pair of multi-part storylines based around “red ball” (immediate priority) investigations, both of which were hugely impressive sequences. The first tracked a serial killer with a fetish for Catholic women, an investigation that forces “primary” (the lead investigator on any case) Frank Pembleton to re-assess his faith in God. The second sees regulars Felton, Howard and Bolander shot and left for dead by a criminal who evades the squad; originally intended as a cliffhanger thirteen episodes in when it seemed NBC would pull the plug on the show, the subsequent two episodes in which the injured fight for their lives in and out of hospital while the squad and department work round the clock to deliver justice for their comrades is unlike any other show’s approach to the same topic. Instead of action, last-minute stand-offs and chases, we have character moment after character moment, humans reacting to shocking events with the range of responses to be expected of such a disparate group. “Crosetti” remains a vital, realistic look at a cop show staple, an affecting hour of drama as powerful now as when it aired. At the other end of the spectrum was the final episode of the season, “Gas Man”, written by Bromell and directed by Levinson, a show like no other before or since on Homicide, a darkly comic character piece that looks at the squad, Pembleton in particular, from outside the usual dramatic format. Such a massive dramatic risk was only possible as the production team thought they were cancelled, so they decided to risk it all one last time. However, at the last minute, NBC renewed Homicide, and we would be graced by a full run of episodes – but more crucial changes lay in store.

No change from seasons 1 and 2 - shot on Super 16mm under fairly basic lighting situations, using handheld cameras and a variety of editing techniques to imbue a talkative show with visual energy, the 4:3 transfer adequately conveys the image as intended by the producers, right down to the grain and the relatively drab colour palette. Season 3 is noticeably brighter in colour and lighting compared to previous years, particularly in the area of wardrobe (check out Andre Braugher’s dark skin contrasted by his white raincoat in the first half of the season, a real ‘Dark Knight’!), as the show made cosmetic changes to stay on the air without compromising the quality of the writing, direction and acting. Not reference quality by any means, but let the nitpickers find fault - it beats out VHS easily, and is certainly at least as good as, if not better than, Fremantlemedia’s masters used by the Hallmark Channel.

As with the first two seasons, plain DD 2.0 stereo works just fine here – the show is about conversation, overlapping dialogue in a 70s style, and what music there is, sounds good as well. The theme and the sting used to highlight key dramatic moments have never sounded clearer, while the show’s use of an eclectic range of found music continues – few shows since Miami Vice have made such effective use of differing music styles. The only current show I can think of with such a smart soundtrack is the superb Veronica Mars. It’s not reference quality, and I’m sure backroom boys could remix it to wonderful effect – but the intended sounds are there, and that’s what matters.

Packaging & Extras
Continuing the theme of the first box set, the card slipcase and the Nexpak Thinpaks housing the 6 DVDs of season 3 are designed to look like case folders housed in a police-issue box file. An effective design touch from A & E that shows them trying hard with what resources they have.

The quarter-hour featurette Homicide: Life in Season 3 is narrated by Daniel Baldwin. Jam-packed, fast-moving and informative, it’s a much better look at the show than similar pieces three times as long on other sets – but it would still have been nice to have seen interviews with cast members and some of the directors. Nevertheless, the key players have their say, in particular newcomer Henry Bromell, and they are worth hearing.

Barry Levinson and Henry Bromell unite for a commentary on season finale “Gas Man” that, like the Season One Pilot commentary, has the unique status of being a genuine trip down memory lane, with neither of them having seen it in many years. Overall, there is a great deal to be learnt about the trials and tribulations of making season 3, dealing with the network and potential cancellation twice in one season, and the unique qualities of the episode in question. A little too much dead air, but worth a listen to complement the featurette, although it does highlight clearly the paucity of the supplements.

Song listings are to be found on all discs, but are most welcome given the variety of artists used in such interesting ways by the production. Build your own soundtrack CDs!

As I said in my review of Seasons 1 & 2, I had been awaiting this series on DVD from the time it became viable for studios to release series sets on the format. Season 3 has not found its way to disc with the lavish treatment that recent Fox or Sony shows have received, but A & E nevertheless has done Homicide a measure of justice that other shows have not received from labels with far more resources (Crime Story). A show that is important in the history of US cop shows as well as the history of one-hour dramas, it demonstrated clearly with almost a complete season that no other show on air at the time could touch it for its ability to ground the creators’ views on violence, drugs, race, class, politics and human emotion in dramatic stories that etched themselves on the viewer’s brain without offering solutions or answers, taking a genre built on black & white morality and using it to show life in shades of grey. Fans of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Shield or The Wire who have not experienced Homicide owe it to themselves to return to this ground-breaking and hugely entertaining show – those of us who there first time around will have replaced their off-air VHS tapes and be wallowing in the sheer quality on offer.

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