Homicide: Life On The Street Season 4 Review

“If a murder is committed in Baltimore and no homicide detective takes the call, did that homicide actually occur?”
Detective John Munch

The Show
In the early 90s, NBC, home of the realistic cop show, took a chance on the collective efforts of Baltimore auteur Barry Levinson, screenwriter Paul Attanasio and showrunner Tom Fontana (St.Elsewhere) to develop an hour-long drama 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). Levinson & Fontana’s series brief broke the 70s & 80s TV mould, but was cancelled almost every season it was on air, only to be brought back at the last minute. The end of the third season was no exception, with the 13th and 20th episodes both produced as possible series finales, but eventually the show was picked up again for a fourth season – and this time it was a complete order of 22 episodes. Once again, compromises with the network would have to be made, but these were put into practice in the Homicide way, never doing quite what the network wanted with whatever the producers had agreed to. Exec Producers Henry Bromell, Levinson & Fontana played with the hand dealt them, and won the game once more.

Following actor Jon Polito’s departure after season 2, the equally old-school detectives played by Daniel Baldwin and Ned Beatty were written out of the show (Felton & Baldwin were placed on suspension, for lewd behaviour at a police convention, for 22 weeks – the precise season length). Flashier, younger ‘tec Mike Kellerman (the excellent Reed Diamond, seen recently in S.W.A.T. and Spider-man 2, but also memorably cast by director Clark Johnson in The Shield pilot) is introduced while still at Arson in the opening two-parter “Fire”, and is partnered with Lewis, forming another entertaining and unforgettable Homicide partnership; Munch flies solo without Bolander; Kay Howard gets promoted to Sergeant; Megan Russert is busted back down to Detective by newly-ascendant scumbag Gaffney; and Max Perlich (Drugstore Cowboy, Rush, Cliffhanger, Maverick; also cast by Johnson in The Shield pilot) joined the squad as Crime Scene Videographer Brodie, who was the source of many laughs to come, while often being the one to remind the detectives of their own essential humanity when surrounded by death.

Amongst those gracing network TV with fine performances in their guest roles this year were: the awesome Terry O’Quinn (The X-Files Movie, Millennium, Alias, Lost), Marcia Gay Harden (Miller’s Crossing, Pollack, Space Cowboys, Mystic River), Gary Basaraba (Brooklyn South, Boomtown), Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead trilogy, Brisco County Jr., Bubba Ho-Tep), Jeffrey Donovan (The Pretender, The Beat, Touching Evil (US)), Jay Leno as himself, David Eigenberg (Sex and the City), Gabriel Casseus (Get On The Bus, Modern Vampires, Bedazzled, Black Hawk Down), J.K.Simmons (The Cider House Rules, The Gift, Spider-man and Spider-man 2), Chris Rock (Lethal Weapon 4, Dogma, Nurse Betty and of course this year’s Oscars), punkabilly legend The Reverend Horton Heat, and the great Lily Tomlin, who was Emmy-nominated for her role in “The Hat”. Directors included a number of actors-turned directors: Bruno Kirby, Peter Weller, Kathy Bates, and Homicide’s own Clark Johnson, who would go on to a lengthy directing career that included the series-defining pilots for The Shield and The Wire, before being given his shot at a blockbuster by Sony Pictures with their big-screen remake of 70s TV actioner S.W.A.T. DoP Jean de Segonzac, so integral to the show’s look, would also helm episodes, and work on just about every cop/crime show going since then; appropriately enough, he was the last director to work on Homicide, directing the final Homicide movie. From cinema, Oscar-nominee and BAFTA winner (for Il Postino) Michael Radford joined returning talents Nick Gomez, Tim Hunter, Peter Medak, and John McNaughton in maintaining the show’s unique qualities.

There are some potential spoilers in the next paragraph.

The excellent writing staff, ably abetted on individual stories by talents old and new (including original author David Simon, now creator of & showrunner on The Wire), rose to the challenge of producing 22 hours of dramatic television without letting the show go stale. Multi-part storylines this year include the opening two-parter “Fire”, noticeable for introducing Kellerman and showing a different kind of homicide (as opposed to the usual GSW, stabbings, beatings, and so on); “Sniper” which dramatised a horrific reality of US urban crime in an unsensationalist yet wholly absorbing manner; and “Justice”, guest-starring the great Bruce Campbell, who grabs a terrific script and breathes life into the old cliché of the vengeance-seeking cop – this is the kind of realistic take on such a matter that rings true, despite the dramatic presentation. Individual stand-outs include: the Tim Hunter-directed “Thrill of the Kill”, a manhunt for a serial killer working the I-95; the Peter Weller-directed look at gay bashing, “Hate Crimes”; affecting emotional portraits from Marcia Gay Harden and Gary Basaraba as a couple riven by grief in “A Doll’s Eyes”; Lily Tomlin’s wry amusement tinged with tragedy in “The Hat”; the first annual Law & Order crossover “For God And Country (2)”, which gives the then L&O cast a chance to really inhabit their characters; Kyle Secor’s performance as the tortured Bayliss in “Requiem for Adena”; the racially volatile “Scene of the Crime”, which also introduces later regular Stu Gharty, played by Peter Gerety; and “The Damage Done”, which introduces the charismatic drug overlord Luther Mahoney, who would become Lewis & Kellerman’s nemesis. A solid, thoughtful year that in retrospect is not as flashy as some fans felt it was at the time – but if you’ve become invested in the characters to any degree, then watch out for the dramatic shifts in the final two episodes; I vividly recall seeing the season finale on Channel Four and being left somewhat agitated, especially as, once again, we the viewers did not know for sure if the series would be returning.

No change from previous seasons - shot on Super 16mm with realistic lighting, using handheld cameras and a variety of editing techniques to energise a talky show visually, the 4:3 transfer adequately conveys the image as intended by the producers, right down to the grain and the relatively drab colour palette. More money to spend per episode meant more locations and more recognisable guest faces, rather than improved cinematography. Again, as with previous sets, this is not reference quality by any means, but 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 previous seasons, plain DD 2.0 stereo works just fine here – the show is about conversation, overlapping dialogue and live sound, all of which sounds good. The theme and the sting used to highlight key dramatic moments have never sounded clearer, as does the show’s continued use of an eclectic range of found music – the only current show I can think of with such a smart soundtrack is the superb Veronica Mars. It’s not reference quality, but the intended sounds are clearly presented.

Packaging & Extras
Continuing the theme of earlier sets, the card slipcase and the Nexpak Thinpaks housing the 6 DVDs of season 4 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 17-minute featurette Homicide: Life in Season 4 is narrated by Isabella Hofmann, and like the pieces on earlier sets, moves smartly along, and yet is highly informative. Indeed, it’s a much better look at the show than feature-length pieces on recent movie “special editions” – but by this set, the absence of any statements from the cast starts to grate, at least with this viewer. Considering A&E got Clark Johnson in the commentary box, the least they could have done was grab a camera and shoot a few minutes with him. Nevertheless, the key players have their say, and they are worth hearing – Fontana’s explanations of the departure of Baldwin and Beatty, David Simon’s comments on directors and Bromell’s comments on why he left the show, are all reasonably candid, to say the least.

Actor/director Clark Johnson and writer Anya Epstein unite for a commentary on “The Hat”, a quirky episode that stands out in particular for guest-actress Lily Tomlin’s Emmy-nominated performance. Johnson’s natural garrulousness and infectious good humour marry nicely with Epstein’s pleasant professionalism to produce something VERY different from the drier tracks on earlier sets – sadly making one realise what opportunities have been missed on other episodes. My vote would have been to team up the “partners” to comment on episodes that highlight those characters, as well as trying to get some more of the directors in, and maybe even a few guest stars. Savour this one – it’s all we’ll be getting for a while.

Song Listings across the discs allow you to build your own soundtrack CDs, Cast & Crew Bios fill in what can already be found online, and that is, sadly, your lot.

Three sets in, and this viewer has run out of excuses for A & E – getting in Johnson shows exactly what sort of extras this important show has been crying out for on DVD. Nevertheless, its place in the history of US cop shows, as well as the history of one-hour dramas, is cemented perfectly by the variety and humour to be found in season 4, maintaining a thoughtful humanity amidst the crime. What looked like occasional struggling at the time is revealed to be a matter of creativity and pushing the show’s own envelope, as well as the genre’s. Even in the current climate of quality US TV, this is still superior TV drama of the finest kind.

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out of 10

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