Homicide: Life On The Street Season 5 Review

“From the tracks on his arms, the large calibre wound, the proximity to a heroin market -- I'd say it was a heated dispute about the symbolism of red and blue in eighteenth century French romantic poetry.”
Detective John Munch

The Show
Finally renewed by NBC once more for a full season, but now without Co-Exec Producer Henry Bromell, remaining producers Barry Levinson (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon) and showrunner Tom Fontana (St.Elsewhere) had to build a season that still retained the core values of the show – great writing, great direction, great acting – but pushed boundaries for them, their creative staff, and their cast. Resolving the previous season’s cliffhanger was a good starting place, but such a direct response to Andre Braugher’s demands required a long, slow arc if it was to fit with the realistic tone of the show. In the meantime, viewers who had become used to tuning in for the energy shown in the Box by Emmy-nominee Braugher and his fellow ensemble members now found themselves in the same place as the character, contemplating the Box and the squad from a different angle. Suddenly, the ‘outsider’ was no longer a rookie, or a departmental transfer, but someone viewers cared about, someone they had invested in, and this threw a lot of people off-balance – after all, people usually like a show because of its consistency week to week, not how it changes and challenges all around it. As such, the opportunity to return and revisit later seasons on DVD is a boon – free of online scuttlebutt and the complaints of long-term fans, the final seasons can be assessed on merit alone.

Possible spoilers in following paragraphs:

With Pembleton sidelined, and Megan Russert written out (she moves to Paris with her child) leaving Munch partner-less again, this season in its first half sees the rest of the ensemble in complete command of their characters and the nuances of performance, and one is wholly absorbed immediately back into the latest “red ball” two-parter that opens the season, “Hostage”. UK viewers should savour this chaotic, realistic look at a hostage situation in a high school – Channel 4 did not screen these episodes back in 1997, due to the 1996 Dunblane tragedy. As a secondary school teacher at the time, I remember the security-consciousness instilled in me (which has never left me to this day) by Dunblane, and felt no ill will towards 4 other than geeky annoyance at the decision. Seeing those episodes now, I have to say that the hyper-reality of the chaos and the sight of bleeding bodies on school corridor floors chilled me to the bone – how it may have made many feel back then is a genuine issue, and 4 deserved to be applauded for their sensitivity to those who may have been upset – few broadcasters since, 4 included, have showed such responsibility in the wake of more recent tragedies. [They could, however, have shown the episodes in a repeat run, or in an after-midnight special, properly publicised with clear warnings – I still think a chance was missed with the creation of E4 to do complete reruns of 4’s back catalogue, instead of subjecting us to endless hours of fame-hungry idiots offering inanities to the world at large.]

Instead, 4’s UK run started the series with the equally raw and disturbing third episode, “Prison Riot”, which (a) brings back several guest actors from previous seasons as convicts, and (b) now looks very clearly like a dry run for Fontana’s later series, the no-holds-barred cable prison saga Oz. "M.E., Myself and I" introduces new Medical Examiner Julianna Cox, played bold and brassy by the inestimable Michelle Forbes (Star Trek: TNG, 24 Season 2). An excellent actress given a decent role, ultimately not enough was ever done with the character, and Story Editor James Yoshimura admits that the production did a huge disservice to her in NOT casting her as a squad member. That thought has completely changed my view of Cox and Forbes' sterling work - I have watched every episode since contemplating the show with her as a detective, and it has to be considered one of the great lost opportunities of modern dramatic television. After Marcia Gay Harden’s affecting performance last season, this season it’s former 80s star Roseanna Arquette’s turn, in the Whit Stillman-helmed, former-exec-producer Henry Bromell-written, “The Heart Of The Night”, structured around a bereavement counselling session – although Michelle Forbes, being Michelle Forbes, pretty much takes her and everyone else to the cleaners in the acting stakes in this episode. Braugher gets to take Pembleton back out on the streets as primary in “Blood Wedding”, only to deal with a case in which ADA Ed Danvers is emotionally involved, to say the least, an opportunity Zeljko Ivanek grabs at with both hands, giving a superb performance that can be seen to haunt his character in later seasons when dealing with the daily brutality that is there stock-in-trade. “The Documentary”, directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, gives Max Perlich his time in the spotlight, and he turns in his usual affecting comic portrayal of videographer Brodie, only fine-tuned to an impressive degree. This episode is also an affectionate reminder of the entire ensemble’s ability and the core elements of what makes Homicide interesting, with some big chunks of David Simon’s original book being used here in the dialogue – Eric Overmyer’s teleplay is subtly superb. The intense “Betrayal” and “Have A Conscience” show the consequences of longer storylines for Kellerman and Bayliss, leading to the very funny but very pointed team-up of Pembleton and Lewis in “Diener”, Kyle Secor’s debut as director. Richard Belzer gets to fine-tune his wonderful John Munch in “Kaddish”, looking at the character’s Jewish roots, while the Mahoney storyline escalates to an intense, unforgettable climax in “Deception”, which leads into the key story arcs for season 6. Yaphet Kotto proves himself an excellent writer with the superb “Narcissus”, a show that examines race not just on the street, but also in the upper echelons of local government and power. Finally, the season ends with a two-part investigation that introduces new faces for season 6 while reminding us of some old faces from previous seasons – if you’re a fan of the ever-subtle Melissa Leo, take advantage of these episodes here, as she would not return the following year.

Guest roles this year were, if possible, even more impressive than in previous seasons: the award-winner Charles S. Dutton (Alien 3, Menace II Society, Mimic), who would become very much associated with David Simon in his next TV project; returning criminal characters David Eigenberg (Sex and the City), Dean Winters (Oz, Law & Order: SVU), John Epps (The Corner), Tim McAdam (Oz) show up as inmates in “Prison Riot”; Roseanna Arquette (Desperately Seeking Susan, 8 Million Ways To Die, Le Grand Bleu, Pulp Fiction); Chris Eigeman (Metropolitan, Barcelona); award-winner (and currently systematically trashing his nice guy image in film after film) Elijah Wood (The Faculty, The Lord Of The Rings, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sin City); the legendary Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, Posse); award-winner Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Twin Peaks, Red Rose, White Rose); Tate Donovan (Memphis Belle, Clean And Sober, The O.C.) and Eric Stoltz (Some Kind of Wonderful, Memphis Belle, Killing Zoe, Pulp Fiction) as Kellerman’s shady brothers; Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D., Starship Troopers, Undercover Brother); the return of Edie Falco and Chris Tergesen as the Thormanns; and Mekhi Phifer (O, 8 Mile, E.R., Dawn Of The Dead) as Junior Bunk, nephew of drug supremo Luther Mahoney, played once again with oily charm by Erik Dellums, whose arc in this season casts a long shadow over the following. Directors included Homicide’s own cast members Kyle Secor and Clark Johnson (The Shield, The Wire, S.W.A.T.), along with former DoP Jean de Segonzac (Homicide: The Movie, Mimic 2); returning TV vets Kenneth Fink and Alan Taylor; from cinema, Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona), Kevin Hooks (Passenger 57, Fled), Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A., American Dream), and Uli Edel (Last Exit To Brooklyn, Body of Evidence) joined returning talent Peter Medak (The Krays, Romeo Is Bleeding). Together with 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), they would provide both continuity and creativity to another season of “The Best Damn Show On Television”.

A new DoP means the show has more colour in the setups, but ultimately in quality terms, this is no change from previous seasons – still shot on Super 16mm with realistic lighting, using handheld cameras and a variety of editing techniques, all of which is adequately conveyed by the 4:3 transfer, the picture as intended by the producers. 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 5 are designed to look like case folders housed in a police-issue box file. An effective design touch from A & E being maintained right through the releases.

The earlier season overviews narrated by cast members are here replaced by a featurette “Inside Homicide” made up of two interviews – one with James Yoshimura, Executive Story Editor, and one with David Simon, Staff Writer and original author of the show’s source. Both men are bullish in their pride of what they achieved with the show, as well as in their criticisms of the network, actors, directors, and so forth. Informative, interesting, but lacking something of Fontana’s humour or Levinson’s wryness in previous featurettes. With the intense character moments of this season, as well as the increasing creative involvement of the cast, the lack of involvement of Clark Johnson, Kyle Secor, Yaphet Kotto, Reed Diamond, and so on, is a genuine shame.

This set’s commentary comes on “The Documentary”, the quirkily post-modern episode directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple. Yoshimura and teleplay writer Eric Overmyer do a pretty good job, not as dry as Fontana and Levinson on season 1 but not as engaging as Epstein and Johnson on season 4. Yoshimura’s bullishness continues here, but he dishes out the praise when it’s deserved, and given the number of character moments contained within this episode, it’s not a bad one to have a production look at. However, missed opportunities abound – imagine a Clark Johnson/Reed Diamond track on “Have A Conscience” and “Deception”, or else a Johnson/Andre Braugher track on “Diener”, or Yaphet Kotto, Andre Braugher and Jean de Segonzac on “Narcissus”….

Cast & Crew Bios fill in what can already be found online, and that is, sadly, your lot.

This viewer ran out of excuses for A & E last box set – this important show cries out for copious DVD extras but sadly, budget limitations always win out in the end. Its place in the history of US cop shows, as well as the history of one-hour dramas, remains untarnished by season 5 – if anything, period criticisms seem churlish in the face of so much creativity challenging the show and the genre. David Simon’s presence on the writing staff seems to have galvanised them into greater dramatic heights, in both plots and dialogue. Few cop shows before handled corruption or the drug war in such a manner, but now season-crossing plot arcs and deep-seated emotional devastation of characters are the stock-in-trade of the quality US TV, demonstrating the continuing influence of this superior hour-long drama.

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