Homicide: Life On The Street Season 6 Review

“What I'm saying is this isn't Italy. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Baltimore, do as I tell you to.”
Lieutenant Alfonse Giardello

The Show
When NBC renewed Homicide once more for a full season, a very clear target was set: beat Nash Bridges in the ratings. That Homicide was third in its timeslot on Friday night was not enough – NBC wanted to be on top for that timeslot, but would accept second place. Co-Exec Producers Barry Levinson (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon) and Tom Fontana (St.Elsewhere) were under the gun to produce more commercial TV, but with the assembled creative team they had built up over the previous years (writers James Yoshimura and Davis Simon joined Julie Martin as Supervising Producers) behind them, the show became more schizophrenic and yet also more hard-hitting. For every glossy episode taking full advantage of large-scale Baltimore locales with more static camera styles and conventional cop show plots, there were episodes as edgy and dramatic as anything the series had ever produced. As such, returning to season 6 on DVD is an enjoyable experience, free of online scuttlebutt and the fan complaints, the season can be assessed on merit alone.

Possible spoilers in following paragraphs:

You can’t argue with the ambition of the opening three-parter “Family Ties”, where TV veteran director Alan Taylor gives us an opener that could have come from Miami Vice or Hunter – as Pembleton, Bayliss, Lewis and Kellerman return from rotation (something set up at the end of last series allowing Melissa Leo to leave, and Peter Gerety and Jon Seda to become permanent cast additions) to discover G’s not missed them one bit (due to the new member’s clearance rates), a lone motorcyclist with a black helmet watches B.P.D.H.Q. from across the street, then aims a heavy calibre pistol at one of our regulars arriving. From there the new credits introduced the previous year strobe through to an episode that balances out a murder investigation into a wealthy black family with drive-by shootings on Lewis, Kellerman and Stivers that introduce the season’s ongoing antagonist. Viewers of the previous season will know exactly what the implications of this are, and the episode ends with a helicopter vs. private jet face-off of the sort one expects from, well, Nash Bridges. The patented Homicide style makes these action scenes tense and gritty, cinematic in a way TV action rarely was, even in the late 90s, and anticipate the indie stylings directors such as Steve Soderbergh, Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass have brought to mainstream Hollywood action sequences. With all that out of the way, the following episode under indie stalwart Nick Gomez’ helm gets back to business as usual, making full use of the amazing guest cast assembled for this storyline: the awesome Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat, Ride With The Devil, Shaft [2000]), the late Lynne Thigpen (Shaft [2000], The District), and the magisterial James Earl Jones himself, who finds himself in the Box with Braugher. We also see one of the most racially volatile confrontations I have ever seen on TV between Pembleton and Gharty, and the value of David Simon as a writer is revealed once more in his combination of raw authenticity and dramatic fearlessness – the dialogue he writes sounds like it has just been spoken by the characters, not simply recited by an actor.

Stand-out episodes this season include: the Emmy-award winning “The Subway” from Yoshimura and director Gary Fleder (Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, Kiss The Girls, Don’t Say A Word, The Shield), basically a tour-de-force two hander between Andre Braugher and guest star Vincent D’Onfrio; “Closet Cases” wherein a killer preying upon gay men leads Bayliss to continue his self-exploration; “Shaggy Dog, City Goat” wherein Gharty & Ballard encounter the white trash community both in and around Baltimore, while Cox regales fellow M.E.s with the bizarre case of a suicide who might be a murder; the two-part “Something Sacred” which allows the writers to air their vies on the child abuse scandals rocking the Catholic Church at the time; “Lies and other Truths”, in which our feisty CME is written out of the series over a matter of integrity; and “Finnegan’s Wake”, a tale of dead children, the cops who carry their memory with them, and changing times. The latter episode is from the fine combination of writer David Mills (NYPD Blue, The Corner, E.R.) and actor-director Steve Buscemi. Michelle Forbes makes the most of what time she gets before she leaves, and marks her character indelibly on the viewer, while the always-excellent Toni Lewis finds her Detective Stivers rotated onto Homicide late in the year, something that should have been done long ago.

Admittedly, it does feel occasionally as if it’s “issue of the week” territory this season: race & power, AIDS, incest rape, gay-bashing, Catholic priest paedophilia, Southern American political refugees, urban hillbilly life, child kidnapping, police integrity, police corruption, how drugs and prison affect black youth, single women going out alone. The writers tackled every then-current hot topic, but none in the obvious manner – the discussions of the detectives and witnesses grant the issue complexity even while offering character perspectives, and the resolutions to the case never take the easy way out. This is particularly noticeable in the Law & Order crossover, where Sam Waterston’s crusading DA is given a chance to speak off-plot, having been asked for his opinion on things – that one conversation humanised him more than almost all of the years I’ve seen him on L&O, while the case as a whole opens out from the original L&O episode to encompass those issues generated by the case that are not simply legal ones.

Guest roles this year were almost overshadowed by the powerhouse cast of the opening three-parter; after all, how do you top James Earl Jones?! The plots actually gave the main cast more time this year, something that is both welcome and needed, what with new characters to explore. Memorable moments come from Vincent D’Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Men In Black, Full Metal Jacket) as the living victim of “The Subway”; his L&O: CI partner Kathryn Erbe (Oz, Stir of Echoes) as an advanced stage AIDS victim; Peter Gallagher (The O.C., American Beauty, Short Cuts) as a gay restaurant owner; veteran performer Charles Durning (The Sting, Dog Day Afternoon, The Choirboys, Sharky’s Machine) as the retired cop carrying a case in a way Bayliss finds familiar; and Mekhi Phifer (O, 8 Mile, E.R., Dawn Of The Dead [2004]) as Junior Bunk. Directors included Homicide’s own Kyle Secor, Clark Johnson (The Shield, The Wire, S.W.A.T.), and Jean de Segonzac (Homicide: The Movie, Mimic 2); returning TV vets Kenneth Fink and Alan Taylor; from cinema, former guest star Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge), Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A., American Dream), Homicide regulars Uli Edel (Last Exit To Brooklyn, Body of Evidence) and Peter Medak (The Krays, Romeo Is Bleeding), and action auteur Kathryn Bigelow, about whose contribution more later. Together with the excellent writing staff, ably abetted on individual stories by talents old and new (including cast member Yaphet Kotto, again contributing a fine gritty, script), they helped “The Best Damn Show On Television” keep afloat in treacherous waters, both entertaining audiences and winning awards. The end however was in sight – critical kudos counted for less in the pre-DVD era. There were only so many changes that could be made before the show would no longer feel like Homicide to its loyal viewers, and many felt that point had already been reached.

In that context, I want to single out the closing two-parter “Fallen Heroes”, written by the usual staffers but directed by world-class action auteur Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Blue Steel, Point Break), for special praise. Wrapping up the drug war storyline in the most dramatic fashion possible, these episodes create a series of dramatic shifts that tilt the axis of the series, and signpost clearly how different a season 7 would be. I would love to talk further about “Fallen Heroes”, but I can’t without spoiling completely the climax to an involving, evolving season, a fitting end that still refuses to take the easy plot branch when something more interesting can happen. Perhaps all that needs saying is that weeks after watching it, moments continue to replay themselves in my head constantly.

Season 6 looks good indeed, but that has more to do with the use of dramatic locations flatteringly shot; in quality terms, this is business as usual – Super 16mm, realistic lighting, handheld cameras, varied editing techniques, all adequately conveyed by the 4:3 transfer, the picture as intended. More money to spend per episode meant more locations and more recognisable guest faces, rather than improved cinematography. Not reference quality by any means, but not intended to be.

As with the previous seasons, plain DD 2.0 stereo works just fine here. Some interesting musical choices have changed completely my associations with certain songs, particularly Suzanne Vega’s “Blood Makes Noise” in the Christmas episode and Chris Whitley’s “Big Sky Country”. 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 6 are designed to look like case folders housed in a police-issue box file. An effective design touch from A & E being maintained throughout the releases.

Disc 6 is a dual-layer disc, and contains the feature-length PBS documentary “Anatomy of a Homicide”, previously available on NTSC VHS paired with the episode “The Subway”, which is the focus of the doc. Actually, more accurately, writer and Supervising Producer James Yoshimura is the focus, the PBS crew shadowing him throughout the making of “The Subway”, which he both wrote and produced, from pre-season writer’s pitch, through to post-transmission receipt of ratings. Usefully, the first 15-20m of the doc set the scene well, summarising effectively the history of the series up to that point, with interviews with the key players, including NBC president Warren Littlefield. We see the writing staff pitching ideas for the entire season, Fontana and Levinson both filtering carefully, aware they have to boost ratings, while Yoshimura, David Simon (at one point in the doc he can be seen sporting the kind of slick hair & pigtail street dealer/cop look Mark Ruffalo wears in Collateral, and Colin Farrell will be wearing in the upcoming Miami Vice movie), Julie Martin, Anya Epstein, Eric Overmyer and others all bounce ideas around, all fully conversant in what Homicide is and interested in seeing what more they can do with that. Certainly, it looks like an intensely creative environment, and it confirms what I’ve always believed, that these are the real stars of Homicide, the people without whom only a fraction of what we saw onscreen would ever have emerged.

It’s a long documentary that could have been longer still yet would have remained as intensely watchable as it already is. FINALLY we hear from some of the actors about the show, we get a thorough look at the practicalities of shooting a single episode, and one is left with the impression that, unlike in cinema, TV remains a writer’s medium, one where they can excel, especially if also wearing a producer’s hat. The sight of Yoshimura telling director Gary Fleder what shots he needs to get to make the scene work made me laugh out loud – it’s simply not something you would ever see in the kind of big Hollywood films Fleder has worked on since!

Fleder & Yoshimura re-unite for this set’s commentary on (what else?) “The Subway”, and they make an entertaining pair. Neither contradicts, interestingly enough, what is seen in the doc; in fact, their candour is refreshing and entertaining. That they can both sit down now and assess the final product, the process of making it, and their own interactions without any apparent ill will or bad feeling, is a testament to the professionalism of both men, as well as their obvious pride in the hour-long drama they created. I wonder what a commentary from Davis Simon and Nick Gomez on “Family Ties Part 2” would have been like, or else one from Ms. Bigelow and the writers or cast on “Fallen Heroes”? Sadly, we’ll never know – A & E’s strict rationing of one commentary track per box set continues with this release.

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

Season 6 has been described in the past as the beginning of the end, the year the rot expanded, and so on. More schizophrenic than season 5 in its attempt to balance art & commerce under the pressure for ratings, it is nevertheless an excellent season of hour-long drama, perhaps a little more action-packed, a little more colourful, than previous years, but still streets ahead of its nearest rivals – and NO other cop show before or since can boast action sequences directed by Kathryn Bigelow! In short, the criticisms bandied about at the time seem less than relevant today – this is excellent TV, groundbreaking at the time, even if the only ground left for it to break was its own.

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out of 10

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