Homicide: Life On The Street Seasons 1 & 2 Review

“That’s the trouble with this job – it’s got nothing to do with life.”
Detective Steve Crosetti

The Show
1990 saw an event which was to create a sea change in US network television, specifically in the arena of prime-time hour-long drama, arguably the most lucrative and creative area of US TV then available. The glut of simplistic 80s shows of all genres seemed to be fading fast, as era-defining and spanning shows were ending or clearly not long for the airwaves: Magnum P.I. (1980-1988), Hunter (1984-1989), Cagney & Lacey (1982-1988), The Equalizer (1985-1989), MacGyver (1985-1992), St.Elsewhere (1982-1988), Dynasty (1981-1989), Dallas (1978-1991). Most relevant to this discussion, however, is Miami Vice, about to undergo its noughties revival, which aired from 1984 to 1989 and made a lasting impact on television, features, pop music and fashion. In production terms, Miami Vice changed prime-time serials, bringing feature-film techniques, craft and ambition to a moribund form. This has everything to do with Producer Michael Mann – a TV veteran returning from cinema after the flop of his second theatrical feature The Keep, he showed what then-current US cinema could teach US TV. His follow-up series Crime Story, now thankfully being re-discovered on DVD, set new standards for US TV that have only recently been taken full advantage of by HBO, Showtime and other cable channels. However, at the time, no one followed suit, although every network wanted their own cheaper Miami Vice knock-off (for example Houston Knights).

At the turn of the decade, ABC decided to take a major risk by collaborating with independent cinema luminary David Lynch, although they felt the risk was minimised by the presence of experienced TV writer Mark Frost and Aaron Spelling’s production company. Twin Peaks was both massively hyped and enough of a success in its first year that other networks and producers turned to US cinema’s latest auteurs for a little of what ABC were getting. Over the next few years, viewers were treated to TV shows from Oliver Stone (Wild Palms), Wes Craven (Nightmare Café), and Baltimore native Barry Levinson. Famed for characters, performances and dialogue in authentic Baltimore settings, Levinson (along with screenwriter Paul Attanasio) had been looking into developing a feature 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. When that fell through, they shifted the form to TV and brought in experienced TV writer Tom Fontana (St.Elsewhere) to act as what is now referred to as the “showrunner”. Thus was born what fans would later memorably describe as “the best damn show on television”.

Levinson & Fontana’s series brief broke the TV mould in even more ways than Mann. Their cop show, based as it was on reality, was to have no car chases (a genre staple since the 60s), no gun battles, the actual commission of the crime would not be shown, a maximum of location shooting, actual night shooting (a Mann innovation – US TV was still shooting day-for-night well into the 80s), and directors drawn from the emerging new indie scene as well as proven TV talent looking to participate in breaking the mould. This box set contains the two seasons which not only show them succeeding in every endeavour, but also show why the show was cancelled almost every season it was on air, only to be brought back at the last minute. NBC, long since the home of the realistic cop show (Dragnet in the 50s, Police Story in the 70s, Hill Street Blues in the 80s), was both saviour and curse for the production, supported in its early years by then network president Warren Littlefield, but not, crucially, by the Promotions Department or other levels of management. The initial order of 6 was expanded to 9 on the strength of the pilot, but changing timeslots leading to falling ratings led to cancellation. A last minute reprieve granted an order for 4 further episodes to make up an ultra-short second season, for which the producers had 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! The classic example was getting Levinson’s friend Robin Williams to appear as a guest star, but casting him in his first serious dramatic role in a very grim episode, leaving the Promotions department stranded without any “funny moments”!

The cast assembled for this season is, for many, the definitive Homicide squad roster, from which it is nigh impossible to single out any one performance in this set. Later seasons would see various characters gain their time in the spotlight, but in these two seasons the show was truly an ensemble show. Returning to “police work” in their careers were Yaphet Kotto (Across 110th Street; better known for Live & Let Die and Alien), Andre Braugher (the Kojak revival TV movies; famous for holding his own with Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman in Glory), Clark Johnson (Night Heat, Sweating Bullets, Forever Knight, and a long list of credits in TV and film in other roles), Jon Polito (Highlander, but more often an Italian gangster in numerous other productions, notably Crime Story and Miller’s Crossing), and Ned Beatty (countless films, including Deliverance, Nashville, Network, All The President’s Men, Superman, The Big Easy, and The Fourth Protocol – but he played cops in the original Kojak mini-series and The Streets Of San Francisco, amongst others). Younger, less well-known faces such as Melissa Leo (a stage actress seen in western series The Young Riders), Baldwin brother Daniel, and St.Elsewhere veteran Kyle Secor, were joined by stand-up comic Richard Belzer, (a brainwave of Levinson’s, who saw him on TV and wondered what he would be like as a cop!), who would go on to become the actor who has played the same character in the most number of shows ever, in his role here as Detective John Munch, former 60s hippy turned homicide ‘tec.

The guest cast was also a superb mix of experienced and up-&-coming talent: Edie Falco (Cop Land, The Sopranos), Lee Tergesen (The Beat, Monster), Moses Gunn (Shaft, Rollerball, Roots), N’Bushe Wright (Dangerous Minds, Blade), Juliana Margulies (ER, Ghost Ship, The Grid), Spike Lee regular Isaiah Washington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robin Williams, and local celebrity John Waters. Recurring characters that would make indelible impacts over the coming years include Clayton LeBoeuf’s Captain Barnfather, Walt MacPherson’s Roger Gaffney and Zeljko Ivanek’s ADA Ed Danvers.

What drew me to the show originally, apart from Kotto, Braugher, Polito, Leo, and Belzer, was the quality of directors Homicide attracted, a level they would maintain throughout their entire run. A mix of indie and now mainstream cinema names, some were TV veterans looking to do something new in television that hadn’t been attempted since Hill Street Blues, and with NYPD Blue starting 9 months after Homicide’s debut season and ER a short way off, this was the only game in town; others saw this as a way to make their names, to get them out of the indie ghetto. Levinson himself set the tone, modelled in part on the style he had developed in Diner, Tin Men and Avalon, and this was developed by fellow TV/cinema vets Bruce Paltrow, Stephen Gyllenhaal, and Peter Markle, TV vets Martin Campbell, Chris Menaul and Alan Taylor, rising indie stars Nick Gomez, Michael Lehmann, and John McNaughton, and newcomer Wayne Ewing.

Special mention has to go to the writing team assembled for the series. Creator Paul Attanasio, original author David Simon, Producer Tom Fontana, Exec Script Editor James Yoshimura, Jorge Zamacona, Frank Pugliese, David Mills, and Noel Benn were the original talent who attracted such fine actors and great directors to the show, and this would be the show’s hallmark in the coming years – great writing, great acting, great direction. As such, the ability to go back and revisit the first thirteen Homicide episodes on DVD is both a privilege and an unmitigated delight.

As is traditional for the genre, the pilot “Gone For Goode” introduces us to members of the squad, but gives the audience a rookie to follow so that much can be explained to us. Through transfer Tim Bayliss meeting Lt. Giardello, we meet all the regulars, including The Board (the whiteboard on which all ongoing cases are listed), The Fish Tank (the glassed-in corridor where visitors and suspects are left seated before interview or interrogation) and The Box (the interrogation room). These are characters as much as any of the actors play, as much as Baltimore is a character – key moments of future shows will be associated with these locations, moments of high emotion for the viewer. Tim is assigned to the brilliant, arrogant maverick New Yorker Frank Pembleton, and their eventual bond will become, for many, the emotional backbone of later seasons, but here, at the beginning, it is Tim’s first case which he “catches” at the end of the pilot which will haunt him forever more: the Adena Watson case. This case is at the core of Season 1, and casts a shadow over the series right up to the final TV Movie – the sexual homicide of a young girl, portrayed realistically but without graphic visual detail, a harrowing case the like of which we had never seen on TV at the time in such an unsensationalised context. The investigation culminates in the Emmy-award winning episode “Three Men And Adena” which takes place for most of its running time in The Box, and remains one of the finest hours of drama ever produced on US TV.

Another experiment from season 1, “Night Of The Dead Living”, finds almost the entire show set in the squadroom on a hot summer’s night shift, providing us with character development a-plenty. Season 2, by virtue of its brevity, still found time to push boundaries – for example, the victim-focused “Bop Gun” made a virtue of its guest stars Robin Williams and Jake Gyllenhaal, while giving viewers an outsider’s perspective on the squad and their work. Homicide would not only push the boundaries of what was expected from it, but would challenge its own self, forcing us to look at what we thought was familiar in different, often uncomfortable ways. Both these episodes were shown out of order in the US, although if memory serves Season 1 screened in the correct order here on Channel 4 while 2 followed the US order – but this set restores both to the order originally intended by the producers.

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 extremely drab colour palette. Season 2 is noticeably brighter in colour and lighting, particularly in the area of wardrobe, showing how the show was making cosmetic changes to stay on the air without compromising the writing, direction and acting. It’s not reference quality by any means, and nitpickers will find fault, but it beats out VHS easily. Cleaning it up would simply miss the point, visually, with this production.

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. It’s not reference, 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
The card slipcase and the Nexpak Thinpaks housing the DVDs deserve special mention, as A&E have thoughtfully designed them to look like case folders housed in a police-issue box file. Sit them on your shelf and you have the complete set of casebooks over 7 years – a nice little touch that fits well with the show itself.

Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana unite for a commentary on the pilot that, while not a reference-quality 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 early days of production, dealing with the network, and the practicality of shooting indie-style on the streets of Baltimore. Disc 1 also contains the original Super Bowl ads, and cast & crew bios.

The documentary Homicide: Life At The Start, on disc 2, runs for just over ten minutes, and is narrated by Richard Belzer. 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, and they are worth hearing.

The 45m episode “To Catch A Killer: Homicide Detectives” of A&E’s docu show American Justice, located on disc 3, is either a needless cash-in or else a great tie-in to contextualise Homicide, depending on your tolerance for late-night Five filler. While it would have been preferable to see a documentary led by David Simon looking at the squad he wrote about in his original book, where we could have met the real-life inspirations for the characters, the cost of such an “extra” is clearly prohibitive in production terms given potential sales for the title. This documentary piece at least talks to real-life ‘tecs, whose comments do actually echo the subjects of Simon’s books and therefore the characters of Homicide.

While Levinson’s diktat on no music was generally obeyed, carefully-selected songs from an eclectic range of modern music artists gradually came to feature more and more as the series continued. The choice of piece and the choice of placement in the episode reflected the best use of found music from the 80s, including Levinson’s own Diner. Many titles were from independent or alternative artists unknown to the audience Homicide gathered, so the web became a crucial place to track these. Song listings for both seasons are the only extra to be found on disc 4, but are most welcome – build your own soundtrack CDs!

I had been awaiting this series on DVD from the time it became viable for studios to release series sets on the format. While it has not found its way to disc with the lavish treatment that Fox or Sony shows have, it nevertheless has been done a measure of justice that other shows have not received (Crime Story). A show that is important in the history of US cop shows as well as the history of one-hour dramas, it was thankfully never a show that was self-important, and grounded the creators’ views on violence, race, class, politics and human emotion in dramatic stories that etched themselves on the viewer’s brain without offering solutions or answers, taking once again a genre built on black & white morality and displaying all life in shades of grey. If you’ve never seen Homicide, but you’ve enjoyed Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Shield or The Wire, then you owe it to yourself to return to this ground-breaking and hugely entertaining show – for those who already know how good it is, return to the source and enjoy it all again.

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