After last week's look at Arrested Development we now skip back around ten years to look at one of the greatest police procedural shows of all time, Homicide: Life on the Street. The show that changed the landscape of procedurals and has yet to be ousted from its perch as the highest quality procedural in the history of television (that's right, I've written it!).
Homicide: Life on the Street is a show that has spawned/influenced two of the greatest shows in television history (and personal favourites of mine): I refer to future TVGA Masterworks shows -- The Shield and The Wire -- but its laurels are not just with its progeny. No sir, Homicide is an exceptional piece of television in its own right and a show worthy of serious consideration in anyone's "Top X Television Shows of All Time" list.
Set in the police department and on the streets of Baltimore almost ten years before the first fired bullet from The Wire rang out, Homicide is a "basics and truth" look at the life of police officers in Baltimore's homicide department. Born from David Simon's book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," the show takes a far more realistic position on the police procedural genre than any of its fellows. This is no CSI: Miami filled with glitz, witty cold openings, neat endings and David Caruso; instead we have a show of dirt, grime, graft and dealing with the bottom rung of humanity. Yes, Homicide is the very show that the word "gritty" was made for.
Homicide gives the viewer a window into the mundane nature of investigation. Rather than glossing over the difficulties and challenges faced by a homicide detective, the show instead embraces them, portraying people who are often not seeking genuine evil but are instead ordinary people who do extraordinary wrong. The show does often provide resolution for the viewer, but it's not afraid of leaving things open at times -- not every case is closed immediately, and some are never closed. This is the very nature of police work; sometimes cases can be open for decades before being closed through happenstance or chance. Sometimes even when the detectives have the perpetrator bang to rights they'll still hit a wall of denial -- the convenient confession, so often used as a tool to close out a story in lesser procedurals, is not a staple of Homicide. Not every criminal will confess, not every case is neat and tidy.
One of the master strokes of the show is it's willingness to show people faltering and failing. We're not dealing with super-cops who close a case as soon as they open the file and spend time working with sophisticated "magical" technology powered by made-it-up and easy answers only confounded by plot twists designed to blind-side the viewer.
Of course, a show that reveals so much of the daily grind and struggle doesn't sound like an appetizing meal for the senses. Really on paper at least, Homicide should struggle to find an audience, and the truth of the matter is that for a while it did as ratings for the first two seasons were poor and the show could have easily been cancelled in those early days. Fortunately strong reviews, an Emmy win for Tom Fontana's writing in "Three Men and Adena," an Emmy nomination for guest star Robin Williams in the episode "Bop Gun," and a WGA Award for writers David Simon and David Mills for the same episode contributed towards the show's survival (albeit with Jon Polito's character Steve Crosetti being cut from the show in a storyline that would dominate a large section of the third season).
Cast changes became something of a regular feature on Homicide, with only four cast members present in every single season, but the strength of the characters portrayed and the performances from the actors means that while you can end up missing a past favourite there are always plenty of excellent characters to appreciate. In particular Yaphet Kotto and Andre Braugher's characters (Al and Frank) are worthy of a great deal of praise. Frank Pembleton became the show's break out character and Al Giardello is the rock that holds the series together by providing consistency both for the viewers and the detectives.
The other three great core members are Tim Bayliss as Kyle, who has a difficult job over the course of the show as his character changes more than anyone else. Clark Johnson as Meldrick Lewis (Clark has his fingerprints on many great shows, including my aforementioned favourites) gives a rock solid and sympathetic performance for the show's entire run. Then there is Richard Belzer as the now legendary John Munch, who has appeared in no less than eight different television shows; including last week's TVGA Masterwork, Arrested Development (in the third season, watch out for him), The Wire, The X-Files, and of course, Law & Order. He is also mentioned in Idris Elba's currently running series, Luther.
The other detectives in the show come and go, but there isn't a single one of them who doesn't make their own mark or impression on the show and the viewer. We have actors and actresses like Michelle Forbes (In Treatment, Battlestar Galactica), Reed Diamond (24, Dollhouse), Melissa Leo (Treme), Callie Thorne (Rescue Me), Ned Beatty (Roseanne), Isabella Hoffman (JAG) and Daniel Baldwin (Cold Case) all giving their all in their respective roles.
Homicide's storylines are as realistic and compelling as the characters in the show. "Three Men and Adena" (as mentioned earlier) is an astonishing portrayal of the difficulties involved in police interviewing and an exceptionally deep piece for the fifth episode of any series. "Justice" a two-part story with Bruce Campbell as a guest star is another great tale and just one example of many exceptional guest star performances. But the standout killer episode -- and the one that everyone should watch even if they have no intent of seeing the rest -- is the sixth season episode "Subway," a story about Frank Pembleton and a man named John Lange who is trapped between the platform and the subway train. John is only alive due to the train keeping his internal organs in place (a scenario much aped by other shows later on). The other detectives look into how John fell under the train and if it was foul play and it falls to Frank to keep the spirits of a man who knows he has less than an hour to live. It's an episode with lofty goals and in truth it nails every single last one of them, resulting in one of the most compelling episodes of any show ever.
So, if you've watched shows like The Shield and The Wire, you need to do yourself a serious favor and watch the show that spawned them. If you’re a fan of procedural shows and feel that you're capable of handling a show that is slower paced, grim, and at times holds with no clear answers, then you need to watch this daddy of all procedurals.
Because until you've seen Homicide: Life on the Street, you haven't seen a procedural done right.
Video: TVGA Masterworks, Homicide: Life on the Street
Check out a classic bit of cops messing with someone to get some answers (later incorporated into an episode of The Wire):
Cast & Stats: TVGA Masterworks, Homicide: Life on the Street