Watching the Detectives

With Republic of Doyle recently renewed for a third season, the continued success of the CSI franchise and The Wire‘s cult blossoming into a full-scale religion, there’s no denying detective stories and police procedurals are still in vogue.

This gives you all the more reason for me to tell you to watch Homicide: Life On The Street, all of which has been collected as a DVD megaset.

The show ran on NBC from ’93 to ’99 and was one of TV’s masterpieces. Sidestepping cop clichés in favour of rat-tat-tat dialogue where detectives offered endless musings on topics ranging from religion, sex, television and anything else that struck them as they wandered the streets. Each of the main characters of Homicide had distinct opinions, philosophies and voices. The squad’s banter made you want to spend time with them even though they were self-absorbed, controlling, bitter and/or semi-functional alcoholics.

Here was a cop show for people who hated cop shows. It wore its heart on its sleeve and was full of humanity in a genre known for easy answers and cheap thrills. In Homicide‘s first season, we never saw a murder, only the detectives before and after the fact. Each scene is filmed documentary-style on hand-held cameras with colours so muted that the show is practically in black and white.

Boasting some incredible scripts from David Simon (The Wire), Tom Fontana (Oz), Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) and the then-innovative use of hand-helds, jump-cuts and song montages, Homicide’s strength was its ensemble. It was at its best in the first season, which featured Yaphet Kotto (Monkey Hustle), Andre Braugher (Men Of A Certain Age), Coen Bros veteran Jon Polito, Kyle Secor (Veronica Mars), Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Clark Johnson (The Wire) and Richard Belzer. Belzer’s Det. John Munch has since become a ubiquitous figure in the television landscape, with in-character appearances on The X-Files, Arrested Development and various iterations of Law & Order (including the short-lived, but gripping Law & Order: Parking Meters Unit). The entire first season cast is perfect. Even Daniel Baldwin, who did well for himself as a fat Alec Baldwin before 30 Rock made fat Alec Baldwins fashionable.

With each successive season, Homicide‘s writers dealt with network notes to try to improve ratings. The second season turned up the colour, while subsequent seasons would add Law & Order crossovers and add a few sexier/blander cast members to the mix. Despite this, many of the story arcs in later seasons would prove compelling, such as Bayliss’ (Secor) repression and Pembleton’s (Braugher) lapsed Catholicism. Most affecting of all was the suicide of the avuncular Crosetti (Polito), which would haunt and mystify the detectives for the rest of the series. The episode in which Crosetti’s body is found is one of the most beautiful and sad hours to have ever aired on television. The moment when Crosetti’s partner, Lewis (Johnson), realizes that he never noticed all of the signs that his friend was suffering, achieves an honest, cathartic aching that TV seldom tries these days.

Not all Homicide is perfect. Its final two seasons are uneven and the 2000 telemovie coda to the series is beyond terrible (even worse than the Family Matters finale). Also, a show that wears its heart on its sleeve still should have known better than to end an episode with a montage set to “What If God Was One Of Us.” But the series deserves credit for its wit, earnestness and sobriety, for these elements are just as rare to see on TV now as they were in the nineties.

Recommended episodes: “Gone For Goode,” “Three Men And Adena,” “Crosetti,” “Stakeout,” “Have A Conscience.”

4 comments

  1. glenn · October 4, 2011

    Good to hear that there are other fans of Homicide out there. Way ahead of its time. I still pull it out from time to time. Great to see the rest of the world discovering Melissa Leo. Braugher and Secor are still fascinating to watch. So far beyond today’s paint-by-number cop shows.

  2. Tim Lehnerer · October 4, 2011

    It’s a lot of fun to go through the series now and play “spot the actor who’s going to be on THE WIRE”. And you’re absolutely dead-on about the show’s humanity. It’s about the people left behind in the wake of a murder, not about the crimes that are solved (or not solved) over the length of the show. And the heat wave episode is amazing for watching everyone get angry at Pembleton for continuing to wear a tie and a completely buttoned-up, flawlessly pressed shirt while everyone else is suffering.

  3. Adam Clarke · October 4, 2011

    Oh, man! How did I neglect to mention Ned Beatty as Stan “Big Man” Bolander? That said, the season 5 cast (pictured above), is definitely a close second in terms of H: LOTS best ensemble.

    The only downside of watching Homicide, aside from the occasional clunker episode (mostly relegated to seasons 6 & 7), is just how bad it makes the rest of the tv landscape look by comparison.