[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
[A Matter of Life in Death]
“The one thing this country’s still good at.” – Crosetti
Television nowadays is radically different than it was just a few decades ago. As many critics have rightfully pointed out, many of the shows which grace the airwaves these days boast more complex storylines, deeper characterizations, and an overall more apparent level of quality than even the finest series of the Seventies and the Eighties. It’s clear that somewhere along the road, something changed. More than one thing, even. But television was definitely experiencing a creative rise by the time the twenty-first century rolled around.
Many historians look to The Sopranos, which premiered in January 1999, as the definitive turning point. But I venture to state that there were radical shifts in the televised world even years before David Chase’s widely acclaimed series debuted on HBO. Chase has cited several influences which helped him to develop his work, one of the most noteworthy being a quirky drama that should be familiar to many Critically Touched regulars: Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks, about an FBI agent investigating a small-town murder, aired for a brief time on ABC in the early Nineties before network executives, sensing its lack of broad appeal, killed it to death. But despite its lack of financial success, the series was a major departure from any shows which had previously aired at the time – whereas dramas like Hill Street Blues and Wiseguy had previously begun shifting television’s standalone style to a more arc-based format, story arcing, Twin Peaks took the style to an all-new level. Continuity was an enormous factor of the series, and each episode practically melded right into the next one. On the surface, the show appeared to have 30 episodes – but in reality, one could say that it had only one episode, split into 30 parts.
If you were to claim that Twin Peaks was the initiator of the Television Renaissance, I wouldn’t spend much time arguing with you – in fact, I’d pretty much agree. Chase isn’t the only one to express gratitude toward the show, as Joss Whedon, Damon Lindelof, and Rob Thomas (to name a few) have all taken a great deal of influence from that show’s storytelling style.
And yet… for all its trailblazing, Twin Peaks is barely comparable to the shows it inspired. It’s so different that most other shows that it often seems to be detached from the television world, and I’m tempted to call it less of an influential television series and more of an influential model.
No, when it comes to the television template that I’ve come to grow and love, I can think of no better initiator than Homicide: Life on the Street.
This is no small praise I’m bestowing here, mind you. I mean to stake Homicide‘s claim not only as an excellent drama, but as the unsung dark horse which ushered in a new level of dramatic storytelling. No show, to my knowledge, which chronologically preceded it was able to do all the things I look for in a television series – long-term story arcs, rich character development, bold themes, intriguing plots, and terrific humor – and do them so well. (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which debuted a mere 25 days before Homicide, shared many of the same attributes, but it took a good two or three years for itto find itself as an arc-heavy series.)
Homicide, which ran for seven seasons (1993-1999) on NBC, followed the work of several Baltimore City homicide detectives as they went about their jobs. Based on the book “Homicide: a Year in Killings” by David Simon (a journalist who had spent time with an actual Baltimore police unit and would join the show as a staff writer in its later seasons), and developed for television by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, the series was at once an evocative look at a crime-infested cityscape and an often emotionally crushing character drama.
The show was never a big hit viewer-wise, but it found a sizable home on Friday nights, where it could turn out low ratings without risk of cancellation. It was kept afloat by a small but devoted fanbase, as well as boundless heaps of critical acclaim, the latter of which it caught right from the very start.
If I were to make a list of the greatest seasons of television of the 1990s, Season One of Homicide would most definitely be in the Top Ten, and possibly even be in discussion for the Top Five. Few, if any, shows have emerged so smoothly, vividly, and fully-formed as this one did on that night in January 1993 immediately after Super Bowl XXVII.
The first episode alone introduces all nine of the initial main characters with style and assurance, and juggles four individual storylines, never letting the plots get in each other’s way or overtake the characters. From the very first scene, we get the sense that this will not be your average cop show, with dark shading and a foreboding atmosphere setting the tone from the remainder episode.
The pilot episode, titled “Gone for Goode”, is the rare premiere that hooked me from the get-go. The first time I watched it, there was that lightning-in-a-bottle sense – everything about the premiere, from the characters to the atmosphere to the stories to the humor, clicked together instantly. By the time I reached the final scene (a crucial episode moment that would prove to have repercussions for the remainder of the series), I was actually worried that the show had set my expectations too high, and nothing which followed would meet them.
I was wrong. The first season of the series was a mere nine episodes long, but it took advantage of every minute. The season maintained a solid episode-to-episode consistency, sustaining numerous storylines within every episode and carefully setting up its ingratiating and nuanced characters. The directorial style was also unique – episodes featured grainy and often disoriented camerawork, adding to the urgency and realism of the series. Yet for all the stark drama of its premise, one of the show’s strongest assets was its sense of humor – rather than give itself completely over to the unpleasantness of the homicide detectives’ professions, the series struck a darkly and disturbingly funny note in several of the investigative cases, reminiscent in ways of the type of humor typified by the more recent Breaking Bad . (I wouldn’t chalk this similarity up to coincidence, either – Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, is a professed Homicide fan.)
In the prologue to “The Revolution Was Televised”, Alan Sepinwall pinpointed exactly why the series was such a groundbreaker: “Homicide was a cop drama that was rarely afraid to sacrifice plot in favor of character.” It may seem strange to think of this as being anything but the norm of quality television nowadays, but in 1993, Homicide‘s mode of storytelling was almost as unconventional as Hill Street Blues‘ had been a dozen years earlier. Even during the instances that the show stumbled – as it would at times during its later seasons – it still maintained a consistent level of insight and development for its central figures. The impeccable cast – which included Daniel Baldwin, Ned Beatty, future Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, and Rickard Belzer (whose John Munch would become perhaps the most widely prolific character in the history of television) – nailed their roles, breathing life into the characters of the scripted page.
But despite its ensemble setup, the series had a core in the way of Detectives Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). Fans of The Shield (the only other cop show I’ve seen which potentially surpasses Homicide in terms of quality) may recognize in these characters a bit of the DNA that later went into the creation of Claudette Wyms and Dutch Wagenbach, respectively. But the partnership on Homicide received more spotlighting, and intrigues me even on rewatch.
I’ve heard numerous people express their surprise at Andre Braugher’s work on his current series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. What makes his performance so noteworthy, it seems, is that he’s a typically dramatic actor, here taking on a sharply comedic role. But although there are many noteworthy things about Braugher’s acting ability, this just isn’t one of them. His character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine is, at the surface, just a slight variation of the one he played on Homicide, with a similarly dry and restrained sense of humor. (His comic timing on the Nineties drama is impeccable, even if he doesn’t get to show it as much as on B99.)
Frank Pembleton’s arc is a model of hope, trapped in a city of desolation. He enters the series as a highly-trained detective and unsociable loner, but as time goes wears on, he begins to show his more human side. I love how Pembleton’s arc, despite its inherently optimistic vibe, comes off as something of a tragedy when viewed in the context of the dark, unsettling series. (And trust me, Braugher’s dramatic timing is more than impeccable.)
Then there’s Tim Bayliss. If we’re evaluating characters based on the sheer depth and breadth of their arcs, Bayliss wins. With only a few exceptions, Bayliss has one of the best seven-season character arcs I’ve seen on television. It’s a dark and often disturbing story, and Secor (later recognizable as Jake Kane of Veronica Mars) gives a commendable performance in portraying just how screwed-up his character’s life really is. Even in the last couple of seasons, when Bayliss can become downright unlikable, we continually have a genuine sense of why he’s making his (however poor) life choices.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about the Pembleton/Bayliss duo is the way the series (or rather, the series-ending movie) wraps up their arcs. I’ll avoid spoilers, of course, but let’s simply say that Homicide: The Movie features one of the most character-relevant and thematically satisfying endings a show can hope for.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re still on Season One – and I haven’t even gotten to the best part. The highlight of the first season – and likely the series as a whole – would have to be the miniature masterpiece called “Three Men and Adena”. As riveting a bottle episode that’s ever been crafted, the story is set almost entirely in an interrogation room, where Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss interrogate a murder suspect. The indelibly paced episode is a tour de force of writing and direction, as each act brings new twists and character revelations for all three characters involved. Best of all, it serves as a brilliant setup for the character arcs of the two detectives involved. No matter how many times I see it, “Three Men and Adena” remains one of the most endlessly fascinating television episodes I’ve ever seen, and I can’t recommend it enough.
The first season of Homicide remains its best, but the later seasons – particularly Two, Three, and the underrated Season Five – are also brimming with great television. The show’s early years are its strongest due in part to the lack of executive meddling, which gave the writers plenty of creative freedom to explore the characters and themes of the show in impressive detail. The second season is unusual in its length – a mere four episodes were produced, a sign that the network was still uneasy about whether audiences would take to the series. (All subsequent seasons would feature a more standard 20-23 episodes.) The first three episodes of that abridged season continue the trend of darkly funny, emotionally evoking television set by Season One. The finale, “Bop Gun”, is a fascinating standalone episode which examines the detectives’ process from a civilian point of view. Notable for being the first television script David Simon ever wrote, and featuring effective guest appearances by the great Robin Williams (in one of his very few dramatic television roles) and a young Jake Gyllenhaal (the son of the episode’s director), “Bop Gun” is a stirring example of just how far Homicide was willing to span its range.
It was after the third season (another terrific year that proved the show could maintain a consistently strong level of quality in a full-length year, and give us several experimental episodes without destroying the fragility of the world it created) that troubles began. Homicide, alas, was turning into one of those “too-good-for-television” shows, and NBC insisted that the show be made more accessible to casual viewers. Season Four was overall good, but relied a little too much on standalone plots, rather than longer story and character arcs. Season Five righted this ship to some extent, putting a prominent focus on the characters and the various ways that their occupations affected them personally. (The best material of that season involved the character of Mike Kellerman – played by Reed Diamond of Dollhouse – whose arc commented on the bureaucracy inflicted on the police force while still maintaining a firm emotional crux.)
It was during the last two seasons that Homicide lost a noticeable deal of its greatness. Season Six wasn’t bad, but it focused too much on several new characters who were not nearly as compelling as those in the original cast. Season Seven was overall forgettable, unsaved even by the inclusion of the great Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring of Breaking Bad). The series-ending movie – apart from its excellent final five minutes – was ultimately good, rather than great.
But I take the show’s flaws. I take them, because as I say, they’re ultimately just a byproduct of Homicide‘s continued duration (and the lack of ratings that came with it). And I don’t think the flaws of the later seasons bring down the earlier ones any more than the later seasons of The Simpsons sully the quality of the first eight. When Homicide was on all cylinders, it produced wonders, and even in its later years, the writers prove themselves to be among the most talented in the business. (Watch the sixth-season episode “Subway” – featuring a then-unknown Vincent D’Onofrio – and tell me it isn’t as heart-wrenching and brilliant as any highlights of the earlier years.)
Still not convinced? Then let’s discuss one more remarkable aspect of the series: music. For starters, there’s that beautifully haunting intro theme. It’s hardly what could be called a “tune” – it’s more of a mixture of offbeat, metallic sounds – yet it’s a great listen nonetheless. The first four seasons feature a gritty and foreboding set of black-and-white images which add a solidified texture to the theme music. Beginning with Season Five, the network swapped the intro images for an overproduced and far less compelling series of crime-investigative related images meant to catch the casual viewer’s eye. (Thankfully, the music was spared.)
And what of the background music? The first season keeps outside music to the barest minimum, in order to enhance the realism of the setting. The network requested the addition of music to make the show – you guessed it – more viewer-friendly. This factor could have potentially ruined the tone of the series, but instead, it may have been the one smart change NBC ever made to the show.
The music of Homicide runs a wide playlist – rock, pop, gospel, folk, country – you name it, they’ve played it. No show I’ve seen outside of Freaks and Geeks features such an incredibly diverse playlist. And Homicide makes it work – the songs, in addition to being insanely catchy, bring out the raw drama and melancholy humor in the tone the series conveys. Although some may complain that the show’s drama was in fact at its rawest when there was nothing but natural background, I find the show’s soundtrack to melt right into the series’ intricate design. (One criticism, though: The later seasons feature a few too many “song endings”. You’re not filming Grey’s Anatomy, guys.)
Homicide is not available on any online viewing platforms I could find, and the best option is probably the DVD route. (One thing to keep in mind, though, is the discrepancy in regions: In the US, Homicide was released properly as seven seasons, albeit with the first two occupying a single DVD set. Overseas, though, the first two seasons are blended together as “Season One”, causing every subsequent release to be one season behind its official standing.)
And if you are indeed able to get your hands on a DVD set of the series (the first 13 episodes, at the least, are well worth buying), do so. And then sit back, watch those golden early seasons, and then come back here and tell me how crucial you think this series was in shaping the current crop of outstanding television.
Jeremy Grayson is a freelance writer and reviewer for Critically Touched. He hopes you appreciated his article, as he spent two hours writing it instead of doing his homework.