Bottle Month: Homicide’s “Three Men and Adena”

[Blogged by Bertrand Schmendrick]

[Critic’s Note]

Hey, guys. Jeremy here. As most of you are undoubtedly aware, I had planned to wrap up Bottle Month with an article about one of my all-time favorite episodes of television, that being Homicide: Life on the Street‘s acclaimed “Three Men and Adena”. Unfortunately, I’m rather bogged down with schoolwork at the moment, and I’m sadly unable to write a full article at this time.

However, all is not lost. I recently received an anonymous email from someone who voluntarily offered to write his own take on “Three Men and Adena” and post it under my account. I was naturally overjoyed, and immediately said yes. What follows, then, is this fellow’s take on the classic Homicide episode. I haven’t had time to read it – life really is busy this week – but I’m certain he’s written about the episode in an extremely insightful and thought-provoking way.

[Three Men and Adena]

Written by Tom Fontana; Directed by Martin Campbell

Original Airdate: March 3, 1993

Greetings, lower individuals. My name is Bertrand, and I permit you to bask in my company. Today, due to my desire to take a moment’s pity on the lesser mortals of the world, I have chosen to regale all the touchers of this critical website with my presence. I can already hear your applause, but do cease your praise – no amount of gratitude from you lower beings can possibly measure up to the standards I inspire, and thus it is worthless for you to even try.

As those of you with memories that have not been dulled by natural imbecility remember, I have written an article for this woefully misinformed website once before. It was but three-fourths of a common year ago that I penned my glowing ode to the world’s greatest masterpiece, that being the too-good-for-this-world television series known as The Wire. It was a truly refreshing article – perhaps the only thing on the Internet ever worth reading – and yet writing it still left me feeling unfulfilled, as though I had not yet accomplished my civic duty for the sad and sorry thing you lesser mortals call your world.

Thus, when the opportunity arose to present myself to the Internet once more, I grabbed it with fitted gusto. Naturally, this website was the obvious destination, as it’s easily the poorest thing on the World Wide Web, and one that could most desperately use a bit of my polished genius. So fear not, critical touchers. I shall offer a few moments of joy and comprehension to your otherwise meaningless lives, reminding you of the intelligence you could have experienced had you been born on my impossibly high level.

To wit, I am here today to discuss an episode of a television series called Homicide: Life on the Street. This series actually holds a special level of significance to many lower individuals – it was allegedly inspired by a book written by the man who would go on to create The Wire. I say “allegedly”, of course, because the idea of The Wire having been created is pure and unadulterated nonsense. The Wire has always been, and it always will be. It no more has a “creator” than most humans have a functioning brain cell.

But enough statements of the obvious. The episode I’m here to discuss on this day is entitled “Three Men and Adena”. How is this episode, the more verbally cogent among you may ask? Well, to put it as nicely as possible, it’s a dreadfully horrible piece of television with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

(Before we progress, I should inform you that my critique of the episode in question will contain quite a few spoilers. I must thus strongly encourage you to read on, as having the episode spoiled will doubtlessly make you less inclined to waste the better part of one of your life’s many hours watching it.)

“Three Men and Adena” was one of the very first Homicide episodes ever to be inflicted on the poor and unsuspecting public, and to the best of my supreme deduction, the writers’ motive behind its early placement in the series was the need to get it over with as quickly as possible. Make no mistake – this is a horrendous hour of television on every thinkable level, including the levels that only a higher individual like me has the potential to reach. This is, quite simply, one of the worst episodes of television I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen at least four episodes of television outside of The Wire, so that should tell you something.

Where to begin in discussing this horrific pile of cathode ray disease? Let’s start with the cringingly awful plot. The story revolves around a pair of lower individuals named Frank Pembleton (played by the always-incompetent Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (embodied by the laughably foolish Kyle Secor), both of whom have unbelievably been viewed as proficient enough to earn positions at the Baltimore Homicide Unit, as they attempt to interrogate a third lower individual who is their chief suspect in a recent murder. (This third lower being, I should point out, is portrayed by a fellow named Moses Gunn, and this episode was in fact Gunn’s final acting role. Coincidence? I think not.)

On its own, this setup sounds only moderately incompetent. What, then, makes this episode so stupefyingly horrific? Well, put plainly, the setup I just meticulously described makes up the entire episode. That’s right – nearly every last one of this episode’s forty-four minutes takes place within a small interrogation room, where three men sit and talk about the murder of a girl who, as the less damaged among you may infer from the title, is named Adena.

I’ve heard some lower beings refer to this sort of story as a “bottle episode”, and I can only infer that this label is derived from the fact that the writers only compose such episodes after consuming rather copious amounts of undiluted liquor. Precisely how lazy must one be to set an entire episode within the confines of a single room, to the length of a single interrogation? It’s clear that the fools in charge of production wanted to save on money – presumably so that they could buy more of the cocaine that fueled their (extreme lack of) writing talent.

Do you still doubt that “Three Men and Adena” is a horrid abomination of televised nonsense? Listen to how badly the story fumbles: Early scenes feature the Pembleton and Bayliss characters interrogating the third man – an Araber (which apparently means “fruit merchant” to you lower beings) named Risley Tucker – with each detective approaching the task from a different angle. Bayliss, the inexperienced rookie detective to whom the Adena Watson murder case has been assigned, goes directly for the jugular, accusingly asking the man he has pegged as the murderer about his relationship with Adena. Pembleton, the older and wiser (as wise as a lower being can be, I suppose) detective who’s assured of Tucker’s innocence, approaches things more indirectly, calmly asking the Araber about his personal life and interests. The detectives each have their own modus operandi (I’m assuming that at least one of you lower individuals can speak Latin and will thus explain the meaning of that phrase to the others), but they simply end up getting in each other’s way. The episode is clearly aiming to strengthen the relationship between the two detectives – who, prior to this episode, have been rather reluctant partners – but it falls miserably. Any fool can understand the psychological underpinnings of these early scenes – Bayliss is the impetuous do-gooder whose unreserved anger threatens to undercut his case, while Pembleton is the professional who buries his own emotions but may still relate a bit too well to his fellow African-American.

The episode is clearly setting up little emotional beats that will be developed into full-fledged character arcs later in the series, defining them in the contrasting personalities of its two leads. “Three Men and Adena” thus gives us a deconstruction of the “good cop/bad cop” cliché that has grown more than a little tiring in other police dramas. Does it work? Of course not. No matter how cleverly or subversively the episode may play with familiar tropes, the fact that it even acknowledges these tropes exist makes it a truly mindless hour of television.

But things only get more incompetent from there. Watch what happens later in the episode, when Bayliss and Pembleton each interrogate the seemingly unbreakable Tucker on their own. The beats set up during their tandem interrogation session are brought to the forefront in these scenes. Bayliss will not be satisfied unless he hears Tucker flat-out admit that he killed Adena, and his direct approach at one point takes a turn for the physical. (I should note that I cringed as I watched the white Bayliss angrily assault the black Tucker. Homicide is clearly a racist show, and there’s nothing I hate more than racism. Well, except for Jews, Hispanics, and Puerto Ricans.) Pembleton’s approach, on the other hand, takes a turn for the psychological, as he attempts to be friendly and inviting with the old Araber. Part of Pembleton’s cool demeanor comes from knowing all the old tricks of interrogation, and being able to get inside the head of the suspect is the perfect way to solve this mystery. Or so he would think – because, as anyone with the slightest bit of genuine intelligence (a classification which, naturally, excludes viewers of Homicide) can infer, Pembleton is dealing with a man who simply will not talk.

Gunn plays Tucker as a seemingly vulnerable man, yet there’s clearly something more to his stoic yet shaken demeanor than he initially lets on. Toward the end of the second act (or is it the third? Do commercial breaks count as act breaks? Because there were at least four commercial breaks during this story, and stories are typically meant to have a three-act structure. This is another reminder of how incompetent this episode is), Tucker turns the interrogation around on the two officers, and proceeds to microanalyze them. His cutting remarks sting because, subjective though they are, they hint at a greater truth beneath the seemingly simplistic exteriors of Pembleton and Bayliss. These layers will be peeled back further in future episodes and seasons – a pointless exercise, I might add, as no individual with a sane mind would willingly sit through even one more episode of this garbage to see how the multilayered character development pays off down the line.

The climax carries the episode’s big twist – one meant to work both for the short run and the long. Tucker essentially winds up interrogating himself, and the results change him in the eyes of both detectives, albeit in entirely different ways. To Bayliss, watching Tucker open up emotionally is a sign that the man is not in fact, a stone-cold killer. To Pembleton, however, watching this emotional revelation is a sign that he is. The two detectives, as the episode stresses, are polar opposites, and as the series continues into its later seasons, their differing personalities will only grow more prevalent, as the closed-off Pembleton slowly comes to seek emotional redemption, while the doe-eyed Bayliss moves progressively towards embracing darkness.

Is any of this effective on the viewer? Of course not. I had all but fallen asleep by the time the final act began, and it was a struggle to remain awake just long enough to keep finding things about this episode to ridicule.

Which brings me to the episode’s ending. Having not given a true confession, Tucker walks away a free man. That’s right – this episode can’t even offer up a concrete answer to the question of whether or not he’s the killer. Not even the CSI shows would be that lazy. And to add to the proposed ambiguity of the episode, Tucker, while waiting in the department’s lounge for a taxi, stands up, walks over to the television set, and changes the channel. It’s a subtle moment, most likely meant to invoke Tucker’s still-potent connection to the outside world: even after spending twelve hours in a small interrogation room, he is emotionally unscarred, and can even take command of the various implements in the police precinct if he so desires. (Still and all, he first asks permission from a lower individual named Naomi, a secretary in the precinct, suggesting that his own level of command has its very real limits.)

That is, presumably, the intent of the writers in crafting that scene., Unfortunately, watching Tucker change the channel only reminded me that I should have changed the channel long ago.

There are few words I can conjure up to describe the rampantly inept episode that production notes require me to refer to as “Three Men and Adena”. Certainly, I could think of more fitting titles for this piece of fool’s entertainment, some of which may not necessarily contain profanity. As it stands, though, I’ve exhausted far too much time and effort on this spectacularly flawed example of televised twaddle. It is thus that I must take my leave of all you lower individuals and seek out another group of equally low individuals to impress with my complete lack of imbecility. (I daresay, of course, that it won’t be much of a search.)

Know that I would typically bid the lot of you farewell, assuming I had any indication that any of you had the potential to achieve anything resembling well fare. As it stands, I do not. Now I must be off – there are places to go, and other lower individuals to enlighten.

Jeremy asked me to include a bold-text blurb at the end of my article reminding you all to tune in next week, when he will post his picks for the Best TV Shows of 2015. I will, of course, do no such thing. I am nobody’s promotional toy, least of all that of an incompetent fool like him. Besides, every last show on his list will undoubtedly be terrible, so you’re better off not reading it.


13 thoughts on “Bottle Month: Homicide’s “Three Men and Adena””

  1. [Note: Justin posted this comment on January 10, 2016.]

    I find this review a bit confusing. Is your dislike of this episode a disguise for how much you love it? It sounds like it to me.


  2. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 10, 2016.]

    I think you’re confused here, and with good reason. While the other entries in Bottle Month were written by the lovable and talented Jeremy Grayson, who adores this episode. Meanwhile, this review was written by the inimitable Bertrand Schmendrick, who despised it with every fiber of his being.


  3. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 10, 2016.]

    Bertrand did a very good job of explaining why this episode is such a deep and complex piece of television, and the set of criteria he used was the exact same set that I would. The only difference between his analysis and mine is that I love the episode, and he hates it.


  4. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on July 25, 2016.]

    Interesting picks for your favorite bottle episodes. My 5 favorites would be:

    Community: “Cooperative Calligraphy”
    Breaking Bad: “Fly”
    Doctor Who: “Midnight”
    Firefly: “Objects in Space”
    Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Duet”


  5. [Note: Trev posted this comment on September 10, 2016.]

    Apparently HLOTS not streamed anywhere. In 2003, I discovered a dusty, plastic wrap torn, copy of the complete series on DVD, at Best Buy. Glad I rescued it from the discount bin; not sure if the box set is still available. Mine looked like it had sat around for years…

    One of many epic HLOTS episodes. It should be on Netflix.


  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on September 10, 2016.]

    I wish people still bought DVDs. The first season of Homicide is as good a non-streaming show as you can find.


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