Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Better Season Of Homicide: Life On The Street Gives Me Something To Recommend, If Not Own!

The Good: Good acting, More interesting use of characters, Some decent stories
The Bad: Teasers seldom relate to episode, Light on DVD bonus features, Formatting
The Basics: A good season of the show makes for enjoyable, if not enduring, television with this detective series.

After years of anticipation, a few months back I finally got my hands on Homicide: Life On The Street - The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 (reviewed here!) and I did not enjoy it. After a bit of prodding, I picked up Homicide: Life On The Street - The Complete Season 3. Because so many of the people who were not happy with my first evaluation told me that the series changed, I gave it another chance with the next chapters.

Yes, Homicide: Life On The Street - The Complete Season 3 is a different show from its prior incarnation. And yes, this is worth seeing. But having seen it once, it's hard to justify recommending this show for purchase. It is very much a take-it or leave-it show and in its first full season with twenty episodes spread over six discs, it's been hard for me to muster up the enthusiasm to write about it. That's not to say it's not good. It's good. It's just not more than good, it's not extraordinary. In fact, if one were to ask for an average cop show, a standard detective show, Homicide: Life On The Street - The Complete Season 3 might be it.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Homicide: Life On The Street is set in a Baltimore, Maryland detective squad where the day shift detectives solve crimes and talk about current events and big picture ideas. Led by Lieutenant Giardello, the squad is an ethnically mixed group of partners who find bodies and track down the killers. While they work to survive their investigations, they buck for promotions, open a bar, and deal with their wives or significant others or do their best with being single.

In the third season, the semi-serialized show has cases which include the white glove killer - a murderer of women who leaves the bodies naked with only white gloves on -, a teenage boy who kills another boy only to discover he killed the wrong peer, the death of one of the squad members (Crosetti!!!!) and the shooting which takes out three of the squad. Bayliss's cousin kills a drunken exchange student who shows up on his doorstep and Pembleton is targeted by a convict who wants revenge for a case Pembleton once cleared that put him away for years.

While the murder investigations are going on, much time is spent with the detectives sitting around relating to one another. From a Christmas episode where Munch complains about Christmas to Bayliss attempting to get the squad into a betting game of hearts only to be fleeced himself, Homicide: Life On The Street is almost more about the detectives than the cases in the third season, though it is more oriented toward crime solving than its previous incarnation. In this season, Felton deals with being abandoned by his wife and kids and the affair he's having as a result, Giardello deals with the nightwatch commander Lt. Russert, the squad deals with the death of Crosetti, and Bolander, Kay and Beau are shot when executing a warrant where they end up knocking on the wrong door!

The two significant aspects of this season - from one perspective - both have their consequences both within the context of the show and for the viewers. Crosetti's death - which might seem like a spoiler - is an understated event. Crosetti - Jon Polito - does not appear in any of the episodes, having been excused from the first few episodes as being out on vacation. When his body is washed up, he becomes the focus of the episode "Crosetti" and his death becomes a case for Bolander to solve. Several episodes later, even as Meldrick continues to complain about not having a partner, Giardello is forced to reassign Crosetti's open cases, which mostly becomes an exploration of Detective Kay Howard forced to face failure.

The other big event, the shooting of Felton, Howard and Bolander yields one of the most exciting and baffling bits in the third season of Homicide: Life On The Streets. While executing an arrest warrant, the three officers are shot and as they lie in critical condition, the search is on for the shooter. It is soon revealed that the door the detectives knocked on was the wrong one. Still, the search continues for the person who was supposed to be arrested. The disturbing aspect of this is simple and strangely obvious: it takes multiple episodes before Giardello and Pembleton begin investigating the occupant of the door the officers DID knock on! Yes, what seems strangely obvious to a viewer like me - i.e. when someone is shot outside a door and we know it's the wrong door, I immediately ask, "Whose door was it?" - takes the Baltimore detectives a few go-arounds to get to. Given the importance of the case, it frustrated me to watch the behind-the-scenes politics - the Captain goes after Giardello when it becomes evident he signed off on the warrant with the wrong door number - as opposed to the actual crime solving investigation.

That said, the season focuses more on the actual crimes than it does on the random events in the lives of the detectives, making it a more traditional detective story than the prior seasons. Virtually every episode, though, has a detached teaser. The teaser - the part of the episode before the opening credits - seldom relates to the rest of the episode in this season of Homicide: Life On The Street. So, for example, one episode starts with the detectives being recognized at a football game for their service, another has Pembleton getting a prisoner from Law & Order's Chris Noth's character and having a debate with him on New York City versus Baltimore wherein the prisoner, played by John Waters, reveals he encouraged extradition just so he could be locked up in Baltimore as opposed to the City, but then the entirety of the episodes that follow have nothing to do with these openings. It's strange, but some of the teasers are fun and interesting, sometimes even being better than the rest of the episode.

In order to understand the season, it helps to be familiar with the characters and where they are this season and what major events shape their experiences in this boxed set. The squad includes:

Lt. Al Giardello - Sharing an office and desk with Russert, he finds himself beleaguered by paperwork, forced to mediate disputes between his detectives and upper management. He finds himself depressed by his lack of romantic prospects and getting passed over for promotions for the sake of the appearance of balance in the department. Often at odds with his superiors following Crosetti's death over the inability to get a replacement,

Detective Kay Howard - Eager to work with her former mentor, Russert, she soon becomes disillusioned with Felton and her affair and frequently ends up in between Felton and his estranged wife. Her perfect clearance streak is threatened by an impossible case left by Crosetti and she is forced to face failure. Stressed out, she takes off to her hometown, but murder follows her. Returning to Baltimore, she has an ill-fated warrant execution,

Detective Frank Pembleton - Cool and utterly efficient, Pembleton is given greater responsibility until he helps the commissioner keep a congressman's legal problems from becoming an issue, only to have it blow up for everyone. Disgraced, Pembleton tries to strengthen his marriage only to discover complications and his return to the squad puts him with Bayliss which works well until Bayliss' cousin commits a murder,

Detective John Munch - Partnered with Bolander, he manages to survive the grisly hallway incident unshot. His foibles this season have virtually nothing to do with cases (indeed, without reviewing the episodes I cannot recall a single bit of detective work he did this season!) and instead focus on his past as a hippie and the bar he opens with Meldrick and Bayliss,

Detective Tim Bayliss - Still the more or less rookie of the squad, he gains experience aiding Pembleton and his disillusionment begins with working on cases like trying to track down the shooter of the detectives and the boy who shot another - wrong - boy. Bayliss buys into the bar with Meldrick and Munch, which reveals that he has a checkered past with a gambling problem,

Detective Meldrick Lewis - Unpartnered following the death of Crosetti, he and Munch buy a bar only to find the expense of opening it to be overwhelming and unprofitable. Frustrated with Pembleton's apparent class snobbery in a shooting on the border of the projects, Lewis mopes through his cases unattached and largely disaffected by all,

Detective Stanley Bolander - Consistently annoyed by his partner, Munch, he finds himself missing the way things were in the past and when he is cut down in the shooting, his old partner comes in to try to avenge him. He bonds with Giardello on the laments of dealing with women and he becomes strangely optimistic around Christmas,

Detective Beau Felton - Estranged from his wife and partnered with Howard, he begins to drink heavily and becomes less of an asset to the squad. When his affair with Russert ends, he flounders, his life made more difficult by his abusive and somewhat demented wife. When she takes his children and runs off, he becomes even more lost, which gives him little to live for when he is shot down,

and Lieutenant Megan Russert - The night shift lieutenant, she has children and when she ends her affair with Felton, she gains back come of Howard's respect. Often cordial with Giardello, they become friends and swap notes on their positions as minorities on the force. When the opportunity for advancement comes, though, she is fearless in pursuing it.

The characters continue to evolve, but some of them seem rather stuck with the novelty of their characterization. So, for example, Giardello continues to reference his Cicilian heritage, which seems like a characterized eccentricity considering he is played by Yaphet Kotto, a powerful black actor who can pull off heavies easily given his physique. Indeed, the only time Giardello does not reference his Italian heritage is when issues of ethnicity come up and Kotto is given some incredible dialogue about discrimination within the black community between blacks of varying skin color and he pulls off the scenes with amazing pathos. What holds the character together well is that there are moments when Giardello is put in a situation by other characters when ethnicity might come up as an issue and he steadfastly ignores it, like when Pembleton gets into trouble for following implicit orders from a prominent black police commissioner and Giardello refuses to cut either any slack for the sake of ethnic unity.

It is aspects like that that set this season of Homicide: Life On The Street apart from other series'. The show has the ability to be remarkably smart . . . when it wants to. This boxed set is an oddly fractured collection of moments that are insightful and gutsy and remarkably pedestrian.

The most consistency comes in the performances of Melissa Leo and Andre Braugher. Leo plays Kay and in this season, it seems every effort is made to make her look beleaguered and overdrawn. She plays Kay as mopey and often miserable, yet the consummate professional when on the job. Leo is able to bounce between meticulous and intelligent and desperately lost with minimal changes in body language that convincingly sell her character's mood swings. She is impressive.

Only Braugher is more impressive as Pembleton in this season. Braugher plays Pembleton as less of a snob in this season and he opens the character up to some of the most darkly efficient and deeply human moments. Braugher's ability to play Pembleton as almost psychotic when dealing with the white glove killer is contrasted beautifully by his attempts at being a domestic later in the season. Braugher plays the character with an integrity and enthusiasm that is far more than what is on the page. His performance makes him a legitimate star this season.

On DVD, the episodes generally look good, though the set is fairly light on DVD bonus features. Only one episode has commentary and the track for "The Gas Man" is insightful and very fun - it's a fun, weird episode. Outside that, the discs contain references to the music in each episode and there is a featurette on Season Three and how Homicide: Life On The Street continued to evolve. It is in that segment that we learn the reason for Crosetti's death and the direction for Bayliss's character is hinted at. Outside that, there's nothing and the genuine complaint with the DVDs comes from how they are arranged. Like many DVDs, the chapter listings do not correspond necessarily with things like the opening credits. As a result, if one watches the teaser and wants to jump ahead through the credits using the Chapter Forward button on their remote, they end up instead in the middle of the first act as opposed to the beginning of that. I'm all for giving credit to the cast and creators, but when one sits down for a marathon of this show, it's nice to be able to leap through the credits. That cannot be done with these discs.

Ultimately, though, the episodes are good and I am glad I watched them, but I can't see owning the set. It's enjoyable but there is little to go back for. Honestly, if there were ever a "make-your-own DVD" service whereby individual episodes could be purchased and burned onto DVD for a reasonable price, there might be only two or three episodes from the third season of Homicide: Life On The Street that I would want burned for my permanent collection. My recommend is solely for the view, not the buy.

For other shows that hit their stride more in the third season, check out my reviews of:
The X-Files - The Complete Third Season
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 3
Gilmore Girls - Season 3


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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