Monday, September 19, 2011

Homicide: Life On The Street At Its Peak With "The Complete Fifth Season!"

The Good: Decent cast, Good character work, Interesting stories, Good acting
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features
The Basics: Over the course of the twenty-two episodes of the fifth season, Homicide: Life On The Street becomes a gritty crime drama that explores better the characters of the Baltimore Homicide Squad.

There have been many, many television series' that people recommend to me as both an avid cinephile and a reviewer. More often than not, when this happens, I discover how very different my tastes are from virtually everyone else in the world. This is especially true with older television series' that are recommended to me, like Northern Exposure and the incredibly disappointing (overall) series Homicide: Life On The Street (reviewed here!). Usually, in any of these series' that underwhelm me, there is a season that convinces me that there is some merit to the show and I can at least understand why the show was made. For Homicide: Life On The Street, that season is "The Complete Fifth Season" and the mystery for me is how the show survived long enough to get to its fifth season to make the show worthwhile.

Ironically, the best season of Homicide: Life On The Street alludes to much that came before and creates a much better overall piece than the prior seasons. As well, characters come and go in more realistic ways, which makes the series seem a lot more real and fresh than it otherwise would. On DVD, the episodes are put in the order the producers wanted them seen and it works out quite well in that the story becomes very serialized and works great for that.

Thwarted time and again by the drug lord Luther Mahoney, Detectives Kellerman and Lewis team up with a narcotics cop named Stivers to try to bring him down. The villain is slick and keeps them on their toes, though, and Kellerman turns to drinking and to the new medical examiner for comfort. Dr. Cox takes over the medical examiner's office and offers a more efficient liaison between the office and the homicide unit. As well, with Kellerman living on his boat, the two are able to sneak out without anyone noticing, which happens more and more as Kellerman is investigated for graft when he worked in the arson unit.

While Lewis and Kellerman go toe-to-toe with Mahoney and his organization, Pembleton returns to the unit and fights for his right to work following his stroke. Slower, less respected and challenged by Giardello for his status, Frank takes up a desk position. While Bayliss and Munch do investigate their cases, Frank struggles to qualify with his firearm to get back on the street. Bayliss works to forgive those who wronged him in the past, Brodie makes a documentary and Sergeant Howard makes a nuisance of herself up until her ex-partner Beau Felton pops back up.

Departing before the season begins is Lieutenant-turned-detective Russert who ran off with a French ambassador, which leaves the station house a bit empty. She does pop up for the two-part season finale, which is nice.

The cases in "The Complete Fifth Season" are pretty standard homicide/detective stories. There is a decent hostage story, the murder that closes the season is engaging and the murders that lead bodies toward Luther Mahoney are intriguing. In the fifth season, the characters hit their stride, save Howard, who seems mostly lost by this point. Indeed, outside annoying the primary characters, there is nothing that she does this season that is unique or character-building, which might be why this was her last season on the show.

To better understand what one is getting in Homicide: The Complete Fifth Season, it helps to know who the characters are. The principle characters in this DVD set include:

Detective Frank Pembleton - Recovering from his stroke six months prior, he is frustrated with words and the looks his coworkers give him. Struggling to be a father to his new baby, as well, Pembleton actually comes to look forward to working with Bayliss, if only he can qualify with his firearm again,

Tim Bayliss - Coming to terms with the childhood abuse that framed much of him, he is reluctantly - temporarily - repartnered while Pembleton recovers from his stroke. He begins to become both more tolerant and more cynical,

Detective John Munch - Upset with Pembleton for not acknowledging his help while Frank had his stroke, Munch becomes that much more bitter and retreats to his bar more frequently,

Meldrick Lewis - His new marriage already strained, Lewis soon finds his professional life made more complicated when Kellerman is investigated. He becomes obsessed with defeating Luther Mahoney when Mahoney's criminal organization continues bringing drugs into the Baltimore area,

Kellerman - Investigated during a corruption investigation into the Arson unit, he becomes severely depressed and when he is suspended, he turns to Dr. Cox for comfort,

Brodie - Perpetually between homes, he crashes with virtually every detective, save Howard, who he is (not quite) secretly in love with. He films the various homicide scenes and eventually makes a documentary of how things are in the Homicide Unit,

Dr. Juliana Cox - She is a new medical examiner who comes into Baltimore with no real attachments. She and Kellerman quickly develop a relationship,

Kay Howard - Somewhat lost without her partner and her new position that puts her above most of her peers, she gets a boyfriend who remains largely unseen by her coworkers,

and Lieutenant Al Giardello - the stern commander of the Homicide Unit, he keeps Pembleton desk bound and frustrated through much of the season in order to try to keep others who would work with him safe.

The thing about "Season Five" is that it might well be the best season of the series, but it is also not at all a perfect season. The show is rather erratic in that the stories are often very straightforward and the characters are almost completely divorced from the quirkiness that defined them in the earliest seasons. Instead, the series takes on a darker and more realistic quality that is frightening for its realism.

On the acting front, the performers all hit their marks, even when their characters are not as strongly written. This season Reed Diamond becomes far less white bread as Kellerman, making him a distinctive addition to the squad. Diamond is able to play the character with a desperate rogue quality that involves more than just him slouching through his role. Indeed, in one of the critical episodes of the season, he performs beautifully with just his eyes to foreshadow his character's next move.

Clark Johnson also shines as Meldrick Lewis. He does a masterful job of adding more and more frustration to his character, adding a slouch and a more subtle sense of devotion through an undertone in his performance. He is especially good playing off Toni Lewis (Stivers) and he and Reed play off one another well for the speed of their dialogue.

The previous cast is added to with Michelle Forbes (Cox), who makes for a good addition. Perhaps best known for her role as Ensign Ro in the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Forbes shines in each of her too-brief scenes as a smart and efficient medical examiner.

But it is Andre Braugher who rules the fifth season of Homicide: Life On The Street. He plays Pembleton with a stutter, a lisp, and a limp. He is able to infuse fatigue into his facial expressions expertly, making this season a true challenge for the actor. He rises to that challenge by recreating the character while maintaining the sense that it is actually the same Pembleton we have seen for the prior four years. Braugher makes Frank difficult to watch at times and the directors are smart enough to keep focused on him through his performance.

On DVD, Homicide: Life On The Street - The Complete Fifth Season is fairly low on extras and the annoying thing is that for the first time, one of the bonuses is NOT a song listing for the music used in each episode. This is irksome in that for the first time I actually cared about what some of the music actually was. In the season premiere, as Frank is walking back into work there is a wonderful piece of music playing that I had to google to find (it's the Cowboy Junkies's "This Street, This House, This Man," for those who might be wondering). There is a commentary track on "The Documentary" which is interesting and explains well the departure of Max Perlich and the character of Brody. Outside the commentary tracks and a little featurette on the overall season, the DVD extras are somewhat lackluster. It is, however, about average for what we expect for this series and this type of drama show. Moreover, sometimes loads of bonuses do not make a series better, they just add more crap that one feels compelled to watch.

All in all, though, this is THE Homicide: Life On The Street season boxed set worth buying and quite possibly the peak of the series that might be appreciated by drama fans and those who like detective shows alike.

For other works with Michelle Forbes, please visit my reviews of:
True Blood - Season 2
Lost - Season 4
"Preemptive Strike"
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 6
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 5


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

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

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