The Good: Good character development, Engaging plots, Decent acting
The Bad: Very light on DVD extras, Some predictability/pointlessness.
The Basics: A good season of television is brought down a little bit by how standard it becomes. On DVD, though Homicide's serialized nature really works.
When I started reviewing episodes of Homicide: Life On The Street, I took some flack because it did not grab me. The first DVD set (reviewed here!) follows police detectives of the homicide unit in Baltimore, Maryland, sitting around talking about everything other than actually solving crimes. Interestingly enough, some who took issue with my critique referenced episodes that were not in those seasons and truth be told, as the series progressed, it does seem to have gotten better.
So, I continue to watch the DVD sets and review them. In fact, I am a little backlogged on the reviews for Homicide: Life On The Street and now I am finally up to writing my review of "The Complete Fourth Season." Here the show is hitting a decent stride that more or less kept me engaged. There are two new characters (more or less) and some of the regulars have better roles as a result of the reshuffling that came from losing two of the others. It remains a hard sell, though, especially for rewatchability, which is tough for shows about crime fighting and seems even more difficult for Homicide: Life On The Street. While the show has interesting stories, a lot of the work of the series falls flat on the character front. Indeed, it is only here in the fourth season that Detective John Munch - one of the most recognizable characters on television - begins to get something remotely recognizable as character.
In the fourth season, there are some changes that occur that begin to change the tenor of the series as it transforms into a more standard police detective series. While on a trip for the department, Bolander and Felton get drunk and trash a hotel, leading to a six month suspension for the two detectives. As well, one of the cases takes a tough turn and the recently-promoted Russert finds herself demoted to detective, working in the Homicide Department.
In the fourth season of the drama, the episodes are even more serialized than in the past, making for ideal DVDs that flow well from episode to episode. In this season, the cases involve such things as deaths where the bodies are burned afterward, a murder crime scene caught on camera by an aspiring reporter, a child who is inadvertently shot at a mall, and the death of a man whose murder might be an anti-gay hate crime, given where he died. Detective Mike Kellerman joins the squad in order to alleviate some of the workload as a result of Crosetti's death and Bolander and Feldman's suspension. As well, this is the season that has a "thrill killer" traveling north on I-95 killing people at random as he goes, a pair of snipers who begin terrorizing Baltimore, and a crossover with Law And Order involving poison gas attacks.
As well, Lewis and Kellerman lose a musical suspect, Giardello is passed over for a promotion in favor of the worst possible cop and an ex-cop is killed, sparking intervention from his son. There is a stakeout where the characters converse over the course of several shifts while watching an adjacent house, Bayliss is tormented by his failure to resolve the Adena Watson case, and Howard's perfect record is restored when Lewis catches a good break! Luther Mahoney is introduced as a slick drug dealer who seems able to beat any rap and it all leads to huge changes for two of the characters!
In the fourth season of Homicide: Life On The Street, the show becomes a very typical police drama with very little that is unique to the show outside the characters. It becomes much more formulaic with characters beginning an episode with finding a body or waiting for a murder. A murder occurs and if we're lucky, the old medical examiner stops by and makes a witty quip that makes the viewer smile. The search for a suspect begins, the suspect is found, the killer is caught and the show goes on, usually with a little reflection by the characters. And there is more conflict in this season, as Pembleton and Bayliss struggle with solving cases involving children shortly after Pembleton learns his wife is pregnant and Bayliss finding similarities between cases they work and his great, unsolved murder.
But, in terms of plot and tone, Homicide: Life On The Street in the "Complete Fourth Season" is very typical, very placid and very much a show most of us have seen before. We get it; the show is a police drama. Gone is the quirkiness that made it difficult to watch the first few seasons and the characters suffer more. There is a realism and grit to the series and the director style is well-established with repetition. Just as NYPD Blue shook up the police drama with shaky camera work, Homicide: Life On The Street defines itself with moments that are repeated, often with lines being delivered and repeated with different camera angles used. It's a technique that gets somewhat tired.
Interestingly, just as the plots become more standard and typical, the characters become more interesting and the dynamics between the various characters become far more compelling. What makes the set watchable, if not an easy sell for the boxed set, are the characters. Here is how the fourth season finds the detectives of the Homicide Unit:
Lieutenant Al Giardello - Monitors the squad while trying to get back into dating. This season, his daughter visits, also marries and he is up for a big promotion. When Russert is demoted, Giardello seems like a shoo-in for the job and all are shocked when a racist ex-detective is promoted instead,
Captain Megan Russert - She keeps tabs on Giardello and the squad until the snipers terrorize Baltimore. Needing a scapegoat, Barnfather demotes her back to detective and she begins to work alongside those she previously commanded,
Sergeant Kay Howard - Acing the exam for Sergeant, she begins to act essentially as Giardello's following her promotion. She micromanages the squad and isolates herself more, especially getting in Meldrick's face when he catches the case that broke her perfect record,
Detective John Munch - Having lost Bolander (who retires rather than returning once his suspension is up), he competes with Howard for the Sergeant's Exam, but fails to show up. He works at the bar he co-owns with Bayliss and Lewis in his off hours and is shocked to learn that one of the Law And Order characters had sex with one of his ex-wives! He manages without a regular partner,
Detective Meldrick Lewis - Finally paired with a new partner, Lewis and Kellerman begin their run investigating suspects and he soon finds a lot to like about him. They lose a suspect and Lewis stops his womanizing ways,
Detective Mike Kellerman - Moving from the arson unit to homicide, he is paired with Lewis rather quickly. He lives on a boat and is divorced. His style is rather laid back and in the course of the season, he is quickly forced to upgrade his wardrobe,
Brodie - (heavily recurring) An aspiring cameraman and reporter, his information saves one of the cases, so Giardello brings Brodie into the squad to film crime scenes for the unit,
Detective Tim Bayliss - Still traumatized by not solving the Adena Watson case, he and Pembleton clash more on issues of ethnicity, family and interrogation methods. He begins to come unspooled more and more, frustrated as he becomes with Pembleton and his ways,
and Detective Frank Pembleton - Bayliss's partner, the most efficient detective on the squad. He and Bayliss find themselves in conflict more often, despite Pembleton's wife getting pregnant. As the baby's arrival becomes imminent, he becomes more and more stressed.
The cast stays strong and Reed Diamond, who plays Kellerman, is a wonderful addition to it. He easily takes the place of the absent Daniel Baldwin. Isabella Hoffman is given a chance to show off her abilities better as her character - Russert - is jerked around. Similarly, the change in Howard's status gives Melissa Leo a better chance to show her talent and her awkward restraint is given more challenges. Belzer, Kotto, Secor and Braugher all maintain the high standards for what viewers expect from Homicide: Life On The Street.
Max Perlich recurs as Brodie and he manages to hold his own with the cast, despite being almost the same type character actor as Leland Orser. Orser, who has been in everything from the modern incarnations of Star Trek to NYPD Blue to Daredevil (reviewed here!) occupies the same niche of low-key, subtle actors that Perlich is in. There are no moments in this season where the performance Perlich gives would not be interchangeable with one from Orser.
But despite the devotion the producers have to Andre Braugher and Kyle Secor's Pembleton and Bayliss, the clear talent to emerge in "The Complete Fourth Season" is that of Clark Johnson. Johnson plays Meldrick Lewis and now that the producers have an idea of what to do with the character, Johnson is given a way to grow and work, developing his character. Johnson slowly transforms Lewis from a slouching, mumbling detective into one who speaks clearer and has energy and enthusiasm. Johnson is more energetic this season and as a result, his character becomes more vibrant and engaging to watch.
On DVD there are are very few bonus features. For every episode that features music, there is a list of the songs played of who the artist is, which is convenient. This is not the most exciting DVD bonus feature ever. The six-disc set also includes such bonus features as a commentary track on one episode and a featurette on Season Four.
It's a good set; this is a pretty solid seven out of ten on my regular scale and while I would recommend it to anyone who likes police dramas, it's a tough sell for those who are more generally drama-oriented. It is very much a police detective series and, frankly, there are a lot of those out there. On a side note, it is only with the opening of the fourth season of Homicide: Life On The Street that the third season is significantly weakened. Plotlines and investments involving Feldman's crazy wife are suddenly dropped and given that Feldman and Bolander were both critically shot in the third season . . . well, it just seems like the show would have been made much more powerful if either or both had been killed as a result of that. And yes, for those who have seen ahead, I know what becomes of Feldman, but given where the show is and where it had been, it would have been powerful to have some casualties on screen.
That we get from other shows, ironically, not Homicide: Life On The Street.
For other works with Reed Diamond, please visit my reviews of:
The West Wing - Season 6
For other television show reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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