Saturday, September 3, 2011

Homicide: Life On The Street - Tales Of Erratic Police Work!

The Good: Moments of genius in character and acting, Mild benefit of space saving with this pack
The Bad: Series is very erratic, season to season and especially in the first seasons!
The Basics: Homicide: Life On The Street journeys from being a pointless collection of detectives doing anything but sleuthing to a plot-driven crime series.

Sometimes, there is a complete series multipack that might appeal to the fans of that series, but is a very tough sell to those who sit down and watch the whole thing. After highly anticipating the critically-acclaimed Homicide: Life On The Street, I found this to be quite true of that series. With an erratic start, a decent middle, a rocky end, Homicide: Life On The Street not only never truly found its audience, but it never found its footing. It does not seem to know what it wants to be.

To make it easy here at the beginning, I'll just say this: "The Complete Series" boxed set is a value in terms of space saving and content only for those who feel they must have every single episode. I highly recommend picking and choosing the seasons (four and five are the only two I'm ultimately keeping in my collection) and letting this massive pack take a pass. This boxed set includes all of the previously available seasons of Homicide: Life On The Street with all of their original DVD bonus features (usually just commentary tracks, song listings and a featurette on the season) in a slimmer packaging, which is nice because with seven seasons and a movie, the original boxed sets take up some serious space.

Homicide: Life On The Street, oddly enough, begins its run as a story about homicide detectives, but it is not a detective story. Yes, if you're sitting down thinking, "'Homicide,' sounds interesting, I wonder what makes this show different from the plethora of other detective series' out there, but hey there's murder, so it's gotta be good," you would be wrong. This show is about the people who solve the murders, but not about the process of them solving murders that occur in Baltimore, Maryland. The distinction is what makes all the difference in watching and appreciating the series. And, in that same spirit of full disclosure, knowing that the series isn't about solving crime, but rather character studies involving the men and one woman who are part of a homicide unit, does not make it any better (I was almost overdue getting the set back to the library because I went back to rewatch some episodes after I "got" what the series actually was).

The irony - again - is that right around the time it might dawn on a viewer who is sitting there scratching their head and asking, "What the hell have I been watching for the past ten hours?" the show becomes a very typical cop drama wherein the detectives are all about solving the cases. That's only the last few episodes of the second season. Unfortunately, the series then mortgages its originality and eccentricities in order to continue on as a more traditional detective series for the five seasons that follow.

Debuting in 1993 - the same year as NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life On The Street is filmed with a grainy film noir look and it is instantly more reminiscent of the comedy series The Job than a cop show. It begins as a series that does not seem to know what it wants to be, plunging the viewer into a state of confusion instead of one of enjoyment or entertainment. The resulting show is slow, just a little too quirky and distracted to be a hard drama and not funny enough to be a comedy. It's a tough nut to crack and as someone who went through the effort of cracking it, it's easy for me to say it's not worth the bother.

The homicide squad in Baltimore, Maryland finds itself getting a new member, Tim Bayliss. While most of the other detectives ignore him, he finds himself quickly catching his first case, the murder of a young girl whose time of death is difficult to establish. Lieutenant Giardello pairs him up with the most successful (of the men, anyway) detective in the squad, Pembleton, who is absolutely convinced that Bayliss's take on the case and instincts are completely off. As Bayliss becomes obsessed with solving the case, particularly proving the murder was convinced by a traveling fruit salesman known as an Arabber, the other detectives lose confidence in the rookie.

Meanwhile the other detectives deal with other cases, like Pembleton dealing with the murder of a police dog, Howard solving a case involving a man cheating on his wife and mistress, and Crosetti dealing with a cop who was injured in the line of duty and is now blind. Most of the time, though, is spent with Crosetti spreading conspiracy theories about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Bolander pursuing the morgue doctor or complaining about his divorce, Detective Munch elaborating on the history of marijuana, Felton complaining about his wife, and Lewis showing up until the last few episodes when he actually gets a bit of character in that it is revealed that he is building a car engine from scratch.

As the series goes on, a drug lord named Luther Mahoney and his cartel spark a war in the streets of Baltimore, characters enter and depart and Frank has a stroke. Unfortunately, there is only a limited time that the show truly works.

Homicide: Life On The Street, as it turns out, is all about dialogue. One might think that would make it all about character, but the truth is, it's less about the people speaking it and much more about what they are saying instead. That might sound unnecessarily confusing, but it's actually true and the best way to describe the phenomenon is this: what the characters talk about is so esoteric and encompassing of the time in the show that is doesn't matter who is saying what, it's not the delivery, it's the subject that is interesting. Moreover, the conversations the characters have do not apply to the episodes or even - in many cases - the characters so it's not like it helps to build character either.

The epitome of this is Crosetti, who spends virtually all of his time on screen elaborating on Abraham Lincoln, his Secretary of War, and the assassination. That's almost all he ever talks about. How does this affect his cases? It doesn't; he does not look for conspiracy theory angles in everything he encounters (indeed, he's one of the more down-to-earth characters outside his obsession with the Lincoln Assassination and Munch is characterized as the conspiracy theorist by everyone else, despite the fact that he doesn't so much promote conspiracy theories, he just talks about hemp and his girlfriend), he does not apply the obsession to his work; the only time it has any effect on a case is when he and Lewis end up in Washington, D.C. on a case and Crosetti uses the time there to get the two a tour of Ford's Theater.

Regardless of that, it's worth knowing who the basic characters are on Homicide: Life On The Street if one is even considering watching it. The principle characters include:

Lt. Giardello - the squad boss, he is efficient, kind and has a deep faith in Bayliss. He identifies with his Italian heritage far more than with his obviously black ancestry and he seldom brings ethnicity into his workings within the squad. He looks out for his people in a way that makes him a good leader and he works hard to get Pendleton to work as more of a team player,

Detective Pembleton - The most efficient of the detectives, despite the fact that he spends the entire first episode looking for a car in the police garage because he has too much pride to go back and get the car number of the car he has a key for (again, the show isn't so much about solving crime as it is about the foibles of the detectives!). He has an iron will, a wife he hardly ever sees and when he is partnered with Bayliss, he begins to feel more bugged by the job than ever,

Detective Tim Bayliss - The rookie. His first case is the murder of a girl whose body is dumped in plain view of multiple houses and not solving it cripples him emotionally. He becomes obsessed with figuring it out and the most interesting thing he does is try to quit smoking while working in the squad,

Detective Crosetti - Talks about the Abraham Lincoln assassination obsessively and is a friend to his suddenly blinded and bedridden friend in need,

Detective Meldrick Lewis - Shows up, eats seafood with the others at their hangout restaurant and reveals late in the set that he's rebuilding an engine and a car from scratch. As the series goes on, 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 Kay Howard ("Howie") - The lone female detective and one who clears a high volume of cases, she briefly dates a District Attorney and quits smoking,

Detective Beau Felton - In counseling with his wife, he is partnered with Howie and is opinionated, but not honestly pegged by others (especially Giardello) as a racist, despite what Pembleton thinks,

Detective Munch - Characterized by others as a conspiracy theorist, despite only really philosophizing on the role of hemp in U.S. history, he has two divorces in his past and is now dating a woman who he loves very much, but accidentally kills her fish. Partnered with Bolander, he has a secret love of karaoke that comes out,

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,

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 - 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,

and Detective Bolander - Recently divorced from his wife of twenty years who went off to find her true self without him based on the advice of a counselor, he is a dour man who misses his old partner and is bugged by working with Munch. He hates the job, but shows up anyway and his happiest moment is when he rediscovers his cello.

Despite being dull and the characters not being developed nearly as much as their weird conversations would seem to imply, Homicide: Life On The Street has an impressive cast and some generally good acting. Andre Brauger, whose work I was introduced to when he headlined Gideon's Crossing, plays Pembleton and confirms that it's hard to get a bad performance out of him. He is cool, carrying himself with an air of arrogant conviction in virtually every scene, perfectly embodying his character who is far less friendly than any other character I have seen him play.

Furthermore, it's nice to see Richard Beltzer originating the role of Munch, who went on to Law & Order: SVU, though he is largely a supporting character in this and not given a chance to shine outside the karayoke scene. And it's funny that so soon after I fell in love with the first season of Veronica Mars (reviewed here!) which featured Kyle Secor as one of the lead recurring characters that I would see him in this, where he is essentially the most-focused on character. He is good, it's hard not to give him that. He plays Bayliss with a commitment and troubled quality that is very different from his other roles. Here he is forced to play quiet and uncertain a lot and Secor succeeds at convincing the viewer that he truly is a rookie out on his first case.

But much of Homicide: Life On The Street is just good casting. Sure, it's nice to see Yapphet Kotto in something other than Alien (reviewed here!), and he convincingly portrays a leader with a strong sensitivity, illustrating that he can act, but Daniel Baldwin, Clark Johnson, Ned Beaty and Jon Polito all seem like they were well-cast as opposed to performing in any outstanding way. Jon Polito, for example, portrays Crosetti in a way that is essentially the same as the character he played in Millennium and the gangster he played in Miller's Crossing. He is not called on to act so much as fill a part and read some lines and as a result, he largely does just that. I enjoyed Polito, but I realized quickly that I was enjoying him in Homicide because it was reminding me of him on Millennium and in Miller's Crossing.

But that's truly the only aspect of Homicide: Life On The Street that is reminiscent of anything else, the adequate, but sometimes bland portrayal of characters similar to others played by the performers on the show. Outside that, the series is not like other police shows and it is not like other character-driven dramas. Instead, it feels uncomfortably slow and purposely difficult.

Particularly agonizing is an early episode wherein the squad is working at night and the air conditioning goes out. So, the hour is spent with the detectives mostly sitting around talking while action happens around them - like other police officers chasing down a perp in a santa suit! The result is an episode that is difficult to discuss because whenever anyone asks "What happened?" the answer truly is "well, nothing." In many ways, this is a show about nothing (Seinfeld doesn't have a monopoly on that!) where little happens, so people sit around talking - often over crab legs in the beginning - and musing on all sorts of philosophical ideas.

As the series goes on, the pendulum swings the exact opposite way; the show becomes gritty and professional, all business, all about the cases. Character is largely sacrificed for plot, like with the incident with Luther Mahony, which drives the fifth and sixth seasons.

How Homicide: Life On The Street got made and aired, I've no idea. How it managed to get immortalized on DVD is an even greater mystery. After all, who wants to see a show about a bunch of people sitting around and basically talking about things like most people end up talking about after three beers. Sure, it may be interesting and consuming at the time, but when you sober up and realize you spent the previous evening absolutely convinced that the most fascinating thing in the world was how street names get changed, yet we remember them often by the name we first hear them as, we realize we wasted a tremendous amount of time.

Ultimately, that's how I felt about this program and DVD boxed set. I'm absolutely convinced it was pitched to the network while the creator of the series was drunk, talking to a drunk executive who saw the pilot episode after a real bender and greenlit it. There's no need for you to make the same mistake (whether you're sober or not!).

On DVD, the series looks and sounds good (as good as it can look given it was filmed with handheld and developed to look grainy and noirish), but the DVD bonus features are a mixed bag. There is a commentary track on the pilot episode, but it's one of those commentary tracks that largely involves the person speaking telling the viewer exactly what they are seeing as opposed to talking about either what it means or how it was made. There are featurettes and advertisements promoting the series which are interesting for those who like the show. There is even an A&E spotlight on real homicide detectives that seems strangely out of place on the disc, but is otherwise fine. These bonuses are not enough to push it up into territory that redeems the basic programming, though.

Sadly, this is definitely a better "pick and choose" series.

For a better idea of what this multipack includes, please check out my reviews of the individual seasons available at:
Seasons 1 & 2
Season 3
Season 4
Season 5
Season 6
Season 7
Homicide: The Movie

For other shows that air(ed) on NBC, please check out my reviews of:
30 Rock – Season 1
The West Wing
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
V - The Television Series
Star Trek


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

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

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