Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Finished Homicide: Life On The Street Season 1 & 2 And I've No Idea What I Watched!

The Good: Good acting, Moments of character, Dialogue
The Bad: Plot, Concept, Tone, Much of the mood and feel
The Basics: As a show more about the people who solve murder mysteries as opposed to them solving murders, Homicide: Life On The Street is dull and underwhelms.

I have been waiting four months to get Homicide: Life On The Street on DVD via interlibrary loan. I had been waiting for the "Seasons 1 & 2" boxed set for four months until it arrived last week and I began immediately watching it. I cannot remember the last DVD boxed set that I actually kept out for the whole week. I burned through Dawson's Creek quicker than I made it through the thirteen episodes of Homicide: Life On The Street that comprised the first boxed DVD set of the series.

And now that I'm done with it, I am at a rare loss for what to write. I trudged through the episodes, the DVD bonus features and I am having trouble figuring out what to say about this set that is going to sound either remotely interesting or even vaguely helpful about the set. I'm a cinephile, a lover of dramas and crime series' and detective shows tend to go over quite well with me. But for a series I was so looking forward to seeing - there was so much good hype surrounding it! - I'm left so disappointed.

I did not like Homicide: Life On The Street.

Now, before the fans of this particular series rise up to lambaste me for my lack of enjoyment in the program, I want to save the potential detractors their time and effort by saying this: I GET Homicide. I understood what the show was doing, it took me a few episodes, but I GOT it. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure and complete honesty, I finally put it together as I began the final disc and the format changed, but I understood what Barry Levinson was doing with Homicide: Life On The Street.

Homicide, oddly enough, is 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 - presumably - second season and for the purpose of this review (because it is so overwhelming the other format) it does not change the viewpoint; this series is not worth watching, much less owning, at least this boxed set.

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 committed 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.

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 right away 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,

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,

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.

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.

Ultimately, Homicide: Life On The Street - The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 on DVD is an underwhelming experience and one that I can't recommend to anyone. I don't even know how I would if I wanted to!

For other police works, please visit my reviews of:
The Departed
In The Heat Of The Night
The Other Guys


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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