Monday, October 3, 2011

Homicide: Life On The Street On Video, PBS Style: "The Subway" & "Anatomy Of A Homicide!"

The Good: "The Subway" is intense and well-written
The Bad: "Anatomy Of A Homicide" is dull and obvious, medium
The Basics: Featuring the slightly above average "The Subway" and the below average documentary "Anatomy Of A Homicide," this video set falls flat.

For those who might not otherwise follow my reviews, I have a pretty lukewarm relationship with the television series Homicide: Life On The Street. While every show has its ebb and flow, on the balance, I remained more unimpressed with Homicide: Life On The Street (reviewed here!) than many other television viewers. From the moment I started reviewing the series, though, I heard the praised of "The Subway," an episode which was in the sixth season of the series and took an awful long time to get to as far as I was concerned.

Long before 24 came along, but well after M*A*S*H* had done a real-time episode came "The Subway" on Homicide: Life On The Street, a murder in the process of happening, a murder waiting to happen. Because this episode won the show a Peabody Award (an award, it ought to be noted that has no set criteria) and was the subject of a PBS documentary, both "The Subway" and "Anatomy Of A Homicide," the documentary, were released on VHS as a two-tape video set. The thing is, as someone who appreciates a decent documentary, this gift set is a pretty hard sell because while "The Subway" might live up to some of its hype, "Anatomy Of A Homicide" . . . well, it just falls flat.

Commuting in the morning, John Lange suddenly finds himself trapped between the wall of the subway and the platform. Pinned there, the medics who arrive on the scene call the police because it is unclear whether he slipped or was pushed. While the medics work, Detectives Frank Pembleton and Tim Bayliss arrive to deal with Lange and the case. Because the medics quietly have revealed that there is almost no chance Lange will survive the process of unpinning him, this is either a terrible accident or a homicide waiting for its victim.

Pembleton sits and talks with Lange who is alternatively cold, hostile, confused and hopeful, while Bayliss canvasses the commuters to try to find a suspect and get another perspective. While Bayliss and Pembleton work and Lange lashes out and clings desperately to Frank, Lewis and Falsone head topside to find the victim's ex-girlfriend to try to give him someone to say good-by to.

In "Anatomy Of A Homicide," the series Homicide: Life On The Street becomes the subject of a PBS documentary. In this, the viewers are told how the television series came to be developed (rather bafflingly avoiding any possible comparisons to NYPD Blue), starting with the police memoirs upon which it was based. The documentary traces through the various ratings-plagued seasons and changes in cast until it lands at the footsteps of the sixth season.

There, it chronicles the development of a Homicide: Life On The Street episode that is billed as incredibly different from every other episode ever done, "The Subway." "Anatomy Of A Homicide" describes the process by which the script was developed, the casting process and the troubles and travails of shooting the script in an actual subway station. It includes the standard interviews with producers, writers, and stars of the show.

"The Subway," or "Subway" as the writer and producers prefer it to be known as, is an all right episode of television. I know I'll take some flack for that, but it is not the holy grail of television experiences. Honestly, it is perfectly possible to do a dramatic hour of television focusing almost exclusively on two people with little movement and just build up the characters. In fact, I argue constantly that the greatest hour of television is exactly that. The episode is called "Duet" and it is an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

What separates "Duet" from "Subway" is that it is going somewhere and it involves genuine character building for one of the principle characters. The guest character is memorable, but it is truly Major Kira who grows in the course of the episode (and it changes her for the subsequent episodes). In "Subway," the focus is so intensely on Lange that Pembleton is almost an accessory. He is the priest to Lange's confessor and by the end of the episode, there is a pointless quality to the whole dialogue as no one has learned anything (outside a little trivia which Lange gives to Pembleton and Frank shares with Bayliss) or grown in any significant way.

Moreover, the technique of the episode is hardly groundbreaking by today's standards nor is it such a huge coup to have Vincent D'Onofrio on the small screen. D'Onofrio can be seen on Law And Order: Criminal Intent, or at least he could, and he gives a decent performance in "Subway," but it is not as interesting even as his role in The Cell. Instead, "Subway" is a good hour of television and I am glad I saw it . . . I watched it twice and in the second viewing the pacing seems more off and it was hard to get excited about it because it truly is a show about nothing. It's waiting for a man to die and that is not at all entertaining and the conversation between Lange and Pembleton is not as engaging as others want to make it out to be.

Instead, what does pull the episode up into the watchable territory is the realism of D'Onofrio's performance as he is forced to play Lange as erratic. Lange goes through a whole range of the emotional spectrum and the realism of his snapping and confusion and the way he changes topics is a credit to the writer - Gary Fleder - and D'Onofrio's performance abilities. There is never a moment in "Subway" when the viewer feels like they are watching D'Onofrio act or like his sudden changes in demeanor are unreal. Instead, he is engaging and the performance covers the slow bits and lack of movement.

Unfortunately for "Anatomy Of A Homicide," it has less luck at keeping the viewer engaged. After an inordinate amount of time spent charting the course of the series through all of its ratings problems - raising more questions than it answers in some cases, like how it survived so long with the threats that the producers needed to make it more mainstream or else! - the documentary finally settles on "The Subway." By the time the documentary gets there, the viewer is ready for something truly extraordinary.

Instead, the viewer is subjected to a rather blase exploration of how a television show is made. While many of the behind the scenes talent are interviewed in depth, the stars of the show are given minimal airtime. That would be all right, save that Clark Johnson - who has a minimal role in the b-story of "The Subway" - is given more interview time than Andre Braugher, the cast regular who is arguably the subject of the show. I understand Braugher and D'Onofrio being busy with the actual shooting, but their voices are notably absent from some of the important bits of the documentary.

The real problem with "Anatomy Of A Homicide" is that while it thoroughly charts the episode from preproduction through its airing, it is talked about in rather generic terms. In other words, outside the unique challenges of getting the very different script past the network, "Subway" could be any hour of television being documented. It goes through the script doctors, the writer fights with the producers, the episode is cast (it would have been nice to hear D'Onofrio asked the tough question of "What do you have against television?" after it is belabored that his agent's constant response was "Vincent does not do television."), it is shot, it is edited, it airs, blah blah blah.

My point here is that outside the annoying - only because there is so much whining about the ratings - retrospective that opens the documentary, this could be a documentary about virtually any drama and it feels and sounds like that. Moreover, it holds up poorly over multiple viewings. Some documentaries can be watched multiple times and new things can be picked out. I'm not sure why anyone would feel the need to own this one.

As a result, the boxed set averages out to being perfectly average and with it being on VHS anyway, I can't recommend it. I might be in the minority in not being overwhelmed with heaping the praise on "Subway," but after watching it twice (plus a third time on DVD with the commentary track on) and watching the documentary on it twice, it seems like a lot more hype than substance.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Capitalism: A Love Story


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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