This is a kind of sampler-plate episode, with almost everyone assigned a subplot of his own to tend while Melissa Leo and Daniel Baldwin are pushing the main plot uphill. Their characters, Howard and Felton, have been landed a case involving a couple of horrific torture-murders that, the detectives are quick to infer, were orchestrated by a drug dealer named Pony Johnson. (The bad guy is played by Geoffrey Ewing as a sidewalk cobra who's convinced of his own charm and who has his own hustler's lingo; he defends his womanizing by saying that he tries "to live a timely life.") Meanwhile, Crosetti is at the home of his patrolman friend Thormann , who's bedridden and blinded after being shot, and whose wife has just learned that she's pregnant. Giardello is also off the clock and dispensing moral support to a friend in need, the unhappily retired shift commander Scinta . Drunken and depressed after his retirement party, Scinta supplies Gee with a mirror into the happier days of their youth and possibly a cautionary example, if he ever let his own guard down in the never-ending battle with the bosses. As for Bolander, he's agreed to spend his shift in the company of his girlfriend's son, which means that he may be worse off than any of the above mentioned, murder victims included.
Coming after "Three Men and Adena", this episode is a conscious attempt to get back to the show's roots as an ensemble drama, with nobody left to shuffle papers outside the interrogation room where everything's happening. (Well, practically nobody. With his partner off somewhere lecturing a blind man against thoughts of suicide, Meldrick can't seem to rustle up a subplot of his own, and has to tag along with Howard and Felton during their raid on a house, just to keep busy.) It might be seen as a declaration of principles, driven by the producers' need to reassert that this is not The Pembleton & Bayliss Hour, or it might have been inspired by a desire on the producers' part to have to dodge fewer angry phone calls from agents who felt their clients were being underutilized. Given the dramatic stakes involved and the amount of screen time, spilling over into the next episode, that it entails, the Howard-Felton story ought to definitely count as the primary plot line. It's a funny thing, though: the title, albeit in fun, confers at least equal billing on the story that Pembleton and Bayliss are involved in, the lethal poisoning of a police dog named Jake. Inexplicably, the dog story comes across with more urgency and emotional complexity than the story involving two murdered women, even as Pembleton and Bayliss keep complaining about what a penny-ante case they're stuck with. It's as if the show just couldn't help itself.
It helps that no great claims are made for Jake as the second coming of Rin Tin Tin. Nobody says anything like, "Jake, Jake, wait a minute...hey, wasn't he the dog that jumped on that guy and tore his throat out just as he was about to open fire on all those girl scouts?" Instead, Nick Olcott, who plays Jake's human partner, gets to deliver a wonderfully down-to-earth, dry-eyed speech about the dog's endearingly homey, working-class hero qualities: "He didn't have any citations, but he was a great dog. A good, dependable partner. Blue collar, all the way. No fancy dog foods. He liked Rice Krispies and eggs, mixed together." (Bayliss, not yet getting into the swing of it, asks if Jake had any enemies: "He pee on anybody's leg lately?")
As soon as Pembleton notices that, of all the city agencies that have taken some kind of notice of Jake's death, Animal Services is conspicuous by its absence, the case practically solves itself. It turns out that Jake was gassed by mistake by the combination worst dog pound employee and attempted cover-up perpetrator in the city's history, who rats herself out two seconds after Pembleton and Bayliss show up at her workplace and look at her funny. Watching Jake's partner sitting in a rowboat casting the dog's ashes on the water, Pembleton senses that Bayliss is feeling emotional and asks if he's remembering his own beloved, long-dead pet. No, it turns out that Bayliss sees this as one more opportunity to choke up over Adena Watson. Frank gives him a little love tap and says, "Life would be perfect if it was only kids and dogs." It's a very sweet moment, not so much for the sentiment as for of the sight of Pembleton stepping so far out of his emotional and intellectual comfort zone to give his partner a Hallmark moment. A week or so ago and he'd have pushed him in the water.
Pembleton and Bayliss have come a long way, and by now, both characters' understanding of what the other needs, and each one's willingness to try to provide it, informs the scenes of them working together without having to spell it out. Howard and Felton will get there, but up to this point, they haven't had as much important screen time as the other two, and you can feel the writers still figuring out what they are to each other. There's a long exchange between the two that begins with Felton telling Howard that his wife thinks that he's in love her. He tells her that he assured his wife that he isn't even attracted to her, and then, of course, Howard, while assuring him that he doesn't want him to be attracted to her, demands to know exactly why he isn't--does he think there's something wrong with her?
More than anything, the scene feels as if the show is laying down the law, to both the viewers and anyone on the creative side who thinks they might have a bright idea: we get it, he's a man and she's a woman, but rest assured we're not going there, so don't be waiting for it and for Christ's sake, don't suggest it. It's an admirable attitude. I'm just not sure it's credible that the characters themselves would address it so directly, at such length, with so little motivation, especially when they have more pressing matters taking up space in their heads. Howard, in particular, grows angrier and angrier as she discovers that one of the murder victims' sons is tangled up in the case. Melissa Leo may have her strongest moment on the show to date when she snaps, in response to the kid's weeping in the interrogation room: "What're you crying for, Willie? You got no right to those tears!"
- Some notable guest appearances here, besides Lee Tergesen and Edie Falco, who return as Officer Thormann and his wife, and the veteran character actor Michael Constantine as Gee's old buddy. Larry Gilliard, Jr. was all of twenty-one years old when played the kid whose tears so infuriate Kay Howard. Nine years later, he'd give an indelible performance as another product of a screwed-up family, the sensitive, doomed D'Angelo Barksdale on The Wire. The girlfriend who Pony Johnson somehow hasn't gotten around to murdering yet is played by Lisa Gay Hamilton, whose TV series credits include The Practice and Men of a Certain Age, where she's paired with Andre Braugher.
- Lisa Gay Hamilton also appeared in the underappreciated 1995 movie Palookaville, which was directed by Alan Taylor. Taylor also directed this episode. It was his first break as a director for TV, and he's gone on to become one of the indispensable men of TV series directing, with memorable episodes of The Sopranos, The West Wing, Deadwood, Mad Men, Sex and the City, Oz, Lost, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and other shows under his belt. He also continues to make the occasional good movie--most recently with Kill the Poor (2003)--and audiences continue to stay away from the theaters playing them in droves.
- The inexperienced patrolwoman on the scene at Howard and Felton's homicide expresses surprise to see that the more seasoned cops are allowing the dead woman's relatives to clear the house of valuables before the body has even been removed. Felton explains that this is an act of practical courtesy: in this neighborhood, once word gets out that the homeowner is dead, the local burglars will descend on the place and strip it clean as soon as the cops leave. This is exactly the kind of surreal true-life detail you'd be unlikely to see in a show that had less of an area-specific, journalistic base.
- Not so journalistic: the bizarre character of Dr. Blythe's grating, seemingly college-age son, who acts like the creation of someone who, back in 1993, was told to bone up on what kids are like these days by watching MTV, and who, as a consequence, may have spent too much time studying Pauly Shore. I like to imagine that this whole subplot made it into the finished episode just for the sake of the moment when Munch explains to Stan why the kid keeps saying "Fresh!" ("It means like, neat-o, keen.")
- At this point, we're two more episodes away from the end of the first season as it was planned, though the actual season finale, as broadcast, had three more episodes to go, because of the way the network scrambled the sequence. By the time "A Dog and Pony" show was aired, the network, reacting to both the Homicide's terrible ratings and its spectacular reviews, had announced that the show's future would depend on how well the last four episodes did. This led to a lot of noise in the press encouraging people to watch the show, and even a TV commercial in which Barry Levinson promised to do anything short of beat his Jimmy Hollywood star Joe Pesci to death with a lead pipe. It paid off, sort of: in its original broadcast, the episode did a lot better than "Three Men and Adena." But in the overall ratings, Home Improvement was still kicking Homicide in the nuts and taking its lunch.