I think that it was around this point, as the clock was running out on Homicide's first season, that the series hit its full stride. The actors had a firm grasp on their characters, the writers knew how to show off the actors to their best advantage, and everyone seemed to have their feet solidly rooted in the streets of Baltimore. They had achieved the kind of grounding that allows game, talented people to proceed on the assumption that they've already laid down the floorboards and created the necessary framework for what they want to do. As Exhibit A in support of my theory, I'd cite this episode: a crackling, highly enjoyable forty-five minutes of television, full of character comedy and lively interplay, in spite of the fact that it has one of those scripts (credited to Jorge Zamacona, from a story by Tom Fontana) that seems to want to make a Statement about Important Social Issues. Its message can perhaps be boiled down to: the war on drugs has failed and the legalization of some recreational illegal substances is at least worthy considering, but it really stinks that representatives of foreign governments may be able to blow away refugee dissidents living in our country, and our own cops can't do anything about it. Also, don't lie to the people you work with every day, it's rude and just helps the bosses in their stupid power-play mind games. Oh, and go to police auctions in your area, they have the best deals in the city.
The geopolitical stuff comes to us through Lewis and Crosetti, who stumble across the case of a Chinese student activist who was part of the scene at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and has now been found murdered in his Balmer apartment. Their search for the truth takes them to Washington, D.C., where they have a brief, fruitless exchange with someone at the Chinese embassy, and then a longer exchange with a Secret Service agent played by the redoubtable Ed Lauter, one of my all-time favorite hawk-faced, beady-eyed character actors, with a voice as dry as a Saharan death rattle and male pattern balding. (I will always believe that it's one of the tragedies of contemporary western culture that nobody ever created a TV series where Ed Lauter and Robert Duvall could have played crime-fighting brothers. "One's a cop. One's a priest. But they both give the bad guys hell! USA. Characters welcome.")
Lauter, representing the voice of realpolitik as it applies to the keeping of domestic order, indicates that he knows who killed the activist but that, for diplomatic reasons, he can't do anything about it, and gently steers the detectives back to Baltimore. Lewis, incensed, argues for the higher moral value of justice for each and every murder victim against the broader aim of keeping peace with a corrupt, murderous regime, and refuses Lauter's offer of dinner at "the White House mess." What prevents this from feeling like an episode of Hardball filmed on location in the streets of D.C. is that Crosetti, whose head is spinning from being able to spend the day in the nation's capitol, checking out all his favorite Lincoln assassination conspiracy theory tour sites, is so endearingly caught in the middle. To see him watch Lewis, whose need to rock the boat over this he just barely understands, walk away from Lauter and his backdoor ticket to the White House, and then politely declare his loyalty to his partner, is to to momentarily feel the urge to kiss Jon Polito. This is a feeling that I'm glad I got to experience once, in about the same way that I'm glad I once tried escargot, though I probably wouldn't make a habit of it.
The drug-debate stuff is chaired by Richard Belzer as Munch, and naturally gains a measure of piquancy from being voiced by an actor whose earliest breaks included playing a drug dealer in a mock sitcom in The Groove Tube and being the warm-up comedian for the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live. It's to Belzer's and the other actors' considerable credit that these debate club scenes, which are heavily laden with statistics and historical factoids, amount to anything more than static on your viewing mechanism of choice. (Did you know that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both raised hemp? If you didn't, you must have had less annoying roommates than I had in the '90s/) Certainly this part of the show isn't as much fun as the scenes revolving around the trial of last week's special guest villain, Pony Johnson. These are about making sure that Pony gets what's coming to him, and also about steering Kay Howard and state prosecutor Ed Danvers (Željko Ivanek) into each other's waiting arms.
These scenes, too, benefit from having a fifth wheel character looking on from the sidelines: Felton, who, while Howard and Danvers are yelling at each other while preparing her trial testimony, gets to sit in a chair and stare at them as if thinking, "My God, they're gonna do it right there on his desk!" I also loved his chiding the bored, anxious Howard, as they're both cooling their heels outside the courtroom, for not having brought a cool toy to kill the time, like the portable TV he picked up at a police auction. "It's also a VCR," he boasts of the clunky-looking horror in his lap. "It plays eight-millimeter films." I haven't gone to eBay yet to look for one of these things, but I know myself well enough to know that it's just a matter of time.
The trial scene itself is a beauty, with Howard first flubbing her testimony, then winning Danvers's heart by getting the defense attorney to ask her a question that allows her to mention to the jury that Pony is a suspect in a different murder. The lawyer complains to the judge that he wouldn't have asked the question id he'd known she was going to say that. "No good lawyer ever asks a question if he doesn't know the answer," replies the judge, confirming that at least one person in the room has watched Law & Order. In the other subplot in which a potential great love takes it knocks but bounces back that much stronger for it, the bosses have the effrontery to wave the job of shift commander in Pembleton's face and the even greater audacity to tell him not to let Giardello know about it. Pembleton actually lies to Gee when he returns to the squad room, but in the end, he realizes that, [A] it was wrong of him to do so, and [B], he has no desire to be taken off the streets and denied the chance to work cases so that he can instead sweat over budgets and play nursemaid to a roomful of crazy fool detectives. Of course, Gee knew all the time what the bosses had said to Pembleton. How did he know? "They told me." There are few things on Homicide more strangely reassuring than the sight of Frank being naive.
- There's a brief, good guest performance by Bai Ling as the woman who fills Crosetti and Lewis in on the identity of their murder victim. (A year later, she and Jon Polito would appear together in The Crow.)
- The episode also marks the first appearance by Andre Braugher's wife, Ami Brabson, who plays Pembleton's wife. Mary. (She would appear in nineteen episodes over the course of the series.)
- The beach-ball-shaped actor who plays Pony Williams's lawyer is Michael Willis, who I would love to see someday play New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the childhood sections of a biopic, ideally wearing short pants and a propeller beanie and holding an enormous lollipop. Despite his apparent haplessness, his character, Darin Russom, would somehow get hired by other miscreants and turn up again a number of times. He would later have perhaps the most memorable role of his career as the property developer on The Wire who is a witness to the murder of Stringer Bell, or would have been, if he hadn't automatically rolled up in a protective ball of his own flesh the minute those black gentlemen came through the door with their guns drawn.
- The smile that lights up Melissa Leo's face when Howard realizes that she's about to make Darin Russom her bitch has to be one of the all-time great "This is better than sex!" expressions ever caught on camera.