If Homicide were Friends, “Bop Gun”—the episode that NBC broadcast as the second-season premiere, but which was originally intended to serve as the season finale—would be titled, “The One With Robin Williams.” At the time, the presence of an actual movie star who had a big recent hit that was still in theaters seemed like a coup that the network, sensibly, wanted to cash in on and use to attract attention to the show. Williams’ name was probably in better repute then than it is now, and if you’re wondering why that is, it helps to remember that the hit movie in question was Mrs. Doubtfire. Still, Williams’ reputation didn’t really turn the corner until a few years later, when the combination of his taste for treacle, his tendency to radiate cow-eyed sincerity as his default setting in dramatic roles, and his deeply misguided desire to be labeled “Chaplinesque” led him to load up his IMDB page with such horrors as Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, What Dreams May Come, and Jakob The Liar, a.k.a. “the Life Is Beautiful that ain’t foolin’ nobody.”
At this point, it would be easy to just make fun of Williams’ presence here, but it wouldn’t be fair. He stays in character and gives a fine, committed performance in a role that doesn’t allow him much room for variety and the merest glints of humor—humor that’s too sardonic to be funny. He plays Robert Ellison, a tourist visiting Baltimore with his family who gets to stand by with his two kids and watch a mugger shoot his wife in the face. I’ve heard it said that he’s a distraction, but if it’s just distracting to see Robin Williams on Homicide, I don’t know that Williams is to blame for that. He gives a fine, understated performance that never threatens to overshadow the real stars of the show, and he never turns on the charm. He’s actually not very likeable, and this feels like both a deliberate choice and something of a stretch for Williams.
You can’t fault the man for being miserably unhappy in his situation, but he discharges his anger in unhelpful ways that make things harder for the detectives and only further upset his kids. (The boy is played by a 13-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal; the episode was directed by his father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, who had recently directed the movies Waterland and A Dangerous Woman.) After he explodes because he’s overheard the detectives unwinding by joking about all the overtime they’re going to get because of his uselessness as a witness, Giardello drags Williams into his office and tries to talk sense to him. Giardello tells him that he himself still remembers the first murder case he ever handled, but that he “can’t remember my 50th or my 40th.” He explains that the seemingly boorish Beau Felton isn’t going to “feel what you feel. None of us… But the only difference between Felton and the rest of us is that he doesn’t bother to hide that fact. You need him to solve your wife’s murder, not to grieve.”
It feels as if they’ve reached an understanding, but the next day, Ellison is yelling at Gee because his wife’s corpse is lying in its body bag naked, and “she was very… proper.” Williams never overacts, but he manages to put across the idea that this man has to pay for not having acted like a cowboy when his wife was in danger by making a big show of protecting her every chance he gets, now that it doesn’t matter anymore. (The most clumsily overstated thing about his character is the fault of the wardrobe people, or whoever decided that, after his wife’s murder, Ellison would have been allowed to spend the rest of the day hanging out at the police building without anyone offering to get him something to wear that didn’t have his wife’s blood all over it.) Adding to his frustration is the fact that he doesn’t seem to be learning anything from his experience, the way people—especially those played by special-guest movie stars—are supposed to on TV. Well, as he tells Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) in his last scene, he has learned one thing, but it’s not something anyone wants to know. People who’ve been hit by senseless tragedy used to think, “Why me?” he says, but now he knows that “It’s not ’Why me?’ anymore, it’s ’When me?’”
This is actually Melissa Leo’s episode, though. This is foreshadowed in the opening minutes, when shots of the robbers playing basketball are intercut with Howard and Felton killing time in the office, and it becomes clear that she’s central to the story once the first two thugs who the cops pick up pin the shooting on a third kid, Vaughn (Lloyd Perkins), who has a horrendous family history but who, as Felton puts it, is an unlikely candidate for a murder suspect because he “doesn’t have the sheet for it.” (As the hardest of the kids, Antonio Charity has a beauty of a scene where he boasts of his professionalism: “I put that .45 in people’s faces two or three hundred times, and I never let go of a bullet. That’s why I use a .45. ’Cuz people are fool enough to argue with anything smaller. I’m a straight-up stick-up man. I know my business.”)
Nobody really believes that the puppyish Vaughn could be the killer; Gee himself says as much. Vaughn doesn’t deny it, though, and Felton, too, knows his business: “His homeboys put him in, he’s gonna take the weight. I’m onto new business.” With all three guys in the jug, there’s no way that the killer isn’t doing time, and only Kay cares about the fact that the most innocent of them might be the one who got the worst of the criminal justice system. What happens in her final face-to-face with Vaughn is still, more than 17 years after it first aired, too good to spoil; it’s meant to be experienced, so you can savor such grace notes as the way the newly hard Vaughn informs Howard that he’s changed his name, and she, trying to sound approachable but hard to faze, replies, “You’re a Muslim now, huh? Nation of Islam or Moorish Brotherhood?” Both of them leave each other’s company with their armor a little thicker and more firmly in place, which may be necessary given where they are and what they do. The episode itself came on pretty hard, but it had the luxury of being able to let its feelings show when it needed to.
- Least surprising character revelation ever: Bayliss tries to connect with Robert Ellison’s son, who’s in the eighth grade, by telling him that when he was in the eighth grade, “I was a patrol boy.”
- What not to put on your entry form for Mother of the Year: Vaughn’s birth mother tries to impress Kay Howard by telling her, “I stayed on methadone all the time I carried him. And a good while after!”
- Felton, letting Kid Funkadelic know that there’s a betting pool going on over which of the two suspects in custody will be the first to give up the other: “Marvin, you have the right to remain silent, although personally, I don’t believe the right to remain silent is all it’s cracked up to be. Smoke?”
- The P-Funk references don’t end with the title. The thug played by Antonio Charity goes by the street name “Kid Funkadelic,” and explains that, although it’s true he shot a man once, the fellow had it coming: He borrowed the Kid’s Eddie Hazel album and “put it in the back of his raggedy Cutlass on an 80-degree day!”
- Those references are part of the tip-off that this was the first episode for a member of the behind-the-scenes team who would become an invaluable and often overlooked part of Homicide: Chris Tergesen, who would serve as music coordinator for the rest of the show’s run. (He’s the brother of Lee Tergesen, who appeared in season one as the maimed Officer Thormann.) Where earlier shows, such as Miami Vice, had generated an expiration-dated buzz by littering their soundtrack with contemporary songs that may or may not have suited the scenes to which they were attached, Tergesen had both sharp taste and a canny sense of how to use music to comment on and punch up the drama. The opening montage is cut to a propulsive track by Seal, “Killer,” and the dueling-interrogations sequence effectively samples Eric B. And Rakim. The sucker punch comes at the very end, with a gorgeous use of Buddy Guy’s version of John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain” that saturates the images and elevates the emotions of Howard and Vaughn’s final meeting.
- From where I’m sitting, it’s been a great summer. But now fall is rolling in, the new TV season is about to begin, and there’ll be less time to spend mulling over the pop-culture highlights of the Clinton years. So, to better simulate the experience of watching a show that used to disappear for months on end with no hard promises about when it might be coming back, the TV Club Classic coverage of Homicide will be going on hiatus for the forseeable future. I’d like to take a minute to thank TV Club master of ceremonies Todd VanDerWerff for having decided the show and I would be a good fit. And I join Frank, Tim, Gee, Kay, Beau, John, Stanley, Meldrick, Steve, the Araber, Ed Danvers, Dr. Blythe, Calpurnia Church, Pony Johnson, Tanya Quinn, the guy who got played by a Xerox machine, and even that piece of crap Barnfarther in thanking everyone who’s stopped by, especially those who left comments, including those who were perceptive enough to point out that I am a poopyhead.