Homicide: Life On The Street: "Ghost Of A Chance"
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Homicide: Life On The Street: "Ghost Of A Chance"

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Homicide: Life On The Street

"Ghost Of A Chance"

Season 1, Episode 2

 "Ghost of a Chance" (Season one, episode two; first broadcast 2/3/93)

If there's a through line running through Homicide--one thing, among all the dozens of regular and recurring characters and scores of main stories and subplots that's consistently developed through the 122 episodes, plus wrap-it-up reunion TV movie--it's the steady transformation of Tim Bayliss from straight-arrow rookie idealist into whatever the hell he is by the series' end. "Ghost of a Chance" opens at the scene of the previous episode's conclusion, the rain-swept street where Bayliss first sees the body of the eleven-year-old Adena Watson, his first homicide as primary investigator. But now hours have passed, and there's no one left at the scene but Bayliss, the driver of "the morgue wagon" who's waiting for Bayliss to release the body, and a few of the more seasoned detectives, who can't understand why he won't do it. Bayliss floats through the scene, muttering "What am I missing?" and leafing through his notes as if he'd already written down the killer's name and address but can't find that page again. He only takes his first tentative steps back into our universe when Giardello arrives and gently but firmly tells him to wrap it up.

The way Giardello handles Bayliss throughout the episode is its special grace note. When the case becomes a "red ball"--Homicide's shorthand code for a high-profile case where the whole world, or at least the bosses and the local TV media, is watching--Giardello stares down the bosses who want Bayliss removed as the primary. "That rookie will surprise us all," he says--a line that smacks of Quinn Martin, except that it's obvious that Giardello is suddenly talking like a cop show because he's saying something he doesn't believe. There's no mistaking that Bayliss is in over his head. In the premiere, he talked about how he's looking forward to solving cases by using his brains, but confronted with the horror of a dead child left in a rat-infested alley, he seems to do all his thinking with his big, mushy heart. His investigative techniques include hovering over Adena's body while she lies on the autopsy slab and muttering that she has "the face of an angel" and barging into the girl's funeral service, to stand in front of the casket and give the assembled mourners the chance to wonder why he's not out there looking for her killer. He's useless at such thankless but necessary tasks as talking to the girl's family. And when he talks like a cop show, promising Giardello that he'll "crack this sucker," Gee can barely repress a shudder.

Why is Gee so supportive and, aside from one desk-clearing tantrum, so gentle with this tender, mouth-breathing sprout? At different points in the episode, the range of plausible answers includes a rigid belief in adherence to protocol (Bayliss was the one who answered the phone, so he owns the case, a rule that in the David Simon book that inspired the series is absolutely sacrosanct), a stubborn determination not to let others tell him how to do his job, and the fear that if Bayliss suffers the humiliation of having the case taken away from him, he may never recover, and Gee will have this dead man walking cluttering up his squad room until it's time for his pension to kick in.  If you put them all together, what it adds up to may be that Bayliss, like every other detective in the room, has to have his cherry busted at some point before he can become a real murder police. The unspoken message that comes through is that there must be a certain number of homicides that are doomed to remain unsolved from the outset because they were fated to be the cases that some beginner cut his teeth on. In the most quietly memorable moment of the episode, Giardello, anticipating the moment when Bayliss realizes that he's been screwing up, speaks to the rookie as candidly as he can allow himself to. "This'll break," he tells him. "These things just take time." The way Yaphet Kotto delivers that line, there's no mistaking that Giardelli is trying to tell Bayliss that he believes he'll do better next time. In reply, Bayliss smiles as if he almost half-gets it. 

It's to Kyle Secor's considerable credit that the pretty white boy's grotesque fumbling of the case comes across as at least as touching as it is infuriating. When he and Kotto are offscreen, Homicide's sophomore episode is something of a mixed bag. Gwen Verdon has a darkly funny guest role (she got an Emmy nomination for it) as a woman who may have murdered her husband of sixty years, or at least didn't do anything to prevent him from dying. (It takes him a couple of tries before he stays dead.) Ned Beatty's halting attempts to romance the coroner--excuse me, "medical examiner"--played by Wendy Hughes also seems meant to be a laugh riot, but nobody would have faulted either actor if they'd walked off the set once they'd gotten to the place in the script where Beatty, trying to ask her out to dinner, was required to say that he'd heard that "you tend to have crabs." Dialogue that belongs in a Porky's movie doesn't magically turn into sparkling repartee just because it's being spoken by actors in their forties and fifties. (Yes, in context, this is meant to show Bolander's nervous lack of saviour faire when it comes to approaching a woman he likes. But however you defend a line like that dramatically, the fact remains that I'm stuck having to hear it.)

The subplot that's referred to in the title is less gross but almost as problematic. Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), the detective who's on a "no-hitter"--all the cases listed under her name on the board are in black--claims that the victim in the case she's currently working on has been trying to send her messages from the other side, and she seems to mean it. In the story line, this is a setup for her partner, Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), to come through for her and prove he's a good partner and a friend after he's embarrassed her by telling the other guys in the squad room that she believes in ghosts. But Kay's superstitiousness and flirting with the occult, which will come up again in the series, don't feel like natural components to her character, which is generally as hard-headed as they come. Homicide gets a lot of well-deserved credit for its racially balanced cast and the opportunities it offered black actors, and it's hard to imagine a scene where Kotto or Andre Braugher suggested that the cops try to solve a tough case by consulting the ouija board. But Howard was the only woman in the squad room at this point, and maybe the writers figured that checking in with the spirits was the New Age version of women's intuition.

Stray observations (Spoilers Included): 

  • The scene in Gee's office where he's pressured to replace Bayliss marks Clayton LeBouef's first appearance as Captain Barnfarther, who, despite his name, is not a popular children's show host but the officer who oversees the Homicide Division. In due time, he will be promoted to Colonel. LeBouef was thirty-nine when he first played Barnfarther, and only looked about twenty years younger. Presumably, he was meant to look young to drive home the point that the political-minded careerist Barnfarther was rising rapidly in the department and leaving the pricklier, performance-oriented Giardello in his dust. Wardrobe did its bit by seeming to dress him in a hat and uniform that looked a little big on him, as if he were a kid who'd been playing in his daddy's closet. David Simon later cast him as the ill-fated strip club operator Orlando Blocker in the first season of The Wire.
  • This episode also introduces Assistant State's Attorney Ed Danvers, who for a while would become Kay Howard's boy toy. Danvers is played by Željko Ivanek, making the most of a brief phase in his career when he seemed to be bucking to become Michael Moriarty's understudy, before he lost a little more hair and turned into the death's head emblem and self-satisfied deliverer of bad news familiar to viewers of 24, The West Wing, Big Love, True Blood, The Event, etc., etc. The Gwen Verdon subplot also affords us our first glimpse of the patrolmen Chris Thormann. whom we will meet again. Thormann is played by Lee Tergesen, who Tom Fontana later cast in Oz as Beecher, the drunk-driving Hardvard-educated lawyer turned penis-severing wild man. 
  • Fontana provided the "story" for this episode; the script is credited to novelist-screenwriter Noel Behn. Directed by Martin Campbell, who had alreayd directed a couple of classic British miniseries, Reilly: Ace of Spies and Edge of Darkness, as well as the lovably weird HBO movie and genre mash-up Cast a Deadly Spell, starring Fred Ward as a hardboiled 1940s private eye named Phillip Lovecraft. . His subsequent big-screen credits include Pierce Brosnan's first James Bond movie, GoldenEye; Daniel Craig's first James Bond movie, Casino Royale; the Zorro movies starring Antonio Banderos; and this summer's Green Lantern.