"Gone for Goode" (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 1/31/93)
Homicide (or Homicide: Life on the Street, to call it by the full, official, not altogether unpretentious title that I might not ever use here again) premiered early in 1993, which was a brief limbo period in the history of creatively ambitious TV. It hadn't been that long since the success of the first season of Twin Peaks had led to Brandon Tartikoff's famous declaration that "tried and true equals dead and buried." It had been even less long since the implosion of Twin Peaks during its second season and the failure of such misfires as Cop Rock and the hundred-something half-assed animated series commissioned after The Simpsons hit seemed to render that statement inoperative.
It was also a few years before such outlets as Entertainment Weekly and Salon started running big pieces about how TV had replaced movies as the place smart people went for contemporary popular art that connected with their lives. Like Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show, Homicide was one of the shows that inspired that kind of re-evaluation of the medium, but unlike the latter, it was on a commercial network and had to answer to the whims of the salesmen in the front office, and unlike Seinfeld, it was never a big enough hit to give its creative team much leverage with the suits. After Homicide had been on the air for several months, NYPD Blue premiered and became the hit adult cop opera of the decade, a development that only made Homicide more critically beloved; reviewers loved to show off their discernment by using Homicide as a cudgel against the soapier NYPD Blue. But that didn't do it any good in the ratings.
How did this consistently low-rated show manage to stay on the air for seven years? (It also inspired one of network TV's first attempts to exploit the Internet via the 1997 spin-off web series Homicide: Second Shift, which featured a different set of cops working its own cases in the squad room and a cast including Allison Janney and Joe Grifasi. Sadly, I've never seen it; I'm still waiting for the episodes to finish downloading.) In the early '80s, when NBC was in the ratings toilet and had nothing to lose, the network had let Hill Street Blues take its time to find its audience, a strategy that eventually paid off. In the era of "Must See TV", the network may have figured that it could afford to take a bath on Homicide to humor the critics and the big-name talent behind the show.
At the time, the big-name talent in question was thought to be Barry Levinson, who put screenwriter Paul Attanasio together with Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, whose nonfiction book provided the basis for the series. Levinson, whose Diner and Tin Men had earned him a reputation as the movies' Mr. Baltimore, also directed the first episode, written by Attanasio, which is full of actual cases and incidents taken from Simon's book. Though not everyone realized it at the time, Levinson's movie career was starting to slide downhill at the time, and his participation in the launching of Homicide actually provided a bright spot in between the release of back-to-back big-screen disasters, Toys and Jimmy Hollywood. But now that David Simon has transitioned into one of the most admired and revered of all TV auteurs, Homicide virgins are more likely to be interested in the show as a rough draft for what Simon and his various collaborators later pulled off with The Wire.
Homicide is not The Wire. But, maybe because so many of the people who were central to its creative team had developed their skills somewhere else besides television, it was something that no one had ever quite seen on TV before: an experimental cop show. By definition, experiments don't always work, and among the reasons the show never became a popular success, there are some good ones. The editing, with its reliance on jump cuts, could be mannered, and so could the dialogue, which sometimes strained to be clipped and hard-boiled by way of David Mamet. But even when the results were shaky, it was exciting to see so many talented people working without a net. Homicide was both bad and uninteresting only when NBC went too far in tinkering with it in its later seasons, in the forlorn hope that it might become a worthy ratings competitor for Nash Bridges. (Or, sometimes, in the early days, when you could smell the writers trying to dumb things down a little themselves. The worst moment in the first episode comes when Yaphet Kotto, as the shift lieutenant, Giardello, stands behind one-way glass watching his top detective conduct an interrogation and says to himself, "Go get 'im, Frank! We need this one." Coach Taylor would toss away a line like that if it turned up in one of his pep talk speeches on Friday Night Lights.) But even when everything else faltered, the acting remained solid. Homicide had, bar none, the best cast ever brought together for a dramatic network series.
The breakout star, by general acclamation, was Andre Braugher as Baltimore's answer to Sherlock Holmes, Frank Pembleton. Braugher uses both a brash, theatrical approach and an attention to detail to bring a richly textured character fully to life, and the performance compares favorably to just about any other comparable work you could think of by an actor in a TV series role—Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison, James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano, Ian McShane's Al Swearengen, anybody. I sort of remembered Braugher as standing out from the rest of the ensemble and taking the show over by sheer force of talent, so I was surprised when I looked at the premiere again for the first time in 18 years and saw how carefully the show sets up his entrance so that he can knock it out of the park. Pembleton doesn't appear until after the first 15 minutes of the first episode, by which time you've already heard just about every other regular character bitching about him. (Frank inspires the kind of enmity people can only feel for those colleagues who think they're light years better than anyone else at their job and who turn out to probably be right about that.) When he does show up, you can probably see the spotlights hitting him in the squad room. Somehow, this only adds to the admiration you have to feel for Braugher; after all the buildup, if he'd been a scintilla less awesome, he'd have just looked ridiculous.
The first episode plants the seeds of what will turn out to be the love/hate relationship at the show's center when Pembleton, who has so much contempt for the mere mortals cluttering up the squad room that he'd rather work alone, is partnered with the new kid on the block, the baby-faced idealist "fresh from the Mayor's Security Team," Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). The episode opens with Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Crosetti (Jon Polito), arguably the most jaded pair of detectives on the squad, having an absurdist conversation while circling around the matter of the dead body on the scene; it ends with Bayliss, having spent the day sparring with the insanely self-assured Pembleton, reporting to the scene of the murder of the 11-year-old girl, Adena Watson, his first case as primary detective. He flashes his identification and almost whispers, "Homicide." He sounds as if he's trying to convince someone and that the someone might be himself.
Stray observations (spoilers included):
- Listening to Jon Polito delivering his speeches about the ridiculous, frustrating unknowability of life, you can almost believe that the writers were already setting up the third-season revelation that Crosetti had committed suicide. Of course, they weren't; Polito was reportedly dismissed from the show in response to an edict from the front office that the cast wasn't attractive enough. Watching him here, muttering wisecracks while attacking his seafood lunch with a small wooden mallet, it's hard to believe that anyone would rather have a show without this guy on it.
- The title of this episode actually refers to a case that Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) has been tempted to let slide, until his sage older partner, Bolander (Ned Beatty), harasses him into taking a closer look. At the time, it seemed that Munch was going to be Belzer's ticket out of the stand-up comedian/talk-radio guest ghetto and into a "legitimate" acting career. As it turned out, it became his ticket to a career of playing Detective John Munch; by rough count, he's played Munch on 10 different shows, including The Wire, Arrested Development, three different chapters of the Law & Order franchise, and The X-Files, which must have been quite a treat for the old conspiracy head. Most recently, the character was name-checked but unseen on the BBC series Luther, starring Stringer Bell.
- I was unprepared for how conventionally, shining-youthful-face pretty Melissa Leo is here, in her first appearance as Kay Howard. Maybe this was part of a plan to snow the network, or maybe Leo didn't immediately have a handle on the character, because it wasn't long before she took to playing Howard with an unkempt bed head and clunky-looking work-suit wardrobe that bespoke long hours on the job and a social life on life support. When she was fully in character, you could smell the cigarette smoke trapped in her hair.
- I'm not sure what anyone who wasn't watching TV in the early '90s will make today of Belzer/Munch's "Montel Williams" rant, but it made me laugh in 1993, and it made me laugh again just now.
- I think that Pembleton's approach to crime solving is meant to be summed up in his speech to Bayliss before commencing an interrogation, which he describes as "an act of salesmanship," but I prefer his all-purpose answer to any question about why a murderer would have done something that Frank thinks he did, even though it wouldn't make sense: "Crime makes you stupid."
- I don't know who won the Emmy for Best Guest Appearance in a Dramatic Series in 1993, but I have a hunch that the guy who plays the funeral home director ("He's in a styrofoam casket. Buried like a hamburger.") was robbed.