Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Homicide: Life On The Street: “A Many Splendored Thing”

Illustration for article titled Homicide: Life On The Street: “A Many Splendored Thing”

This episode has always been a personal favorite of mine, because of Adrienne Shelly’s performance as Tanya, the manager of an S & M-themed clothing boutique. Her life and Tim Bayliss’ briefly collide because Bayliss is investigating the murder of one of her employees, a woman who was found strangled in her bed. (There’s a note reading “Ed did it” crumpled in her hand, an attempted masterstroke of misdirection that makes Pembleton’s day.) Describing her relationship with the deceased, Shelly says that they weren’t exactly friends, but they “shared similar fantasies.” She adds that “Angela didn’t like a lot of people,” then looks Bayliss up and down and smirks, “but she would have liked you.” Pembleton gets almost as big a kick out of her as he did the note, but Bayliss, whose reaction to being trapped in this sleazy environment is to turn all Bo Peep, does his best to signal that he’s dying inside.

When the detectives are alone in the car and Bayliss starts whining about how hard it all is on his tender sensibilities, Pembleton decides he’s had enough: “You’re either a liar or a moron,” he says in reference to Bayliss’ insisting that he doesn’t have a streak of kink in his own soul. “If you’re a liar, fine, at least you’ve got a chance—but if you’re a moron, you’re just a bore.” Then, being Pembleton, he explains why Bayliss’ “innocent barefoot boy” routine can only cripple his effectiveness as a murder police: “Virtue is not virtue until it slams up against vice, so consequently, your virtue is not real virtue until it’s been tested… You got to know the darker, uglier sides of yourself. You got to know them so they won’t always be sneaking up on you.” Those who have seen the later seasons of the show will know that Pembleton’s words must have hit Bayliss pretty hard on both the personal and professional level, because by the end of the series, he had gotten on close terms with his dark side, on a level beyond Pembleton’s wildest imagining.

At the end of the episode, after Bayliss and Pembleton have put Angela’s murderer away, there’s an improbably lovely scene set in the station house at the end of the shift, when the place looks lonely and quiet. Shelly shows up at Bayliss’s desk with a leather coat from her store, which she offers him as a gift; she tells him, “It’s nice to know that if the same thing happens to me, you’ll be out there.” He declines the gift, telling her he can’t accept it. She says, “Yes you can,” and he says, “No,” and she says, “Yes!” and that’s that. A couple of seconds later, she’s helping him put it on and telling him, “It’s you.” It’s too bad that the show didn’t have Shelly’s character hang around long enough to have a fling with Bayliss. Who knows how long it could have lasted, but when she puts her foot down, it’s hard not to feel that she was just the tour guide for the red light district that he needed.

In its other compartments, this episode continues to kick around the idea that the pursuit of romantic and sexual fulfillment, whether or not it gets you killed, might be more trouble than it’s worth. Most of the remaining major characters who aren’t busy touring S & M bars and interviewing phone-sex managers are preoccupied with the love life of Stanley Bolander, whose attraction to Julianna Margulies’s violin-playing waitress has the big man skipping about on clouds and rhapsodizing over the beauty of a homeless couple who chose to O.D. on their prescription medicine so they could check out sitting next to each other, leaning against a tree. No one would fault Giardello if he put this lovesick goober on suspension just so he wouldn’t have to look at him, but instead, Gee attempts an intervention, and Stanley somehow infects him with his romantic madness. It’s like that Alan Moore comic where the aliens infecting a spaceship take the form of an idea, which, when whispered by one crew member to the next and then the next after that, leaves them all transformed into robotic pod people with big, creepy grins. Luckily, Munch comes to the rescue by crashing his partner’s big double date with Kay Howard and Ed Danvers and lecturing them all on his big breakup and what it augurs for the future of the species. Suffice to say that by the time he’s done talking, ain’t nobody getting any.

Stray observations:

  • Directed by John McNaughton, who made Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, the amusingly tawdry Wild Things, an Eric Bogosian performance movie, and, many enthusiastic predictions to the contrary, nothing else of interest that I know about. It’s the second of seven episodes written by the novelist and playwright Noel Behn.
  • Though Shelly wasn’t asked back, Margulies was approached about the possibility of her waitress becoming a recurring character. She said no, because ER beckoned, but I’m sure the fact that she left the show before she’d had the chance to make out with Ned Beatty on camera will nag at her for the rest of her days.
  • A subplot involving the arrest of a nutcase who shot a man in the public library because he coveted his pen essentially marks the last hurrah of Jon Polito as Steve Crosetti. This was intended to be the season finale, and though NBC substituted a different episode after this one ran, it would be an episode in which Polito barely got to stick his head in the door. He would be missed.
  • The murdered woman’s ex-boyfriend is called “Chris Novoselic”. I have no idea what to make of this apparent shout-out to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. I’d hate to think it was intended as some kind of pungent commentary on the link between kinky sex and grunge rock, but the episode was first broadcast two years after Nevermind hit (and less than four months before the death of Kurt Cobain), so there’s no way to account for it as a sly tribute to an obscure band. Maybe Behn, who would have been in his mid-60s at the time and probably wasn’t diving into too many mosh pits, had just heard the name somewhere and had it on the periphery of his consciousness when he was trying to figure out what to call the character.
  • If the episode inspires mixed feelings, not all of them happy, when viewed today, it’s because Adrienne Shelly was murdered in 2006, at the age of 40, bringing to an end a career that never did fan out the way it should have. (Her last film was Waitress, which she wrote and directed, and which was released six months after her death.) She was found hanged in the bathroom of her Manhattan apartment/office, and her death was first reported as a suicide. The police subsequently arrested a 19-year-old construction worker named Diego Pillco, who claimed that he had murdered her in a panic after she caught him burglarizing the apartment. I don’t know how Diego Pillco likes prison life, but wherever he is and whatever he’s doing or is being done to him, he’ll always be having too good a time to suit me.