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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Homicide: Life On The Street: "A Shot In The Dark"

Illustration for article titled Homicide: Life On The Street: "A Shot In The Dark"

This is a placeholder episode, devoted to tidying up a few plot ends left dangling from previous episodes and setting the table for the next installment, which happens to be "Three Men and Adena", a lollapalooza stakes-raiser on the order of Buffy's "Innocence" or The Sopranos' "College". That's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, after the heavy dramatics of the last couple of episodes, it's good to see the writers—the script is credited to Jorge Zamacona, from a story by Tom Fontana—having some fun with bull-session dialogue exchanges that flesh out the characters a little, and it's even more fun getting to see the actors tossing these lines back and forth, like drunk college kids with a new frisbee. Even so, it's clear that, even when doing this kind of mopping-up operation, the people working on this show meant to distinguish themselves by serving up something different from the run of what was on network TV at the time.

It's sobering to be reminded that, in the post-Twin Peaks era of Northern Exposure and Picket Fences, "something different" on television was often defined as sheer goofball weirdness. "Shot" kicks off with a moderate dose of this, with Bolander and Munch reporting to the home of a local drug dealer, whose dead, bullet-riddled body has been found lying on the floor of his living room, with the dying, bullet-riddled body of another man lying under him. Briefly, they debate the possible logistics of what went down. Munch argues for a mutually fatal shoot-out between the two men, but Bolander points out that there was only one gun found at the scene. If they shot each other, where did the other gun go? ("Did he eat it?") Then they find a call girl who witnessed the shooting out in the back yard, hiding in a dog house.

Jennifer Harmon, who plays the hooker, gives one of the strangest performances seen on Homicide to date. Acting both princessy and coy, she sizes Bolander up as "not a man to be flirted with or conned", and teasingly holds off revealing the identity of the shooter, because as soon as she does, "You won't want to talk to me anymore." Is she meant to be in shock? It's hard to tell, partly because Bolander is also dodging calls from the medical examiner, Dr. Blythe (Wendy Hughes), with whom he got he lucky last week. When she finally tracks him down at the end of the hour, he explains that he's been feeling shy since getting out of bed because she described their coupling as "sweet", and he wanted it to be… I don't know, exploding fireworks, trains disappearing into tunnels, bears grappling in a Werner Herzog movie, the best she'd ever had. Well, she says, it's true it wasn't the best she's ever had. I was hoping she was going to then say that it was the best she'd ever had with a pink-faced, gourd-shaped character actor in his mid-fifties who keeps insisting that he's in his mid-forties, but no such luck. In the end, though, not only did the two of them make seem to be on track for a second date, but Stan managed to somehow get the information he wanted from the hooker even while denying her the pleasures of his flesh. Don't get me wrong, I like to see characters who are intrigued by the romantic possibilities of someone based on his inner qualities. It's just that the only other time I've seen this many people express a sexual interest in Ned Beatty was in Deliverance.

Other actors get lucky in other ways. The scenes of Pembleton and Felton bitching at each other about what Pembleton, with a chip on his shoulder the size of a redwood, perceives as Felton's latent racism, go on too long, and I wish that the guy who plays the car dealer was costumed to look less like Larry "Bud" Melman playing a car dealer in a sketch on the old David Letterman show. But it's during the night-long quest, from one dealership to the next, to find the car whose trunk may have housed Adena Watson's body that you can see Andre Braugher starting to really mold Pembleton's character and, at the same time, taking majority ownership of the show.

You get a sense of how infuriating it would be to work with Frank when a conversation that begins with Felton telling him that he blows things way out of proportion builds to Felton helplessly yelling at the top of his lungs, so that Frank can triumphantly reply, "Now who's blowing things way out of proportion?" But you also get a sense of what a mixed blessing it must be to be Frank when Felton accuses him of persisting in chasing down the lead about the car, in defiance of Bayliss's theory that Adena was killed by the arabber, "just to prove that Bayliss is a hump." Very quietly, Pembleton replies that he's doing it because he wants to "find the man who butchered an eleven-year-old girl", and  he chastises Felton for "thinking that I think the way you think." He makes this sound like the worst possible accusation, and, remarkably,  Felton is too humbled to be insulted.

Another thing that sets Pembleton apart comes through in his dialogues with Felton: he believes in a meritocracy, that the cream rises. When Felton counters that merit doesn't count for a thing when it comes to who makes it to the top, Frank the Jesuit can't even conceive of how he could say such a thing, or understand  how anyone who believed it could force himself to get up in the morning. ("One leg at a time," says Felton.) What's fascinating about Homicide's ascribing this viewpoint to its smartest character is that the show itself is vigorously nodding in agreement with Felton. The right people never get ahead in this show, and this episode features one of the very few instances of someone calling the boss's attention to this sad fact. When Barnfarther screws up the Adena Watson investigation by revealing privileged information to the media, a sick, exhaustion-addled Bayliss calls the mouthy bastard at home and chews him out, if that's not strong a term for a rant that's built around the word "butt-head."


The incident serves to underline, again, what a novice Bayliss is; with Gee standing by lending moral support, he pays for his moment of catharsis by being forced to grovel in order to remain primary on the case. The real redemption comes later, when Frank shows up at his door in the dead of night, to tell him that the lab report he's just located lends credence to Bayliss's theory of the case. The smile that Braugher flashes there—the smile of someone who's genuinely happy to discover that his new colleague might just have some chops after all—seals the moment of his winning the audience over like a fist closing. It would be a Bogie-Claude Rains Casablanca ("I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship") moment, if only Frank could have friends.

Stray observations:

  • Having ragged a little on the deficiencies of the previous episode, with its central plot line showcasing Jon Polito, I would be remiss in not mentioning how beautifully Polito handles his big scene here, sitting in an empty church and talking about his own shooting, with a fine mixture of regret, loss, and humor.
  • A good word should also be said for Larry Hull, an actor with a short IMDB page (including appearances in both The Wire and The Corner), who makes a meal out of his few, intense scenes here. He plays the shooter that Crosetti and Lewis are looking for, who's spent most of the last couple of days hanging out in the squad room, trying to pin the blame on another man.
  • After their long night together, which includes a run-in with a vicious security dog ("You're a cop, Frank. Show him your gun." "I'm gonna show him doggie heaven!"), Felton returns to the station house making a joke about Frank almost getting a dog to take home to "his wife and kid," and indeed, there are pictures on Pembleton's desk that make it appear that he and his wife have children. In fact, Pembleton was childless at this point in the series, and his wife's first pregnancy would become a plot point a few seasons down the road. I'm sure there are continuity police somewhere who are all over this, but I find it plausible that Pembleton would put misleading "family photos" on his desk just to mess with people's minds.