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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Homicide: Life On The Street: "Night Of The Dead Living"

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"Night of the Dead Living" (season one, episode 3; original air date: 3/31/1993)

One of the many beefs that the creators and fans of Homicide have with NBC is that the network had an infuriating habit of messing with the intended running order of episodes. Usually, when the network interfered with the schedule that the creators had in mind, they had reasons that made some kind of commercial sense, and sometimes they didn't do much to wreck the show's sequence of events: for instance, one of the most acclaimed early episodes, "Bop Gun", guest starring Robin Williams as a tourist whose wife is murdered in the course of a botched mugging, was intended to be the second season finale, but NBC made it the second season premiere, because it thought the show's return could use the jolt of publicity that would be generated by a strong episode featuring a movie star. Luckily, it was pretty much a stand-alone episode. In other cases, the network's meddling resulted in sequential problems and spoilers, such as the notorious moment in the third season when the audience learned of a major character's death from a throwaway remark made in an episode broadcast before the episode that was meant to break the news that he'd died. Because of goofs like that, in this feature we'll be working according to the DVDs, which preserve the order intended by the producers instead of the original broadcast schedule.

NBC started fiddling with things very early. "Night of the Dead Living", which, except for a brief rooftop respite from the heat and claustrophobia, is set entirely in the squad room, was supposed to be the third episode of the series. NBC, thinking it would be commercial suicide to present an installment so long on talk and so short on action while the series was still trying to build an audience, drop-kicked it to ninth place in the rotation, where it served as the first season finale. This presented some problems; Bayliss and Pembleton are still beavering away on the Adena Watson case, and a minor character who had suffered a debilitating injury in the fourth episode was seen walking around and healthy as a horse. As a Band-Aid, the network stuck a disclaimer on at the start of the episode, explaining that it was a flashback to events from "One hot night, last September."

One imagines this was a trying moment for the producers, who must have taken a certain amount of pride in hitting the viewership with such an unusual hour of television. They probably felt that the network's actions reflected not only a lack of faith in their efforts but a vote of no confidence in the audience itself. And they weren't wrong, on either point. That said, if I'd been running the network and I'd seen this episode before it was aired, I might have tried pretending that my dog ate it. The episode won a Writers Guild of America award, and it's easy to see why, because it represents an outdated notion of what constitutes "quality television" and good writing for TV that carries an echo of the "golden age" of live TV drama from the '50s. (It's no accident that the cliche that TV is a "writers' medium" originated back when the technology didn't allow for any real visual beauty or excitement.) It also carries a whiff of some of the ambitious shows that tried to stretch the bounds of network TV in the '80s, such as Larry Gelbart's United States and Jay Tarses's The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. Like those shows, "Night of the Dead Living" has an airtight, hushed atmosphere, to help you appreciate how different it is from all that other noisy junk on the idiot box. Also like those shows, it contains a surprising amount of cuteness and whimsy, as if to reassure and comfort  the viewer who might otherwise have a stroke from having to process all this stark originality.

It feels like a one-act play, with theatrical gimmicks planted here and these, such as the detectives' curiosity about a mysterious candle that burns throughout their shifts, though no one will admit to lighting it. (At moments, such as when the identity of the candle's protector is revealed, the show sinks from the level of Playhouse 90 to that of Insight.) Everyone  is stuck in the squad room on the hottest night of the year, when the bosses have decided to shut off the air conditioning during the graveyard shift, so they're all sweating as if they were set to perform Twelve Angry Men. Yet despite the misery conditions in the city, no one's calling in to report any homicides; the only time the phone rings is to provide updates on a raving nut who threatened to jump off a ledge, and then attacked his wife with a water pistol, all the while dressed in a Santa Claus suit. (You see what I mean about the whimsy?) The sheer improbability of the situation, with all these detectives trapped together with nothing to do but banter and bitch about the heat on a night when you'd think people would be offing each other just for the distraction of it, makes it seem as if the episode is meant to be taking place not just outside the usual run of the series but in an alternate universe. Most of what happens in the script makes so little sense that it's as if Santa wrote it.

Bayliss, in what might be intended as hubris but just looks dopey, decides that he's cracked the Watson case when he finds a set of fingerprints on the dead girl's library book and orders that the owner of said fingerprints be delivered to him forthwith. To Bayliss's lonely surprise, the prints, of course, turn out to belong to a seventh-grade boy who'd once checked out the book himself. The kid hangs around the squad room for much of the episode, presumably because he has no better place to be. Can I get an Awwwwwww!? The "It's ten PM, do you know where your children are?" sub-theme is continued when Giardello wanders downstairs in hopes of switching on the A.C., only to find a baby in a small animal cage.  After a few minutes spent demonstrating that the hard-boiled men and woman of the Baltimore Homicide Division are big ol' softies where caged babies are concerned, Gee and his team fall to the business of determining who the baby belongs to. The only other person in the episode is the young cleaning lady, played by N'Bushe Wright; could her presence in this story and the baby's presence be somehow connected? That's more of a leap than the trained detectives can make, and so they call social services. After the baby has been taken away, of course, they then have to contend with a hysterical N'Bushe Wright and listen to her lecture them on the difficulties of balancing motherhood with a low-paying career. Before you know it, another call has been placed to social services, and somebody over there hops on a rocket sled, runs every red light on the way to the precinct house, and returns the baby to N'Bushe Wright's waiting arms. Whatever this episode is supposed to be, it definitely is not an expose revealing that the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly between two and four in the morning.


The episode is not entirely a dead loss. Those actors who the script doesn't chain to a cinder block manage to have some pretty good moments, even if they register as fireworks going off in a void. Melissa Leo's expression of her character's anger over learning that her sister may have breast cancer is very fine, and it's a treat to watch Jon Polito, as Crosetti, trying to deal with the news that his beloved daughter may have not only a boyfriend, which is bad enough, but also a sex life. (He whips through the five stages of grief in about four minutes, leaving him time to throw in a couple of the seven dwarfs for good measure.) But in the context of Homicide's full run, or even its first season, this episode is a relic of a path that the show chose not to take. Not only would they have more successful episodes than this, they would have grander failed experiments.

Stray observations:

  • What's the deal with the music? Light, jazzy pop plays at the aural threshold of the episode—it's ostensibly coming from a radio that I kept expecting to shoot, or at least turn off—and I have no idea if it's there because the producers thought it would help sustain the muted tone they were striving for here or because the network thought it would pep things up without being energetic enough to get in the way. Remember the line about Miami Vice being "MTV cops"? This is "VH1 (circa 1993) cops."
  • Bolander on relationships: "When I was young, a co-dependent relationship was a good marriage."
  • Munch on relationships: "You spend the last six months apologizing for who you are for the first two weeks."
  • Crosetti, in admiration of Bayliss: "He types with all his fingers!"
  • Crosetti, on the phone with his daughter, talking about her boyfriend: "I liked him when I first met him. No, I didn't. I was just showing him my gun."
  • It turns out that one of the reasons NBC thought this episode would be a good season finale is that they thought the scene towards the end of Gee leading his sweaty detectives up on the roof and spraying them with a hose was uncharacteristically cheerful and upbeat. Maybe so, but what I love about that scene is that it gave Yaphet Kotto a chance to get his old headband from Alien out of mothballs.