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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Homicide: Life On The Street: "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"

Illustration for article titled Homicide: Life On The Street: "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"

Last week, I wrote that, by this point, Homicide had reached a point where the actors had become so assured in their roles, and the writers were having so much fun fueling the interplay between them, that the character development was driving the show. You can see that trend continuing to deepen in this episode, and you can see something else: how attached the whole cast and crew had become to the city of Baltimore. "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" is bookended by cameo appearances by two of Balmer's secular saints: H. L. Mencken, whose home, identified as such by a plaque designating it as a historic landmark, appears in the first scene, and John Waters, who turns up towards the end as a bartender, plying a depressed Bolander with drinks and politely listening to him ramble on about Elvis Presley.

"Smoke", which was intended to be the final episode of the first season (and, so far as anyone knew at the time, maybe the final episode, period), feels as if it was meant to stand as a tribute to Baltimore—not because it's full of local landmarks and celebrated restaurants and other sights to gladden the heart of a Tourist Board publicist, but because it's a time capsule of what it was like to live day to day in this particular city in 1993. (Sometimes, as when Pembleton is seen freely smoking a cigarette while eating lunch in a diner, it makes 1993 feel very far away indeed, especially since the place looks enough like the setting of Barry Levinson's classic Baltimore movie Diner that it's as if Pembleton has somehow arranged to have lunch in 1959.) There's a scene in the John Waters movie Pecker where Cristina Ricci, having made the mistake of venturing to Manhattan, looks at the trendy phonies and degenerates around her and cries, "I don't belong here. I'm a Baltimore girl!" I don't suppose it looks like much in print, but the way Ricci delivers that line, she sounds like the gang at Rick's Café Américain, singing "La Marseillaise" in the faces of Nazi bastards.  This episode has some of that spirit. The crime rate is up, the weather looks miserable throughout, and strange motor-mouthed persons keep intruding on your personal tranquility. But screw it, it's home.

Maybe because the people who made this episode didn't know if they'd be invited back to the city to work together again at the network's behest, the character comedy and the local color largely nudge the police-procedural stuff right off the screen. The title refers to Howard's and Bayliss's determination to quit smoking, which leaves Bayliss's partner Pembleton amused and bemused and Howard's partner Felton practically terrified. (Concerned that she'll be both unbearable to be around and too distracted by nicotine cravings to watch his back, he blows up when he first hears the news: "You committed this madness without consulting me? Are you nuts?")

At one point, Bayliss and Howard even petition Giardello to section off a smoke-free zone. Gee ain't having it. Remembering what an "unnecessary terror" it was when Crosetti tried to hang up the coffin nails, Gee mischievously offers them the coffee room, if they think they can hang onto it, and slips into reverie: "Coffee and nicotine, Mom and apple pie, hot dogs with mustard, sex with latex: somehow, you mess with any combination of those, you take your life in your hands." (Someone must have worried that Gee's relaxed attitude towards cancer sticks would make it look as if he didn't care about his detectives' health, because there's also a subplot about Giardello discovering that the bosses have set a team of workers in urban-astronaut gear to stripping asbestos out of the upper floor without informing him. This leads to Yaphet Kotto asserting hid authority in a telling-off-the-bosses-at-top-volume scenes that must have been immediately  taken from the developing lab and attached to a Post-It note reading, "Pls. forward to Emmy voters.")

Bayliss, Felton, Howard, and Pembleton are spending a lot of time together because they're working on cases that turn out to overlap, but the show is so much more interested in their conversations about smoking that it hardly bothers to make the details of the cases halfway clear, and at the end, having teamed up for a stakeout, they nearly miss their chance to nab the suspect they're waiting for when Bayliss leaves his car to go ask Frank for a cigarette. This is not a complaint, because the character stuff is more fun than the crime-drama stuff ever threatens to be. You get the feeling that anyone who'd tried to get the actors to do any boring exposition about the crime they were working on would have been stared at as if he were the one teacher who tries to get the kids to sit quietly and read on the last day of school before summer vacation.

The one part of the episode that's just lame is, in fact, the part that tries to tell a story about solving a crime. The detectives involved are Bolander and Munch, who are first seen wrapping up their cursory investigation of a suicide in a stables, a scene that looks as if it might have taken a day to shoot, but that serves no clear purpose except to allow Richard Belzer to retell some old jokes about country music and provide a paycheck for the stunt woman who spends the entire sequence suspended from the ceiling with a noose around her neck. Shrugging at the pointlessness of their being there at all, Bolander and Much head off to look into the death of a fourteen-year-old boy who was fatally whaled on with a baseball bat.


Turns out that the kid was killed in his initiation rite to join an oddly foppish street gang called the Zaps. The kid who struck the fatal blow really stinks up the screen with his speech explaining how he beat the life out of the victim as an expression of love, a moment that's topped by Ned Beatty reflecting on the madness of it all and musing, "Getting hit with a baseball bat—maybe that's the most affection he ever got in his life." It is to barf. (Belzer is luckier; he strays into the coffee room and has a run-in with the narc who was so unsympathetic to his views on the legalization of marijuana a couple of episodes back, which gives him and the writers a chance to show how much they've lightened their touch. Shaking his head at Munch's conspiracy theory about how pot came to be outlawed—it involves William Randolph Hearst and the World War II-era government educational film Hemp for Victory—the narc sneers, "No wonder you guys can't solve a murder." "Well," Much shoots back, "I wouldn't solve yours.")

The fact that the murder plot line doesn't work very well doesn't matter much, because the real tragedy running through the episode is Bolander's inability to get over the failure of his marriage, an emotional road block that, it's implied, has torpedoed his affair with Wendy Hughes's Dr. Blythe (who at this point was already in the show's rear view mirror). Bolander's wife is moving to California, and when we last see him here, he starts to fiddle with his wedding ring, as he was finally ready to admit that he's come to the end of something that isn't going to start up again. But he never does quite get the ring off. The handling of Bolander's post-divorce misery shows what a class act Homicide could be. It's completely understated, never gets in the way of the rest of the story, and you may not realize how important it is until the episode is winding down and everything else is cleared away to make room for the sight of Ned Beatty, a little drunk and very sad, singing as much of "Love Me Tender" as his clouded brain can remember. But when the image fades to black, you're left with this painful feeling that you can't shake off.


Stray observations:

  • As I mentioned already, this was originally planned as the season finale. For our purposes, it is the first season finale, because we're following the chronology that's preserved on the DVDs, but when the episodes were first broadcast on NBC, the network shifted "Night of the Dead Living" to the season's end. NBC thought that episode was too slow and weird to spring on audiences early in Homicide's run; paradoxically, they also thought that "Dead Living" closed the season on a more upbeat note. At the time, it also made it harder to see how much the series was steadily getting better and better. A pity, because the closing image of Bolander throwing 'em back and gamely insisting, "Here's to tomorrow", would have made a fine conclusion to the season, and not a bad one for the series itself.
  • The comic high point of the Bolander/Munch investigation involves convincing a dumb-as-a-rock hood that a Xerox machine is a high-tech lie detector. Broad as it is, the scene is based on an actual incident taken from David L. Simon's nonfiction book. Perhaps even more surprisingly, broad as it is, the gag was later recycled for a scene in The Wire.
  • The creepy, icy father of the murdered boy is played by Dan Moran, one of my favorite unsung character actors. Moran has had a few halfway memorable movie roles—he was the enraged father of the boy Dylan Baker rapes in Happiness—but the bulk of his most striking work has been in TV series guest spots. On Law & Order, over the course of a few years. he gave a series of brief, memorable performances, in roles ranging from a dead-eyed, monotone-voiced convict with some redeeming, residual love for his son, to an affable hit man whose speciality was electrocuting show horses in a way that made it look as if they'd died of natural causes. If Moran had been working fifty years ago and done work like this in a few decent B-movies, he might have never become a big name, but he'd at least have a devoted cult following now, like Timothy Carey or Percy Helton. There's so much of TV that it just naturally allows a lot of people to build up a body of good work under the radar, and, just as naturally, sees to it that the work is swallowed up in the mass.