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Homicide: Life On The Street: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2

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The first episode of Homicide: Life On The Street aired in January 1993, immediately after the Super Bowl, and was seen by more than 18 million people, many of whom never watched again. Among those who stuck around for episode two were critics, award-show voters, and the NBC programmers who kept the show on the air for seven years, in spite of its low ratings. Also among the loyal fans were admiring television creators, who quickly pilfered Homicide's handheld-camera-derived immediacy, its caustic wit, and its emphasis on the mundane details of crime-solving. Filmmaker Barry Levinson and TV writer-producer Tom Fontana adapted Homicide from a David Simon book about the operation of a Baltimore homicide detective squad, and from the first episode, the creators establish Baltimore itself as a character, from the inner city's row houses and crab shacks to the suburbs' posh mansions. The cast clicks right away, too–especially Kyle Secor as a novice detective, Andre Braugher as his hotshot new partner, Melissa Leo as a simultaneously thorough, tough, and fragile cop, and Ned Beatty and Richard Belzer as partners who bicker and philosophize in equal measure. The 13 episodes on the Homicide: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 DVD (a four-disc set that comes with a commentary track on the première, an informative featurette, and a marginally relevant episode of A&E's American Justice) sport a darker look than later seasons, when network pressure pushed more action sequences and master criminals into the series. In its early seasons, Homicide is the kind of show where a detective attempts to cheer up a hospitalized buddy by playing him some Miles Davis, but not the kind of show where jazz makes the sick man jump out of his bed. Miracles are scarce on Homicide; crimes go unpunished, relationships sour, and even the bad guys tend to be pathetic. Fontana, Levinson, and company sometimes succumb to conventional television tropes, including big, summarizing speeches, and they occasionally let character quirks like Jon Polito's Lincoln-assassination theories overrun the drama. But the flaws also feed Homicide's greatest strength: its use of the commonplace to get at the big question of what it means to sort through the debris of murder. The series' first high point arrives in its sixth episode, "Three Men And Adena," in which Braugher and Secor grill murder suspect Moses Gunn for the entire episode, Braugher using cold calculation and charm to "sell a long prison term to a client who has no use for the product," Secor restraining his desperate need for revenge, and a dim Gunn acting confused as to why he's there. It's as darkly riveting an examination of the elusiveness of justice as has ever aired on broadcast television, before or since.