Part 4 - Feasts from the Fringe

by PopMatters Staff

10 October 2007


Homicide: Life on the Street and more...

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Life on the Street
Cast: Daniel Baldwin, Ned Beatty, Richard Belzer, Andre Braugher, Reed Diamond, Giancarlo Esposito, Michelle Forbes, Peter Gerety, Isabella Hofmann, Clark Johnson, Yaphet Kotto

US: 31 Jan 1993

Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)

It’s a classic line spoken by the craggy Det. John Munch (Richard Belzer): “Homicide: our day begins when yours ends.”  He’s the guy who can crack a joke and never crack a smile. Suitably grim, designed with a dark current of humor, all seven seasons of this highly acclaimed, addictive drama, winner of two Emmy Awards, three Television Critic’s Awards, and three Peabody Awards, are a must-have on DVD.  The lives of these no-nonsense, inner-city Baltimore detectives are as bleak as the remains of the murdered whose cases they try to solve, sometimes with success.

Indeed, the platform for Homicide is built upon death and the despair that wafts from it, rather like an uneven, wooden walkway holding your weight just inches above a funky swamp. Sounds rather like existential angst, doesn’t it? What better embodiment of such angst than the prickly, whip-smart and impatient Det. Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher). Oh, he’s tough, but then he’s oftentimes felled (sometimes quite literally to his knees) by his tortured Catholic soul.  Which is it that causes such agony? Death? Or Life? 

Oh, but it’s not all gloom and doom, any more than the average day is for the average joe. Det. Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) will see to that, with his open-eyed optimism and exploratory nature. While navigating this shaky walkway, he may look down at the murk below and ponder it, for a moment, but his thoughts are really with the life that goes on in his heart and head, far above the muck at his feet. 

Barry Levinson’s Homicide was a frontrunner in a new style of television, opening with edgy, graffiti-like credits, filmed on location in Baltimore with hand-held, 16mm cameras, and written in a filmic style.  These factors gave the show a feeling of immediacy, a lack of polish, an edge that we all feel, every day we have to walk out that door. After an episode of Homicide, one might have to lean over one’s armchair and spit out some grit caught in the teeth. It’s that good.

Karen Zarker

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Hill Street Blues

US DVD: 12 Jun 2006

Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)

When you think TV cops, you probably imagine clean-cut, uniform clad bastions of justice, matinee idol looks complimenting a seemingly flawless law enforcement façade. Since they were really nothing more than reconfigured Westerns, the police programs of the ‘60s and ‘70s were so straight down the good guy/bad guy line that you could cut yourself on the ridiculous razor’s edge. Then Hill Street Blues came along. Granted, there had been previous attempts to take the “boys in blue:” out of their anti-criminal comfort zone, yet they always had to find a way to sugarcoat the strategy (Barney Miller, for example, used humor).

But when MTM Productions gave series writers Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll creative license, the young guns literally ran with the concept. Blues was to be the first series to make wearing the badge a burden, showcasing how the demands of public safety took a highly personal toll on all involved. The show also tweaked the conventions of the one hour drama, introducing intertwining storylines, several episode arcs, and a sense of authenticity and realism usually relegated to film or the documentary. Of course, it was a failure. Audiences weren’t ready to face such a shift in their super cop belief system.

But then NBC did something equally radical. Even with sagging ratings, and poor prospects for increased viewership, they put quality over the bottom line and supported the show. They even renewed it when everyone in the critical community thought it was doomed for the cancellation axe. The tactic worked. Slowly but surely, the fanbase increased. Emmy arrived and handed the series a trophy case full of accolades. What was once a faltering experiment in dramatic realism became a TV institution, setting the stage for how future shows would approach the subject. While other police dramas have moved far beyond Hill, it remains the benchmark that all must follow.

So far, of the seven seasons produced, Fox has put the first two out on DVD. The presentations have been praised for their attention to detail and inclusion of insightful bonus features (commentary, deleted scenes).  Unfortunately, the digital domain hasn’t been as support of the show as the network once was. The last box set came out over a year ago, and the lack of sales may sink the release of the remaining five. Here’s hoping the studio does the right thing. This is a clear case where preservation should usurp profit.

Bill Gibron

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Mr. Show

Cast: Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, John Ennis, Tom Kenny

US: 3 Nov 1995

Mr. Show (1995-1998)

Long before The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage became the talk of HBO’s original programming series, there was Mr. Show.  The brainchild of comedians David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, the half-hour sketch comedy program fused the absurdity of old school SNL and The Ben Stiller Show with the fluidity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, particularly in the way that it so brilliantly managed to segue one skit into another, an uncanny nod to Terry Gilliam and Co.  During their short, but monumental, four-year stint on-air, no stone was left unturned when it came to who and what Cross and Odenkirk aimed their multi-pronged funny stick at.

Brian Wilson, Sid and Marty Krofft, Marilyn Manson, lizards, George W. Bush, Carrot Top and Dr. Demento were just a few of the victims of the duo’s satiric ire.  And quotable? You could fill a hard drive with Mr. Show soundbytes alone.  My personal fave is from the “Druggachusetts” sketch knocking the Krofft Brothers’ thinly veiled psychedelic children’s show HR Pufnstuff: “I declare this pizza AWESOME!”  And who could forget the Taint Magazine episode: “I’m not talking about his c*ck and his ass, imbecile. I want that… the taint.” Jesus Christ. And what about my other personal favorite, Pit-pat, that weird blob Bob and David’s slimy Globo-Chem ad execs came up with during “Commercials of the Future” so as not to offend anybody, deducing him as a “magical, pan-sexual, non-threatening spokesthing” to push their totally dangerous and unhealthy products, ending each commercial with his whimsical refrain: “Take it from me, I love you!” This stuff is cracking me up just thinking about it! 

And what about that slacker send-up of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Jack Black, whose Tenacious D was quite possibly the finest spin-off of a TV series since Three’s a Crowd (yeah, that’s right!)  Or how about the John Cryer as Duckie cameo in “Fat Kids Camp”. The Complete Collection collects all four seasons with a ton of extra goodies, including cast commentaries, mountains of deleted scenes and TV appearances outside of Mr. Show, most notably Bob’s nudie shot for Comic Relief in 1998. I declare this box set awesome!

Ronald Hart

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Strangers with Candy

Cast: Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, Greg Hollimon

(Comedy Central)
US: 7 Apr 1999

Strangers With Candy (1999-2000)

A warped yet wickedly funny send-up of after-school specials, Strangers With Candy aired on Comedy Central for three seasons. The protagonist, Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), is a 46-year-old “boozer, user, and loser” who returns to high school after spending 32 years as a teenage runaway. Sporting a tar-stained overbite, crude prison tattoos, and sublimely ill-fitting pants, Jerri confronts teenage-genre tropes both grand (bulimia, STDs) and mundane (a homecoming-queen election, debate-team tryouts). At home Jerri is tormented by her evil stepmother (whose Meat Man, Stu, makes house calls) and her A-hole half-brother, Derrick; at school she is taught lifelong lessons, like the fine art of bikini-waxing (“It’s important to have clean lines around the delta region”) and how to “snare the retarded” (“We’re doing our best to weed them out, but some of these retards are extremely clever”). With its ‘70s-era color palette, deliciously melodramatic score, and calculated perversity, the show plays like an episode of The Brady Bunch as imagined by John Waters. (Remember the episode when Marcia referred to Greg as a “dick lick”? It’s just like that…) It’s not hard to see why the series has attained cult-classic status:

The humor ranges from the scatological to the subversive to the just plain silly, but it’s never less than hilarious. Sedaris is gloriously shameless as Jerri. Also terrific are Greg Holliman as Principal Onyx Blackman, and Steven Colbert and Paul Dinello as a pair of teachers carrying on a not-so-secret affair (their inaugural tryst in “A Burden’s Burden” is arguably the funniest moment of the entire series). The first season of Stranger With Candy is by far the strongest of the three, but the complete run is available in one DVD set if you don’t want to miss a moment of the madness.

Marisa Carroll

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