Some Smarter Cops
Let’s be rough and let the roughness show.
—Barry Levinson, “Homicide: Life at the Start”
I am not Montel Williams.
—Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer), “Gone for Goode”
Your heart doesn’t want to lie.
—Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), “Three Men and Adena”
The first thing you see in Homicide: Life on the Street is feet. Feet on the street. The camera pans up to show two detectives walking, in mid-conversation: “If I could just find this damn thing, I could go home,” says Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson). “Life is a mystery,” answers Crosetti (Jon Polito), their faces turned down as their eyes search the ground. “Just accept it: the quest is what matters. Not finding, looking.” Crosetti lights his cigarette. “You never really find what you’re looking for, because the whole point is looking for it. So if you find it, it defeats its own purpose.”
With these first few lines of distracted-seeming dialogue, Homicide lays out its utterly compelling and occasionally oblique anti-cop-show premise. Based on David Simon’s book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the Baltimore-based series aired for seven seasons, from 1993-1999, garnering critical acclaim and not much in the way of ratings. As writer/executive producer Tom Fontana and director/executive producer Barry Levinson note in their commentary track for the very first episode, included on A&E’s first and second seasons DVD set, they battled with censors (“over what we could get away with”) and with the network (NBC) over support. Levinson says, “We couldn’t get promotion, because there was not enough action. This isn’t a mystery, there isn’t any action really… We arrive after the person is dead. So there’s no car chases.”
This lack of conventional cop show action allowed Homicide to focus on character relationships and storytelling techniques. As character arcs turned complex and unusual, visual devices were consistently challenging and provocative. Super 16mm cameras, handheld camerawork, jump cuts, and changes in screen direction, all connoted the daily emotional and physical chaos of solving murder cases. Again, as Levinson and Fontana note, the visual activity creating another sort of “energy,” in lieu of wheels screeching and guns shooting. Levinson adds that they were also pressured to tell fewer than three or four stories per episode: “The network note was, ‘Can you just do one story?’”
Their memories of difficulties extend to their collaborations with exceptional directors over the years (from Miguel Arteta, Kathryn Bigelow, and Bruce Paltrow to Whit Stillman, Kevin Hooks, Mary Harron, and Barbara Kopple). Several, Levinson notes, were less than enthusiastic with the limitations (or maybe the peculiar freedoms) determined by the show’s established style. The producers recall, for instance, that their own fondness for leaving the camera in the back seat of one of their many Cavaliers, to “ride along” with the detectives, bothered directors who “wanted to see the faces” of the characters they were trying to develop.
That is, as Crosetti observes (and as will be reprised in another conversation in the series’ final episode, some six years later), the “quest is what matters.” The first episode spends only a few minutes going through the usual tv series motions, setting up central characters and the squad room. The device for this introduction is pale rookie Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), arriving at the station, box of desk accessories and files in hand. (As it happens, there is not spare desk for him to use, so he spends much of the first few episodes standing in corners and over the water cooler he uses as a writing surface.) His tour guide is Lieutenant Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), who fills up the frame while pointing out the Box, the Fishbowl, and the Board, with names of dead people written in black and red magic marker—black for closed cases and red for open ones.
And with that, the detectives are set in motion, each tracing leads for different cases, leading everywhere and nowhere. Right off, the partners Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) and John Munch (Richard Belzer) reveal their bickering-married-couple-like relationship, even as Munch’s own odd philosophical proclivities are revealed in an interview with Bernard (a young Steve Harris) concerning a murder. “I was there,” he protests, “but I didn’t kill him.” Munch, who will become famous for connecting dots no one else would think of connecting, takes this as a challenge. “You’re saving your really good lies from some smarter cop, is that it? I’m just a donut in the on-deck-circle… Wait until that big guy comes back. I’m probably just his secretary. I’m just Montel Williams. You want to talk to Larry King.” That neither Bolander nor Bernard know who Montel Williams is only underlines Munch’s perception of their lack of respect for him. (At the same time, as Fontana points out concerning this particular suspect, “This is the first time we deal with the crime makes you stupid philosophy of the show.”)
Both Munch and Bolander are divorced, and bemoan their inability to meet soul mates. (This even as Bolander repeatedly gives Munch a hard time for not being his former, and apparently much missed, partner Mitch.) As Munch explains it, “I’m upset because every relationship I think I have is not the relationship I actually have.” He sympathizes as well with Bolander’s efforts to find love, during the first and second seasons with the coroner (Wendy Hughes) and a diner waitress, Linda (Julianna Margulies). Watching his partner across the room, he explains to his fellow detectives, “He’s the Epcot Center of human emotions, the Disney World of the human heart.” This sort of evocative poetry emerges repeatedly in Homicide, which grants its tough guys nuance and sensitivity not usually associated with “murder police.”
The third set of partners—Kay Howard (the great Melissa Leo), the division’s only woman detective, and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), whose marital problems come to a head several seasons down the line—are predictably competitive, but also sweetly supportive of one another. Their rhythms suggest mutual respect, honest affection, and comic intimacy. When Kay accuses one sleepless suspect of murder, insisting that she’ll find the evidence needed to indict, Beau helps her finish the threat: “If you ever do manage to drift off, I’ll be your wake up call. You’re conscience is going to gnaw at you like a…” she searches for the perfect image. Beau assists: “Chipmunk.”
While these pairings all seem well matched, the odd couple of the first and second season will be newbie Tim and Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), whose reputation as a loner precedes his first appearance in the series. A full 15 minutes into “Gone for Goode,” the currently partnerless detective appears for the first time, following several comments setting up his reputation as ace detective and super-interrogator, master of the box. As he describes his process to Tim, “What you will see is not an interrogation, but an act of salesmanship. What I am selling is a long prison term, to a client who has no genuine use for the product.”
Though Frank insists to Giardello that he doesn’t want to be a “team player,” suggesting that race might be a factor in the department’s efforts to dictate to him (despite his excellent record), the lieutenant schools him: “This is not a black thing, this is a blue thing.” But in truth, these “things” are deeply intertwined in the “brown town” of Baltimore, as indeed, they are else. To its enduring credit, Homicide never resists these interconnections, pushing the tensions to the forefront, showing the struggles of characters to deal with their own prejudices and best intentions.
Sometimes, these struggles are comical, as when Frank schools Beau on least offensive terminology (“It’s not black, it’s African American”) and Beau comes back with his own contrary logic: “Why do you have to claim the whole continent? It’s too general.” But almost every time, the exchange invites reconsideration of stereotypes and expectations. In season two’s “Black and Blue,” Frank feels pressured by G to come up with a confession from a young black man, Lane Staley (Isiah Washington), for the murder of his own best friend (Frank believes a white cop did it). Visibly horrified at his own powers of persuasion, Frank asserts that he joined the force and endured all variations of racism in order to fight back against a history of white cops beating suspects in the “paddy wagon,” then goes on to convince Staley that it’s in his own best interest to confess, because he feels so guilty for leading Cox into danger.
By the end of the first episode of the first season, the season’s through-line plot is introduced, the body of 11-year-old Adena Watson. As Bayliss’ first case and a “red ball” (the entire squad is mobilized to solve the murder), it leads directly to the Emmy-winning sixth episode, “Three Men and Adena,” shot almost entirely inside the Box, as Frank and Tim interrogate Risley Tucker (Moses Gunn), who refuses to confess, though they are convinced of his guilt. That the show never answers your questions—Did the Araber kill Adena? Is Tim’s earnest instinct warped by his desperation to close this case? Is there any possible “justice” for a crime so heinous?—
The DVD set includes few extras, including the unsurprising documentary, “Homicide: Life at the Start,” in which the cast and crew discuss the show’s inception, and an episode of A&E’s series, American Justice, titled “To Catch a Killer: Homicide Detectives.” Here host Bill Kurtis opens with overwrought language, “Those who catch killers are an edgy band of hunters, sharp minds, penetrating stares and extremely taut emotions. It’s their job, their obsession.”
Such excess is actually irrelevant to Homicide, which works against stereotypes, of criminals, victims, and cops. Yet, the series’ availability on DVD is more than reward enough to have to skip over material like this. The last episode of the second season stars Levinson pal Robin Williams as Ralph Ellison—whose name suggests the ways that he feels “invisible” to the cops investigating the murder of his wife (she is shot down in front of him and his two young children when the episode, “Bop Gun,” begins).
Aired out of order, as the premiere for the season in an effort to raise ratings and attract attention to the show, the episode is justly famous, not only for Williams’ extraordinary performance, but also for the complexities of the case and characterizations, particularly with regard to Kay, who can’t believe that an ostensibly “good” boy, in this mess alongside two friends with long rap sheets and inclinations to violence, is the doer. Kay’s upset at learning “what happened” reveals so many truths simultaneously—the fallibility of instinct, the cruelty of circumstance, the impossibility of heroism, and the tragedy of hope. This is the sort of dilemma that Homicide poses so peculiarly well, the quest that is, by definition, incomplete.