It’s television, Stan. It’s not supposed to be real.
—John Munch (Richard Belzer), “Nearer My God to Thee”
Mistakes were made, which we will labor vigorously to correct.
—Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), “End Game”
Life on the Street: the Complete Third Season
US DVD: 9 Jan 2004
“Colors,” the penultimate episode of Homicide: Life on the Street‘s third season is as difficult and brainy as any in the series. “Nothing is real,” says Stan (Ned Beatty), as his Baltimore Homicide Division cop car rolls into view. When, as they leave the car and head toward their next crime scene, Frank (Andre Braugher) asks him to explain, Stan presses on:
Take the color green. You see green, I see green. We call it green because this society has decided that this thing, this color will be green. We think we have this shared experience of green, but who knows? I mean, maybe my green is greener than your green. Take colorblind people, for instance. They have to live with this stigma, because what they see is not what we see as green. But maybe, just maybe, their perception is correct. They’re seeing pure green. They see true green.
They reach the doorway at last, and Frank sighs. “You’re not known as the philosophical type.” Stan protests: “Getting shot in the head makes you think.”
This exchange looks forward and back. Stan’s reason for his “philosophizing” recalls the critically acclaimed episode, “The City That Bleeds,” in which Stan and two fellow cops, Beau (Daniel Baldwin) and Kay (Melissa Leo), were suddenly assaulted by automatic weapons fire inside an apartment building, while on a “routine” arrest. And his pondering of perspective, the impossibility of determining any reality that is not subjective, sets up the coming episode, in which the shooter, Jim (David Morse), is a cousin to Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). The victim is a Turkish exchange student, Hikmet Gersel (Makan Shirafkin), whose heavily made-up face is startling when picked up by the uniform’s flashlight. The kid, on his way to a KISS dress-up party, came to the wrong door.
The episode, directed by Peter Medak (The Krays), raises questions about perspective, particularly American perspective, concerning family ties, moral obligations, property rights, and racism. “I think it was racially motivated,” says Frank. “Oh man,” Tim sighs, theatrically. “Why doesn’t that surprise me? Why am I not stunned that you have uncovered yet another racially motivated killing?” As Frank and Tim face off, Assistant District Attorney Ed Danvers (Zeljko Ivanek) looks on, somewhat stunned. He doesn’t want to be in the middle of this plainly personal conflict, but he has a job to do, and he needs to come correct for that. And so he decides to call a grand jury to look into the shooting, about which Jim and his wife, Shannon (Holly Rudkin), have already told two rather different stories. (“Jim,” she tells Stan, “can get very frustrated with people who don’t speak English very well.”)
As the case hits the local news, Homicide employs a familiar device, tv reporters appearing on grainy video, differentiated from the narrative proper while annotating the action. “Bayliss fired,” says a pert woman in a red coat standing under the U.S. flag on the courthouse, “as the Middle Eastern intruder tried to force his way into the Baltimore resident’s home.” Jim emerges from that home, where reporters crowd his lawn with microphones extended toward him; the camera circles him, picking up speed as more reporters weigh in on this “father of three’s” behavior. “Is this the tragic story of one man trying to defend his family,” asks journalist Maria Delgado (Peggy Yates), or a searing indictment of the violence that has become all too commonplace in American society?” None of the above, insists Frank, even after Jim is not indicted by the grand jury, for his is a racism so “inherent,” so deep, that he’s unaware of it himself.
Homicide‘s third season, recently released on DVD by A&E Home Video, focuses increasingly on tensions among the detectives, as they endure increasingly personal devastations, over more linear storylines and more sensational murder mysteries. Indeed, the season features the first time guns are fired on screen (when the detectives are shot, in slow motion, their blood leading to slippery horror on the stairwell, and this pithy observation by Meldrick Lewis [Clark Johnson]: “It’s a little reality check about what’s really at stake out three), as well as the suicide of Steve Crosetti (the much missed Jon Polito), the introduction of new shift commander Lieutenant Megan Russert (Isabella Hoffman), the breakup of Beau’s marriage to Beth (Mary B. Ward), and Kay’s return home for an episode, where she must deal with murder and betrayal among her childhood friends and family.
As the brief featurette, “Homicide: Life in Season 3,” recounts through interviews with Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Henry Bromell, David Simon, and James Yoshimura, all felt increasingly under threat by the network’s refusal to support the show. Indeed, Levinson and Bromell indicate in their scant, mostly observational commentary on the season’s final episode, “The Gas Man,” they thought was the series’ last (and then, they note, “ironically,” the series ran five more seasons). While it might be argued that such constant stress encouraged terrific writing and innovative (money-saving) staging, it’s more likely that it made everyone’s nerves a little frayed. It’s difficult to work when you’re imagining you might not have a job next month.
Still, their work is remarkable, as Homicide continues in 1994-‘95 to be the most innovative series on television. In part, this has to do with its acute self-awareness as television. At first, the detectives are unable to find the cop-shooter (who will eventually appear to be Pratt [Steve Buscemi]; though he’s never convicted, he’s certainly venal: “It’s not your fault,” he tells Frank in the box, “Blacks have slightly smaller brains than white people… The truth is the truth, you know it when you hear it”). Early in the investigation, the detectives are repeatedly accosted by reporters asking how they feel and what they think will happen. Though Megan and Tim try the “one day at a time” pose, finally, Lewis explodes at the inanity of the query: “I feel good that any motherfucker can go around the corner store and buy himself a semi-automatic weapon, and go out and start blasting…. I feel good about you people… who take that shit and put it on the evening news. Your ratings are gonna be good. You vultures ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
There’s enough shame (and courage) to go around in Homicide‘s third season, beginning with the bizarre “white gloves” murder investigation. Stretched over three episodes, all beautifully directed by filmmakers Tim Hunter, Keith Gordon, and the late Ted Demme, it leads to Lucinda Jenney’s appearance, in “Extreme Unction,” as yet another murderer undone by Frank’s ingenuity in the box (that this interrogation leads Frank to wonder about his own Catholic faith is no small part of the arc’s significance).
Frank is further tested, as he and his wife Mary (Ami Brabson) are considering getting pregnant, and he faces a case where both victim and shooter are young boys. “Every Mother’s Son,” directed by Ken Fink, begins in a bowling alley, where 13-year-old Darryl has been murdered in front of a slew of teen witnesses, one of whom gives up the shooter without a second thought. When confronted, 14-year-old Ronnie (the sensational Sean Nelson, who went on to star in Fresh), resists briefly, then announces, “I shot that kid.” But as he shot “the wrong kid,” he believes that the mistake doesn’t count. “Car accidents kill innocent people all the time,” he reasons. “How is this any different?”
Even Frank, who has seen much worse in adults, is stunned by the boy’s callousness, or rather, his complete inability to comprehend what he’s done: “When can I go home?” he asks. “To me,” Frank says, “none of this killing, at any age, from six to 60, makes any sense. One time, just one time, I’d like to hear of a murder that makes any sense.” As this drama evolves between Frank and Ronnie, another erupts in the fishtank, where the two mothers in the case are accidentally seated together. At first, the dead boy’s mother, Mary (Gay Thomas), and Ronnie’s mom Patrice (Rhonda Stubbins White) share their difficulties raising young boys in the city. Their heartfelt exchange breaks down when Mary becomes aware of Patrice’s identity, and feels betrayed and battered all over again.
The final episode of the season, “The Gas Man,” is a departure, in its focus on two criminals, Victor Helms Sr. (Bruno Kirby) and Danny (Richard Edson), as the former plots his revenge against Frank, the man who put him away. Stalking Frank and also Mary, Victor plots his perfect “angle.” You can’t just attack without thinking, he explains, “An angle has beauty, an angle makes sense.” Eventually he corners his target and holds a knife to his throat. This moving scene results in Frank’s self-reassessment: he admits to Tim that he doesn’t “mind having a partner” (as close to an embrace as he can manage) and that he has faith. His survival is not a matter of luck, he schools Tim in the coffee room. “God reached down and graced a fool with wisdom.” That this fool’s identity is left open to interpretation is just one reason why Homicide endures.