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Homicide Life on the Street

The Complete Season 4

(NBC; US DVD: 30 Mar 2004)

Avengers in Space

You see, we the murder police. And we have but one given, and that is, everybody is a liar.
—Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), “Hate Crimes”


Do you think some people work harder at being stupid than others?
—Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), “Thrill of the Kill”


Jay Leno walks into a bar and orders a soda. The owners, Detectives Munch (Richard Belzer) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor), can’t believe their good luck. As they whisper excitedly over what to do, Munch proclaims, “Trust me, ignore him and he’ll be happier. He probably wants to remain anonymous.” Cut back to Leno, visibly disappointed that they appear not to recognize them, Leno hints at his celebrity, and when they don’t bite, he sighs and heads out into the sunshine, noting as he leaves that it’s no surprise the bar is empty. The camera swings back to the bar, where Munch and Bayliss quietly exult with one another: “Yes!”


Quirky, surprising, and unresolved, this scene from “Sniper (Part 1)” suggests the ways that Homicide: Life on the Street works best. Specifically, the famously embattled series took risks that ranged from strange to inspired to disappointing (these last were less risks than appeasements to anxious network suits). Unlike most tv fare, especially cop shows, Homicide concerns itself with details and asides that don’t always come together into thematic wholes. The Baltimore homicide squad has changed some for this fourth season, what with the ever efficient Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) promoted to sergeant, and Captain Megan Russert (Isabella Hofmann), demoted to detective, following the difficulties of this episode’s case, namely, a sniper who leaves behind unfinished hangman games, chalked onto the rooftops from which he shoots, as a seeming “calling card.” When the suspect—a father in the suburbs—finishes his “game” and shoots himself while surrounded by detectives, Russert clashes with the difficult Colonel Barnfather (Clayton LeBouef)—this means she’ll spend the rest of the season on the street, with her fellow detectives.


This two-part episode takes up a speedy pace with montage sequences and a pulsing soundtrack, as the “redball” case sucks up all the primary detectives’ time and tensions, including Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), and Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). The second part (directed by Darnell Martin) begins as a “copycat” sniper is “shooting up the city.” This incites the cops’ outrage, the citizens’ anxiety and a flurry of national press coverage (and Frank’s insistence that his pregnant wife Mary [Ami Brabson] can only work in her office downtown with the blinds down and wearing his vest). With the second case, Megan comes into her own, at least in the eyes of her peers: she breaks the suspect in the box (by telling her own sad story, feeling like “a nobody”), impressing Frank (renowned for his interrogation skills), and earning Tim’s admiration: “Instead of being one of the bosses, you bucked the bosses, you did the right thing. So you sucked as a captain because you’re too much of an original.”


The series’ makers’ predilection for “originality”—in characterization, visual style, and story structure—famously caused problems with network managers. This season features one result of their ongoing battle with the network over its eccentricities, namely, the conspicuous absence of Detectives Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) and Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty), listed as “on suspension,” for precisely 22 weeks, the length of the season, owing to both actors’ frustrations with the network’s shoddy support of the series. The first episode, “Fire,” introduces the detective who might fill in, Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond), an arson detective, who brings cocky new energy and conflicts to the division, immediately clashing with Frank; he ends up paired with Lewis, riding solo since Crosetti’s suicide and not a little nervous about his rep as a “lousy partner.”


“Autofocus” introduces another semi-regular character, grad student cameraman J.H. Brodie (Max Perlich), hired to shoot crime scenes (a device that will motivate frequent, Cops-like, handheld video images). With visions of war correspondents in his head, Brodie accidentally catches a young murderer pulling his gun on the street, a tape that leads to the discovery of a series of crimes committed by kids seeking “fun.” “Whatever happened to pirates and cowboys,” sighs Giardello, sinking into his chair, “Avengers in space?”


The question—or some variant of same—informs much of the fourth season, include the episodes, “A Doll’s Eyes,” in which the young son of Joan (the phenomenal Marcia Gay Harden) and Paul Garbarek (Gary Basaraba) is shot at a mall and declared brain dead, and “Thrill of the Kill” (directed by Tim Hunter), in which a killer (Jeffrey Donovan, recently of Touch of Evil) travels I-95, shooting random victims (and providing mundane psycho voice-over, accompanied by ominously thrumming soundtrack). In “Hate Crimes” (directed by Peter Weller), Frank and Tim arrive on a murder scene outside a gay bar, nattering about who’ll be the primary, when they suddenly learn that the victim, Zeke (Bret Hamilton), is still alive, and muttering for just a few precious moments, about the skinheads who have beaten him to death. When the detectives out Zeke to his father, Barry (Terry O’Quinn), he’s horrified: “Queers are sick, perverted animals,” he yells. “If what you say is true, it’s better he’s dead.” Throughout the episode, the question recurs, for Zeke’s friends, his fiancée, and the detectives. “That is the worst part,” observes Tim of adults’ fears and prejudices. “It shouldn’t matter, but it does.”


This sort of overstatement is, fortunately, atypical in Homicide, which tends to get at its broad “lessons” more subtly. Or sometimes, just more obscurely, as in “The Hat” (directed by Peter Medak), when Lewis and Kellerman must extradite Rose (Lily Tomlin) from Pennsylvania, and end up losing her in an amusement park called the “Enchanted Forest.” This is the only episode on all six DVDs with an audio commentary, by Clark Johnson and writer Anya Epstein (the set’s only other extra is a 17-minute featurette, “Homicide: Life in Season 4,” with memories of the season by Levinson, Fontana, Henry Bromell, David Simon, James Yoshimura, and narration by Isabella Hofmann). The episode commentary (recorded just last year, as they mention Melissa Leo’s performance in 21 Grams) is sweetly nostalgic for the strength of the ensemble cast, the writers, Belzer’s lengthy career as Munch (over five different series) and his house in France.


The season’s several two-part episodes include the first crossover two-parter with the Law & Order cast, “For God and Country,” and “Justice (Parts 1 and 2),” guest starring Bruce Campbell as cop Jake Rodzinsky, also son of a retired cop who’s been murdered. When the suspect’s trial starts to go wrong, Jake’s frustrations erupt, providing Campbell with a welcome opportunity. It also includes some revisiting of the past, poignantly and painfully in “Requiem for Adena,” in which a raped and murdered 12-year-old girl reminds Bayliss of the four-year-old Adena Watson case, still unsolved (inspiring flashbacks to the first season’s episodes), to the point that Frank won’t work with him on the new case. Tensions between Tim and Frank rise (“I’m tired of you!” asserts Frank, just before Tim drinks himself into a weird confessional mode with Munch and reporter Susannah Chase [Nurit Koppel]), as evidence leads the detectives to Carvey (Chris Rock), whom Frank describes as a “brain-dead suspect.” And still another episode, “The Damage Done,” sets up a future story thread, with the first appearance by drug dealer Luther Mahoney (Erik Todd Dellums).


The series consistently considered race and class as means of communication and identity formation. “Scene of The Crime,” directed by Kathy Bates, concerns two related scenes. In the first, Lewis and Kellerman’s case, a dealer is murdered at the Highland Terrace apartments, currently being “policed,” at HUD’s bidding, by a Muslim group who resent the cops’ intrusions. Leader Ishmael Al-Hadj (Victor L. Williams) especially gives them a hard time, dividing the two detectives by, as Lewis puts it, “pulling the blue-eyed white devil routine” on Kellerman, and later calling Lewis a “buck dancer.” In the second storyline, uniformed Officer Stuart Gharty (Peter Gerety) witnesses a shootout, then retreats to his cruiser, doing nothing to prevent two kids’ deaths. Russert and Munch split on the case, as she pursues Gharty’s part in the murders: “I waited for the shooting to stop,” he says, by way of explanation. As he understands it, Gharty has done nothing wrong, but only avoided certain trouble. When he’s exonerated by an internal board, Kay and Megan share their sense of frustration, backed by the river, shot through a chainlink fence. “People can’t just the police and we can’t trust each other,” asks Megan, “So who’s left to rely on?”

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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