Bodies Still Fall
I’m just surrounded by genius.
—Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), “Hostage (Part 1)”
You know something? You go by the bullet or the blade, cop works the murder, you get a shot at being avenged. You go by the blast, you’re just gone.
—Detective Stivers (Toni Lewis), “Bad Medicine”
Just because something isn’t, doesn’t mean it is.
—J.H. Brodie (Max Perlich), “Valentine’s Day”
Homicide: Life on the Street‘s fifth season opens with an argument. Lieutenant Giardello (Yaphet Lotto) makes the case to his superiors that they must allow Frank (Andre Braugher) back into the Homicide Unit, following his stroke last season. The officers don’t want it, and come at Gee like a tag team: “So, Pembleton comes back,” supposes Captain Barnfather (Clayton LeBouef). “And he gets himself all worked up,” Captain Gaffney (Walt MacPherson) follows up. “And you know how pissed off he gets!” “And he has another stroke.” “Yeah!” Against this onslaught, Gee can’t even come back. As he leaves, Gaffeny offers one more zinger: “You know, it’s a good thing Russert did run off. Between her and Pembleton, it’s like an episode of Nash Bridges around here.”
Returned, once again improbably, Homicide here underlines its perpetual problem, its difference from other shows. The series can’t catch a break from NBC, its longtime home and adversary. Here Homicide steps to its rival CBS series, joking about its indulgence in that surest route to ratings, melodrama. This fifth season, Homicide has lurched into yet another makeover, dispensing (until season’s end) with the repeatedly demoted Megan Russert (Isabella Hofmann); and re-complicating Frank, with by a physical vulnerability that only deepens his fury and effort to do right. It also resorts to an in-house romance, between new chief medical examiner hardy Cox (the excellent Michelle Forbes) and Detective Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond).
This last concept is so distasteful to writers James Yoshimura and Eric Overmyer, that their commentary over it, in the episode “The Documentary” is full of “yucks” and “urghs” and “oh, horribles!” (Sadly, this is the only commentary on this sparse DVD season set; though it does include an interview with Yoshimura and Simon, called “Inside Homicide.”) Watching them kiss, Yoshimura laments, “Two wonderful actors and we wasted them on a romance!” Well, adds Overmyer, “Not entirely a waste, they had an off-screen thing for a while.” Yoshimura can’t stand it: “The actors are fine. The writing’s terrible. It’s our fault. ‘Cause we’re not romantic guys.”
And that’s why you like them. As much as NBC or other industry forces tried to reshape Homicide, to make it conform to the dullest of genre conventions, its stubborn makers resisted. As the opening titles for the new season during “Documentary,” Overmyer observes the “hot, jazzy” new network-ordained look, overproduced and with lots of color, over shots of dead bodies and seductively pouty cast portraits: “Every true fan of Homicide,” he observes solemnly, “despises the titles.” Adapted from journalist David Simon’s book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and perpetually tweaked by Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Henry Bromell, and Paul Attanasio, the show evolved relentlessly, sometimes in spurts, sometimes in gradual movements. It frequently expanded cop-show boundaries, occasionally gave in to suits in search or ratings, and most often, surprised fans and detractors alike. As much as the network encouraged more “life-affirming” storylines, Yoshimura says, laughing, “The first word in the title is ‘homicide,’ and it kind of goes downhill from there.”
Indeed, Frank’s return in the fifth season’s first, two-part episode exposes intra-office tension and resentment. After Kellerman makes fun of what a stroke victim “talks like,” Munch gripes that, while he was “the one who called 911” at the time of his stroke, Frank never returned his phone calls. Though Frank mumbles that he didn’t think it actually meant much to Munch, the older man glares at him: “Of course not, because it’s always about you, Frank.” Troubled by his inability to speak clearly and slowed gait, Frank presses, determined to help on the day’s big case, a “hostage situation” at a Baltimore high school. Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), now a squad room veteran (and looking it), suggests Frank take it “light and easy.” Frank, no surprise, lashes out at Tim for not believing in him, not trusting him as a partner. “I am the same man,” he insists.
As drums pound on the soundtrack, he stalks off, alone, his face in his hands. Frank’s pain only increases, as he and Mary (Ami Brabson) start marriage counseling. (“It’s not the frequency, doctor, it’s the intensity,” worries Mary.) In “Valentine’s Day,” Frank admits that when they were working toward having a child, and doctors suggested angles and positions, sex turned into “geometry.” As their frustrations surface, they argue. Angry that he’s lost his faith and belittles hers, Mary waits as he asserts his belief in justice and truth, then makes her own case: “You believe in homicide!”
Meantime, the homicide squad works cases. At the schoolyard, by the time the detectives arrive, two bodies are already strewn awkwardly on the grass, and the unidentified hostage taker claims to have a teacher and 15 kids inside with him. As the cops work desperately to discover the culprit’s identity—or even how many hostages he actually has taken. Kellerman and Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) begin interviewing students, potential witnesses, as Brodie (Max Perlich) tapes them. “Are you making a movie?” asks one girl, imaged in black and white, as video. “Then this isn’t real, this isn’t really happening, it’s just a movie.” Her desire is urgent and understandable. Seeking ambiguity to doubles as clarification, she stands in, briefly, for those artists and readers hoping to make sense of chaos, to conjure reasons for adversity.
The season follows two central storylines. The first is Frank’s sincere, if confused, efforts to come back into his old life, to recover respect and self-confidence, his trust with Mary, as well as his physical skills (he spends hours and hours at the police shooting range, focused on reclaiming his street status. The second focus is the legendary, still stunning Luther Mahoney (incredible Erik Dellums) arc, initiated in the previous season and insidious throughout this one. Reintroduced in this season’s fourth episode, “Bad Medicine,” Mahoney spars briefly in the box with Meldrick and narcotics detective Stivers (Toni Lewis), as they investigate a murder they know (but can’t prove) he set up. Though the primary storyline in this episode concerns Kellerman being investigated for taking bribes during his time with the arson unit (a charge he vehemently denies, even when encouraged to plead out), the Mahoney plot already seems overpowering, even past his death during their assiduously planned “Operation Get Luther,” in which Lewis, Stivers, and Kellerman are involved (“Deception”). The shooting haunts them for the rest of the series.
The season is punctuated throughout by powerful guest performances. In “Prison Riot,” Lewis and Tim interview inmate Elijah Sanborn (ex-prisoner Charles S. Dutton), who takes it on himself to explain how prison works—in disturbing, handheld closeup. “What do you think goes on in here Detective? You don’t lock up 900 violent men in overcrowded conditions, give ‘em a tv, or some weights, and tell ‘em, ‘This is what it’s all about, the rest of your life’... You can sit in your living room thinking we’re being re-habilitated, but rehabilitated for what? I’m in here forever, Detective.” Seemingly unmoved, Tim lets him go back to his cell, then confesses to Meldrick—as they stand beneath a mural in the prison commissary, a preacher with arms outstretched, a U.S. flag beneath him, and a white-uniformed trusty mopping up the dead man’s blood in the foreground—that he once spent two “very long nights” in lockup, arrested for protesting human rights violations in El Salvador. “Of course,” says Meldrick. Sirens sound in the distance.
Elijah Wood makes an appearance as snotty McPhee Broadman, a senior at the prep school where Tim and Meldrick are investigating the murder of a black student. When Tim pushes McPhee around (as the kid reminds him of types he knew when he was young), Meldrick takes over in the box, whereupon the kid says he likes him, because he “knows his place.” In “Control,” Mekhi Phifer plays the memorable Junior Bunk, Luther’s nephew, and in “Valentine’s Day,” Doogie Howser himself plays Alan Schack, college student, acquaintance of Brodie, and murder suspect. Brodie helps with the investigation, off-hours, leading to the Schack’s arrest. This despite the hard time he gets from Munch and some of the other detectives, which, as Yoshimura notes, “reflects the whole thing that David had to go through when he started to follow around the real homicide unit in Baltimore, the kind of disdain they had from him initially, or send him off on goose chases, or they would bring him to crime scenes and revolt him.”
Brodie’s offbeat insight is again on display in “The Documentary,” directed by documentary director Barbara Kopple, and mostly composed of Brodie’s footage of the squad in action and at home (one brief section shows Frank and Mary at home with their baby, titled “Connubial Bliss”). Overmyer describes the project as a “faux documentary,” in which they (and Brodie) “wanted to juxtapose life and death, the ying and the yang.” Funny guy. The episode replicates an event that occurred during one day on location, when two real criminals gave themselves up to Richard Belzer and Clark Johnson, believing they were real cops; here, producer Barry Levinson makes a brief appearance as a director working in an alley, when a couple of criminals surrender to them.
The focus of the episode is a series of “perversions” committed by Bennett Jack (Melvin Van Peebles), a funeral home director who brings “dead ladies” and props them up at the table for dinner and “romance.” Overmyer recalls that the real culprit on whom Jack is based was “dancing with them and then having sex with them. That was too much for the network, so in this episode, he’s having dinner with them.” Yoshimura also reveals another long-running frustration with the network: “We would get these notes from NBC,” he sighs, “‘Yaphet and Andre and Clark are in too many scenes together.’ The unspoken thing was, there’s too many black guys on screen together, the audience won’t buy it.” One can only imagine how nervous the episode “Narcissus” made the suits, as it focuses on a confrontation between the police and ARM (African Revival Movement), headed by a former cop, who gets a favor from the department, meaning that Munch and Pembleton’s investigation is stymied repeatedly.
The season comes to a messy end wit the news that Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin, never on screen this season) has been killed in the course of an undercover assignment. In the two-part season closer, “Partners and Other Strangers,” the detectives, plus newcomer Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) investigate, only to solve the case and lose the accused (he has “evaporated”). “Bodies still fall,” says Gee at Beau’s eulogy. “The phone still rings. We still fill out our daily run sheets and argue over overtime… But long after the cases blur and fade entirely from our memory, we still remember our own.”
And with that, the shows shapeshifts one more time, as Gee learns that the detectives will be on three-month rotations, apparently another network strategy to wrest ratings from Homicide.