Friday, April 23, 2010

Homicide: LOTS

There's an episode of Homicide: Life On The Street where a junkie CI devours Ding Dongs in search of a sugar rush to tide him over until his next fix. It was kind of like that for me after The Wire, I needed something to fuel my addiction once it was over. A friend put me onto The Shield, which I'm currently following on rental and am pretty well hooked. At the same time, I'd just completed my Homicide DVD collection so it seemed the obvious time to revive that habit.

Mostly it was a rewatch and the show was a huge favourite of mine, so in that sense the streets of Baltimore were fairly safe territory for a revisit. But even with favourites you never know for sure how these things are going to stand up and there was also the undiscovered country of Season 7, which I'd never seen because Channel 4 didn't take the option, the bastards, at the time. In the years since, I'd heard it wasn't a patch on preceding seasons and was always caught between wondering if I'd been spared disappointment and curiosity about what I might have missed. Given a choice, I'd rather a great show ended before its time than watch it swirl with a dying gurgle down a creative plug hole. That said, I have trouble resisting curiosity.

So, the verdict.

Technically seven seasons, organised into six for the sake of the DVD box sets and leading to some confusion over numbering if you happened to have bought any of the older US releases. The UK DVDs must be remasters. They're much sharper – the episodes on my US discs seem fuzzy and bleached of colour by comparison. For the purposes of this blog, I'll refer to them by their box set titles – hence, Series One to Series Six, with Series Six actually being the (for me) previously unseen Season 7. And if that is confusing, just buy the DVDs and that'll clear things right up. You won't be sorry either.

While Vic Mackey of The Shield will grab you by the collar – if you're lucky – and slam you against the wall, the detectives of the Baltimore PD Homicide division will very likely command your attention in a quieter, more civilised fashion. Don't get me wrong, it's plenty gritty and hard-hitting, but it doesn't punch you in the face. It's subtler than that. It works, in fact, more like a session in the interview room – the Box – where what often begins as a casual conversation, just talking, develops into an intense, electrifying confrontation that proves that, sometimes, all you need for bloody good drama is a room, great writing and a few good actors.

It creeps up on you and you can't really pinpoint the moment when you were hooked. The roots of The Wire are very much in evidence and even if it doesn't have the same multi-layered complexity, it has more layers than any other cop show of its era. David Simon's fingerprints are all over it and its origins in his journalistic work, the book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, are what lend the show its edge of realism. That and the shaky camera-work, which – although I'm being facetious there – is really effective in appointing us as an observer, whether it's sitting us in on those sessions in the Box or signing us up for a ridealong in one of the Baltimore PD's Cavaliers.

It's a network show, so it's more governed by certain rules than The Wire. In that respect, it's more in a similar bracket to ER, setting the standard (at the time) in its genre. Much as patients come and go in Cook County General, here it's the victims and their families we encounter through the eyes of an ensemble cast. For obvious reasons, the victims aren't saying much so, as the series often reminds us, it falls to the detectives to speak for the dead. There are few cases complex enough to task the great Sherlock Holmes. Criminal genius is rare. The reality is a bit more like Columbo in that they usually know whodunnit and the challenge lies in proving it, often with dogged old-fashioned police plod-work. It lacks the slick, Hollywood polish of the CGI, sorry, CSI series, but in Homicide, character is king and the biggest gimmick on display is the simple procedural act of turning red names to black on the all-important Board.

Given the nature of the business, there's no real room for the more blatantly soapish elements of ER – suggesting that detectives have less time for life outside their jobs than doctors and nurses – but I'll leave the respective professions to debate that one. But there is a focus, amid all the crime-solving, on the chemistry of partnerships – by which I mean between partnered detectives. Some pairings work better than others and the divorce rate is high, but the standout teams, the ones who shine most for me, would have to be the old married couple, Munch and Bolander, the buddy-buddy double act of Lewis and Kellerman and, of course, the ever-fascinating love story of Bayliss and Pembleton.

Indeed, in a series so dependent on character and chemistry, the main problem is one of staff turnover. Over the course of the series, there are too many off-screen departures which then have to be explained away, sometimes unconvincingly. At least the mighty Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), such a formidable and often ferocious presence on the squad, has his proper exit – even if, inevitably, he leaves a hole that, try as it might, Series Six can't fill. Actually, I don't think it tries – which is probably the more sensible option.

But I'm getting slightly ahead of myself. Plainly there just isn't going to be room here to cite every good episode or even provide a decent season by season overview. Some series are just too darned good for their own good and I wouldn't want to get arrested for criminal overuse of the words 'brilliant' or 'great'. But a journey like this does at least warrant a brief tour through the highlights – and, in the interests of balance, the occasional lowlights. Just take my word for it, I've severely limited myself on the former category.


Series One. Mostly characterised by the Adena Watson investigation, the first case handed to new boy Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). The murder of a young girl, her name will remain in red on the Board and her ghost will haunt you almost as much as it haunts Bayliss. The hard news – some cases never get solved – establishes the show's credentials and warns us we'd better get used to outcomes that are often far from neat or satisfying. We get mood and humour and a pure character piece in the third episode, Night Of The Dead Living, and we get put through the emotional wringer right along with the suspect in the Box in Three Men And Adena.

Series Two. Too. Many. Outstanding. Episodes. Begins the tradition of the big multi-part season opener, with a 3-parter as Pembleton lands a big serial-killer case, laced with questions of faith and religion. Crosetti – first of the off-screen casualties – turns up as a floater in the episode of the same name and you really feel for Lewis as he refuses to believe his partner's death was suicide. Last Of The Watermen gives us a break from Baltimore and the chance for Kay Howerd (Melissa Leo) to really shine. Every Mother's Son, so bloody good it gave me shivers to watch – again. And a major major 3-parter in the middle, City That Bleeds, Dead End and End Game, with a shock beginning and a gripping journey all the way through to an ending that provokes uncomfortable questions about the squad of detectives we think we know. And the season closer, The Gas Man, although an oddity, puts us on a ridealong with the criminal for a change and hands Pembleton an unexpected slice of real vulnerability.

Series Three. An opening 2-parter, Fire, which brings in Kellerman (Reed Diamond) and treats us to an insight into the world of arson. Heartbeat, for me the first real misfire, delves into the world of Edgar Allen Poe and feels a bit out of place. Full Moon is a much better attempt at off-beat and slightly surreal, as is The Hat. And The Thrill Of The Kill is powerfully haunting with its killer's-eye view. In the midst of those we have Sniper, a 2-parter all the more chilling for the fact there's no real explanation for the shooter's motives and later there's another doubler, Justice, featuring Bruce Campbell and a beautifully handled look at the two sides of the justice – or injustice, depending on how you look at it – coin. Followed by Stakeout, a masterclass character piece letting us see the interplay between different pairings of the squad's detectives. Also notable are The Damage Done, which introduces drug lord, Luther Mahoney – watch out for him again – and Work Related which is the series' first dip into the standard convention of a real season cliffhanger, but trust me it is an out of the blue shocker. At least, it was the first time and it still sent me cold this time around.

Series Four. What do we have here? An opening 2-parter in the shape of Hostage. New to me, since there was a shooting incident at a school at the time which prevented this from being shown. And in typical Homicide fashion, this is too damned real. As a result on the rewatch it feels quite late in the season when the brilliant Michelle Forbes arrives on the scene as Dr Julianna Cox in ME, Myself and I – and she really puts her stamp on he role, offering us another perspective on death that goes hand in hand with the detectives' POV but isn't always the smoothest of relationships. Her relationship with Kellerman is more like Mutually Assured Destruction than romance. And when, in the superb Heart Of A Saturday Night, she shows up in a victim support group to talk about the death of her father, well, if you don't shed a tear you probably belong on her slab. Much of this season is characterised by the drug war and the investigation into the Luther Mahoney organisation, probably the closest we ever get to a story arc. A corruption investigation sets Kellerman on his self-destructive path at a time when, ideally, he'd be there at the forefront of the Mahoney case, but he's right there at its conclusion in Deception. (Apparently it was the network's insistence that Mahoney gets his just deserts it was the network's insistence and the series, and especially the character Kellerman, has to deal with the consequences.) Other recurring themes here are Pembleton's struggle with the aftermath of that Series Three ending and Bayliss' struggle with his history as an abused child and his sexuality. The Documentary is a bit too clever for its own good, making the mistake of featuring footage where we know in-story camera jockey Brodie wasn't anywhere around. The season closes off with Partners & Other Strangers where, with echoes of Crosetti, Beau Felton turns up as another off-screen departed, this time minus a face. (Yeah, ewww.) After a terrific, tense 2-parter, Giardello's announcement of the impending rotation and possible end of the Homicide unit as we know it feels like a last-minute attempt at a season cliffhanger, even if it almost certainly had me shouting, “Noooooo!” at the time. But it brings back Megan Russert for a spell and introduces two detectives we'll be seeing more of next season.

Series Five. Blood Ties is a real whammy of a 3-parter which at times – like the big-screen action at the airport – feels more like CSI:Miami and Georgia Rae Mahoney, along with the revelation that Mahoney had a sister, feels like a creation that belongs in another series. Still, that said, she does make for a compelling story thread that runs throughout this season. Kellerman disintegrates, which is a shame for the character, but at the same time it's a great depiction of a cop steadily being cornered by one moment's split decision. In amongst it all, we have The Subway, another ohmygod episode, with Vincent D'Onofrio wedged between a tube train and a platform. Ouch doesn't begin to cover it. All Is Bright confronts the AIDS issue through the eyes of new detective Laura Ballard – and the Ballard and Gharty pairing is another noteworthy partnership, their brand of old-young, guy-woman just-friends dynamic works really well. Only a shame they don't make more of Ballard as a rival in the detective stakes to the great Frank Pembleton. Mercy is outstanding and Alfre Woodard is more than a match for Pembleton. And Finnegan's Wake has a star turn by Charles Durning, a relic of the 'good old days' of policing. Inevitably it's Fallen Heroes, the 2-part season closer that makes the biggest mark, in part because of Kathryn Bigelow's hard-hitting direction and Mekhi Phifer's last appearance as Junior Bunk, but also because of the ultimate tying up of the Mahoney case and all its consequences. And as you'd expect from Homicide, it's the loose threads that serve to make it all so damned frustratingly perfect.

Series Six. All change, all new. That's what it feels like. Guess it doesn't help that they redecorated the office. But in a show that depends on the ensemble cast and how you relate to key characters, the changes in staff are a lot to cope with. Of the old faces, Lewis and Munch are a welcome presence, post-near-mortem Bayliss is going a bit too out there with his Buddhism. Of the relatively new, Ballard and Gharty are the best and feel like part of the old family. And in the total newbies, Giancarlo Esposito as Mike Giardello brings some interesting father-son – and departmental – conflict to proceedings, but Michele Michael, brings a touch of glamour in much the same way a varnished piece of wood might. Except the wood would likely be less annoying and self-important. Ballard and Falsone's illicit romance feels more soapish than any of the other personal relationships the show explored previously. Luckily there are highlights that prove the series can still pull something remarkable out of the bag: chief among them, episodes like Lines Of Fire, another one with Kathryn Bigelow at the helm – coincidence? I think not – and the masterfully crafted closing episode. The coda is so perfectly judged it feels like, despite the intervening shortcomings of this last season, this is where the story had always been headed.

The flaws aren't exclusive to that last season, but they are weighted there. As a rule of thumb any episode involving the Intelligence community tends to be less successful, but there aren't many of those and there's generally more than one case up in the air and/or other goings on to maintain the interest. The least satisfying episodes for me were the Law & Order crossovers which became an annual feature from Series Three onwards. The episodes belong in there for completeness sake but, despite their tacking on a 'Previously on...' recap at the beginning – leave you feeling, unsurprisingly perhaps, like you've watched half a story. And the show's use of the trademark 'stutter' edit is variable: more often than not its very effective in driving home a dramatic point, but it's sometimes misjudged and intrudes on the moment as a clumsy bit of artifice.

Still, measured against the series' strengths, those flaws don't amount to a hill of beans. Murder laced with drama laced with real life, served up by actors, directors, writers and production crew who maybe aren't A-list, but they're first-class. And humour by the baggie load. The laughs, like the rest of it, have bite – not just in the uber-cynical tirades of John Munch (Richard Belzer) – but in the kind of incidents that are funny in a way that only real life can be. You know this stuff happened on the street or in the squad room somewhere, if not actually in Baltimore.

Like the electrolyte neuron magnetic test scanner used to detect a suspect's lies – better than a polygraph, a simple photocopier. The scene in Series One's Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is duplicated – and, I think, refined – for later use in The Wire, but it's still funny here. As a side-benefit, there's also the chance to play a game of spot the guy – or girl – who was [insert character name here] in The Wire. But don't worry, if you haven't seen The Wire yet, the game works just as well the other way around.

So, okay, this is not the pure heroin of The Wire but forget the sugary cake-bar substitutes, this is good well-cut product. These drugs do work.


Jay said...

Just occurred to me - Did you know there was a Homicide TV movie that wrapped up the whole series?

SAF said...

No, I had no idea! Thanks, Jay. I'll have to look around for that now.

Jay said...

It's called Homicide - The Movie, and runs 89 minutes. The blurb runs: "The one case so important, every detective is back" and "Fprmer Homicide Shift Commander Al Giardello is the leading candidate for Mayor of Baltimore. As he walks towards the platform to give a political speech, a shot is fired at him from the crowd. He is rushed to the hospital where doctors labor to save his life. Meanwhile, a local TV cameraman's videotape becomes the key piece of evidence as former and current Homicide Detectives unite in an effort to catch the elusive gunman. Special appearances by Jason Priestly, Ed Begley Jr. and Eammon Walker."

It's not the greatest moment for the series, but nice to see the old faces one more time.

SAF said...

Thanks for that. Even if it's not its finest, I will have to seek it out for completeness sake - and like you say, one last chance to see the old faces in some (for me) new material. Cheers.