Sunday, November 22, 2009

Essay Challenge:favorite TV- Homicide: Life on the Streets

Essay Challenge: My Favorite TV Show

NBC: 1993 to 1999, plus a 2000 TV-movie that served as a de facto series finale

I was a follower of Homicide from the start. I have memories of seeing the very first episode, most likely the night that it premiered after the Super bowl. I had been a cop show fan for years, digging on the action, adventure and the righteous adrenaline of the big 80s glitzy TV Po-lease shows. It was great to see people with style and souls of steel take down the scum of the earth and put them out of the game, or at least that's what I think when I look back. In reality the cop shows that I watched; 21 Jump Street, Crime Story and Hill Street Blues were far from that dream of crime vanquished in the course of 45 minutes. They had heart, grit and a weight to them and in many ways set the stage for what I think of as the best show network TV has ever gambled on Homicide: Life on the Streets (H:LOTS)

From the word go Homicide was unlike anything that I had ever seen or anything that had come before. Based on the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by Baltimore Sun Reporter David Simon, the show was a tough sell to a public that was accustomed to hour long soaps featuring cops, neatly wrapped up stories, lots of car chases and shooting. Homicide down played the violence, sex, and chaos of what had come before, and dealt with the aftermath of those events. The show played up the grind, and the paperwork. It played up the dull moments, the humor and the horror of being a Murder Police. Working with people that you liked, that you didn't like, that you had to find a way to get along with.

The talent involved was heavy weight for TV standards at the time. This was at the start of the era when film makers started to see that their opportunities for interesting work had shifted from feature films to TV. Director Berry Levenson, and his crew brought in a ensemble cast of mostly unknown actors, but managed to attract high profile guest stars. They filmed in Baltimore and never hid the drab, depressing and often decaying city and the dull work of policing it. This was TV cop deglamorized.

I have viewed the series roughly three times, not every episode, but the bulk of it over the years. First when it aired, second when each of the seasons were released on DVD and finally in the years since the release of the last season on DVD. I have watched each time with an eye to what I missed the first time around, picking up little things, and themes. One thing I can say for the show is that it's both memorable and rewatchable in a way that many shows are not.

The most surprising thing to me is how much I recalled from the episodes from my first viewing. They resonated with me and were just that well written acted and produced. Their impacts precise and focused. From the funny, to the heart breaking to the bleak, the show was so well crafted that a little moment; The meeting of the mothers of a teenage shooter and his teenage victim meeting in
the waiting room and becoming friendly in Every mothers Son-- and I am tempted to anoint that episode as the greatest hour of TV ever about criminals and victims, if there weren't so many H:LOTS episodes that fit that bill-- resonates with the promise of connection and friendship, even as we know the tragic tie between them. It's only later that we see what we would all love to come to pass between these two women as a positive step, fall apart as reality steps in.

I knew on some level that H:LOTS was always not as much about the shooting, stabbing and killing as it was about how the job affects those who do it. It was about people who wander into chaos and have to pull some sort of order out of that tornado of destruction. The Homicide Detective has a job to do, in the middle of the intrusion of a new reality in the lives of people, and that fact makes the job not only harder, but all that much more draining. The reality is that men and women of the Homicide Unit live in a place where they have to work and dig and denigrate the loss of a life to see that justice is served if that life was taken from its owner. For too long TV made it look like fun, or exciting, it was H:LOTS that really brought even a little of the reality to light.

In hindsight I believe that the show really is about the journey of and the loss of faith and innocence of Detective Tim Bayliss. He starts the first episode as the new guy arriving in the unit. He's come off a plumb assignment on the mayor’s protective detail-- a favored son of the department brass. He's partnered with Frank Pembleton, the hot shot brainy loner of the unit. Frank is a master of the job, he's the smartest person in the unit, and he is also the most cold. He deals in facts, he keeps his distance from the human aspect of the job and the work. Tim on the other hand hasn't figured it all out. He's naive and some times far too human, he worried too much about the why of the crime, when a smart murder police would just move on to the next case.

Kyle Secor as Bayliss is one of only three of the squad that stuck around for all 7 seasons of the show, and is given the time and opportunity to not only grow but to descend, to have his view of himself questioned. He comes into the world of Homicide with a strong idea of who he is and what he is, only to have everything questioned. His sexuality, his capacity for good, and the darkness lurking in his soul. His childhood traumas are exposed his foibles and failures shown, in one episode-- The Documentary, he is shown at home drinking and entering his rest room with a porno magazine. He asks the film maker why he would include that scene, and in what might be the most revealing comment in the whole series the documentary maker answers "you're the hero of the piece, I had to show you honestly warts and all".

From a story telling point of view HLOTS was also willing to be innovative. Episodes focusing on not only the police but; the criminals, the victims, communities, organizations, and on long clod cases were all a part of the fabric of the show and often times the more memorable than other episodes. The willingness to bring in outside directors, Whit Stilman and Barbra Kopel, to think outside of the box was unlike anything that came before. The innovation extended to the hand held style of the show. It wasn't slick or glitzy; it was personal, flawed and occasionally disjointed-- kinda like life.

I also have to note the use of music in the show. A early standout and heart breaking scene where 'Hurt' by Nine Inch Nails plays as one of the members of the unit arrives home to find his wife has left with everything, the kids, the furniture, everything. Another montage of the unit rolling out on multiple and various murder scenes while a regga/blues tune blasts over a montage of fresh killings telling the story of the murders and mayhem. There were also the early multiple references to the Seattle Grunge scene, as suspects and victims are named after members of: Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam. In Season 6 new Detective Laura Ballard arrives from Seattle and when asked why she left her response is "Grunge Died!"

When Patti Abbot proposed this project she said that often the essays in the book the idea came from turned out to be more about the writer than about the show. I thought about this as I was writing this essay, I think about what I have just written says about me, and how much of that do I really want out there. There is a darkness in me, I have had people comment on it before, and there is a wall around me that I use to keep that darkness partly hidden and in check. Maybe HLOTS was really about just that, the darkness and how we do or don't keep it in check. As a writer that is what I find my stories are so often about, control, safety, chaos, protection, reaction, LIFE.

If you would like to check out H:LOTS the whole series is out there on DVD. Here is a short list of Episodes that I recommend checking out:

"Gone for Goode"

"Three Men and Adena"

Night of the Dead Living"

A Many Splendored Thing"

Every Mother's Son"

The Gas Man"

A Doll's Eyes"


Hate Crimes"

Thrill Of The Kill"

Prison Riot"

The Heart Of Saturday Night"

The Documentary"

Finnegan's Wake"

Memorable Quotes and HERE

More H:LOTS on the web HERE


pattinase (abbott) said...

Without a doubt, one of the best of the best.

Todd Mason said...

And a great celebration of all that's good and bad about Baltimore...down, to mention the music again, to giving exposure to such notable Balto bands as Estrojet/the Women of Destruction. I have about half the seasons on DVD sets, but found that so much of each episode had burned itself into memory that the rewatching was almost superfluous. The episode in which Pembleton can't handle the fact of the crimes of a fellow Christian, and how this could be allowed to happen, is another of the highlights of the series...I was appalled to learn that some people were put off the show by being told that the Robin Williams episode was the best and the one to see to judge the series by, when in my estimation it was easily the worst.

Did you see the episode of FRONTLINE, the PBS documentary series, devoted to HOMICIDE and particularly to how the subway platform episode was filmed?

pattinase (abbott) said...

That subway episode is seared in my brain and I never see Vincent D'Nofrio without thinking about it.

Iren said...

Todd- I did see that frontline, I think it's an extra on the DVD set from that season. That's a good episode, but not one of the best. I have no idea why anyone would say that Bopgun was the best place to get a taste of Homicide, many of those early shows were great, but things didn't really gel until the 3rd and 4th seasons.