Let me get this out of the way first: I’m a Homicide junkie. While I’m grateful it got the run it did, to see it almost eternally on the graveyard TV timeslot of Friday at 10pm crushed me. And to see it get beaten in it’s time slot by Nash Bridges and remain virtually anonymous in the shadow of NYPD Blue discouraged me. But I’m a fanboy. It was filmed in my hometown (Baltimore), and while some of its actors were noteworthy elsewhere (among those were Ned Beatty, Yaphet Kotto an… Jon Polito), others, most notably Andre Braugher (City of Angels), used their time to earn consistent dramatic praise and spawned it into a solid movie career. And when Hollywood director (and Baltimore native) Barry Levinson (Rain Man) executive produces a show written by the outstanding veteran Tom Fontana (Oz, St. Elsewhere), some quality writing and exemplary performances were soon to follow. Directors often were taken aback by the almost automatic pilot nature of the production, but it did not stop them, as well as others, from guest directing an episode. Among the names (and faces) you will find on the first two seasons of Homicide are Edie Falco (The Sopranos), Julianna Margulies (ER), Wilford Brimley (The Natural), and Oz regulars Lee Tergesen and Zeljko Ivanek. Guest directors included the late Bruce Paltrow (St. Elsewhere), Martin Campbell (GoldenEye), Alan Taylor (The Sopranos) and John McNaughton (Wild Things).
Due to the genre, it is primarily limited to catching the bad guys. But, like the book, the show helps to bring in other components to the mix; the phone call to the office, dispatching a Detective to the crime scene. The board, keeping dutiful progress on the open and closed cases with colored dry-erase markers, and the “box” or interrogation room, where the detectives bring a suspect, hoping to get a confession for the crime that was committed, and in effect, they help to speak for the ones who no longer can. Many of the episodes are outstanding, Levinson received an Emmy for Direction in a Drama Series with the pilot (“Gone for Goode”), but two jewels stand out among the impressive first 13 episodes. The first is “Three Men and Adena.” In Season One, Bayliss (Kyle Secor, City Slickers) joins the squad on the first episode, and his first case is a high profile one, the murder of an 11-year old girl. The case haunts him, both by his persistence and the frustration of it, but one of his hunches leads him and Pembleton (Braugher) to an interrogation of a fruit vendor. They only have 12 hours in the box with him to get a confession, or the investigation will run into a dead end. Aside from a couple of supporting characters at the very beginning of Act I, and the very end of Act III, the entire episode focuses on the three men, the two detectives’ interrogation of the man until they think he has reached a breaking point, and later his turning the tables on the two. It is riveting drama (characterized by the usual compelling performance by Braugher) that easily justified an Emmy award for Fontana for this episode.
Season 2’s brief, but powerful, 4 episode run, ended with “Bop Gun.” Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, and stars his son, a young Jake, as Matt, with his father Robert (Robin Williams) and their family, in town visiting from Iowa, when Robert’s wife is murdered for a gold chain she was wearing. The search for the killer is academic, and the focus is on the experience within the family, and how it has shattered Robert and Matt’s lives, perhaps to the point where they can never relate to each other the same way again. While there are just 13 shows in this set, and I’ve singled out two of them here for recommended viewing, it would certainly be easy to recommend the other 11. But, aside from these two, other episodes worth seeing from this group are “Gone for Goode,” “Black and Blue” and “A Many Splendored Thing.” All of which are very good episodes, the last two providing Braugher with some memorable scenes during already compelling storylines.
What helped separate Homicide from other shows I think was its effectiveness in portraying the victims of the crime. The families of those who lost their lives prematurely, and the impact the loss has on them. Smaller details previously taken for granted are given more detail as well, such as the relationship the detectives have with the County Medical Examiner, and the sometimes joking nature that they have with their street counterparts. What also helped in the evolution of the show was the abolition of the mandatory happy ending. Sometimes the bad guy did walk away, and unlike some other shows at the time, that’s what happened, because it happened like that in life. I think Law and Order’s long-running popularity has something to do with that aspect also.
The audio is a slight disappointment to me, as the show almost seemed to pride itself on the unique songs that were included on each episode. Not many shows can say that they’ve includes songs by Seal and Sonny Boy Williamson, and to hear them in 2.0 was a bit of a bummer.
The video is pretty average as well, with the grain and grit of the action that was shot on handheld Super 16 being preserved in all its glory. There weren’t too many affects used during the course of the series, so take that into consideration as well in case you find yourself complaining about the video quality.
For an A&E release, there’s an average amount of extra material included here. On Disc 1, you’ve got a commentary with Fontana and Levinson. It’s recorded together, and the two haven’t watched the show in awhile, and while there are gaps, it’s kinda nice to listen to them reminisce about things. Fontana does the majority of the talking, and both provide some insight, be it creative or from a production standpoint. In terms of appearance, they set out to make it look like the anti-Murder She Wrote. Director Mark Pellington was responsible for the opening credits for the first several seasons, a tidbit I hadn’t known before. 2 crew and 8 cast biographies round out the material on Disc 1. Disc 2 has an 11 minute featurette called Homicide: Life at the Start, narrated by John Munch, aka Richard Belzer. The piece is not dated, and basically sticks to Seasons 1 & 2, focusing primarily on how Levinson created the show for air. Disc 3 brings a 45 minute A&E episode of American Justice called To Catch a Killer: Homicide Detectives. It helps to provide, in a more technical format, the processes and procedures the detectives use to help find the victims’ killers. It covers anything from the crime scene to the interrogation, and also shows other techniques detectives would use. There is some footage and pictures from two crime scenes, so a word to the queasy about pursuing this feature. Disc 4 has the song listings for each applicable episode during the first two seasons.
It was the best damn show on television, what can I say?!?! Another TV show that I thoroughly enjoyed can be scratched off my DVD list now that Homicide has come out. Pound for pound, one of the best dramatic shows that’s been on network TV over the last few years, and only serves to reinforce the notion that quality writing will attract some of the better talent on TV. Worth a rental to curious observers, and a definite purchase for fans of quality cop dramas.
Special Features List
- Selected Episode Commentary
- American Justice Episode
- Song Listings