Premiering on January 31st, 1993, right after the Super Bowl, Homicide: Life on the Street was one of the best written, best acted, grittiest, smartest dramas to hit the television airwaves. It used cinema vérité techniques (handheld cameras, jump cuts), had convoluted continuing storylines, and paved the way for shows like The Shield and The Wire (the only shows truly in the conversation of “best cop show” ever).
“I believe in justice. I believe in life.” –Pembleton
The show was brought to the screen by Barry Levinson (Diner, The Natural), Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere, Oz) and David Simon, who wrote the book the show was based on, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. They created a police procedural completely new to the television landscape. It focused on the bleak realism of the job. Repetitive, focusing on the interaction between the detectives—during the long, boring stretches of paperwork and stakeouts—and how they go about solving the cases; and how spiritually draining, but socially necessary, the work was. This was in the pre-C.S.I. era, without flashy visuals and before terms like DNA or trace evidence entered our popular lexicon. To recap, jittery camera work, ill cut scenes, character centered, non-flashy visuals, set in Baltimore and airing on Friday nights. Needless to say, the show never became a breakout hit.
“Some things transcend normal logic.” –Howard
As the series opens, we’re introduced to rookie detective Tim Baylis (Kyle Secor) as he joins the Balitmore homicide team, an ensemble including Richard Belzer (whose character, Det. John Munch, is now in the Guinness Book of World Records for having been on the most television shows, currently a regular on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit), Yaphet Kotto (Alien), Clark Johnson (The Wire), and Ned Beatty (Deliverance). In a lot of ways, Homicide is the story of Bayliss’ journey from wide-eyed rookie (haunted by his inability to close his first case, the murder of a young black girl named Adena Watson) to world weary (as he explores his dark side and his sexual nature) to spiritually numb.
“If you had a worldview, you would see that by solving this little conspiracy it might tell us something about the human condition.” –Crosetti
He is partnered with cocky (“I’m proud of my pride.”), brilliant Frank Pembleton played by Emmy-winner Andre Braugher (Thief, Frequency). This cast was also unusual in that it was predominantly black, a rarity on television. But while Bayliss is the connecting thread of the series, Frank Pembleton anchors the show through Andre Braugher’s gravitas. Through their partnership, like with the rest on the series, the series explores how the volatility of the partnerships, many like marriages, allow them to work through the horrors they face every day. Ultimately, that’s what the show is about the worldview it requires to navigate the (dark side) of the world.
“Let me … box with God. Because in this line of work—be it mutilated priest or overdosed drug addict—faith only gets in the way and twists you up.” –Pembleton (Something Sacred pt I)
Police officers stare more intimately and more often into the face of evil. They deal with the worst of what society has to offer on a regular basis, observing and cleaning up after the evil that men do. It takes a psychological, emotional, and spiritual toll on them. Frank Pembleton most brazenly challenges and questions his worldview.
One of the great things the show did was examine the very humanity of the detectives. Just like the exploration of Tim Bayliss’ bi-sexuality was handled with subtlety and aplomb, so was the examination of Frank Pembleton’s spiritual life. Over the course of the series we see his faith challenged, extinguished, and slightly rekindled. As his wife Mary (played by Andre Braugher’s real life wife, Ami Brabson) observed: “When I first met you, you believed in things other than yourself … [like] God.” But after all that he had seen, as far as Frank was concerned, “God had become ‘the great light show’, too busy in the next county making hunchback babies.” Faith had become a lie, “blind faith is the crutch of fools.” But it bothered her that he lost his faith and belittled hers, and his crisis of faith impacted the cases he worked and their marriage. Cursed with not only an intellectual curiosity, but also a need to find out the truth, Frank continued to seek and challenge his world view and those of everyone around him. Because he needed something to help him navigate through the darkness.
Any choice of a worldview requires a leap of faith, to believe that your worldview is the “right” one. I believe quest/knowledge journeys begin with a leap of faith, that is, what we choose to put our trust in. For some, it is ourselves (the individual or humanity). For some, it is science (the determination of our senses). For some, it is the spiritual (under the assumption that there is more to this life than presented, both in terms of the spiritual and in terms of after this life). To quote from the blog of my friend, Rich Vincent:
“Christianity does not consist in a series of verifiable and interlocking hypotheses. Nor is it a philosophical system consisting in satisfactory, mutually consistent propositions… the way that truth is sought and engaged with is not through detachment but through a living relationship of faith and love with the object we seek”. The Christian seeks more than “objective truth,” facts, or information. “The goal is not to find information, or even to discern fact, but to bring ourselves, as living subjects, into engagement with reality, culminating ultimately in a participation in the ground of what is real”.
“You don’t leave any room for something good to happen. A moment of redemption. You don’t believe in anything.” –Bolander
Widely considered the most realistic cop drama ever aired (and Andre Braugher being perhaps television’s finest actor), Homicide: Life on the Street gives viewers a different view of detective work. During the course of its run it garnered two Emmy Awards, three Peabody Awards, three Television Critics Awards, two Writers Guild Awards, and was named to TV Guide’s “The Greatest Episodes in TV History” and “TV’s Greatest Characters” lists (as well as their list of “The best television shows nobody is watching”).
The show rarely followed the rhythms of an hour long drama and definitely showed no sentimentality. When it did go for an emotional moment, such as when Pembleton—who had refused to attend the funeral of his fellow detective who had committed suicide—gets in his dress blues to salute his fallen comrade, it resonates with power. As an example to how tight the writing was, one of the episodes which won an Emmy, “Three Men and Adena” , took place in a single interrogation room. Another award winning standout was the episode “The Subway,” wherein Vincent D’Onofrio is pushed in front of a subway. The story unfolds in real time as he is pinned under the wheels and once they lift the car from him, he will die. [One of my personal favorite episodes was “Black and Blue”, again featuring Pembleton in the box, eliciting a confession from a suspect he knows to be innocent.]
Put simply, this was one of the most influential, cutting edge, ahead of its time police procedurals in the history of dramatic television. The star-turning performance still mesmerize (and many of Hollywood’s finest show up in guest turns). Were it to air today, it would be found on cable, much like its creative inheritor, The Wire did.