Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Time of the Season: S1-S3 of Homicide: Life on the Street (’93-’95)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 20, 2007

“Virtue isn’t virtue unless it slams up against vice. So consequently, your virtue’s not real virtue. Until it’s been tested… tempted.”

For some reason, I expected Homicide: Life on the Street to pretty much be exactly like The Wire, except more dated and less intense. Well, the reasons were actually pretty obvious–both are set in Baltimore, both are about the city’s crime and brutality, both are based off of work by David Simon, and they even share a couple cast members (so far I’ve spotted Larry Gilliard Jr., The Wire‘s D’Angelo Barksdale, and Al Brown, The Wire‘s Stan Valchek). Not to mention that most people above the age of 30 who I’ve talked to or who have seen my posting about The Wire immediately followed with Homicide raves. And I just couldn’t see how the show could possibly measure up to the scope, the excitement or the realism of The Wire.

It didn’t really occur to me that Homicide would have different goals altogether. It’s a much, much smaller show than The Wire–focusing on about a dozen recurring characters rather than the hundreds in the Wireverse, concentrating pretty much solely on the law instead of playing both sides of the fence, and showing much more interest in character and dialogue than in labyrinthine plots and multi-leveled story arcs. It’s really almost impossible to compare the two in any coherent manner, which is probably a very good thing.

Anyway, enough about The WireHomicide is just a damn good show. The acting is spot on across the board–I had no idea how much of the cast I already knew, besides Andre Braugher (who is arguably the show’s lead, even winning a Best Actor Emmy for it some seasons later), there’s Ned Beatty, Yaphet Kotto, Kyle Secor (Jake Kane in Veronica Mars), Richard Belzer (originating his much span-off John Munch role), Jon Polito (the fat, bald Coen Bros. regular), even Daniel Baldwin in a totally non-embarrassing role. There’s not a weak actor or character in the bunch, and it’s really a perfectly balanced ensemble, so much so that an episode could pair any two of the detectives at random for an hour and it’d be compelling no matter who they chose.

And the writing must be some of the best I’ve ever seen on broadcast TV. It’s probably not as realistic a depiction of Homicide banter as the lazy, crude Wire speak, but it’s rich enoguh that it’s hard to really care–each of the characters is a philosophizer in their own right, and it quickly becomes apparent that the show is as much about existential angst and the crumminess of human nature as it is a bunch of cops solving crimes. The first season’s two best episodes–“Night of the Dead Living” and “Three Men and Adena,” both of which will surely rank in this blog’s inevitable 100 Years, 100 TV Episodes list–play more like great absurdist one-acts than TV shows.

This changed somewhat by the time of the third season, in which network brass, wary of the low ratings Homicide was pulling in, forced the show to open up a bit. The show went through several very obvious transitions, including the canning of the highly unphotogenic Jon Polito (which leads me to wonder, what exactly is the nicest way to tell someone “You’re fired because your ugly ass is costing us viewers”?), the beginning of several occasionally ridiculous romantic subplots (my personal favorite being Secor’s dalliances with an Asian fetishist in her coffin-shaped bed), and more gimmicky hooks to bring in audiences (crossovers with Law & Order, a Christmas episode, cliffhanger endings, a finale taken from the criminals’ point of view). The show also started pulling in all sorts of guest stars, from Robin Williams to Steve Buscemi to even a ridiculous pre-credit appearance from John Waters.

It makes for some good, solid conventional television–I especially liked the subplot with Belzer, Secor and Clark Johnosn opening up their own bar, and the myriads of problems they run into–but ultimately, it’s a shame that they had to stray from the minimalism and no-frills grittiness that made the first two seasons (or really, first season and a half–S2 runs a whopping four episodes) feel so unique. But the characters are still great, the writing is still top-notch, and the credit sequence (which I wasn’t sure about at first, but has definitely hooked me since) reels me in every time. I wonder if NYPD Blue holds up this well.

One Response to “Time of the Season: S1-S3 of Homicide: Life on the Street (’93-’95)”

  1. I am pleased but not surprised you like it… I do think the series picks up a bit in the next few seasons as they get used to dealing with network distortions, but there’s something special about those first few seasons they’ll never quite recapture. Worth watching until the end, in any case!

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