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Time of the Season: S4-S7 of Homicide: Life on the Street (’95-’99)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 3, 2007

“Life should come with a money back guarantee. If you’re not satisfied, return unused portion for a full refund.”

One of my favorite essays from Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs talks about the “Tori Paradox,” where for half of a season of Saved By the Bell, the characters of Jesse and Kelly are suddenly and inexplicably replaced by a previously unheard from character named Tori. After the half-season is over, Jesse and Kelly return, also with no explanation, and Tori is never heard from again. Despite the seeming incongruity and inplausability of the situation, Klosterman (somewhat logically) maintains that Saved By the Bell was actually being extremely true to the reality of social groups in this half-season, as groups of friends are always losing and gaining regular members for totally extraneous reasons, and when members are not present, their absence is rarely mentioned or even noticed (and completely forgotten about if they return).

I couldn’t help but think of the Tori Paradox when dealing with the revolving door cast of the last five four seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street. In every season the cast has turnover, which is often barely explained and rarely referred to again; once characters leave, they tend to stay gone. It’s not quite as crass as Saved By the Bell‘s swap, but take the beginning of season four, where Bolander (Ned Beatty) and Felton (Daniel Baldwin) are essentially written out of the show in one sentence, as Munch (Richard Belzer) makes some reference to the two getting suspended for 22 weeks for inappropriate behavior at a convention somewhere. Occasionally referenced, neither character ever appears on the show again, but in comes former arson cop Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) to sort of fill in the gap left by the two characters.

The most interesting thing about this to me is how once a charracter is off the show, you barely notice their absence. By the end of season seven, only four of the ten characters from the first three seasons–Munch, Gee (Yaphet Kotto), Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and Meldrick (Clark Johnson)–are still around, the rest replaced by a cast of faces that had only been around for the last couple of years. But within two episodes of the season, you forget that the Homicide lineup was ever different from this one–a testament to the strength of the characters and performances, but also to one of Homicide as a TV institution, one whose conventions and themes had eclipsed the importance of the individual characters and subplots–a mark of great TV, surely.

That’s not to say the show was able to entirely maintain the innovation and integrity of the first couple seasons all the way throughout its run, however. The gritty, spooky black & white credit sequence that marked the first half of the show’s run is replaced in season five by a tacky, color montage sequence of pictures of bodies and badges and words like “EVIDENCE” and “CRIME SCENE” (reminds me of the opening to Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video, actually). The plots get more and more outlandish as the show progresses, culminating in a season five rivalry between the Homicide department and arch druglord Luther Mahoney (Erik Dulles, in a performance with all the subtlety of a Bond villain), and his vengeful mother. And the need for “special episodes” to boost ratings becomes increasingly obvious, as the show resorts to just about every stock cop thriller plot device to inject some episode-to-episode excitement (child abductions, snipers, hostage takers, even in-office shoot-outs).

But despite these occasionally unfortunate concessions, Homicide always remained Homicide, and for the most part, it stayed classy for seven straight seasons, an impressive feat for any show, much less one under the constant pressures that the show was always under. And there were some genuine improvements over the course of the seasons, with the welcome addition of several female characters (without resorting to too many cheesy romantic subplots), and the evolution of characters like Bayliss (who transforms from arrogant, intolerant hot head to open-minded, Buddhist philosophizer) and Kellerman (who begins the show the office nice guy but after two seasons of trials and accusations, turns almost unrecognizably dark) being a joy to watch unfold. And some of the Very Special Episodes, such as “The Subway,” where Vincent D’Onofrio plays a man fatally pinned by a train, but still conscious and lucid with about an hour to live, are among the most memorable the show ever produced.

With 122 episodes watched over the course of two months, it’s going to be bizarre for me to leave Homicide behind and to start up with a new show now. But I’m not even completely out of the woods yet–I’ve heard good things about the closingTV Movie, Homicide: Life Everlasting, which I’m not sure is available on DVD on its own. Anyone know where I can track down a copy? I don’t know if I’m ready to move on quite yet.

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3 Responses to “Time of the Season: S4-S7 of Homicide: Life on the Street (’95-’99)”

  1. Anne said

    It’s out there on DVD, but it looks like it’ll cost you.

    Here’s a link on amazon.com, where they only have used copies available.

    http://www.amazon.com/Homicide-Movie-Daniel-Baldwin/dp/B00005AW04/ref=pd_bbs_1/105-6381444-6930825?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1186201606&sr=8-1

    But who knows. Good things come to those who search. Perhaps a library . . .

    Good luck.

  2. I got mine from Amazon. If you feel about Homicide the way I feel about Homicide (and it seems like you do), then you need it. Every single cop character shows up, one way or another.

  3. Jimmy Crack Corn said

    You can rent the “Homicide” movie on Netflix, I believe. Or at least you used to be able to. It’s not great, but it does feature appearances by every single cast member, including dead characters like Felton and Crosetti.

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