Homicide Turns 20

Celebrating an anniversary for one of the most influential shows in TV history – Homicide: Life on the Street

I can still remember the time vividly. Before I realized there was such a thing as girls, my childhood Friday nights revolved around one thing, Homicide: Life on the Street. Sure, I enjoyed my “TGIF” time, which included ABC’s Boy Meets World, Family Matters, Step by Step and others. These were important. But these shows were nothing more than an appetizer. The main course came on at nine on NBC. With my chocolate milk and cinnamon toast at the ready, for a beautiful sixty minutes I became fully engrossed in the events surrounding Baltimore homicide’s third-shifters.

Can it be? Yes, it’s true. I checked. It’s been 20 years since a show came along that would rewrite television and would influence its future in an astounding fashion (Homicide premiered in January of 1993). Would we have The Shield, The Wire even Breaking Bad without Homicide? Maybe, but I doubt it. If only for the reason that without Homicide, Clark Johnson may never have learned how to direct. Homicide was the first show to really tap into the grittiness of modern urban life.

One might argue that it wasn’t Homicide, but NYPD Blue that accomplished this. They premiered the same year. NYPD Blue earned the ratings, but it was Homicide that really hit that vein with its gutsy needle. When it came to the squad room I could see actually existing, it was in Baltimore not the Big Apple. I couldn’t really see a homicide squad room in America’s largest city contain only four detectives, a secretary and a captain. It never really made sense to me. The squad room in NYPD Blue reminded me more of a tree-house than a place where underpaid men kept a city safe from nefarious elements. Sure we got more nudity in NYPD Blue. A David Caruso butt-shot is a hard thing to forget. You can’t un-see that. Homicide didn’t need that. It could compel and shock us even in cheap suits and overcoats. A whiteboard covered with red ink, that’s how you kept score. It wasn’t with Andy Sipowicz’s miss-use of big words. Baltimore, not New York, is where I could smell the coffee and taste the cigarettes.

NYPD Blue’s roots stem from Hill Street Blues, and they were both created by Stephen Bochco. (Hill Street Blues was more like Homicide than its later counterpart.) I’m not trying to knock NYPD Blue. It got the ratings, and there’s a reason why. It was Homicide though, that earned the critical acclaim with its trend-setting, and laid the foundation for The Wire and The Shield.

Homicide‘s real roots didn’t grow in the soft earth of television pixels. They were cultivated in the hard potter’s clay of journalism.  Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon was looking for a reason to get out of newspaper journalism. His reasoning: “I got out of journalism because some sons of bitches bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun.He decided a book could be a good excuse. So he spent a year following the Baltimore Homicide Unit. The work he produced, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, was a unique and honest look at a profession that has been through the Hollywood ringer more than any other. “Just the facts, ma’am.”

The novel produced a television show. The name was changed to “Life on the Street” because NBC felt using the word “killing” in a show about murder would be crazy. Yes, “Life” makes so much more sense.  Simon became a writer and producer on the series – Homicide: Life on the Street. Later he would create The Wire. Are you beginning to see the influence?

Homicide shot its episodes on handheld 16MM cameras, and in Baltimore as opposed to a Hollywood backlot. It gave an aura of authenticity to the show. You weren’t watching a television show, you were watching a documentary. You could feel the cold Baltimore air on the detectives’ breaths and the watered down snow on their loafers. You could see the blood pooled in its dirty streets. You could hear the crabs cracking at Jimmy’s. Baltimore wasn’t a backdrop. It was so much more. It wasn’t just urban decay, it was a living, breathing organism that was both beautiful and ugly. It was a main character. The Wire took the character of Baltimore to new heights. But the city cut its acting chops in Homicide. Homicide is where it discovered that it had a voice.

Traditional cop shows solve their crimes in a single episode, the story arch is familiar. Dead body, case, case closed, late-night beer. Homicide, to NBC’s complete chagrin, opted to create its own arch. It was ground-breaking. It didn’t make for ratings-friendly television, but it did make for some of the most compelling television in history.  You mean to tell me detectives don’t always get the bad guy in an hour? We learned from the pilot of Homicide that the show was going to be different. Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is the new kid on the block and he looks the part. He looks like a 101st Airborne replacement, meanwhile the detectives around him have just finished storming Normandy.

Bayliss catches his first case, and it happens to be the murder of an 11-year old girl. He’s desperate to solve the case, but he can’t. Throughout the show, this case is his white whale. Bayliss develops into a great detective and builds a relationship with crotchety Frank Pembleton, who only wants to partner with Frank Pembleton. In spite of everything he cannot solve the murder of Adena Watson, and the reality nearly destroys his life. The fictional case, and the desperate detective behind it, was loosely based on a case Simon observed during his time with the Baltimore Homicide Unit

Homicide would have been much more successful today than it was 20 years ago. Remember it aired during a period before DVR and DVD. Cable was just beginning to come into its own. Homicide is not like Law and Order. You can’t miss last week’s episode and then dive into this week’s without a fear of having missed something important. Homicide would be a perfect show for the Netflix generation. It was born twenty years premature.

The historical relationship between NBC and Homicide will always be rocky. This makes sense. Homicide fans wanted their show, NBC wanted a whole lot of money. NBC premiered Homicide in the best place producers of the show could have asked for, following the Super Bowl. For the first two seasons NBC had Homicide on their Wednesday and then Thursday night schedules. By the third season it had been moved to Friday, where it would stay for the rest of its run. Let’s remember this was a time before DVR, Hulu, Netflix and DVD box sets. If you missed an episode’s on-air broadcast, it was very difficult to find a way to see it later. Friday nights were death for a TV show before those wonderful TV-geekdom devices were invented. Who watches TV on Friday nights except for old people and boys who can’t drive and still have a phobia of cooties? It’s not really the market advertisers are searching for.

I don’t think you can blame NBC. This is when the network owned broadcasting. It had Friends. It had Seinfeld. It had Frasier and Mad About You. It had ER. In 1993, Cheers was in its final season. Law and Order was just beginning to ramp up. Remember “Must See TV.” It was created in 1993, apparently that was a big year for the small box. Homicide wasn’t producing. Sure critics raved about the show. Hell, they gushed over it. But no one was tuning in. When you’re playing for the New York Yankees, you have to be able to hit a curve ball. It was a show before its time. You can’t blame the network that carried it for that. NBC gave it seven seasons, despite a threat of cancellation if the show could not out rate Nash Bridges (the absurdity of that is mind-boggling.) NBC gave the show cross-overs with the highly popular Law and Order, which in the end cheapened it. Although the cross-over episodes probably did help Detective John Munch pour himself a glass of Ice-T and join an SVU squad in New York. (Did you know it was Richard Belzer, in Scarface, who opened for the weird-looking clown at the Babylon? The one who sacrificed his life for Tony Montana. The More You Know…N—Bee—Cee). NBC even gave Homicide its own “movie.” Regardless, in the final seasons, Homicide began to lose a lot of the grit that made it so influential. It finished its run in 1999.

It was a show before it’s time. But I think about the state of network TV today. Homicide: Life on the Street would have been blessed to last a season on NBC today with the ratings it produced, despite the fact that the peacock has had its wings clipped. It would have done fine on cable. That’s where it belongs. It was a show before its time.

I wrote of Clark Johnson above. He played a memorable role on-screen in Homicide as Detective Meldrick Lewis. Yet it’s his work behind the camera that has helped connect Homicide, The Wire and The Shield. He directed five episodes of Homicide. He directed a handful of episodes of The Wire including the pilot and the series finale. He also directed seven episodes of The Shield including the pilot. (That’s the episode where Vic Mackey guns down Homicide alum Reed Diamond.) He has credits on many other influential TV shows including Law and Order: SVU, NYPD Blue, West Wing and even Homeland. David Simon credited him for keeping the tone of Homicide: Life on the Street consistent to its core. Maybe he took the Homicide playbook to other shows, and TV is all the better for it.

I was pleased to see Melissa Leo earn an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2010 for her role in The Fighter. When people speak of Homicide, they speak of Andre Braugher’s role as Detective Frank Pembleton. It’s easy to see why. Braugher was brilliant. But Leo’s Detective Kay Howard was just as important to the show. Howard is tough as nails, but you can see her devotion to her colleagues just below the surface. She struggles to hold together her partner Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) as he crumbles into alcoholism. She is the emotional catalyst of the show. Pembleton only cares about two people, himself and the bad guy he’s chasing. His fellow detectives are just people standing in his way. Howard’s the opposite. She adores her team and is there to comfort each member in times of strive. She is our eyes. Through her, we can see how working around death, and being responsible for its retribution, can be a mind-melting job. These are people who are surrounded by death at all times. They see the worst of humanity. It’s up to Howard to hold them together and pick them up when they fall.

Homicide was a show that was too far ahead of its time. Today we might have Talking Homicide, as we had Talking Bad. But maybe that’s the point. Without Homicide we wouldn’t have had The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad, or even The Bridge. Maybe the TV gods wanted it that way. I’m really not sure. They declined comment for this column. But as we watch the end of Breaking Bad or catch up with our DVD’s of The Wire, we ought to think of the show that laid the foundation for the dramas we love.

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