Hill Street Blues revolutionized the way viewers experienced the police drama on TV. No longer was it just about buddy cops as seen on Dragnet or Streets of San Francisco. There could be more to a police unit show than having most of the characters be two-dimensional and interchangeable such as Hawaii Five-O or S.W.A.T. Hill Street Blues brought out so much depth in characters and plots. Even after Hill Street revolutionized the game, most new cop shows stuck with the traditional way since it involved less actors in the opening credits. Homicide: Life On the Street recaptured what Hill Street viewers wanted in the winter of 1993. This wasn’t a clone since instead of an entire precinct, the series focused on the homicide detectives.
The series was based on David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets that documented his time covering Baltimore’s homicide detectives. If his name sounds familiar that’s because he created HBO’s The Wire. The story goes that Simon gave Barry Levinson (Rain Man), a copy of the book in hopes it could be a movie. But why reduce a year to two hours? Barry and Tom Fontana (future creator of Oz) brought their production to NBC as their big quality show with a serious cast. This wasn’t merely good guys with guns taking out the bad guys. Homicide cops show up after the bullets to piece things together.
The Baltimore homicide squad is led by Lt. Al Giardello’s (Alien‘s Yaphet Kotto) who does his best to keep the unsolved rate low. Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is the rookie who nobody has faith in simply because he’s coming off a political detail and not off the streets. He gets assigned to work with Detective Frank Pembleton (Brooklyn 99‘s Andre Braugher) which doesn’t work well. Pembleton has his way of working and teaching the new guy isn’t part of it. Detective Stanley Bolander (Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty) and John Munch (Law & Order: SVU‘s Richard Belzer) are a tandem of two divorced guys who enjoy mixing it up while driving to crime scenes. Detective Kay Howard (The Fighter‘s Melissa Leo) is the only woman on the squad and finds her self dealing with how to remain professional while other flirt. Her partner Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) seems to have enough problems without carrying on a workplace romance. Although his wife suspects since he talks a lot about Kay. Detective Steve Crosetti (Barton Fink‘s Jon Polito) is obsessed with the Lincoln assassination while his partner Meldrick Lewis (The Wire‘s Clark Johnson) is making his Shelby Cobra while tracking down leads.
The first season is only 9 episodes long and plays what we now experience on pay channel series. “Gone for Goode” throws Bayliss into the deep end when his first case as primary is one the media jumps on. He doesn’t even have a desk in the squad room. He’s writing his paperwork on the water cooler. He gets a fast education on the streets of Baltimore. The shows have an intensity even without characters constantly pulling out their service weapons. “Three Men and Adena” has Bayliss and Pembleton doing their best to crack a suspect. Nearly all of the episode is in the crucible of the interrogation room as they pull out all the stops to get a confession. The intensity is off the charts compared to most cop shows that would have played it out before the commercial break.
Another way Homicide differed from Hill Street was location. Hill Street Blues was set in an imaginary city that might have been Pittsburgh, but was shot in Los Angeles. Homicide is all about Baltimore. During its seven season run, the cameras and cast roamed all over Charm City like a John Waters tour bus. At some point, every neighborhood must have had crime scene tape and chalk body outlines decorating the streets. I met an independent filmmaker who said that if you ever got nabbed by the cops for filming in Fells Point without a shooting permit, all you had to say was that you were shooting B-roll for Homicide and they backed off. In a way, Homicide primed the city for its future close ups in The Wire and Ace of Cakes.
Homicide was not a rating’s hit. NBC only ordered four episodes for a second season. This is rather unusual, but it did allow the producers to focus on four powerful episodes with major stars including Robin Williams. The short run was given the sweet spot of Thursday night at 10 p.m. where L.A. Law reruns would have gone. The network gave the series a full order for the third season, but wanted changes including the arrival of Detective Megan Russert (Isabella Hofmann) to have a second woman on the show. The executive must have pointed out that NYPD Blue had more females and a higher rating. This meant that Jon Polito was getting bumped out of a lead role. While they promised to bring him back, he took his beef to the press. This lead to the producers killing off his character off camera. This stunk since Baldwin quit the show at the end of the season. But dead homicide cops can’t close cases. Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) arrived from Arson to take over the empty desk. The worst part of the third season was that Homicide was stuck in the deathly time slot of 10 p.m. on Fridays. But in a strange twist of miracles, it survived there for five seasons. The show garnered numerous Emmy nominations and trophies for the network to make up for low ratings. The good part is the series was able to last nearly as long as Hill Street Blues.
The series predicted the rise of having rather well known movie directors working on TV dramas which is not common on HBO & Showtime series. Having Oscar winner Barry Levinson (Diner) on the creative side and directing the pilot made it inviting versus stooping to visit Baltimore and call “action!” Among the well known directors are Martin Campbell (Goldeneye), Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity), Michael Lehmann (Heathers), John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Ted Demme (Blow), Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear), Peter Medak (The Ruling Class), Michael Radford (Il Postino), Whit Stillman (Last Days of Disco), Barbara Kopple (American Dream), Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn), Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), Mary Harron (American Psycho), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Brad Anderson (Session 9), Joe Berlinger (Some Kind of Monster), Miguel Arteta (Cedar Rapids) and others. The show even allowed named actors to helm episodes including Tim Van Patten (Class of 1984), Bruno Kirby (This Is Spinal Tap), Peter Weller (Robocop), Kathy Bates (Misery) and Steve Buscemi (Ghost World).
Homicide isn’t the early years of The Wire. There’s no detectives that are easily seen getting ready to go after Stringer Bell. Although John Munch left for New York City to last another 16 seasons on Law & Order: SVU. The character that does get carried over is Baltimore. You get a sense of what is lurking on the streets jammed with row houses. This isn’t just a few clips of B-role to make people think they’re getting authentic flavor on screen. This is a cast smashing crabs in a real Baltimore crab shack. Levinson wisely ends the first season giving us John Waters, Baltimore’s most famous citizen working behind the bar.
Homicide: Life on the Street – The Complete Series is the perfect show to watch on DVD since the episodes do feel a touch connective so you want to watch them in order. You don’t want to have to depend on a cable channel not screwing up. Plus you get the Law & Order crossovers in the boxset. The show runs better when you don’t have to let the action get busted up by commercials. Once you get into the show, you don’t want to take a break until the end credits roll. Homicide was a great police series in the ’90s that remains compelling TV.
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The series was shot on Super 16mm to allow the camera to be more mobile while shooting on location. This means the transfers are a bit soft. The audio is Dolby Digital Stereo.
Homicide Life At the Start (10:37) interviews Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana. They remind us that the pilot aired after the Super Bowl so it had a big launch. Barry liktioned the idea that there would be unsolved crimes. Tom bought onto the show when Barry promised it would be a cop show without gun fights and car chases. NBC gave them the greenlight for 6 episodes instead of just a single pilot.
Audio Commentaries on one episode series with The Cast & Crew
Homicide: Life In Season 3 (14:27) interviews Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Henry Bromell, David Simon and James Yoshimura about the first full season of the series. There’s talk of Henry Bromell coming along to co-produce and write scripts.
Homicide: Life In Season 4 (17:25) features interviews with Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Henry Bromell, David Simon, And James Yoshimura about the changes and challenges in bringing new characters.
Inside Homicide (12:27) interviews David Simon and James Yoshimura. Simon went from a newspaper reporter to a TV sensation thanks to this show.
“Anatomy Of A Homicide” (70:57) breaks down the episode “The Subway” This was based on true tales of people who get pushed between a subway train and the platform. They show how the story was inspired by HBO’s Taxicab Confessions.
Live Panel Discussion (58:01) with Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, James Yoshimura and David Simon covers more stories about the series.
Law & Order Crossover Episodes are three different times the characters ventured into Dick Wolf territory.
Homicide: The Movie is 2000 Television Movie that allowed the show to wrap up a few loose ends and reunite the cast for one last case.
Shout! Factory presents Homicide: Life On the Street – The Complete Series. Starring: Andre Braugher, Melissa Leo, Ned Beatty, Kyle Secor and Yaphet Kotto. Boxset Contents: 122 episodes on 35 DVDs. Released: July 4, 2017.
Tags: Homicide: Life On the Street, John Waters, The Wire