Nineteen years ago today, Homicide: Life on the Street premiered on NBC after the Superbowl. Executive produced by Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, Homicide aired nine episodes that season and another four the following year. Shot in grainy, desaturated footage on hand-held cameras, the NBC drama quietly revolutionized television by offering a more realistic approach to police procedurals. This show wasn’t as concerned about the cases or about showing cops as all-heroic figures chasing after the bad guys, but as prickly, sometimes unlikable human beings who cared as much about their overtime pay as putting down cases. Based on the nonfiction work Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon (who would go on to produce HBO’s The Wire and Treme), Homicide: Life on the Street survived for seven years despite low ratings and little Emmy recognition.
To be honest, I slept on this series during much of its run (though I did catch the last five minutes of that premiere episode). I didn’t get into it until I started catching late-night reruns on Court TV and became a fan. While the quality of the show waxed and waned during the later seasons, mostly due to network executive interference, it continued to be a pretty high mark in broadcast television.
I came up with a list of the ten best episodes from the show, which I will post intermittently over the next few months. These episodes I think are pretty good examples of how Homicide excelled at delivering great drama.
"Three Men & Adena," written by Tom Fontana, Directed by Martin Campbell. Air date: 3/3/93. NBC Home Entertainment. 1993.
The Adena Watson case, the sexual assault and murder of an eleven year old girl, would become the white whale for not only rookie detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), who was the primary on the case, but for the show as well. During its seven seasons, the writers would refer back to this case. Unlike other police procedurals, Adena Watson’s murder was never closed. This was the real genius of Homicide: it realistically addressed the fact that some cases are never solved, that some people really do get away with murder. During the first nine-episode season, the Adena Watson murder often crowded out other, equally compelling cases. It certainly became apparent to the writers that this case, along with the lead actors playing Bayliss and Det. Frank Pembleton (the always impeccable Andre Braugher) could deliver scintillating drama on the screen. Case in point: Three Men & Adena. Airing five weeks into the original run (it’s the sixth episode on the DVD set), Three Men & Adena is as exactly as its title implies: three men Dets. Bayliss and Pembleton and their prime suspect, Risley Tucker aka The Arabber (Moses Gunn’s final performance here, also equally compelling) are holed up in the box (the detectives’ clever name for the interrogation room). That’s it, the entire episode. And yet so much drama and action occurs in this enclosed anteroom. Both Bayliss and Pembleton try to force a confession out of the Arabber. Since they have no other evidence that will hold up in court to charge him with, they have exactly twelve hours to wring one out of him (the Arabber had been interviewed many times before and the law stipulated a limitation to the number of interviews detectives can subject a suspect without charging him with a crime, so both Pembleton and Bayliss were literally on the line with this one). The Arabber however proves to be a formidable opponent and, at one point even turns the tables on both detectives and starts reading their numbers.
The episode is a tour-de-force of television drama. Braugher, Secor, and Gunn are like jazz saxophonists here, playing in perfect harmony and yet capable of delivering great, improvisational solos. But what I love most about this episode is the ebbs and flows to the drama, the way the action and dramatic beats are paced to keep the episode from becoming melodramatic. Each dramatic flourish is carefully calibrated so that by the end of the episode you really feel as if twelve hours have passed and much ground has been covered and yet so very little has changed. Well, that’s not entirely true. While the detectives fail to get the confession they need to close this case, they have been changed by the experience, though not always for the better. The mercurial Pembleton, who never wanted a partner, realizes that for better or worse, Bayliss is his, and despite differences in style, attitude, and outlooks on being murder police, will become his rabbi. Eager and wet-behind-the-ears Bayliss has been wrung through his own crucible, one which will haunt him throughout the course of the series. Bayliss starts off certain that the Arabber did it, but by the end of the episode he is riddled with doubt, not only about The Arabber’s guilt but about his own skills as a detective. Since Bayliss is both the eyes and ears of the audience into this world, his doubts become our own. All the baggage we bring into police procedurals, all the cliches and expectations, are suddenly upended. Was the Arabber guilty? Was he innocent? Homicide never answers these questions. And here the show’s genius reveals itself again: Homicide was never interested in presenting clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong. The world it was creating was much grayer, less certain, but always compelling.
The episode has a lot in common with Twelve Angry Men, which got its start as a network drama in the 1950s before it was produced as a major film starring Henry Fonda. The drama relies on dialogue to move the action forward. And the dialogue here crackles with tension. While the show wasn’t lavished with many Emmy recognitions the way other lesser shows have during this period, it didn’t always go home empty-handed. Producer Tom Fontana, who wrote the episode, was awarded with Best Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Simon and the late David Mills also won an Emmy for writing the second-season episode Bop Gun, which will be reviewed later; and Braugher took home a Best Actor award as well).