Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bop Gun - Homicide: Life on the Street

This review is a series of reviews of the ten best episodes of the 1990s TV drama Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Bop Gun, Story by Tom Fontana, Teleplay by David Mills and David Simon, Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. Aired 1/6/1994. NBC Home Entertainment. 1994.

"(Endangered species) Shoot them with the bop gun" -- Parliament/Funkadelic.

NBC ordered 9 episodes of the series Homicide: Life on the Street mid-season in 1993. When it showed moderate success in the ratings following its Super Bowl premiere, the network ordered 4 more, which it aired the next year. Considered its second season, these 4 episodes moved away from the de-saturated, grainy look of the year before, but kept the gritty realism that made the show a departure from other police procedurals. "Bop Gun," which was supposed to end the truncated season, instead opened it, mainly because of its guest-starring turn with comedian and actor Robin Williams. NBC executives had a habit of switching episode air dates beginning the previous year when they took the episode "Night of the Dead Living" out of its third episode line-up for fear that its unconventional storytelling (on a hot day, the detectives sit around the squad room, chewing the fat about this or that) would scare off potential viewers. They'd not only continue to interfere with the show’s air dates, but with the cast and stories as well. Still, during the second season, the series continued to maintain its gritty vision with "Bop Gun."

"Bop Gun" was written by the late David Mills, a former journalist for the Washington Post, and David Simon, whose book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets about his year spent in the Baltimore homicide department, became the basis for the series. This pedigree lends to surprising and interesting details about homicide investigations and its effects on all those involved. Dets. Kay Howard and Beau Felton investigate the murder of a young mother who was mugged and killed while touring Baltimore with her family. Unlike most police procedurals, which would focus on the investigation throughout show's running time, the detectives quickly arrest the young man responsible. Most of the episode, however, examines the emotional maelstrom the victims’ husband, Robert Ellison (Robin Williams), and his children (a young Jake Gyllenhaal plays his son Matt) experience. Williams, whose manic acting style has put off viewers, dials it down in this episode. He does a masterful job of portraying a man who is grieving for the sudden and violent death of his wife and his powerlessness to protect her even after death. When Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) jokes with his colleagues about how the red ball case (cases that the higher brass consider important enough to expend the department’s entire manpower and resources to investigate) will give him overtime pay, Ellison angrily demands that Felton be taken off the case. Williams presents Ellison as a man who is desperate to assert himself in any way no matter how fruitless to overcome the impotence he feels in his failure to protect his family. He bristles with a barely restrained anger and hostility that only lends to more frustration since his anger is directed mostly toward himself. You sense a man who wishes he could be as tough and heartless as the men who killed his wife, but knows all too well that even if he had a gun in his possession, as he suggests in another scene with Det. Bayliss when he asks to hold his gun, that he wouldn’t have had the courage to pull the trigger. As he tells Felton during the photograph line-up when he’s unable to pick out the perpetrators:

I bet if someone murdered your wife you’d remember all the faces, wouldn’t you? But I’m just an average guy; all I remember is the gun. I just stood there, staring at it. I just stood there and watched them kill my wife.

He fears that in the end he is a coward and that his own son knows this as well as he does.

The rest of the episode addresses Kay Howard’s (Melissa Leo) refusal to accept that the man who was arrested for the homicide, Vaughn Perkins (Lloyd Goodman), was indeed the perpetrator. Too much about the case---the fact that he didn’t have any major priors on his record and his remorse---doesn’t gel so, after asking for shift commander Lt. Al Giardello’s (Yaphet Kotto) permission, decides to do a shadow investigation to uncover the truth. Howard is less concerned with how, but why. This is a theme that runs throughout the series: the idea that investigating the motivations of the crimes won’t get you any closer to solving murders or will offer any satisfactory answers about why the killing happened in the first place. Much of Tim Bayliss’s stories focused on his obsession with understanding why. Here, Howard, who is the lone female investigator in the homicide unit, is the first one to obsesses over this question. Why would Vaughn, who was raised in a good home by an aunt and uncle and had all the advantages to succeed in life, so willingly squander these opportunities? Yet Vaughn’s life, fraught with the tragedy of losing his father to murder and coping with a mother with a drug habit, is anything but simple. Still, his older brother, who went through the same struggles as Vaughn, successfully avoided the traps Vaughn fell into. Howard’s investigation only leads to more questions and the inevitability of Vaughn’s guilt. When she meets him one last time in hold up, he admits to her about what happened in those seconds before tragedy struck. Hoping he could protect everyone from getting hurt, he instead became disoriented as the situation grew out of hand. Here, the episode presents a dichotomy. Whereas Ellison is powerless to protect his family, Vaughn is likewise powerless over events that quickly spin out of his control.

In the end, both men are caught in a situation where neither has control over their actions and are struggling to deal with the aftermath of what they did or didn't do. Both characters pull together themes that subtly give "Bop Gun" its emotional power---themes about masculinity and fatherhood (Robert and Matt; Vaughn and his deceased father) and how the boundaries of what define each have become blurred in a world where violence has become the only unambiguous definition of what it means to be a man.

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