Friday, February 24, 2012

"Crosetti" - Homicide: Life on the Street

"Crosetti," Teleplay by James Yoshimura, Story by Tom Fontana & James Yoshimura, Directed by Whitney Ransick. Air date: 12/2/94. NBC Home Entertainment. 1994-1995.

Jon Polito and Clark Johnson
Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) from Homicide: Life on the Street was as far removed as possible from anything seen on primetime TV, certainly not in most police procedurals. He wasn’t a hunk. He was older, fat, balding, and complained endlessly about his ex-wife and daughter. He also had a fetish for jazz and Lincoln assassination conspiracies. He, like Ned Beatty’s Det. Stan Bolander and Yaphet Kotto’s Lt. Al Giardello, was the elder statesman on the show, less defined by his superior detective skills and more by his crankiness. He was a man who’d seen enough and wasn’t having much of it.

Homicide: Life on the Street distinguished itself with its characters. During its later seasons, under pressure from network execs to add more telegenic actors to its cast, the show started to resemble more of the police procedurals it was trying to depart from. This move away from seasoned performers who looked reasonably like homicide detectives and more toward eye candy was telegraphed early on with the firing of actor Jon Polito.

Now, there are plenty of stories out there about why exec producer Tom Fontana let Polito go. I won’t go into any of them because that's so much water under the bridge. However, the firing of Polito did two things to the show---one unfortunate and the other quite brilliant. When Polito was let go, Fontana decided to use that as an occasion to deliver one of the finest hours of primetime ever.

“Crosetti” was the sixth episode in the lineup during the third season, though it was originally meant to be the fourth episode. I mentioned before that network executives would often toy with air dates and, in this one episode, their interference also made for very confusing storytelling. In short Steve Crosetti commits suicide. Audiences learned of his death before the episode aired in “A Model Citizen.” The DVD set corrects this error by placing “Crosetti” in the exact lineup that the showrunners intended, but I can only imagine the confusion the actual air dates caused for viewers at the time.

Crosetti’s death comes as a surprise. Nothing in the episodes prior to “Crosetti” foreshadows this. In fact, in the three-parter episode which opened the season---“Nearer My God to Thee,” “Fits Like a Glove,” and “Extreme Unction”---Crosetti is only mentioned in passing.

The episode opens with a sequence of the Coast Guard pulling a body out of the water. The scene is underscored with Buddy Guy’s version of “On the Waterfront.” This haunting sequence sets the mood for what will follow. Dets. Bolander and John Munch (Richard Belzer) arrive on the docks to investigate. Right off Munch calls the death a suicide. Though his instincts prove correct from the start, they nonetheless draw the divide that will occur between Stan and Crosetti’s partner, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson).

“Crosetti” is in fact, more about Lewis than it is about Crosetti. The reason for Crosetti’s suicide remains a mystery, as it is often the case. And just like many sudden deaths, the living is left with the responsibility of processing it all. Crosetti’s sudden passing hangs a dark cloud over the unit, but Lewis feels the impact most brutally. When Giardello delivers the news, it’s apparent that he is emotionally crushed. He quickly goes into denial and seeks out another explanation for the death. For a homicide detective, the explanation is clear: Crosetti was the victim of foul play. Lewis’s reaction might not make sense. A seasoned detective might be more willing to look at the facts as they exist. But the show set up Lewis’s worldview early on in the second season episode “See No Evil.” When Det. Beau Felton’s friend is questioned by Lewis and Crosetti for the mercy killing of his father (played by an always gruff Wilford Brimley), Felton asks Lewis to look past the evidence and drop the case. Lewis’s response is matter-of-fact: “You go when you’re supposed to go, and everything else is homicide.” To accept that his partner may have committed suicide goes far beyond what Lewis comprehends of the world.

Determined to protect his partner’s reputation, Lewis asks Giardello to let him investigate the case. Giardello nixes that idea (Bolander is the primary), but allows Lewis to do his own side investigation. Lewis doesn’t so much investigate but interferes by stifling Bolander's investigation with Crosetti's family and friends. Though Bolander is certain that Crosetti committed suicide, he is nonetheless willing to investigate the case as thoroughly as any that comes across his desk. In fact, Bolander’s insistence on treating Crosetti’s death as any case causes friction between the detectives.

Gee isn’t exactly thrilled that Crosetti’s death may go down as a suicide either. As shift commander, he often runs interference between his squad and the brass, whose politicking stands in the way of good leg work from his detectives. When Capt. Barnfather (Clayton LeBeouf) shoots down the idea of an honor guard at Crosetti’s funeral (Crosetti’s death wasn’t the only recent suicide in the police force), Gee is faced with the prospect of what such a mark on Crosetti's record might mean. Barnfather, on the other hand, is circumspect. When reminded of the previous suicide, in which a detective slashed his wrists in a hotel bathtub, he replies, “What’s to get upset about. He knew when he did it we’d find him like that.” The brass is rather heartless in its concern for PR, but their reaction isn’t really that far removed from Gee’s or Lewis’s. Everybody is concerned about appearances, willing to smooth over the truth to soothe his own fears. Even Munch, who called the death a suicide before he learned who the victim was, is willing to entertain the idea of murder. Crosetti’s actions defy appearances as well. As Lewis would later admit to Bolander, even he was unaware of Crosetti's pain.

While Lewis and Bolander clash over the investigation, the rest of the detectives plan the funeral. Pembleton (Andre Braugher) whose Catholic faith was severely tested in the three-parter season premiere, refuses to attend the service. He has no interest in stepping inside another Catholic church again (while it isn't directly stated Crosetti was also Catholic given that he was Italian). Crosetti’s suicide only compounds his lack of faith in a God that will allow evil to flourish. The rest of the squad reacts as usual to his grandstanding. They're more preoccupied with supporting their fallen colleague. How will it look when Pembleton doesn’t show up for the funeral? However Pembleton is less concerned with appearances than he is with hypocrisy. After having been smitten with the truth, he cannot very well deny that truth than he can deny being a cop. In the end Pembleton is still struggling with his Jesuit upbringing.

There are two scenes in “Crosetti” which really stand out. The first involves Lewis when he finally realizes that his friend and partner committed suicide. Johnson does a superb job with Lewis's break down. He is a subtle actor whose naturalism fits perfectly with the show’s aesthetic. Check out his performance in “The City That Bleeds” when Gee breaks down over the shooting of three of his detectives. Johnson doesn’t say or do very much but listens and lets Kotto take center stage. He is a true player who is thoroughly engaged with the material even when he is asked to support his cast mates.

The second compelling scene occurs at the end with Pembleton when he honors Crosetti in his unique way. Pembleton’s act reveals that he has more respect for Crosetti as both a person and detective than he does for his faith or for that matter the higher-ups. Here duty becomes more than just an obligation to appearances but one that speaks truthfully to how he feels. This scene more than enough sets up the many contradictions and complexities that makes Pembleton such a fascinating character.

Both of these scenes elevate “Crosetti” from a good episode to a brilliant one. I should also throw out praise to scriptwriter James Yoshimura, who would go on to write the equally compelling and intelligent episodes “Every Mother’s Son” and “Subway,” both of which appear on my list of all-time greats. Yoshimura is able to delve deeply into the psyche of these characters and mine truths that often go unnoticed in primetime television.

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