Before HBO delivered the gritty, engrossing hopelessness of The Wire, the city of Baltimore starred in Homicide: Life on the Street (or Homicide, as it came to be known informally), one of the greatest drama series ever produced for U.S. television.
Based on the book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” by Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon, and co-produced by Baltimore native Barry Levinson, Homicide premiered on NBC in January of 1993 as a mid-season replacement series. NBC renewed Homicide for a second half-season in January of 1994 and then for four complete seasons from the fall of 1994 through the spring of 1999.
If you have never seen Homicide: Life on the Street – or if you have seen it, but not recently – I strongly recommend that you find Homicide on DVD or on YouTube, select your most comfortable chair and footrest, and settle in to immerse yourself in Homicide’s gripping and thought-provoking universe.
Here are eight reasons to give the series a try.
1. Fascinating Characters
Almost unique among police dramas, Homicide is character-driven. The show’s detectives necessarily collect evidence, interrogate suspects, and try to solve crimes, but as they do so the narratives and dialogue emphasize character development over police procedure.
Every character in Homicide, from the police department’s top brass to murder suspects, detectives, medical examiners, and city locals who serve as witnesses, is well-crafted and realistic. Excellent casting, acting, and writing work together to offer the audience detailed insights into the various personalities.
In this scene, two detectives wax philosophical about their work and their lives while on a stakeout in a suburban home.
Homicide is essentially modern-day Greek tragedy. Every character has believable flaws, and some have fatal flaws whose tragic consequences, artfully played out over many months, inevitably bring those characters down.
The series drives home the point that homicide detective work is hardly compatible with marriage. Of the 19 main characters’ 13 marriages, 10 have ended in divorce. Two characters have been widowed. Only one main character enjoys a successful marriage, and even his wife leaves him for a few months during the series. There are also four affairs among main-cast characters, at least two of which continued off-screen.
2. Gripping Stories
Whereas police procedural dramas usually focus on one story per week, most episodes of Homicide involve at least two interwoven plot lines that subtly complement one another by offering either opposite outcomes or contrasting comedy and tragedy. In some cases, plot lines coordinate with themes and events from the outside world, such as religious holidays or, for example, a real-life visit to Baltimore by the Pope.
Homicide broke with television precedent, and ran afoul of network bosses, by presenting some stories without happy endings. Every season includes at least one story of an unsolvable crime or a criminal who gets away with murder.
Practicing “show-don’t-tell” instead of the more polemical style embraced by other police dramas, Homicide addresses a wide variety of topics, including AIDS, police corruption, unhealed wounds from the Civil War, Black Muslims, African revival movements, serial murderers, the legacy of the Vietnam War, dangerous dogs, alcoholism, gender politics, child physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and myriad of thorny questions related to race. Real 1980s and 1990s crime stories pepper the series (in disguise), including the Jonbenet Ramsey case and the Gianni Versace murder. Several episodes relate to the drug trade, but drugs are refreshingly not the show’s central theme (cf. The Wire).
Here, the mother of a murder victim becomes friendly with the mother of his young killer before either of them realizes the relationship of the other the tragedy that has engulfed her son.
3. Outstanding Scripts
One of the greatest film scripts of all time, James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, succeeds in part by breaking scenes of wrenching emotional anguish with perfectly timed moments of hilarity. Homicide adopts a similar model. Artful scriptwriting advances character development, promotes verisimilitude, and provides moments of very welcome humor. Here are just a few examples (from IMDb and Wikiquote).
Det. Stan Bolander: Sometimes I wanna call my wife just to hear the sound of her voice. But I know that five minutes into that phone call, my blood pressure is going through the roof, the phone is sailing across the room and I’m wishing that she’s on a plane falling out of the sky. It’s over. I know it’s over. But I had to replace six telephones before I, I really got the hint.
Det. Bayliss: Frank, I work with you, not for you.
Det. Pembleton: Excuse me?
Det. Bayliss: You never say please, you never say thank you.
Det. Pembleton: Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.
Dr. Julianna Cox, CME: Don’t you even wonder why?
Det. John Munch: Why what?
Dr. Julianna Cox, CME: Why he lied.
Det. John Munch: I’m a homicide detective. The only time I wonder why is when they tell me the truth.
Det. John Munch: The only thing I have in common with Judaism is we both don’t like to work on Saturdays.
Det. Frank Pembleton: You know, sometimes you’re funny. Then there’s now.
Medical Examiner: Another drug dealer. Collect all thirteen in the series, win a set of dishes.
Det. Stan Bolander: Live stupid, die young.
Det. John Munch: From the tracks on his arms, large caliber wound, proximity to a heroin market… I’d say it was a heated dispute about the symbolism of red and blue in 18th-century French romantic poetry.
J.H. Brodie: Well, you’re a girl. A woman. A woman. A woman with wild red hair. I can’t stay with you.
Sgt. Kay Howard: What are you afraid of? I’m going to chain you to the bedpost and cover you with butter?
J.H. Brodie: Only thing is, I know that you won’t.
Det. Steve Crosetti: Either it’s murder, or this library has a very strict overdue policy.
Det. John Munch: Name one miracle that’s happened in your lifetime.
Det. Stan Bolander: How ’bout the fact that I haven’t killed you yet?
Det. Meldrick Lewis: Remember kids, don’t just say no to drugs, say “No, thank you.”
Lt. Giardello: Bayliss, where’s Pembleton?
Det. Bayliss: Uh, I don’t know, Gee.
Lt. Giardello: Don’t say, “I don’t know.” He’s your partner, you should know his every move, his every breath. Like a lover, he should never be far from your thoughts.
Det. Bayliss: That was poetic.
Giardello: I’m in no mood for sarcasm.
Det. Lewis: Nothin’s missing, so I guess we can rule out a robbery, huh?
Det. Pembleton: We don’t guess, Meldrick, we hypothesize. We infer. We extrapolate from the evidence. We do not guess.
Det. Lewis: Go easy on me, would you, Frank? It’s early in the morning, I haven’t had my first donut yet.
Detective: Doesn’t that stick in your craw?
Det. John Munch: I took the liberty of having my craw removed years ago so that I could sleep at night.
Det. Lewis: A member of the Baltimore City Police Department, Homicide unit, used the word ‘Wow’ on a crime scene?
Det. Munch: You know, Stanley, this woman, you gotta respect her. Why she goes out with you, I’ll never know. As far as I’m concerned, your good fortune hangs right there with the great mysteries of life, right alongside the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel and the true meaning to the lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
Det. Tim Bayliss: Homicide, sweet homicide.
4. Superb Acting
Homicide’s ensemble cast is excellent throughout the series’ run in spite of frequent personnel changes. New characters blend seamlessly into the cast by virtue of great writing and acting and strong chemistry among the performers.
Most of actors in Homicide were relative unknowns when the series was produced. Several, including Melissa Leo, Andre Braugher, Clark Johnson, Kyle Secor, Reed Diamond, Callie Thorne, Jon Seda, Toni Lewis, Giancarlo Esposito, and Erik Todd Dellums, made their reputations on Homicide and subsequently enjoyed great success. Stand-up comedian Richard Belzer has built his recent career out of playing his Homicide character, John Munch, in several other television series, including Law and Order: SVU.
Here we get to see the ensemble in action as the detectives explain their interrogation procedures for a squad room documentary.
Detectives Meldrick Lewis and Terri Stivers demonstrate those interrogation techniques in an interview with charming and utterly ruthless drug lord Luther Mahoney, the series’ most infamous criminal.
5. Camerawork and Editing
A visual trademark of Homicide is the use of a single, hand-held camera. This places the audience in the middle of the action and imparts a sense of (at times claustrophobic) immediacy.
In the later seasons, key plot moments are repeated percussively one or more times to enhance dramatic tension.
Here, the moving camera invites viewers into this confrontation between Det. Meldrick Lewis and Luther Mahoney in a neighborhood bar owned by three of the squad’s detectives.
Since Homicide was required to abide by mid-1990s network TV standards, the series builds its dramatic tension without the relentless barrage of strong language and the graphic sex and violence characteristic of more recent brilliant dramas such as Deadwood, Mad Men, The Wire, Homeland, and House of Cards. The subtlety born from those restrictions renders Homicide both enthralling and easier than more recent series to watch.
The city of Baltimore is a vivid character in every episode of Homicide. The show’s writers carefully weave into their stories idiosyncratic traits of Baltimore’s culture, such as crab feasts, duck pin bowling, Ft. McHenry, the city’s Canadian Football League team and later the NFL’s Ravens, Edgar Allen Poe, the Orioles baseball team, Chesapeake Bay fishermen, the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, hillbilly influence, and diner waitresses who call all of their customers, “Hon.”
The series’ casting of small parts is excellent. The production uses local actors, ensuring that most of the bit players deliver their lines in the region’s distinctive and nearly inimitable accent.
Every episode of Homicide is introduced musically by a minimalist percussive theme in a minor key, which occasionally reappears to mark the show’s dramatic moments but generally remains in the background. Most of the series’ incidental tunes are vocals by contemporary artists, some of whom are relative unknowns. Throughout its run, Homicide makes effective use of musical montages to advance plot lines and to develop its characters.
This montage follows detectives from their quiet squadroom New Years Eve party to a variety of murder scenes and work sites.
This poignant episode-ending montage shows three different men who are grieving for a murdered woman and depicts Det. John Munch’s reconciliation with his Jewish heritage.
Homicide: Life on the Street maintained superb quality all the way to the end of its seventh and final season. A masterpiece of series drama, it stands up to multiple viewings and never ceases to be entertaining.
I strongly recommend that you check it out.
Quotes for Today
Det. Tim Bayliss: Fourteen years old… When I was fourteen, jeez, I was in the ninth grade, and I don’t remember much of what I was doing, but I know I was nowhere close to picking up a gun and shooting another kid.
Det. Frank Pembleton: How old should our shooter be?
Det. Tim Bayliss: Not fourteen.
Det. Frank Pembleton: So if he’s what, fifteen, sixteen years old, it makes any more sense?
Det. Tim Bayliss: No.
Det. Frank Pembleton: How old should he be then? What’s the cut off age? Seventeen? Eighteen?
Det. Tim Bayliss: I don’t know, but not fourteen.
Det. Frank Pembleton: When you find out, clue me in, awright? I’d like to know when any of this killing, at any age, from six to sixty, makes any sense. One time I want to hear about a murder that makes sense. Just one time. For any reason.