The box. The board. Red balls. Adena Watson. If the preceding makes immediate sense to you, then you're likely a fan of Homicide: Life on the Street, the critically beloved (it won a remarkable three Peabody Awards during its run) police drama that was under the constant threat of cancellation during its seven-season run on NBC. Case in point: although it premiered in the highly coveted post-Super Bowl slot in 1993, Homicide's first season consisted of only nine episodes; its second season consisted of merely four, due to immediately disappointing ratings. The release of the first two seasons on DVD is certainly great news for fans of the show. It's also good news for those previously unacquainted, as Homicide: Life on the Street remains one of the finest network programs of the nineties (certainly during its initial seasons), and one of the most ambitious police dramas in the medium's history - hell, even the show's theme music is compelling.
Based on the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, Homicide was concerned equally with the intensely psychological and the ridiculously mundane. Some of the most gripping episodes and sequences were elicited from sessions within "the box," or the interrogation room, where intensity and gamesmanship were often taken to morally ambiguous, queasy extremes during "red balls," or extremely high profile cases. (The Emmy winning episode Three Men and Adena, included in Season One, is set entirely in "the box," and is likely to remain in the mind long after having seen it; more questionable tactics are used in Black & Blue from Season Two, another standout included in this collection.) The daily grind and the toll it renders on the otherwise unremarkable detectives is certainly less flashy, but no less telling – the divorces and relationship problems, the endless cigarette smoking, the almost comical white Chevy Cavaliers issued, the repartee in the bars after the shift has ended. Homicide worked so well because it felt authentic in both its look and its humanity – like its characters, it was smart, gritty, and funny, somehow aware of the long-term importance of the work at hand as well as its (at times) seeming futility. No matter how many cases they solved (or excellent episodes its team produced), the struggle was constant and nearly overwhelming, and there was always another high profile case (or program) waiting in the wings.
Set in Baltimore, Homicide was considered both technically innovative and unusually dark (both literally and figuratively) for its time. As conceived by Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, and Paul Attanasio, Homicide was shot entirely on Super 16mm with hand-held cameras, which gave it a raw, unpolished look. It also employed editing techniques borrowed from the French New Wave in the form of jump cuts, which added another jarring effect to an already uncharacteristic show by U.S. network television standards. (Although some of the techniques seem commonplace now, they were considered bold at the time.) Lastly, Homicide was racially and ethnically diverse, perfectly cast mixing recognizable faces (Ned Beatty, Yaphet Kotto, John Polito, and Richard Belzer) with lesser known ones (Kyle Secor, Clark Johnson, Andre Braugher, Melissa Leo, and Daniel Baldwin). The casting instincts and gambit succeeded brilliantly – Homicide's roster supplied the type of dynamic that rendered car chases and the like wholly insipid and uninspired.
Homicide's presentation of "life on the street" was also uncommonly mature and rich. Its detectives are flawed and recognizable, diligent and driven to often dangerous extremes. The moral, social, and economic implications of certain cases were similarly afforded the complexity they deserved. Black and Blue, which deals with a police shooting of a possibly unarmed African American civilian, is an excellent example: the episode's racial implications are myriad, complex, and expertly handled. Degrees of bullying and matters of race are also apparent in the dramatically charged Three Men and Adena. The detectives, too, are not exempt from exhibiting such behavior among their own – they openly challenge each other as to matters of race, implicit in everything from choice of clothing to individual methodologies. I can think of no other program at the time (or even currently) that dealt so forthrightly - and honestly - with the subject, both at the fore and as a constant, often troubling subtext. All of this takes place under the looming "board" (names in red representing unsolved homicides; black solved), acting as an unforgiving and humbling conscience, capable of both praise and damnation, and never, ever blinking. None of the above, I should note, is presented in an awkwardly overt fashion, as Homicide's writers never insulted their cultivated audience by taking the bait to preach or posture – this was television writing at its apex, plain and simple.
The episodes presented in Seasons One and Two are almost all good to flat out excellent, with the notable exception of Night of the Dead Living, which was originally aired far out of sequence and is presented here as episode three (this release has been assembled in the chronology that the creators originally intended). Night takes place on a very hot evening, with all of the major characters suffering from the effects of a broken air conditioner and a slow work shift. The result (never one of my favorites) is one of the few instances where Homicide faltered in its early incarnation - the banter does not gel with the ease it does in other episodes, and the lack of focus is obvious (it's also readily apparent why NBC decided to bump it). That aside, fans will recognize the remarkable skill in which very long story arcs are presented in these initial episodes – Bayliss' (Secor) obsession with the Watson case (the specter of which looms over him and the series for years to come) and his sexual exploration; Pembleton's (Braugher) vacillation between accepting the viewpoints and assistance of others and his rugged, arrogant individualism; Giardello's (Kotto) constant frustration with his superiors, especially Capt. Barnfather; Felton's (Baldwin) trouble with his wife and children, and the toll it will exact on his job performance, etc.
The first two seasons also boasted a stellar group of supporting players and guest roles. Included in this set are appearances by Moses Gunn (Three Men and Adena); Luis Guzman (Son of a Gun); Lee Tergesen and Edie Falco (Ghost of a Chance, Son of a Gun, a Shot in the Dark, a Dog and Pony Show); Julianna Margulies (Black and Blue, a Many Splendored Thing); Isaiah Washington (Black and Blue); Wilford Brimley (See No Evil); Steve Harris (Gone for Goode); Jake Gyllenhaal and Robin Williams (Bop Gun), and Zeljko Ivanek in a recurring role as ASA Danvers. Interestingly, Homicide also featured its fair share of curious pop cultural references in the realms of film and music: note references to Jean-Luc Godard (both literally and figuratively, since jump cuts were famously featured in his Á bout de souffle), film noir, Orson Welles, and Ingmar Bergman; two suspects are named Lane (sic) Staley and Chris (sic) Novoselic (apparently, some of the writers enjoyed early nineties grunge); Bop Gun borrows the title of an Ice Cube song featuring George Clinton, and the main suspect's name is "Kid Funkadelic," even though the song is not used in the episode. Moreover, I can only wonder what Montel Williams thought of the opening episode, although I imagine that Larry King was quite pleased.
• Gone for Goode
• a Ghost of a Chance
• the Night of the Dead Living
• Son of a Gun
• a Shot in the Dark
• Three Men and Adena
• a Dog and Pony Show
• And the Rockets Dead Glare
• Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
• See No Evil
• Black and Blue
• a Many Splendored Thing
• Bop Gun
Video: Presented in full-frame (as it originally aired), Homicide is given a decent - if not spectacular - transfer. As the show was shot using hand-held cameras on Super 16mm, it generally appears (consciously) rough and unpolished. Its cinematography was conceived with a darkened, drab color palette in mind, and accordingly, very little color is ever allowed to creep into the picture. Shots captured during daylight and in the squad room appear quite good; the nighttime sequences (although intentionally quite dark) suffer from graininess, but given the overall presentation of the show itself, this is one of those instances where it is truly not overly distracting. There is also occasional evidence of source print damage and debris, but it is sporadic and again not too distracting. In any event, it certainly beats my old VHS tapes taken from the original airings and Court TV marathons.
Audio: Homicide is presented in DD 2.0 stereo, and the mix is adequately rendered. An almost entirely dialogue driven show that used music sparingly, but effectively, Homicide also used the occasional aural flourish (a whooshing sound similar to its theme) to punctuate essential moments in the narrative. Dialogue is crisp and easy to hear, which - for a show such as this - has to be the key concern. Again, nothing special but perfectly adequate. There are no subtitles available, although careful inspection of the individual cases will reflect a few unfortunate typos – note Yaphet "Koto" (sic) and director Chris "Menual" (sic).
Extras: Each disc of the four-disc Homicide set offers extras, as follows:
Disc One: There is a commentary track for the first episode, Gone for Goode, with Executive Producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana. The two note from the outset that it has been some time since they have seen this entry, but they quickly begin relating their desires and experience with the program in general, as well as in individual scenes. Their comments range from informative (such as how they got all those Chevy Cavaliers) to comical (they note that although the show retained "Super Bowl" ratings in Baltimore, they "couldn't get arrested in Chattanooga"). Preparation, however, often goes a long way, and the two could have made better use of their limited time.
There are also two ads for the series' premiere that were used during the Super Bowl, and cast and crew biographies.
Disc Two: Included is Homicide: Life at the Start, which includes interviews with Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana (10:51), in which they discuss the inception of the program, its aesthetic choices, and its overall mood (no car chases, almost never seeing the homicides being investigated, no gun battles, etc.) Narrated by Richard Belzer (who played the acerbic Det. Munch).
Disc Three: This features an episode of A&E's American Justice entitled To Catch a Killer: Homicide Detectives (45:59), which features interviews and case footage from real-life counterparts in Virginia, Ohio, and New York. Hosted by Bill Kurtis, the detectives interviewed echo much of what took place in Homicide: the importance of hunches and intuition, inventive strategies utilized for both capture and confessions, and the desire to interview suspects without an attorney present. Although tangentially appropriate, it smacks of opportunism from A&E more than anything else.
Disc Four: This features song listings for Seasons One and Two, broken down by individual episodes. For fans of Homicide, this is a very valuable resource – as I mentioned earlier, Homicide used music sparingly but effectively; at times, the music was used so effectively that it was common for fans to flock to the net to try and figure out what song it was they had just heard.
Final Thoughts: As an unapologetic fan of the series, it's a treat to view these episodes in this format. I can only hope that Homicide's future on DVD will not again subject fans to the aggravating speculation that NBC wrought with its last-minute renewal decisions when the show originally aired. Although Homicide tinkered with its winning formula (and cast) in later years, its run was uniformly challenging and rewarding - the episodes were refreshingly complex and dark, almost always stimulating (fans will note that we have not even seen the introductions of Det. Kellerman and suspect Luther Mahoney as yet, used in a subplot that created some of the most morally ambiguous and gripping television I can remember). And don't even get me started on the Subway and the subsequent PBS Anatomy of a Homicide feature, which had better turn up on DVD eventually.
Lastly, since I have to temper my enthusiasm for the show with the DVD release at hand, Homicide: Life on the Street - Seasons 1 & 2 falls just short (this close, really) of DVD Talk Collector Status, as the transfers could have been better and a more inspired choice of extras could have been added. (I know this is nitpicking, but still.) However, to fans of the show, it's not an issue – the set should be picked up and enjoyed immediately. Otherwise, it is highly recommended to fans of episodic drama, great writing, and excellent ensemble acting. Television rarely gets much better than this.