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Homicide: Life on the Street - The Complete Series

A&E Video // Unrated // October 20, 2009
List Price: $149.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Walker | posted November 4, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Collection:
When the series Homicide: Life on the Street first debuted in January 1993, I was watching. I watched most of the original nine episodes that made up the abbreviated first season, but when the show went on hiatus for nine months, only to return for an even more abbreviated second season consisting of four episodes, I was through with the show. By that time, I was hooked on NYPD Blue, and as a consequence, I never really got into Homicide, and figured I probably never would. Then along came the HBO series The Wire--arguably the best series in television history--and suddenly I was interested in Homicide.

For those of you that don't know the connection between The Wire and Homicide, both began with David Simon. A reporter for The Baltimore Sun, Simon was the series creator and producer for The Wire, and it was his non-fiction book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which recounted the year Simon spent with the homicide squad in Baltimore that led to the television incarnation of Homicide. Set in Baltimore, the series revolved around the detectives that investigated murders in the streets of Baltimore. But unlike other shows about cops, Homicide was stripped of any sense of romanticism, nostalgia or sentimentality. It was a gritty, grimy show that deconstructed the television cop mythology, using murder and crime as means of existential exploration of the eclectic detectives in the homicide squad. And unlike the equally gritty NYPD Blue, which also sought to deconstruct the police archetype that was firmly ingrained in the television audience's mind, Homicide left behind the soap opera entanglements that NYPD Blue embraced. It was a show--at least initially--that was determined to be about the murder police, and nothing else.

Homicide: Life on the Street - The Complete Series is a repackaged version of same collection that was released in 2006 in a "collector's edition" file cabinet. Other than that, this is the exact same thing, only in a different box. But make no mistake, just because this collection does not come in a box that looks like a filing cabinet, doesn't mean it is not impressive. With a total of 35 discs divided up into seven volumes, the collection includes all 122 original episodes of the series (presented in the order they were originally intended to be aired), three cross-over Lawn & Order episodes, and Homicide: the Movie, which served to wrap up loose storylines. Like most television series, there are episodes of the show that are not as good as others, and even some that don't exactly hold up to repeated viewing, but overall this is a great series. As individual seasons, it is hard to recommend one season over another, and though this collection might seem a bit pricey to some, this is one of the few series actually worth owning in its entirety.

Seasons 1 & 2 - The first two seasons of Homicide only ran for a total of thirteen episodes (nine in Season 1 and four in Season 2), but managed to introduce key characters, many of who would remain in place throughout the run of the series. The pilot episode introduces detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), the newest addition to Lt. Al Giardello's (Yaphet Kotto) homicide squad. Bayliss is an idealist unaware of what his new assignment has in store for him, but when he catches his first case--the brutal rape and murder of eleven year old Adena Watson--the tone is set for his character. Bayliss will spend much of the series in one form of emotional or spiritual crisis, much of it resulting for his inability to solve his first murder case. Meanwhile there's the rest of squad, which includes Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), a lone wolf detective partnered with the inexperienced Bayliss, partners Munch (Richard Belzer) and Bolander (Ned Beatty), Howard (Melissa Leo) and Felton (Daniel Baldwin), and Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Crosetti (Jon Polito). This motley assortment makes for an on-going clash of personalities, ideologies and even crime-solving techniques. In many ways, the thirteen episodes that make up the first two season of Homicide are the show at its best and most pure. There are no weak episodes, as the focus is on the detectives and the cases they are working, with only a minor bit of attention paid to their personal lives. The best episode is arguably "Three Men and Adena," where Bayliss and Pembleton interrogate the key witness in the case, played by Moses Gunn in his last performance, followed by Bop Gun," guest starring Robin Williams as the husband of a murder victim.

Season 3 - The twenty-episode third Season of Homicide marked the first of many noticeable changes that would take place over the course of the series. First, there is the departure of Jon Polito's Detective Crosetti, a character killed off in the forth episode of the season, and one of the series' finest moments. The season itself starts off strong with a three-episode arc that finds Pembleton leading the search for a serial killer, while suffering a crisis of faith. And while the season remains strong, with another three-episode arc that finds three of the detectives ambushed and almost killed, as well as stand out episode "Every Mother's Son," there are some problems to be found, most specifically how the series deals with the personal lives of the detectives. Bayliss has an affair with a woman that Clark had his eye on, causing tension, while Felton struggles to find his wife who has left him taking the kids with her. Unbeknownst to everyone, Felton is having an affair with Meagan Russert (Isabella Hoffman), the new lieutenant in the squad. It is the exploration of the detective's personal lives that tends to steer the show off course, creating some of the weaker moments in the series. Bayliss's affair seems like a forced gimmick to make the show seem sexier, as does the relationship between Felton and Russert. Still, the show works incredibly well, especially the multi-episode story arcs. This is also the season where Andre Braugher begins to stand out as the series' brightest star, although he can never touch Yaphet Kotto, who is the best performer on the series, and the most likeable of the characters.

Season 4 - The departure of Daniel Baldwin as Felton and Ned Beatty as Bolander--explained as the two detectives being on 22-week suspensions--makes room for some new blood on the homicide squad. Starting with a two-part story surrounding deaths linked to arson fires, the series introduces Detective Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond). Part of the arson squad, Kellerman joins homicide, and is partnered with Lewis. This pairing does in fact bring some new blood to the series, as the volatile relationship between Pembleton and Bayliss begins to grow tiresome. Bayliss becomes more and more of whining putz, while Pembleton's arrogant posturing becomes just as annoying. Some of the season's best episodes revolve around Lewis and Kellerman, including "The Hat," which features guest star Lily Tomlin, "Full Moon," which finds them investigating a murder at a seedy motel, and "Scene of the Crime," which finds them investigating multiple murders that are the result of gang war. In addition to Lily Tomlin's memorable guest appearance, Marcia Gay Harden guest stars in the powerful "A Doll's Eyes" episode as the mother of a ten year old caught in a crossfire. Bruce Campbell guest stars in a two-art episode as a detective whose father, a retired cop, is murdered. Overall, this is a solid season, but it also features the weakest episodes of the series up to that point, including the somewhat disappointing "Map of The Heart." The season ends with Pembleton suffering a stroke while interrogating a suspect, calling into question whether or not he will live to return next season.

Season 5 - With the forth season cliffhanger of Detective Frank Pembleton having a stroke, the seeds were planted for a long-reaching arc in the fifth season. Indeed, Pembleton's return to work, on restricted duty that doesn't allow him to work cases, is part of what fuels the season. With his motor skills, memory and speech effected, it is uncertain if Pembleton will ever be the cop he once was, which doesn't sit well with him, and makes him as much, if not more of a jackass than he ever was. This leads to not only conflicts at work, but at home between his wife Mary, who for the past four seasons had been underused. Meanwhile, Kellerman is charged with corruption, which is the season's other long-reaching story arc, as he fights to prove his innocence. Frequent guest star Max Perlich becomes a series regular as J.H. Brodie, the civilian employee of the homicide squad who works a crime scene videographer. Brodie is set up as something of a conscientious observer to life within the squad. At times his character feels like an attempt to bring some common man sensibility to the show, and he is portrayed as Jimmy Olsen in room full of Supermen. That said, the episode "The Documentary," where Brody unveils his documentary about the squad, is one of the best of the season, and nice departure from the show's narrative style. Michelle Forbes is introduced to the series as the new chief medical examiner in an attempt to make the show a bit sexier. Charles S. Dutton has a guest role in "Prison Riot," turning in one of the show's best performances by a guest star--no small feat considering he's being compared to people like Steve Buscemi, Robin Williams and Lily Tomlin. Meagan Russert, who was double demoted last season and was missing at the beginning of this season, returns for the two-part season finale, which explains what happened to Felton, who had been absent from the squad since the end of Season 3.

Season 6 - Under the pressure of possible cancellation if ratings did not improve, the producers and writers tried to up their game and came out swinging with a three-episode season premiere that included James Earl Jones. By the fourth episode, "Subway," the series and the season hit a monumental high, with what many consider to be the best episode of Homicide. Vincent D'Onofrio guest stars as a man pinned between a subway train and a platform that is suffering massive internal injuries that will kill him within the hour. Although he is alive, he is technically dead, and the detectives race to find who pushed him in front of the train, as well as his girlfriend, so they can say good-bye. In a series marked by great performances and sharp writing, this one episode pretty much is an example of Homicide at its best. The rest of the season is also solid, and never really shows the signs of a series that is entering into its final stages. Kay Howard is gone from the squad this season, as is videographer Brody. New detective Laura Ballard (Callie Thorne) joins the series, Kellerman is caught up in another scandal involving the death of a drug lord that carries over from the last season, and culminates in the brutal finale of the sixth season--a bloody shootout in the squad room.

Season 7 - The final season of Homicide: Life on the Street, is marked by the absence of Andre Braugher as Detective Frank Pembleton, who emerged as the compelling anchor of the series during that past six seasons. After his partner Bayliss took a bullet that was meant for him, Pembleton turned in his badge, leaving his fellow detectives to fend for themselves in Season 7. Kellerman is also gone, and Giancarlo Esposito joins the cast as FBI agent Mike Giardello, son of Lt. Giardello. Although there are plenty of great episodes, including "Self Defense," written by Yaphet Kotto, this is a show that has all the signs of being on its last legs--most notably the fact that only four of the original series stars are still in the cast (which is still better than NYPD Blue's record). The season is plagued by episodes about the personal crisis plaguing Bayliss, who is more annoying than ever now that his existential crisis has been helped along by being shot last season. The series comes to a rather disappointing conclusion, leaving a few too many storylines unresolved.

Homicide: the Movie - Pretty much any regular characters that appeared during the seven-season run of the series--even those that died--return for this made-for-television movie that seeks to tie up loose ends left after the disappointing series conclusion. Running for mayor of Baltimore on a pro-drug platform, Al Giardello is gunned down, prompting the detectives he once worked with to return to find the shooter. For fans of the show--of which I now am, having watched the entire series--this is the conclusion the series deserved. Homicide: the Movie is on a bonus disc that includes three episodes of Law & Order that tie in directly to Homicide.

Homicide: Life on the Street is presented 1.33:1 full frame. The picture quality of the episodes varies between very good and okay. The series was shot on 16 millimeter film, although some episodes look like some scenes may have been shot on video, as the picture quality seems to be noticeably different (the same problem can be seen in Seasons 4 and 5 The Shield). But overall the picture quality is acceptable, and any differences in quality will only be noticeable if you're doing marathon viewing sessions.

Homicide: Life on the Street is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo. If there is one problem with this collection it is the sound quality. The audio mix is not that good in the first two seasons, and it can be difficult to hear what is being said during some seasons. The dialog is more clear and sharp in the subsequent seasons, but there are still problems in certain episodes with the sound mix, especially with the music, where it sometimes sounds like the music track just shuts off instead of fading out. The sound is not terrible, but it is not as good as it could be.

Bonus Material:
This collection includes 122 episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street, plus Homicide: the Movie, and three episodes of Law & Order. Honestly, I had little interest in the bonus material, which is fairly extensive. Six of the most memorable episodes have audio commentaries, including the series pilot, "Subway," and "The Documentary." Homicide: Life at the Start features interviews with director Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, two of main creative forces behind the series. Seasons 3, 4 and 5 also feature interviews with series creators discussing various aspects and creative decisions involved in each of the seasons. Seasons 1-4 include songs listings for all the episodes. There is also a feature-length documentary, Anatomy of a Homicide, an episode of the A&E series American Justice, as well as a VSDA panel discussion with the show's creative team, and Barry Levinson's acceptance speech for his 2004 VSDA Career Achievement Award. (And there's probably more supplementary material, but I'm a little fried on all this stuff.)

Final Thoughts:
There are only a handful of television series that ran for any length of time strong enough to warrant having the complete run in your collection. Homicide: Life on the Street is among those shows. The price on this 35-disc collection is significantly cheaper than buying the seasons individually. And with a collective total of more than 100 hours worth of content, you certainly get a lot for your money.

David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]
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