Today is the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest shows in television history, Homicide: Life on the Street. You know all those people who annoy you by telling you you HAVE to watch The Wire because it's just the greatest show ever? Well, I'm like the hipster version of those guys because many of the creatives behind The Wire were also behind Homicide, and I was a Homicide fanatic long before The Wire was even a glimmer in David Simon's eye.
Speaking of David Simon, the series was adapted from his non-fiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, covering a year he spent shadowing the detectives of the Baltimore Homicide Unit. It's a fascinating examination of the officers who "speak for the dead," and a great insight into the sorts of people who are drawn to that line of work. It's easy to see how someone would have read this and concluded there was enough depth to sustain an entire series.
There really had been no show like Homicide on TV. It focuses on murder police, but is more character-driven than procedural. The characters grew and changed to a greater degree than most of the principals who drive the Law & Orders and CSIs. Visually, it was distinct too, shot on 16mm with handheld cameras and often with jarring jump-cuts.
And the writing... If you want to see a master class in how to write a pilot, check out the premiere episode "Gone For Goode," written by Paul Attanasio In the span of 45 minutes, a fairly large ensemble is introduced and if you don't have a handle on each of the characters by the end, you haven't been paying attention. The characters are so well-defined through their actions and dialogue that you'd swear this was an episode deep into the first or second season, from a point where the writers really had the show figured out.
And then there were scenes in "The Box" - the interrogation room. Andre Braugher frequently shined in these moments as Frank Pembleton, master interrogator. This scene is the first time we see him in action.
But the show wasn't all drama. It was frequently funny, sometimes even funnier than the sitcoms of the day. It was sort of like if Quentin Tarantino did a dialogue polish on Law & Order. Frequently, the show would lapse into funny exchanges that often revealed much about the characters and their philosophies. It wasn't unusual for the show to take a few minutes and let Richard Belzer's Munch drop a new conspiracy theory on the squad, or have a few cops take an... unorthodox approach to getting a witness to talk...
And then just as frequently, it would hit you in the gut.
One episode that made a huge impression on me when I first saw it was a third-season episode called "Crosetti." In it, Ned Beatty's Detective Bolander is given the unenviable task of investigating the death of one of the squad's own, Det. Crosetti. Crosetti's body is fished out of the harbor in what is almost certainly a suicide. Largely out of respect to Crosetti's partner, Meldrick Lewis (the fantastic Clark Johnson, who graces the screen too little these days), Lt. Giardello agrees to let the case be treated as "wrongful death."
The episode deals with the entire squad's reactions to the loss. Bolander is frustrated by everyone's denial that their comrade killed himself; Giardello clashes with the bosses, who deny permission for an honor guard at the funeral; Pembleton and Bayliss provide moments of lightness as they deal with arranging the catering for the memorial service.
But it's Lewis's denial that forms the emotional core of the story, and it brings him into conflict with Bolander. As Bolander pursues an answer he can never get ("Why did he do it?"), Lewis does his best to get to Crosetti's friends first and block them from saying anything that would support the suicide theory. And that's where we pick this up...
Lewis's breakdown gets me every time I watch it. The way you can almost see him feel the room spin around him, the undignified way his voice breaks as he finally gives in to the truth, and then his collapse in Bolander's bear hug. These aren't touchy-feely guys, and so when we see this kind of display from them, it just guts you.
I've talked before about how I ran a half-hour drama series for two years in college. It sort of aspired to be a WB-type show, though I'll admit that our ambitions often exceeded our grasp. Part way through the first season, I started planting seeds for a later storyline that would see one character ending up in a dark place emotionally and the other characters coming to her rescue.
I presented the idea to my fellow writers, and no matter how many times I denied it, they were convinced I'd been inspired by a different "serious" episode of a show. See, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "The Body" had aired just a few weeks prior to this and they were all "Oh, you want to write your version of 'The Body.'"
No. That's also a great hour of television, but if I'm being honest, I don't want to write "The Body." But I'd die a happy man if I ever write anything as masterfully done as "Crosetti." It manages to be a powerful and standout episode without feeling too aggressively a departure from the norm. "The Body" is clearly a very different animal from most Buffys, but "Crosetti" is pure Homicide, through and through.
If you want to see how to write great characters, watch Homicide. It was a show ahead of its time, and 20 years later, it still feels unlike few other shows on TV.