Tuesday, July 11, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order

Homicide: Life on the Street is the yin to Law & Order's yang. L&O is purely procedural, while Homicide thrives when the characters are front and center, their worldviews challenged or reinforced by the latest case in front of them. While L&O often turns its focus to institutional and societal morality, Homicide is more likely to explore individual morality. Though L&O's handheld style helps give the show its energy, Homicide eschews all rules of filmmaking staging and editing: jump-cuts, triple-takes, axis-crossing and everything a first year film student is told not to do is fair game so long as the emotional truth of the moment isn't compromised.

I remember a few Friday nights during the show's third season where I was in the room as my mother watched Homicide and I had an immediate visceral reaction: I hated it. (This would not be the first time my mother was attuned to a groundbreaking series before I was. She also came to Buffy at least a full half-season before I did.)

As I said yesterday, it took the crossover episode to make me give the show a second look. I think my tastes must have matured enough in the intervening year that everything about the show clicked with me. Andre Braugher rightly had grabbed the lion's share of media attention as the intense Frank Pembleton, but the hidden strength of the show was how well-defined and compelling all the characters were. Clark Johnson's Meldrick Lewis is the perfect example of an actor disappearing so casually into a role that everything he does is invisible. You don't notice Lewis so much because he doesn't do anything to stand out as inauthentic. (Hunt down some footage of Johnson out of character and marvel at how completely unlike Meldrick he is.) You could run down the cast list and say much the same for everyone.

Having said that, I always had great affection for Richard Belzer's John Munch, the sardonic quipper of the group. Soon after I began watching, NBC ran older episodes from season one, including a show where he and Ned Beatty's Bolander use a rigged copy machine to interrogate a suspect after telling him it's a (life-threatening lie detector.) I think that was the moment where it really clicked for me - "Hey, this show is incredibly FUNNY!" I even remember likening it to the relatively-recent PULP FICTION in how it found humor in places not seen in those kind of stories before.

The other Tarantino-like facet I credited the series for turned out to be false. Lifetime soon was running syndicated reruns, putting the episodes in order of their original airing. This meant that a show declaring that Detective Crosetti had died ran before the show where he was actually found dead. The reason for this was that NBC bumped the latter episode due to scheduling issues, the shows as produced had Crosetti's death happening first, as was the producers' intent. I've written about this episode before, and called it one of Homicide's most powerful hours.

In fact, that's one of the clearest influences on my writing. In college, I was showrunner for a half-hour drama series and in planning for the second season, I knew I wanted to do a powerful story that would shake up a lot of characters and hit them in their emotional core. By the time the script made its way to shooting, seven months later, Buffy had aired the emotionally raw "The Body" and everyone assumed I was trying to be Joss Whedon. (I was, just not here.) There were a lot of small things that - to my mind - I stole liberally from HOMICIDE on that show, but for the most part, the characters and setting are so different that the influence is less obvious.

A notable exception is an interrogation scene I featured in one episode. Though all the detectives were regularly shown breaking down a suspect in "The Box," few were more compelling to watch than Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton. The pilot uses him to introduce the psychological nature of a police interrogation, demonstrating how suspects are broken down and then very gradually trapped by their own statements. It's a sequence borrowed largely from David Simon's book that spawned it, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

And then there's this riveting sequence where Frank gets a confession out of an innocent man.

It was always a thrill watching Pembleton work "The Box," and one of the show's best hours focuses entirely on an interrogation run by him and his partner Tim Bayliss. "Three Men and Adena" finds the two detectives with 24 hours to get a murder confession out of their prime suspect or see him walk away for ever. The decompression allows writer Tom Fontana to show the different approaches between the two detectives. Early on, Bayliss seems to think the path to success is by hitting the suspect with all the evidence he has and browbeating him into admitting it. Pembleton seems to keep stepping on Bayliss's questions, giving the suspect relief from questions he'd find it very hard to explain. Gradually it dawns on us what Frank is doing. He's not undercutting Tim, he's trying to get the suspect to open up just enough that Frank can get inside his head and trap him.

An interrogation scene is not about information - it's as much about the person asking the questions as the person called on to answer. I remember that realizing it completely changed my view of how to write those scenes. And over the years, I've written a LOT of interrogations.

Homicide always knew how to use scenes like this to reflect the relationships of the various patnerships too. L&O's various detective teams were relatively harmonious, but Homicide's tended to go through more ups and downs that a marriage in a relationship drama. If the writers had Lewis and Kellerman working a particular case, there was a REASON they chose those detectives for that case. It never felt like you could swap detective teams and come out with the same story.

H: LOTS is another show I could probably do a whole week's worth of posts on if I put my mind to it. It was the rare show at the time that made me hungry to read other (intelligent) reactions to the material. This coincided with my joining Usenet newsgroups and there were only a couple TV fandoms I wasted my time reading about in there. alt.tv.homicide was always the most literate and interesting discussion board, and never failed to make me look below the surface of the writing. It made me aware of the kind of depth I'd have to strive for to compete on a professional level.

Other Homicide Posts:
Friday Free-For-All: Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch
Happy birthday, Homicide!
"It was a clean shoot" - HOMICIDE's most debated episode turns 20 today

Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer

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