Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Breaking down the first episode of HOMICIDE

Previous Pilot Breakdowns
Veronica Mars
The Office

This continues my pilot breakdown series. Go here for the original Twitter thread.

The series is based on the book HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS, by David Simon. Find it. Read it.

Episode "Gone for Goode" is directed by Barry Levinson, written by Paul Attanasio.

(On DVD commentaries, the writers say Tom Fontana and James Yoshimura deserve "Creator" credit, but Attanasio is the creator of record.)

First scene: Detectives Lewis and Crosetti in an alley in a bad neighborhood, looking for evidence while philosophizing about what it means to "find" things. Sets the tone. This is about the mundane part of police work. It's not car chases, gun standoffs, etc. The last line of scene is "That's the problem with this job. It's got nothign to do with life."

We see the victim's name written on The Board in red. The procedure for each victim. (Names go to black when case is closed.)

First scene of Act One, new arrival Detective Tim Bayliss arrives for his first day. Looks for Lt. Giardello. Is pointed to two guys. Bayliss assumes the white Crosstti Is LT, not the large African American man. Oops.

Bayliss: "This is where I want to be. Thinking cops. No guns."

Next we meet Bolander and Munch. Munch questions a (badly lying) suspect at the hospital. "You're saving your really good lies for some smarter cop, right? I'm just Montell Williams, you want to talk to LARRY KING!" Richard Belzer would play Munch for seven seasons here, and for 15 seasons on L&O: SVU, making him one of TV's longest characters. His sarcastic, testy persona is established from the first scene.

And we're back with Lewis and Crosetti investigating the shooting of a woman. Their talk digresses into Crosetti's obession - the Lincoln assassination and the conspiracy he believes in. Homicide does something that wasn't quote in vogue yet in network TV. It features dialogue that doesn't directly advance the story. A lot of character chit-chat, almost Tarantino-esque.

And now we're with Det. Howard, the only woman in the squad and Det. Felton. We get another interview scene that showcases the mundane nature of the job and the character interplay.

Veteran Detective Bolander busts Munch's balls about his still unsolved case. Munch: "It's been three months, nothing new. It's over." Case is a woman run over. Wasn't even ruled homicide. Munch says it's not even on the board. He shouldn't have to worry. Bolander: [She] was murdered, John. Someone has to speak for her."

That's the show, in one sentence.

Out at lunch, a bunch of the detectives bitch about their co-worker, the as-yet-unseen Pembleton. "Guy thinks he's smarter than everyone else because he listens to Emmylou Harris." Pembleton is being built up for us. Sets the stage, builds anticipation.

Pembleton doesn't have a partner, the squad tells Gee they don't like this. Gee says Felton's paired with him now so Howard can be paired with Bayliss. No one likes this much.

ACT OUT: on Munch reviewing the case file.

ACT TWO opens with Pembleton (Andre Braugher) being told he's with Felton. He's instantly cocky, points to his clearance rate. Gee says he needs to be a team player.

Frank is used to working bigger cases. He's full of himself. Felton busts his balls, "Am I really going on a routine call with Frank Pembleton... he only handles the big cases, this is just some dead guy."

Frank goes to the motor pool so they can sign out a squad car for the case. He realizes he forgot which car goes with the keys he's been holding. Rather than admit defeat or get another set, he resolves to go car-by-car until his key works.

THAT is Frank. He's tenacious and he can NEVER admit he's wrong.

Felton asks "what does this prove?" Frank says, "Just say it... I don't like being in the basement with that n****r. You resent me." Felton asks why he can't just get another key. "because what if it's the next one?"

Note the tension in every one of these pairings: Frank/Felton is racial tension and resentment of Frank's attitude. Munch/Bolander is old-pro busting the younger guy's balls. Lewis/Crosetti is less overt tension. Their case is basically leading to insurance fraud. I'm not going to recap the ins and outs of that one till later.

Felton, upon learning Tim came from the mayor's security detail, "Wagging tail of a political favor, huh?" He clearly thinks Bayliss is in over his head. "You ever see a dead guy?"

Lewis/Crosetti case: Black Widow, she's buried five husbands, collected insurance on all of them. Problem, when they go to exhume one, the wrong guy is buried there. This sets up the dark humor of them successively digging up graves, trying to find the right body. It's the sort of grimly funny thing that HLOTS was known for. It is also based on a true story, as is much of the first season's episodes.

As Munch interviews the victim's family, we get the sense that he has terrible bedside manner. ACT OUT on that.

ACT OPEN on Bayliss, Pembleton, Howard and Felton in dead man in motel room. Bayliss is trying to show off he knows crime scenes

Frank and Tim left alone. Frank thinks it's murder. Tim doesn't. Frank points out the old guy's car is missing. We find out the older guy has been seen with some younger guys.

A subplot in this ep is about Howard's perfect clearance rate. The suspect she's been looking for disappeared... until he walks right into the squadroom. He folds within seconds in interrogation. Howard's rate is secure. Subverts the trope about how every police interrogation is a chess match. Sometimes the suspects are dumb, with terrible attempts at deception.

Munch goes through suspect mugshots, and he finds something. They're looking for a blonde guy. Funny thing, a suspect picked up two weeks later on another case has black hair.. and blonde eyebrows. They confront the guy, and his answer to everything is "I was drinking." We see Munch turn the victim's name from red to black. We know what that means.

ACT OUT on Bolander meeting the new, attractive medical examiner.

ACT UP on detectives drinking, with Crosetti writing up a complaint against Lewis for calling him a "salami brain." Nice touch, Howard proofreads the memo.

A lot of good Munch lines here, btw. He's the guy interjecting sarcastic jokes whether or not they're appreciated. The other detectives mostly ignore him.

Suspect picked up in Frank and Tim's case and then we get the greatest scene of the pilot, as Frank explains how an interrogation is done.

"A guilty man left in the box alone, falls asleep.. uncooperative, too cooperative, blinks, stares."

He describes what he is about to do as "an act of salesmanship... what I am selling is a long prison term to a client who has no genuine use for the product." I WISH this scene was still on YouTube, because no recap really does it justice. Line by line, this scene is brilliant.

Frank makes the guy read and initial a waiver of his rights. He's making the process mundane, making HIM a part of the process. Guy suggests maybe he wants a lawyer. Frank says if that happens, he has to write it up how it looks - first degree murder.

It's a trap. "This room is like a wall, and at the top of that wall is a small open window. A way out. Son I am that window." Frank gets him to keep talking, putting himself at the scene, waiving his right to an attorney. With that out of the way, Frank catches him in a big lie, and the guy folds like a cheap suit.

Tim confronts Frank, saying he tricked that guy into not getting a lawyer. Frank says "Do you believe he did it?" Frank rips Tim a new one. Tim wonders what an innocent man would do with the same chance. That is always the tension of Box scenes. When Frank pushes it, can he break an innocent man? (Spoiler: he can.)

Now we have Munch, Lewis, and Crosetti in a scene of them that has nothing to do with their cases. They hit on a moneymaking idea, Mail order adult diapers. Scene's a good showcase of how their minds work.

Phone rings at the squad. Howard asks Tim, "you ready?" He answers, which makes him the primary.

Final scene: Tim at the crime scene. A young girl has been murdered. He raises his badge. "Homicide." FADE OUT. End of episode.

So we introduce the ensemble. Tim is used as "new guy" and an audience explainer, both at the start and both as innocent eyes for Frank's envelope pushing behavior in the box. And a lot of little mini-arcs here, showing us how Munch and Bolander relate, how Crosetti and Lewis get on each other's nerves, how Howard and Felton have a pretty easy partnership.

It's not a BIG pilot. It takes a genre of show and refreshes it by amping up the character stuff. None of the cases are teh epic brain teasers you find on most CBS procedurals or L&O. It's all about what the cases mean to the people working them. It's one of my favorite pilots, with one of my favorite scenes, but it feels deceptively low-key when you watch it.

Seek it out. You can't imitate it, but you CAN study how it reveals its characters.

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