Homicide: Life On The Street


Conventional wisdom dictates the best cop show of recent times – one of the most innovative and influential, dramas of all time – was set not in New York, Miami or LA, but in Baltimore.

It featured a squad of embattled, super (street) smart, sardonic, detectives fighting against the drug dealing and killing blitzing their beloved city.

This series stemmed from the pen of the God-like David Simon and was as literate, funny and deep as television could be. But it was NOT The Wire. It was Homicide: Life On The Street.

Homicide: Life On The Street was even better than The Wire. Yeah – as Chris Rock likes to cry defiantly – I said it !

The show ran for seven seasons on NBC from 1993 to 1999, making the new box set a glorious 122 episodes/hours – twice as many as The Wire. It is thus the perfect gear for any Wireheads jonesing for a fix of Simon-flavoured cop drama.

The series was based on Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, David Simon’s astonishing record of his time “embedded” with the Baltimore police.

It was brought to the screen by the city’s film leviathan Barry Levinson (Diner, Tootsie, Rain Man etc), Paul Attanasio (the writer of Donnie Brasco and now executive producer of House) and Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere and later creator of Oz).

Simon wrote and edited a few episodes and produced the final two seasons.
“I was proud to learn everything they could teach me,” he told me.

Simon regards Homicide as “a series of interconnected short stories” comparing it, rather grandiosely, to James Joyce’s The Dubliners.

For me, Homicide is the missing link between Hill Street Blues and The Wire – ie: equally impressive.

The links with The Wire and the book are myriad. In one hilarious episode, detectives Munch and Bollander re-enact Simon’s anecdote about a suspect confessing after taking a ‘lie detection test’ – using the station photocopier.

“Then David went and did it in The Wire !” Fontana protests. “I was like ‘dude ! We already did it.” He said, ‘yeah I know but I wanted to do it again’.”

The Wire, for Simon, was “more akin to the dynamics of Baltimore as I knew them.” But life in Baltimore is horribly real in Homicide.

Fontana won an Emmy for the pivotal episode of the first series about the brutal rape and stabbing of 11 year-old Adena Watson – based on the murder of LaTonya Wallace, also featured in Simon’s book.

“We were shooting one day,” Clark Johnson (who played Detective Meldrick Lewis) tells me. “And this lady from the neighbourhood came up to me and said, ‘excuse me. She wasn’t lying over here. She was lying over there.”

So much for the NBC’s view that the title A Year in The Killing Fields needed to be more upbeat.
“A policeman once said to me a young man of 20 had more chance of dying in Baltimore than on the beach in Normandy,” Fontana remembers. “We had to be true to that.”

Both Simon and Fontana set out to debunk the myths TV had created about police work, starting with the premise cops get along.

Homicide’s detectives squabble with their partners like married couples.
“You never say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’,” complains Tim Bayliss.
“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank You,” seethes Frank Pembleton.

“The greatest lie in dramatic TV,” Simon has said “is the cop who stands over a body and pulls up the sheet and mutters ‘damn’… To a real homicide detective, it’s just a day’s work.”

Whereas The Wire was about the CASE (the wiretaps used to nail Stringer, Avon, or Marlo), Homicide was about the COPS – a group of detectives so involved that death is what they live for. Death becomes the norm. A healthy, happy life at home is beyond them.
“The Wire is more Brecht,” agrees Fontana, referring to Simon’s description of The Wire as “a political tract masquerading as a cop show. “We were more Chekhov” – not a distinction you would make discussing The Bill.

The likes of Bayliss (the liberal conscience of the show) and Pembleton (the volatile Jesuit tormented by the need for redemption) are torn apart by their experiences in a manner so torrid that McNulty and co. look rather cardboard.

Large parts of each episode are spent with the detectives sitting around TALKING – about how the world’s fridge was invented in Baltimore; how Montell Williams was from Baltimore (“A guy from Baltimore has got his own talk show ?!”); the claim “14% of seagulls are lesbians.”

They talk about sex, death, and love in a way that is positively (or negatively) existential.
“The way a woman feels about a man,” argues Detective Bollander (Ned Beatty). “That’s the way he’s going to feel about himself, his friends, his job.”

Eschewing the crucial forensic breakthrough, Homicide’s detectives TALKED their suspects into confession. And the show only ever had one real shoot-out.
“The ratings spiked. Then we went back to making the real show and the ratings went back down !” Fontana laughs.

It’s easy to see why Homicide can be seen as more radical than The Wire – not least because it was on NBC rather than the more experimental, independent HBO.

Both shows looked at the way race, the media and local politics in Baltimore affect the police. But even Dominic West, who played McNulty, felt uncomfortable that The Wire’s lead character was white. The leader of the squad in Homicide was the noble, Othello-like figure of Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). The smartest, sharpest, master of the art of interrogation was Pembleton (Andre Braugher).

The show took risks at every turn.
“The network would say, ‘where’s the pretty girl ? Where’s the hunky guy ? We had Danny Baldwin ! We had the least attractive cast on television !” laughs Fontana.

Clark Johnson, who played Gus Haynes in The Wire and directed both the pilot and finale of The Wire AND The Shield, may be the world’s greatest authority on TV cop shows.
“I would put the cast of the first two series up against any cast that’s been on TV.”

Barry Levinson established the show’s groundbreaking visual style (aped by NYPD Blue) from episode one, draining it of colour and shooting entirely on hand held cameras that swooped in and out of the actors’ faces, jabbing at them like a boxer.

And, amazingly, the killing of schoolgirl Adena Watson was left unsolved.
“That would never happen now. We live in the world of procedural crime dramas now,” Fontana laments referring to CSI – which he openly disdains.

The network didn’t like it but Fontana says: “Homicide had less censorship problems than St.Elsewhere. We did an episode on testicular cancer where the network freaked out because the word ‘testicle’ had never been said on television before. Ever. They became irritated by Homicide. They hated the camerawork. We were in danger of being cancelled every year.”

The second season was four episodes.
“Then they moved us to Friday nights, which was basically Siberia and just forgot about us ha-ha.”

The quality of the scripts attracted star names such as Kathryn Bigelow, Steve Buscemi, Jay Leno, John Waters, Kathy Bates, James Earl James, and Lily Tomlin. Edie Falco, Elijah Wood and Jake Gyllenhaal made early appearances as did Chris Rock, as a paedophile suspected of killing Adena.

Murder is relentless in Homicide, the cases more sinister than The Wire, making it more intense, more affecting: an old lady has her tongue cut out and wedged down her throat; a man is trapped under a subway train, dying before Pembleton’s eyes.

Your heart goes out to the Baltimore Tourist Board – wrongly Clark Johnson says.
“The people liked us being there. The mayor was behind the show. People would go ‘oh Baltimore ! That’s where they shoot that series Homicide.’ We’d have tours coming by.”

Fontana takes the fact that The Wire has stolen Homicide’s glory remarkably well.
“You mean, the way people talk as if it sprang fully formed – from the head of Zeus ?” he laughs.

“Look, I love The Wire. David picked up the ball and ran with it. I’m amazed we got to make the show the way we did for as many episodes as we did. So I’m just grateful for that.”

So should we all be.