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'Homicide' Ends Its Impressive Run

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 1999; Page C1

   


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It was bound to happen eventually. "Homicide: Life on the Street" has fallen victim to Dramacide, Life at a Television Network. Tonight's episode, tellingly titled "Forgive Us Our Trespasses," was just supposed to be the seventh-season finale. Instead, it is the last episode of the series. NBC has canceled it.

Tom Fontana, who has executive-produced the show from the beginning with Barry Levinson, didn't know that "Homicide" would be bowing out when he wrote the episode, but he must have had strong suspicions, because there's plenty of closure in it. One character gets married, sort of; another gets promoted, kind of; and another, it appears, leaves the homicide squad, and maybe the Baltimore police force, for good.

Does "Homicide" go out in a burst of glory? Yup, but it's been a burst of glory every week for seven years. The show is dear to the hearts of many viewers in the Washington area because it was not only set but also shot in nearby Baltimore, a town that's really a town. For fans of the show, the telecast tonight (at 10 on Channel 4) is absolutely essential, but it's also bound to attract many previous devotees who strayed in recent months or years and now can come home as if to a reunion of old friends.

Unfortunately, Andre Braugher won't be there except in a couple of nanosecond-long shots that occur during a breathtaking flashback sequence. Braugher, who played Detective Pembleton and reigned for six years as the hands-down, all-out, drop-dead best actor in episodic TV, left the series last year. The show hasn't been the same since, but it hasn't slipped much in terms of overall quality, either.

Unlike ABC's "NYPD Blue," the other great cop show of the '90s, "Homicide" relies less on melodrama than on probing the doubts, fallibilities and vulnerabilities of its characters and the wretched stress they face each day. In one episode of "Homicide," the cops actually took gentle pokes at a bare-butted TV show obviously meant to be "NYPD Blue," finding it a bit corny and over the top. "NYPD Blue" is more about cops, "Homicide" more about life.

And when it comes to multi-ethnic casting that truly reflects the city in which it's set, "Homicide" beats "NYPD Blue" decisively.

The void Braugher's departure left could never be filled, but in what was to be its final season, "Homicide" hardly lacked for spectacular actors giving terrifically gritty performances. The finale belongs mostly to Kyle Secor as Detective Bayliss, through whose eyes much of the action on "Homicide" has been seen. Bayliss was Pembleton's partner until Braugher left. On the last episode, he reminisces about the man another detective calls "the almighty Pembleton." He "got on his high horse and rode out of here," Bayliss complains, but he also comes to a realization: "I loved him."

Pembleton was so good at his job, threw himself into it so deeply, that he was bound to burn out, and maybe the same was true of Braugher.

Another rock-solid cast member, Yaphet Kotto, has played Lt. Giardello since the series began. Tonight, Giardello finally gets promoted to captain, gets to wear a resplendent new uniform, but something doesn't feel right to him. Like Bayliss, he looks back on his years with the homicide unit and on life in the city of Baltimore. Kotto is as tightly coiled as ever and can elicit the strongest responses with the slightest of gestures. It's too bad he and the other regulars don't get to take bows, literally, at the end of the program.

Richard Belzer was known primarily as a comedian when he signed on to play Detective Munch that first season of "Homicide," and to some extent he was comic relief on the show. But like Garry Shandling over on HBO's "Larry Sanders Show," Belzer expanded his range tremendously over the years. On the last show, Munch gets married to a young Catholic woman named Billie Lou (Ellen McElduff), who, like him, has been married three times before. Her marriages were annulled; his ended in divorce.

What are their chances of eternal bliss? Oh wow. Oh boy. Of course, it may not be a good sign that on their wedding night, which Billie Lou had decreed would mark their first time having sex together, Belzer shows up, alone, at the cops' favorite bar. He talks about baseball, except he isn't really talking about baseball.

For Bayliss and his new female partner, Detective Sheppard (Michael Michele), the episode begins with an infuriating defeat. Luke Ryland (Benjamin Busch), the so-called Internet Killer who is blatantly guilty of murdering at least two women, is released from custody after a series of courtroom blunders. The last straw occurs when prosecutor Ed Danvers (Zeljko Ivanek) fails to show up at a hearing that had already been postponed repeatedly. The case is dismissed by a judge because Ryland has spent more than 180 days in custody without benefit of trial.

Bayliss goes Baylisstic and punches Danvers, sending him sprawling down the courthouse steps. A justifiable move, perhaps, but not a prudent one.

Later in the program, Bayliss expresses his dismay, general and specific, to Giardello during an intense chat: "Seven years ago I walked in here with a file box and a lot of idealism. I had a clear vision of justice and morality, and no matter what happened to me, whatever happened around me, I still have that." It's hanging by a thin, thin thread, though, and one waits anxiously to see whether the thread will snap.

Before the show is over, Bayliss will see not his whole life pass before him but his whole life on the homicide squad. That dazzling flashback sequence compresses seven years into about 45 seconds. It's a sequence that might be seen as homage to Slavko Vorkapich, master montage maker of the old movie days ("San Francisco," "What Price Hollywood?"), and it is brilliant.

Many other actors have come and gone over the years on "Homicide," with Braugher's exit the most traumatic. Among those still around for the finale are Giancarlo Esposito as Mike, Peter Gerety as Stuart, Clark Johnson as Meldrick Lewis, Toni Lewis as Terri, Jon Seda as Paul and Callie Thorne as Laura. The final episode was directed by Alan Taylor. This is a roll call of honor.

The show's trademarks remain: the jittery camera, the double-back editing, the office blackboard (which is actually white) on which the names of the homicide cases and their numbers (No. 280 tonight) are written in red until they are solved and the letters changed to black.

NBC, which promotes the bejeebers out of its slack sitcoms when they pull up stakes, isn't making much fuss about this being the farewell episode of "Homicide." Network brass learned they could get better ratings on Friday nights with a lowly piece of crud called "Providence," and "Homicide" grew too classy, and its ratings a bit too low, for the neighborhood. So they canceled it.

Time to move on. Seven seasons is a good run, and the force will be back in force, with Braugher reinstated and doing his obsessively intense interrogations, in syndicated reruns.

But it is, in that overworked phrase, the end of an era, and no one likes to see the curtain fall on one of those rare prime-time shows that really seem as good as they could possibly be the smallest number of compromises, the largest number of sobering truths.

Fontana is something of a prodigal son, having wandered over to HBO to produce a series called "Oz," set in a model prison where things nevertheless are forever going awry. On HBO, Fontana had virtually complete freedom to use all the words and expressions and nudity and sexual situations he couldn't use on NBC. And yet for all its raw energy, "Oz" doesn't have the impact that "Homicide" has. It's hard to imagine that "Homicide" would have been any better if the style and content restrictions that come with broadcast television had been lifted.

Of course, those restrictions get less strict every year. But that's another story. When "Homicide" pushed the old envelope, it did so with a purpose, not just to show off.

Although Braugher finally won for his performance, "Homicide" leaves television severely under-Emmyed. The members of the TV Academy who give out the Emmys are mainly Hollywood provincials who don't seem to watch much television certainly not on Friday nights. There used to be a New York as well as a Los Angeles branch of the Academy, and awards were given out on both coasts; television was better then.

But it's rarely been better than "Homicide."

   

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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