Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #8

Series Title: Homicide: Life on the Street | Years: 1993-1999, NBC | Starring: Yaphet Kotto, Andre Braugher, Clark Johnson, Melissa Leo, Richard Belzer, Jon Polito, Ned Beatty, Kyle Secor, Daniel Baldwin | Theme Music: Lynn F. Kowal

A Baltimore Police homicide detective taught me how to carry a wallet. OK, it was a fictional TV detective, but so what? Detective Frank Pembleton, brought to life with brilliant intensity by Andre Braugher on Homicide: Life on the Street, explained to his partner, Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), that men should carry their wallets in the front pants pocket. Like most men, I had always carried mine in my back pocket. Pembleton pointed out that carrying the wallet in the back pocket throws off proper alignment of the spine whenever you’re sitting down and makes it easier for a pickpocket to grab your wallet undetected. I’ve carried my wallet in the left front pocket of my pants ever since.

Homicide: Life on the Street ran for seven seasons on NBC-TV, from 1993 to 1999. It was based on a non-fiction book by David Simon, a longtime crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun (and the husband of newsie-turned-novelist Laura Lippman). In 1987, Simon took a year off from the newspaper to shadow a team of homicide detectives from the Baltimore Police Department. His book about that experience, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, was published in 1991. Although the TV show was fictional, it often depicted situations from actual cases worked by Charm City police detectives.

The show’s best-known main title sequence (click the image above) is done in black-and-white, signaling a no-frills, serious-minded program to come. The drums-heavy music by songwriter and composer Lynn F. Kowal is more a series of punctuation notes than a melodic theme. You see, one by one, the shadowed faces of the cast. You see a burning cigarette in an ashtray next to a half-drunk cup of coffee. You see a large dog barking aggressively at someone on the other side of a chain-link fence who’s out of our sight. You see a random set of storefront signs flash by. You see a mid-’50s Ford passenger car making a left turn. You see an old photo of Baltimore cops from the early 1900s. And finally, as you look at the door to the Homicide unit, you hear a telephone ringing until Detective John Munch’s voice announces “homicide.”

It’s what novelist-screenwriter Lee Goldberg would call a “mood sequence.” It conveys the “feeling and tone” of the show it introduces.

Homicide was a great ensemble series, blessed with strong writing and a superb cast. Lieutenant Al Giardello (Kotto) led a squad of eight detectives, who were paired off in teams of two: Stan Bolander (Beatty) and John Munch (Belzer); Steve Crosetti (Polito) and Meldrick Lewis (Johnson); Frank Pembleton (Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Secor); Beau Felton (Baldwin) and Kay Howard (Leo). The detectives’ job, as Giardello delighted in reminding them, was to turn the names written in red on the squad room’s case board (open) into names written in black (cleared). Here, the lieutenant waxes poetic about that board:
“It’s pretty, isn’t it? The way the board just stands there. A silent sentry to the dead and gone. I love the way the red and black meld together in harmony. A haiku of color and vengeance.”
The unit’s interrogation room, where detectives coaxed, tricked, sweet-talked, and browbeat suspects into confessing their crimes, was known as “The Box.” Pembleton was the acknowledged master of The Box; he owned The Box. Here, he addresses a fellow detective who will join him in questioning a suspect:
“What you will be privileged to witness will not be an interrogation, but an act of salesmanship as silver-tongued and thieving as ever moved used cars, Florida swamp land, or bibles. For what I am selling is a long prison term to a client who has no genuine use for the product.”
Every fan of the show has favorite Homicide episodes, and I’m no exception. But the one episode that caught the widest attention--and drew the highest critical acclaim--was titled “Subway.” It aired on December 5, 1997, during the sixth season. In this hour, played as real-time 60 minutes, a man named John Lange falls (or was pushed) between a subway car and the edge of the platform and is crushed between the two. Although the paramedics soon realize that if the subway car moves, Lange, whose spine is broken, will die instantly, he recognizes the hopelessness of his predicament only gradually. Vincent D’Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) earned an Emmy nomination for his tour-de-force portrayal of Lange. In a second Emmy-nominated performance, Andre Braugher, as Detective Pembleton, stays with Lange the entire hour. Watching the relationship between those two strangers develop is an emotionally compelling experience. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more powerful hour of dramatic television.


Dana King said...

I discovered HOMICIDE late in its run, but was hooked while it lasted; the sybway episode was one of the first I saw. Why we haven't seen more of Andre Braugher is a mystery equal to any solved on the show. I need to get the DVDs moved up on my NetFlix queue.

For anyone not familiar with Simon's book that prompted the series (and, later, THE WIRE), it should be a must read for anyone interested in crime and catching criminals.

Iren said...

H:Lots was a fave of mine from the pilot, anad has only grown in my estimation in the years since it went off the air. My fave eposiod is a season one or two ep featuring the late Adrian Shelly and a kinky murder.
I also happen to think the opening credits were amazing in thier starkness and what they told you about the show.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Maybe the most riveting episode on TV ever although a few episodes of THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS comes close

Michael Carlson said...

Actually, a gentleman would never carry a billfold in his trousers, but in his inside jacket pocket.