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Intelligent writing, intense characters, a dark sense of humor, innovative editing, and complex plots--Homicide: Life on the Street has raised the caliber of television police drama
Homicide: Life on the Street is addictive television. Each week we watch to see who Detective Pembleton will spar with in "the Box," or what conspiracy theories Detective Munch will be espousing as the truth, but more than anything we tune in to see the gritty reality that makes this show the best police drama to ever grace the small screen. There aren't any car chases, rarely any shootouts, and sometimes the cases don't get solved. Instead, these detectives keep their clothes on, have a relentlessly morbid sense of humor, and catch the criminals because they have brains, not necessarily brawn. In other words, they're real.
Homicide: Life on the Street, The Unofficial Companion by David P. Kalat--the first and only full-length guide to this Emmy Award-winning and three-time Peabody Award-winning television series--brilliantly captures the essence of this groundbreaking show.
You'll Learn About:
famed filmmaker Barry Levinson's decision to bring Homicide to television instead of making a film of David Simon's novel Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
the behind-the-scenes anecdotes about cast regulars, including the onscreen clutches that led to offscreen romances
the producers' many battles with the network suits over poor placement in the schedule, and the series' repeated trips to the land known as hiatus
cast casualties--why they left or were let go
the esteemed cast--including Andre Braugher, Ned Beatty, Daniel Baldwin, and Yaphet Kotto, among others--the characters they've created, and their beyond-Homicide careers
season-by-season critiques of each episode
Revealing, resourceful, and thoughtful, Homicide: Life on the Street, the Unofficial 0Companion is a must-have for any fan!
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
David Kalat is the author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series (McFarland and Co., 1997), a study of the forty-year history of Japan's most famous film exports.
Mr. Kalat is also the founder of All Day Entertainment, a producer of Digital Video Discs (DVDs), releasing classic and obscure motion pictures in high-quality collector's editions exclusively on this new home video format.
As a member of the Washington-Baltimore film production community where Homicide: Life on the Street is shot, Kalat has had many contacts with the television series. He previously worked at the motion-picture lab where Homicide processed each episode's film, and was involved in the very first season's production. As operations manager of D.C. Post, one of the region's most esteemed film and video postproduction houses, Kalat worked closely with Emmy-winning editor Tony Black, who edited Homicide's pilot installment.
Mr. Kalat taught screenwriting at the John Waldron Arts Center in Bloomington, Indiana, and was on the Board of Directors for the Bloomington Playwrights Project, one of Indiana's most acclaimed theater companies. Kalat also sprots credentials as a freelance cinematographer and animator, and has directed several award-winning short films. His most recent film premiered at Washington, D.C.'s famed Biograph Theater.
He was born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1970, and grew up in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. He earned his bachelor of arts at the University of Michigan in 1988, graduating with highest honors from the Film and Video Studies program. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Julie and daughter Ann.
CHAPTER 1The Best Damn Show on TelevisionIn October of 1996, Carlester Eric Robinson tore out of a Rite-Aid drug store in Baltimore, Maryland, with security guards hot on his heels.He was just a petty shoplifter, trying to make off with a bag full of stolen Q-Tips and Polaroid film. He figured he should avoid busy Charles Street, and, instead, turned down the less-populated Trenton Street. As Robinson rounded the corner, he found himself surrounded by police cars. Directly ahead of him was the imposing sight of uniformed officers and a pair of plainclothes detectives. Obviously, there was no way out.Realizing he had no escape, the thief raised his hands and promptly surrendered himself to Detectives Meldrick Lewis and John Munch.As it happens, Lewis and Munch are fictional characters on a TV show, played by Clark Johnson and Richard Belzer respectively. How was the thief to know that the cops were actors, wielding plastic prop guns?Poor Mr. Robinson suffered a great deal of embarrassment that day, and his mistake gave local news teams something to chuckle about on-air. But he was not the first, nor the last, to find it hard to tell fact from fiction on the set of Homicide: Life on the Street. Even the producers admitted that they sometimes forgot what is real and what is not on this show, a show that takes such intense pride in its mind-bending "art-imitates-life-imitates-art" recursions.The producers of Homicide even incorporated the thief's embarrassing arrest into an episode broadcast a few months later, and topped off this self-reference with a cameo appearance by series producer Barry Levinson, playing himself as the producer of a TV series called Homicide. The TV detectives then offer Levinson some words of advice about how to make the show more "realistic."Homicide: Life on the StreetFrom its gritty and convincing realism to its cinematic, avant-garde style, this drama from acclaimed feature-film director Barry Levinson announced itself as something special with its very first broadcast in January 1993.Homicide is an innovation in a medium best known for playing it safe, and it has garnered loyal fans and critical praise while challenging audiences to demand more from television. Fans have responded by nicknaming the series "The Best Damn Show on Television."Homicide owes much of its realism to the work of Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon. In 1988, Simon spent a year shadowing the real-life detectives of Baltimore's Homicide Unit, and published his experiences as the highly acclaimed Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991, Houghton Mifflin Company).Barry Levinson and his co-creators adapted the book into a TV series, keeping many of its stories and dialogue intact. In later years, David Simon joined the team as a staff writer, while continuing his nonfiction crime writing.Mind Over MatterFor all its intensity, Homicide is not known for dramatic action. The brilliant detectives of Baltimore's homicide division capture their perpetrators, or "perps," by wit and will alone. These men and women are prized for their brains, not their bodies, and so it is little surprise that their bodies are not as finely tuned or honed as so many other TV police characters seem to be.On those rare occasions when action is called for, the detectives will find themselves unprepared for it. The simple act of chasing a suspect a measly block becomes a dangerous and costly act. In Episode 34: "Fire, Part One," Detective Tim Bayliss strains his back as a result of his exertion. Bayliss' real-life counterpart, Detective Tom Pellegrini, chose to join the Homicide Unit because he found the mental stimulation of solving crimes much more appealing than the hazardous duties he performed in Baltimore's Quick Response Team.THE CHESS PLAYERSThe cast and crew of Homicide have often noted that their detectives aren't typical action heroes. Actor Richard Belzer (Detective John Munch) calls them "the chess players." As it happens, Richard Belzer and Andre Braugher (Detective Frank Pembleton) keep this motif strongly in mind while shooting the show. Between takes, the two play a running chess game against one another. Braugher, who has maintained an overwhelming winning streak over his costar, plays the black pieces ("I've had four hundred years' practice," he jokes), and uses the same defense ten games in a row.THE ONE THING THIS COUNTRY'S STILL GOOD ATThe United States leads the industrialized world in homicide rates. It is the tenth leading cause of death, claiming some 24,000 people each year, roughly a murder every twenty minutes.The news media sensationalize exciting, abnormal murders or homicides involving celebrities. This creates an image in the public mind of who kills and why. That image then fuels popular culture, where fictional psycho killers, hit men, and gangsters roam in disproportionate numbers.Sociologist Marvin Wolfgang conducted a classic study of homicide in 1958. He found that a third of American murders result from "altercations of a relatively trivial origin." Another twenty percent result as a part of another crime.President Johnson's 1968 National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence concluded that the "primary motivating forces" for most homicides in the United States were "usually trivial ... disagreements."In the late 1980s, at the same time that David Simon was living among the Baltimore Homicide team, another crime journalist, Edna Buchanan of Miami, concluded that "the little things in life sometimes trigger the urge to kill: a stereo too loud, a game of checkers."In fact, statistics show that real police work has very little in common with the usual shoot-em-up TV clichés. Police officers are more likely to die by suicide than to be killed by bad guys. It is hardly surprising, then, that Homicide has addressed suicide on numerous occasions in its stories.Homicide detectives find that their stimulation is mental: the challenge of finding order in a disorderly world, the challenge of making sense out of senseless acts. As for the latter, however, the detectives on Homicide seldom can do such a thing, although they valiantly try. In the end, the senselessness of murder almost always defies them.The detectives close cases, they do not solve them. "Solve" implies putting the situation right again. However, that's not possible for the lives of those left victimized by murder but still alive, usually the grieving family andfriends who will never be the same again. Furthermore, the killers may be as much victims of it all as those they killed. Putting a kid behind bars doesn't make things right again at all.So the detectives seek sense and order elsewhere.Who Killed Lincoln?One of the most memorable examples within this TV series is Detective Steve Crosetti's obsession with the assassination of President Lincoln. He pursues that case, over a hundred years old, at times with more zeal than he does the cases at hand, weaving a complicated but fully-researched conspiracy theory worthy of a JFK buff.As his partner Meldrick Lewis caustically reminds him, the Lincoln case is not an open case. Instead, Crosetti's drive to solve fully the Lincoln assassination is purely personal. It means something to him. He hopes that perhaps he can expose a century-old conspiracy, and thereby truly "solve" the case and set things right.In the end, he never achieves that goal. Crosetti ultimately kills himself (see Episode 19: "Crosetti"), and his former colleagues must now "solve" that death. Detective Lewis may discover how his partner died, and perhaps he can guess at why, but closing the case on his friend's suicide will never "solve" it.LonelinessHomicide is especially frank in depicting the toll the job takes on the detectives' families. Detectives Munch, Bolander, and Kellerman are divorced. Detectives Felton, Pembleton, and Lewis find their families torn apart when their wives realize that their husbands are married first and foremost to the street. Like her male colleagues, Detective Kay Howard is too much of a dedicated detective to have a normal romance. Shift Commanders Al Giardello and Megan Russert are both alone after the death of their spouses. Even the eligible bachelor Detective Tim Bayliss is too tortured to hold down a steady relationship.The men and women of Homicide are a lonely lot.The Many Colors of BlueAmong its many achievements, Homicide has earned a place in television history for its unprecedented portrayal of race.Even by the end of the twentieth century, black Americans have made fewer inroads of progress in pop culture than they have in the real world. Increasingly, blacks and whites are working together, but it would be hard to discern that fact from the boob tube.There are shows with predominately black casts which target a black audience, shows which tend to be racy sitcoms aired on marginal networks. Then there are shows, mostly major network dramas, aimed at a "mainstream" audience, with mostly white casts. The rare examples of minority characters in network dramas often carry the burden of being the sole representative of their race in that program. Their characterizations are seen and interpreted by the viewers as being a generalized example of what their race is like as a whole.By contrast, Homicide features numerous black characters: major and minor, cops and crooks, figures of authority and powerlessness, each one a complex and fully realized human being. No single character can be seen as a racial representative. At no point has Homicide attempted to trumpet this racial inclusiveness. The series has never marketed itself as a "black" show.In 1995, the Atlanta Journal hailed Homicide as a groundbreaking series for its realistic racial composition. The producers demurred, uninterested in taking credit for trailblazing. Instead, executive producers Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, and Henry Bromell insisted they merely strove to depict the overwhelmingly black-majority city of Baltimore honestly.Nevertheless, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wrote a letter to NBC praising Homicide, especially Yaphet Kotto's portrayal of Lieutenant Al Giardello. In 1997, the NAACP nominated Homicide for its annual Image Awards, for projects that have made significant contributions towards advancing the image of people of color. The NAACP also singled out Kotto and Andre Braugher for Outstanding Actor nominations."The fact that we were lucky enough to get three outstanding actors of African descent [Yaphet Kotto, Andre Braugher, and Clark Johnson], who could play off that or not depending on the stories, has been a great enlightenment to us as writers," says executive producer Tom Fontana.Some industry analysts have noted that Homicide's famous ratings troubles could be partly blamed on its prominent black cast members. Although Andre Braugher of Homicide earned phenomenal critical attention, it was Dennis Franz and David Caruso, the white leads of NYPD Blue, who became national stars.The trend of black casts for black audiences and white casts for white audiences is not simply a reflection of racism on the part of network programmers, but a sad fact of American life that American audiences segregate themselves. In 1995, only three shows rated in the Top 20 among both black and white viewers. By including a rich variety of black characters, Homicide turned off white viewers. By including so many white characters, Homicide also kept away black viewers.As a result, while Homicide has the unique distinction of realistically depicting an integrated America, low ratings have discouraged other producers from following suit.Homicide has also addressed the glass ceiling of the police department, taking on gender issues in the workforce as well. Like Prime Suspect (1990-- )--the superb British crime drama often compared to Homicide--the mostly male world of the police department does not take well to the idea of women in positions of authority.On one end of the spectrum is the series' Kay Howard, a brilliant and hardworking detective who never lets her guard down. Always pushing herself to be better than the best, Howard earns a promotion to sergeant based on her outstanding performance. However, the male detectives under her supervision bristle with resentment. The ingrained notions of women's roles are so powerfulthat they even surface behind the scenes, where actress Melissa Leo found herself consistently excluded from the impromptu games of football her male costars play on the set (she had to bring her own Hacky-Sack to be allowed to play with the boys).On the other end of the spectrum is Megan Russert. As the shift commander of Homicide's second shift, she meets the same kind of wounded pride from the men under her charge. Unlike Howard, though, Russert is promoted up the ladder to captain, not on the basis of merit, but as an act of pure political tokenism. It's not that she lacks leadership skills. In fact, Russert is an exemplary detective and an uncharacteristically courageous captain. But her sudden success is both too soon and too short, since neither her promotion nor her later demotion have anything to do with merit.The Killing StreetsIn the urban sprawl of a city marked by rising crime rates and increasing fear of crime, the elite members of Baltimore's Homicide Unit continue their daily crusade against the forces of killing. At times, it seems hopeless. They are a mere handful of investigators pitted against some 300 murder cases a year.Indeed, some of the city's murders are quite odd: one man killed for his pen; another life is snuffed out because the victim didn't think Spiro Agnew should be remembered with a statue; a lover killed in a fit of passion by a woman who then stores the corpse in a deep freezer full of brisket. Others are gut-wrenching: a little girl molested and murdered by a killer who goes free; a boy shot dead by another one for no reason; a political activist assassinated at the order of a drug cartel; three saintly women murdered and left nude in dumpsters.It's a combat waged with brains, not guns. An average homicide detective may not even draw his gun for any reason other than to pass the departments' firing-range test.The cops are aided in their task by the fact that the killers they track are so incredibly stupid. Unlike the usual TV crime-show stereotypes, these murderers are not criminal masterminds or serial killer psychopaths. The steady stream of dead bodies flow mainly from a single river: hotheaded folk who settle their grudges with a bang.These petty grievances, the motives for murder, are either so banal or so personal as to be irrelevant to the detective's job. Most TV detectives use the "why" to find the "who," but the detectives of Baltimore city know the "why" will lead them nowhere. They look simply for the "how." That's what turns red names to black.The central feature of the Homicide squadroom is "The Board," a massive chart of each detective on the shift. Beneath each de...
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