Homicide: Life on the Streets

by Erik Arneson

January 1993 – May 1999

  • Richard Belzer as Det. John Munch
  • Andre Braugher as Det. Frank Pembleton
  • Yaphet Kotto as Lt. Al Giardello
  • Kyle Secor as Det. Tim Bayliss
  • Clark Johnson as Det. Meldrick Lewis
  • Reed Diamond as Det. Mike Kellerman
  • Daniel Baldwin as Det. Beau Felton
  • Jon Seda as Det. Paul Falsone

As one of the three best cop shows of the 1990s (Law & Order and NYPD Blue being the other two), Homicide was a staple in any mystery fan’s television diet. This NBC show was consistently excellent, from its premiere after the 1993 Super Bowl, which opened with the line, “life is a mystery,” through the series finale which ended with the same line.

Official recognition has come from many sources: the series is one of only two to win a pair of Peabody Awards; on top of that, it earned three Emmys, picked up two Writers Guild of America Awards, been named both Program of the Year and Drama of the Year by the Television Critics Association, and twice been named “Favorite Series” in Electronic Media’s Critics Poll. TV Guide once proclaimed Homicide “the best show you’re not watching.”

Homicide followed the lives of homicide detectives in Baltimore, using hand-held cameras and inventive editing to give the show a distinct flavor. Co-executive producer Tom Fontana once told a reporter from Knight-Ridder Newspapers that the look was developed by co-executive producer Barry Levinson because, “If you’re going to shoot a cop show without gunshots and car chases, we have to infuse it with something.”

And other than a handful of episodes (most notably episode 25, “The City That Bleeds,” in which Dets. Bolander, Howard, and Felton are all shot), Homicide remained true to its basic operating principal of limited on-screen violence. Most often, the crime has been committed before we join the story — call that realism, since it’s the way of life homicide cops are used to.

Homicide (often referred to by fans on the Web as H:LOTS) was inspired by David Simon’s critically acclaimed non-fiction book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. To write the award-winning book, Simon (a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun) traced the work done by three Baltimore homicide detectives in 1988, a year in which the city had 234 murders.

Although a critic’s darling from the get-go, Homicide struggled with poor ratings throughout its run (prompting at least one to claim that it’s “probably much too good for American television”). Ironically, the immediate ratings success of ABC’s NYPD Blue may have helped convince NBC executives to give Homicide more time. NYPD Blue premiered in the fall of 1993, about nine months after Homicide’s initial nine-episode run. (The second season of Homicide officially consists of only four episodes.)

The show’s cast could not be better. Yaphet Kotto as Lt. Al Giardello and Andre Braugher as Det. Frank Pembleton led what was perhaps the finest ensemble in television history. Like sister NBC show Law & Order, Homicide’s ratings improved despite a regularly-changing cast (although there several original Homicide cast members stayed through the end; L&O had much more turnover).

Notable guest stars included Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Wilford Brimley, Julianna Margulies, Howie Mandel, James Earl Jones, Charles Dutton, Rosanna Arquette, Tim Russert (as himself), and Jay Leno (as himself).

Crime writer J.A. Jance, in a piece written for TV Guide, applauded the series for never taking the easy way out. (On a semi-related note, unlike Law & Order, very few episodes of Homicide are based on real-life events.) “When the hour is over, I’ve spent those 60 minutes walking in someone else’s shoes,” Jance wrote. “That’s what storytelling is all about.”

These detectives are far from perfect. There is plenty of red (unsolved cases) under their names on the board, and it’s not unusual for a case to go unmentioned for several weeks before a break emerges. Some partnerships have worked better than others, and some detectives are clearly better than others.

In the box, where suspects are interrogated, Det. Frank Pembleton was the master – until he suffered a stroke at the end of the fourth season. He spent much of the fifth season recovering and trying to pass a firearms test – so much of the season, in fact, that some viewers grew impatient with that particular plot thread. Eventually, he was reinstated to active duty and later made a triumphant return to the box.

Trying to rank the most significant episodes of
Homicide is a task worthy of Sisyphus, since few
failed to satisfy the show’s millions of regular
viewers. Some episodes that would appear on just about
any list, however, include:

  • “Three Men and Adena” (no. 5) – The case that haunted Bayliss from the first episode will continue to do so as Bayliss and Pembleton have 12 hours to grill their prime suspect, but no arrest is made. Fontana earned an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for this episode.
  • “Crosetti” (no. 19) – Lewis’ first partner is determined to have committed suicide, though Lewis refuses to accept that fact.
  • “The Hat” (no. 43) – Tomlin guests as a woman who killed her husband and his lover. Brodie cannot go along with Munch’s desire to destroy a videotape which contains an exculpatory piece of evidence.
  • “Work Related” (no. 55) – Pembleton has a stroke while interviewing a suspect in the box not long after his wife gives birth to a baby girl.
  • “Prison Riot” (no. 58) – Dutton’s guest appearance. Two inmates are killed during a riot, and the truth behind what happened doesn’t come out until a second riot takes place.
  • “Deception” (no. 74) – Det. Kellerman shoots and kills drug lord Luther Mahoney, who had gained control of Det. Lewis’ gun.

Any number of additional episodes could have made the list above, evidence that the critics have it right when they call Homicide “TV’s best-written show.”

Other Cast Members:

Ned Beatty as Det. Stan Bolander
Isabella Hofmann as Det./Lt./Capt. Megan Russert
Jon Polito as Det. Steve Crosetti
Michelle Forbes as Chief Medical Examiner Julianna Cox
Giancarlo Esposito as FBI Agent Mike Giardello
Callie Thorne as Det. Laura Ballard
Peter Gerety as Det. Stuart Gharty
Toni Lewis as Det. Terri Stivers
Michael Michele as Det. Rene Sheppard
Walt MacPherson as Det./Capt. Roger Gaffney (recurring)
Clayton LeBeouf as Capt./Col. George Barnfather (recurring)
Gary D’Addario as Lt./Col. Jasper (recurring)
Zeljko Ivanek as ASA Ed Danvers (recurring)
Ami Brabson as Mary Whalen-Pembleton (recurring)
Hazelle Goodman as Georgia Rae Mahoney (recurring)


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