Before The Wire, there was Homicide: Life On The Streets.
Based on a non-fiction book by the Baltimore Sun’s David Simon, Homicide: Life on the Streets aired for seven seasons on NBC, from 1993 to 1999. For five of those seasons, Homicide was the best show on television. Produced and occasionally directed by Barry Levinson, Homicide was filmed on location in Baltimore and it followed a group of Homicide detectives as they went about their job. From the start, the show had a strong and diverse ensemble, made up of actors like Andre Braugher, Ned Beatty, Jon Polito, Melissa Leo, Kyle Secor, Clark Johnson, Richard Belzer, Daniel Baldwin, and Yaphet Kotto. When Polito’s character committed suicide at the start of the third season (in a storyline that few other shows would have had the courage to try), he was replaced in the squad by Reed Diamond.
Homicide was a show that was willing to challenge the assumptions of its audiences. The murders were not always solved. The detectives didn’t always get along. Some of them, like Clark Johnson’s Meldrick Lewis, had such bad luck at their job that it was cause for alarm whenever they picked up the ringing phone. As played by Andre Braugher, Frank Pembleton may have been the most brilliant detective in Baltimore but his brilliance came with a price and his non-stop intensity even led to him having a stroke while interrogating a prisoner. Kyle Secor played Pembleton’s partner, Tim Bayliss. Bayliss went from being an idealistic rookie to a mentally unstable veteran murder cop in record time, spending seven seasons obsessing on his first unsolved case. Homicide dealt with big issues and, much like its spiritual successor The Wire, it refused to offer up easy solutions.
Despite the critical acclaim and a much hyped second season appearance by Robin Williams (playing a father who was outraged to hear the detectives joking about the murder of his family), Homicide was never a ratings success. After five seasons of perennially being on the verge of cancellation, the producers of Homicide finally caved into NBC’s demands. The storylines became more soapy and the cases went form being random and tragic to being what the detectives had previously dismissively called “stone cold whodunits.” New detectives joined the squad and the focus shifted away from the more complex veterans. Not only did this not improve ratings but also those who had been watching the show from the start were not happy to see Pembleton and Bayliss being pushed to the side for new characters like Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) and Laura Ballard (Callie Thorne). Falsone, in particular, was so disliked that there was even an “I Hate Falsone” website. At the end of the sixth season, Andre Braugher left the show and that was the end. The seventh season limped along, with Bayliss growing increasingly unstable. The show ended with the implication of Bayliss turning into a vigilante and resigning from the Baltimore PD. It was not a satisfying ending. Richard Belzer’s John Munch moved to New York and became a regular on Law & Order: SVU but the rest of the detectives and their fates were left in limbo.
Fortunately, on February 13th, 2000, NBC gave Homicide another chance to have a proper conclusion with Homicide: The Movie.
Homicide: The Movie opens with a montage of Baltimore at its best and its worst, a reminder that Homicide never abandoned the city that had supported it for seven years. While other shows recreated New York or Chicago on a soundstage, Homicide was always an authentic product of Baltimore. Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) is now running for mayor on a platform calling for drug legalization. When Giardello is shot at a campaign stop, all of the current and former members of the Homicide Unit come together to investigate the case. While Giardello fights for his life, Pembleton and Bayliss partner up for one final time.
Homicide: The Movie fixes the main mistake that was made by the final two seasons of the show. Though all of the detectives get their moment in the spotlight (and all true Homicide fans will be happy to see Richard Belzer and Ned Beatty acting opposite each other for one final time), the focus is firmly on Pembleton and Bayliss. It doesn’t take long for these two former detectives, both of whom left the unit for their own different reasons, to start picking up on each other’s rhythms. Soon, they’re talking, arguing, and sometimes joking as if absolutely no time has passed since they were last partnered up together. But, one thing has changed. Bayliss now has a secret and if anyone can figure it out, it will be Frank Pembleton. What will Pembleton, the moral crusader, do when he finds out that Bayliss is now a killer himself?
The movie follows the detectives as they search for clues, interview suspects, and complain about the state of the world. However, in the best Homicide tradition, the investigation is just a launching point to investigate what it means to be right or wrong in a city as troubled as Baltimore. In the movie’s final half, it becomes more than just a reunion movie of a show that had a small but fervent group of fans. It becomes an extended debate about guilt, morality, and what it means to take responsibility for one’s actions. The final few scenes even take on the supernatural, allowing Jon Polito and Daniel Baldwin a chance to appear in the reunion despite the previous deaths of their characters.
Despite being one the best shows in the history of television, Homicide: Life on the Streets is not currently streaming anywhere, not even on Peacock. (Considering how many Homicide people later went on to work on both Oz and The Wire, it would seem like it should be a natural fit for HBOMax.) From what I understand, this is because of the show’s signature use of popular music would make it prohibitively expensive to pay for the streaming rights. Fortunately, every season has been released on home video. Homicide: The Movie is on YouTube, with the music removed. The movie’s final montage is actually more effective when viewed in complete silence.