The final moments of "Homicide: Life on the Street" find DetectivesMeldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Rene Sheppard (Michael Michele) in an alleyin the dark searching for clues to the murder of a man whose body lays nearby.
Lewis probes a clump of weeds with the toe of his shoe and the beam of hisflashlight. "If I could just find this thing, I could go home," he says, notexplaining what exactly the "thing" is.
"You won't find what you're looking for," Sheppard says dismissively,shining her flashlight on the other side of the alley.
"What? Why not," an irritated Lewis asks.
"It's a mystery. Life is a mystery. Just accept it," she says, as thecamera shifts to an overhead shot that shows the two of them walking alone,with their flashlight beams looking small and hopeless against the surroundingdarkness.
"Yeah? Well, that's what's wrong with this job," Lewis says. "It ain't gotnothing to do with life."
Those are the last words we'll ever hear from the flawed and fabulouscharacters of "Homicide: Life on the Street," whose final episode airstonight. The echoes of language and existential sensibility to the pilot 6 1/2years ago are unmistakable. And, if you are anything like me, they will launchyou on a melancholy roller coaster ride back through the series and then rockyou with the realization that "Homicide" is really, truly, finally gone.
Last week, I picked tonight's finale, "Forgive Us Our Trespasses," as oneof the 10 best of the 122 episodes in the "Homicide" canon. As I sat down towatch for a second time last night, I feared I had picked as much with myheart as my head, wanting to look forward to one last great episode in theimmediate wake of the cancellation news.
This isn't a great-great episode, but it is resonant, moving and, most ofall, representative of a cultural process that "Homicide" illustrated as wellas any series in TV history: the struggle and inevitable compromise necessaryto create art in a medium designed primarily for commerce.
When Tom Fontana, the series' Emmy Award-winning executive producer, wrotetonight's episode, he didn't know it would be the last. But he knew it mightbe. So, as he explained to The Sun, he layered it with as much series' closureas he could, just in case NBC pulled the plug.
"Forgive Us Our Trespasses" has many "Homicide" trademarks, as well as astoryline with Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) that takes the series backto the Ground Zero of its moral center, a location it strayed from this seasonwith the loss of Bayliss' partner, Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher).
It starts with one of the stylistic innovations that "Homicide" pioneeredunder executive producer Barry Levinson: a series of elongated jump cuts.Bayliss and Sheppard are repeatedly shown climbing the steps of the ClarenceM. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse with different dates printed at the bottom of eachrepeat. The technique not only compresses time and gets us instantly into thestory, but it also suggests the Sisyphus-like repetition and futility of theirjobs.
That futility blasts right through Bayliss' usual Zen-boy detachment whenLuke Ryland (Benjamin Busch), the man who broadcast the murder of two women onthe Internet, goes free because of mistakes made in a collapsing legal system.Bayliss takes his anger out on State's Attorney Ed Danvers (Zeljko Ivanek),which leads to a career crisis.
As Bayliss searches his soul, his relationship with Pembleton and theinviolate moral vision at the series core is brought sharply into focus.
"Seven years ago, I walked in here with a file box and a lot of idealism,"Bayliss tells Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). "I had a clear vision ofjustice and morality. And whatever has happened to me, around me, I still havethat."
Bayliss wrestles with death, God, justice, vengeance, crime and punishment.He wishes aloud that Pembleton was there for guidance. Viewers will seePembleton in montage, but nothing summons his ghost like Bayliss saying in asoft voice, "Yeah, I loved him."
Secor has several great moments, including a scene with Detective JohnMunch (Richard Belzer) that ends as Bayliss reaches out to touch Munch in away you can almost feel right through the TV screen.
Lighter side not forgottenThe lighter side of "Homicide" -- its screwy, almost Beckett-esque sense ofcomedy -- is also there. Lewis and Detective Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) have oneof those in-the-car discussions that Levinson seems to have invented. They aretalking about Munch's upcoming wedding to Billie Lou McCoy (Ellen McElduff)and the possibility of any two people finding what Falsone calls "weddedbliss."
"They got as much chance surviving a nuclear holocaust as they do juststaying married," Lewis says.
The conversation sent me back through my "Homicide" library looking for"The Gas Man," an episode that ended the series' third season on May 5, 1995.The bulk of that hour took place in a car with two loser ex-cons played byBruno Kirby and Richard Edson driving around, sharing their crackpotphilosophies of life while trying to find a way to kill Pembleton for puttingthem in prison.
The Levinson-directed episode typifies the risks "Homicide" took instorytelling. The hour is seen through the eyes of the bad guys, not the cops,and the in-car conversations are as funny as anything in such Levinson featurefilms as "Tin Men" or "Diner."
The entire episode played to a disco soundtrack, with Kirby's charactersaying that he found the secret to life while listening to disco music inprison: "Like the song says, do a little dance, make a little love, get downtonight, get down tonight. Think about it, my friend, it's all right there inthe song."
SearchingI have been replaying "Homicide" tapes like "The Gas Man" for almost a weeknow. I tell myself I have to do it for background, but I think there'ssomething else going on. I've reached the point where -- like the character inDennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" -- pieces of scenes, memories,real-life interviews and snatches of dialogue from the series are playing in astream-of-consciousness loop in my head.
I started out searching for one crystal-clear, distilled image on which Iwould end this piece. Like Lewis in the alley, I felt if I could just findthat thing, I could lay "Homicide" to rest in my mind. I was certain it wouldsomehow feature Pembleton, the nexus of race and morality in "Homicide."
Maybe, it would be Pembleton in his dress blues standing at attention onthe steps of the precinct house on Thames Street as a hearse passes by withthe body of Detective Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) from the 1994 episode titled"Crosetti." Pembleton's pose is an act of conscience done in defiance ofbureaucratic policy, which seeks to distance the department from the suicide.
Or, maybe it would be the scene from the start of the 1996-1997 season whenPembleton, former alpha dog of the squad room, comes back to work so shatteredby a stroke that he can't even handle placing the office lunch order, becausehe can't remember how to spell pizza. Heroes are not supposed to be laid thisshuffle-step, stammer-talk low in American TV. This is the stuff of Greektragedy or Shakespeare.
A delicious mixBut, in the end, the scenes all merge together for me: Pembleton struckdown by the gods plays straight into Bruno Kirby's character who just wants toget down, get down tonight.
And, maybe, that's the answer, the truth that Levinson and Fontana capturedin this Peabody Award-winning series. Maybe we all live at the intersection ofthe cosmic and the comic -- that place we first found ourselves on the nightof Jan. 31, 1993, when this gift from the gods, "Homicide: Life on theStreet," debuted after the Super Bowl:
Lewis and Crosetti are looking in a dark alley for clues.
"If I could just find this damn thing, I could go home," Lewis says.
"Life is a mystery. Accept it," Crosetti tells him.
"You're in your own world, Crosetti," Lewis says dismissively.
"The quest is what matters," Crosetti answers, ignoring the insult."Looking, not finding. I read about it in this book."
"Now, since when did you ever read a book?" Lewis says.
"I read this book, an excerpt of this book."
"Now, see, that's what I'm saying, man. You said you read this book, butyou didn't read nothing but an excerpt of this book."
"It says you never really find what you're looking for, because the wholepoint is looking for it. So, if you find it, it defeats its own purpose,"Crosetti says, lighting a cigarette.
"You're in your own little world, Crosetti, because there ain't no onewants to be there with you."
"You try to explain everything, you know? But there are things you can'texplain," Crosetii concludes, sounding as if he hasn't heard a word Lewis hassaid.
That scene ends on the comic with the two cops shining flashlights in eachother's faces, trading ethnic insults and threats.
Tonight's final scene ends on the cosmic.
Not a word is said as the camera shifts its point of view. Suddenly we'relooking down with omniscience on Lewis and Sheppard searching through thehopelessly dark urban night for the "thing" that will finally let them go"home." The thing they will never find.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun