Tonight in prime time: a Baltimore of grit, not glitter Barry Levinson's first TV series portrays daily life of city's detectives

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore has never seen anything like the prime-tim treatment it's going to get after the Super Bowl tonight when NBC launches Barry Levinson's "Homicide: Life on the Street."

Created by Baltimore-to-the-bone Levinson and based on a book by Sun reporter David Simon, "Homicide" is breakthrough television, a grit-and-grime drama about an ensemble of Baltimore-based homicide detectives. Stylistically, it owes more to French film director Jean-Luc Godard than any prime-time TV show should dare. Its jumpy quirkiness, created with hand-held cameras and quick editing cuts, gives the show in-your-face urgency.

Seen is a Baltimore of Pulaski Highway motels, Belair Road crabhouses, Highlandtown taverns, westside alleys, and rowhouses, rowhouses, rowhouses. There is some Roland Park and more than a -- of Fells Point, where much of the filming took place. But the town seen in the first two episodes is not the glittery Inner Harbor Baltimore of picture postcards.

"I think it's a terrific series, but some people might think it's a little dark," said Arnold J. Kleiner, general manager of Channel 2, NBC's Baltimore outlet. One reviewer called it "a cop show built around non sequiturs and Baltimore grunge."

It may be just the jarring dose of true and semitrue crime drama that NBC desperately needs. Mired in third place behind CBS and ABC after losing more than $100 million last year -- and David Letterman this month -- the network needs at least some good reviews, if not better ratings. Up against ABC's "Home Improvement," a certified top-10 winner, and Fox's "Melrose Place," a hit with young viewers, "Homicide" faces fierce competition when it settles into its 9 p.m. Wednesday slot. NBC's expectations for initial ratings "are modest," said Kevin Reilly, vice president for drama development at the network.

After all, "Hill Street Blues," the long-running series "Homicide" is regularly compared to, started out slowly in the ratings 12 years ago.

To its advantage, however, "Homicide" will blow into living rooms with a gale-force lead-in. It will debut immediately after the Super Bowl broadcast.

Last year the NFL's prime-time championship attracted 121 million viewers. Even if today's game is a blowout, even if two-thirds of the audience tunes out by the time "Homicide" starts, the pilot episode still will be seen by more people than watched any episode this year of "Roseanne" or "60 Minutes," TV's top-rated shows. That's an introduction any producer-director would kill for, especially considering this is Levinson's first television project to get a series commitment; his pilot for a series based on his film "Diner" flopped.

"Homicide" is his first production under a development deal signed with NBC two years ago. Levinson, whose "Rain Man" won an Oscar as Best Picture of 1988, is not the first big-name director to work in TV in recent years. Such marquee names as David Lynch ("Twin Peaks"), John Sayles ("Shannon's Deal"), George Lucas ("Young Indiana Jones") and Steven Spielberg ("Tiny Toon Adventures") have similar development deals, which provide filmmakers quick infusions of capital.

While the fruits of most of these deals have died in the ratings, "Homicide" appears to have a chance, if reviews are any indication. They have been mostly raves.

"The most daring series of the season, and one of the best," said TV Guide, rating "Homicide" a 10 out of a possible 10. Entertainment Weekly gave it an "A," saying, "It has the best tough-guy dialogue around and an acting ensemble that's ferociously effective. . . . 'Homicide' is a killer."

People magazine said, "The pilot is extraordinary. . . . The best ensemble cop drama since 'Hill Street Blues.' "

The least favorable review came from Time, which said "Homicide" is a fine cop show, "but it's just a cop show."

That's not what Levinson believes. It "definitely is not a cop show," he said back in November in a cold and empty little room in the municipal building on Recreation Pier in Fells Point. The underheated cubbyhole was the only room that was not in use on the soundstage where Levinson and his partner, Tom Fontana, plus a crew of about 100 technicians, actors and supporting staff from Baltimore and Los Angeles, were rushing to finish episodes in time for tonight's launch.

"We're not doing a cop show with gun fights and car chases," Levinson said. "We don't even solve the crime every week. The show is just about these people -- the homicide detectives in Baltimore -- how they function and how they function with one another.

"The entertainment is in the surprises that the authentic can offer," he said. "The appeal is in what we learn about these people on the journey. To know them, you have to know their journey."

Baltimore viewers will know some of the early stops on that journey better than viewers elsewhere. Tonight's episode ends with the discovery of the body of an 11-year-old girl. Although the names have been changed, many Baltimore viewers will recognize it as the February 1988 case of Latonya Wallace. The Reservoir Hill girl was found stabbed and strangled in an alley, her red raincoat and blue school notebook neatly arranged nearby.

In "Homicide," the girl is named Adena Watson. She is found by Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), a rookie on his first major case. The second installment of "Homicide," which airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2, opens on the same scene, with Bayliss refusing to move. He's kneeling over the girl's body, trying to shield her from the rain.

Even the real-life Baltimore homicide detectives that Levinson hired as technical advisers were moved by the scene when it was filmed here in mid-October. Detective Gary Dunnigan, after watching the taping, said, "He really put his heart in it."

According to Levinson, the first three episodes use several real Baltimore cases; after that, the cases depicted are more and more fictional. And the detectives in David Simon's book all have been turned into composites in the TV series.

The result is a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction -- as in docudrama. Levinson, however, takes it one step further: He makes his series look as real as news by emphasizing the verite look. The set was designed to enable cinematographer Wayne Ewing, an Emmy-Award-winning documentary maker, to move, unimpeded, a full 360 degrees around the actors with his hand-held camera.

So successful have been the true-crime, made-for-TV movies like the recent Amy Fisher trilogy that the networks are trying to infuse weekly series with their appeal. "Homicide" is an experiment in doing just that. It smacks of being real. Unlike NBC's "Law and Order," which is fiction, "Homicide" is semifiction, semifact, all based on a critically acclaimed nonfiction book by a journalist.

"I'm utterly comfortable with the show not being the book," said author David Simon, who has been hired to write an episode. "It can't be the book. I can tell you how to write a nonfiction book about homicide detectives in Baltimore. I can't tell you how to make a TV series about them. I'm glad they've got a new vision." The Simon script is one of the three scheduled to be filmed in February or March if NBC extends its order beyond the nine finished episodes, which will air during the next eight weeks.

Currently, the production of "Homicide" has shut down. The cast and crew arrived in Baltimore in late September and left Dec. 23 after putting an estimated $700,000 into the area's economy. Whether there will be life for "Homicide" beyond the next eight weeks, and whether production will resume in Fells Point in late February, will be decided by NBC based on ratings.

Its success is not a lock.

Overall, shows launched by the Super Bowl have about a 50 percent success rate; for other debuts, the success rate is about 20 percent. Such long-running hits as "The A-Team" and "Wonder Years" had Super Bowl lead-ins. But so did flops like "The Last Precinct" and "Grand Slam." NBC's commitment to "Homicide" is such that it is devoting Super Bowl commercial time -- time that could be sold for as much as $750,000 for 30 seconds -- to promoting the series, and Levinson believes "Homicide" is the kind of show that can bring new viewers to TV.

"I think there's sort of like a disenfranchised audience out there," he says. "They don't know what to watch any more. They're not hooked into the patterns that used to work out there."

And, before long, Levinson is talking again about the detectives' journeys through "Life on the Street," and how appealing he believes viewers will find them.

The journey begins tonight for "Homicide."

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