There were 353 homicides in Baltimore last year. How many of the victims, do you think, were female tourists from Iowa? None. Had there been, I'm sure we all would have known the victim's name and every last detail of her life.
But, on TV the other night, that's what we got -- a white tourist from Iowa shot to death (we were spared the actual shooting) in Baltimore on a cop show called "Homicide: Life on the Streets." The show is produced by Baltimore native Barry Levinson who, in a film called "Avalon," once raked TV for pretty much ruining American family and neighborhood life and who, having discovered that his old hometown ain't what it used to be -- gee, people don't sleep out in Druid Hill Park anymore -- has decided to reveal his social conscience. And on TV! He's Diogenes in a baseball cap.
Looks like the sentimental Levinson has learned that life here ain't all fries and gravy and colorful aluminum-siding salesmen. Bob Dylan said nostalgia is death. But what do you know? There's a lot of death in modern life, right here before our eyes.
There were 353 homicides in Baltimore last year and 92 percent of the victims were black, and not tourists, many of them young men killing each other with handguns. Most of the rest of us, despite the popular perception, are relatively safe. The chance that the average American household will have a violent encounter with a criminal is only about 5 percent, according to federal reports.
And yet network television frequently presents the picture of out-of-control violence. And TV prefers to include in this picture generally sympathetic victims.
So last Thursday night, in a departure from the superb nonfiction book upon which "Homicide" was originally based, Levinson & Co. offered a fictional story line contrived to exploit white suburban fear of predominantly black cities. We got Robin Williams, in a terribly unconvincing performance, visiting Camden Yards with his family. His wife is shot by one of three black men on a street near the ballpark.
It's a "red ball" case for the cops, meaning there's a lot of political pressure to arrest suspects ASAP. (If you didn't understand that some lives are considered more precious than others, actor Yaphet Kotto delivered a little homily about how, when the victim is middle-class and white, cops get all this pressure from the mayor, but when the victim is poor and black, gee, nobody much yawns.)
I guess, for network television, "Homicide" is good. (Some say "dazzling drama" or "artistic triumph.")
There is so much garbage in the dump, one rushes to celebrate the arrival of a diamond. This is what is meant by "critically successful" -- critics like the show but the public does not. "Critically successful" often means mediocre ratings.
And that points up a problem with television. It's not that it's too violent, it's that it's mostly vapid. Sitcoms, made-for-TV movies, tabloid shows, talk shows.
In almost all its forms, American television trivializes everything it touches: love, death, sex, marriage, crime. Every aspect of human life, sucked into this vacuum, ends up as little more than background noise.
So, hand-held cameras and jump-cuts, employed in a long, annoying stream on "Homicide," get our attention. We look up and we see solid ensemble acting and hear crisp, authentic-sounding dialogue. And it didn't hurt, of course, to have Barry Levinson lend his name and power to this show.
But I can't get around this: "Homicide" is still Hollywood. It's well-paid interlopers showing up on the real killing streets and, in one of the most surreal juxtapositions of fact and fiction, creating a TV show about homicide while the real thing is just a few blocks away. What does it tell us? What do we learn from "Homicide"? That life is miserable on the streets. That cops are sometimes callous. That young men in the city commit senseless acts of violence, wasting lives, including their own. What social benefit is derived -- assuming that's the purpose -- from this show besides employment for Ned Beatty?
Knocking "Homicide," this daring TV drama, is not the correct position for me to take. I am supposed to applaud its artistic merit and cheer Barry Levinson's attempt to present an anesthetized television audience with a rare, meaty slice of real America.
Well, there was plenty of that around before Barry Levinson discovered it. There were 330 homicides here in 1972, 353 last year. This city ranks as the fifth-deadliest in the United States in -- the category of homicides per capita, and it is cracking under the weight of such a huge waste of life and all the other problems the statistic symbolizes and begets.
Barry Levinson is not just another producer/director out to turn some bucks. I like his work and like to think he genuinely cares about the old hometown and appreciates, as much as anyone who doesn't live here anymore, the debilitating impact an off-the-charts homicide rate must have on city life. But if he really wanted to shake America into attacking this huge and complicated problem -- again, that's my wishful assumption -- then he should forget actors and audience-pandering plot lines, and come to Baltimore and document real life, instead of trying to imitate it.
No matter how artistic, the imitation trivializes the reality.
That's the unalterable nature of commercial television. I accept that. But not when it comes to homicides, young men killing young men, bodies piling up, right before our eyes.