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'Homicide' burns brighter than ever TV preview: Intense characters old and new along with savvy writing make this NBC cop show one of television's finest.


Bayliss has a bad back, Pembleton's stressed out, police cars are overheating, Giardello's under fire from his boss, and Baltimore is burning with what appears to be the work of a serial arsonist.

"Homicide: Life on the Street" is back for its fourth season at 10 tonight on NBC, and, hard as it might be to believe, the Emmy-award-winning series is better than ever. In fact, you might say it's flat-out smokin'.

I say hard to believe, because "Homicide" lost Ned Beatty and Daniel Baldwin at the end of last season when both said they wanted to work in feature films. Detectives Beau Felton (Baldwin) and Stanley Bolander (Beatty) did not seem like the kinds of characters it would be easy for fans of the series to forget.

But the producers of "Homicide" are not only savvy enough to know that, they are clever enough to have some fun with it. They address the departure of Felton and Bolander at the very start of tonight's show with a delicious little lick from the local headlines and a swipe at rival "NYPD Blue."

Bolander and Felton, we find out by eavesdropping on a conversation between Detectives Munch (Richard Belzer) and Howard (Melissa Leo), have been suspended for running naked through a hotel lobby in Washington with 100 or so drunk and disorderly members of the NYPD who were attending a police convention there.

As a result, the two have been suspended "without pay" for 22 weeks -- which just happens to be the number of episodes in a television season.

"Twenty-two weeks, who comes up with a number like that, anyway -- 22 weeks?" Munch says disgustedly.

"The bosses," Howard says shrugging her shoulders in resignation. "The bosses."

But you hardly start to savor the pleasure of the way network television production reality is merged with the fictional world of these characters when the camera directs your attention to a fire at the R&M; Box Co. on Gay Street -- the real business of tonight's "Homicide."

The body of a 16-year-old boy is found in the warehouse, and Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor) are in charge of the homicide investigation. But there's an arson detective doing his own investigation, who thinks the teen's death was an accident of the fire, not a homicide. The arson detective, Mike Kellerman (played by cast newcomer Reed Diamond), is young, cocky, flip and very good at his job. Do I have to tell you that he and Pembleton are going to be at each other's throats in a matter of seconds?

At first, I wasn't crazy about Diamond or his Kellerman character. But you have to give them some time.

Tonight's hour is Part 1 of two-week episode titled "Fire." Near the end of next week's Part 2, there's a scene in which Kellerman goes to visit his father to ask for some career advice. His father works on the assembly line of a dreary bottling plant. Hardly a word is said in the scene, but a wealth of information is communicated visually about the blue-collar, Baltimore world Kellerman comes from and the scars it left on his psyche. By the end of the scene, I was more interested in Kellerman than any other character in the cast.

There's a great scene tonight, too. It involves Pembleton getting an anonymous phone tip in the squad room. As he hangs up the phone, the soundtrack swells with Jimi Hendrix singing "All Along the Watchtower."

There is no dialogue at all, just Hendrix singing and a brilliant montage that shows us the world as Pembleton sees it. It's urban America getting stranger and scarier to the eyes of one of the last moral men on the planet -- a man still trying to stand fast along the ramparts of decency, courage and community, while all around him society seems on the verge of collapse.

Tonight's return of "Homicide" marks the start of a week of great police drama for which we can only thank the capricious gods of prime-time scheduling. Sunday at 9 on PBS, Inspector Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) returns in "Prime Suspect: The Lost Child." Tuesday at 10 on ABC, Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and the rest of The "NYPD Blue" crew start their new season.

Our fascination with the angst, anger and frustration of Pembleton, Tennison and Sipowicz surely says something about our own anxieties about the way the battle to save our cities and our souls from the forces of evil is going these days.

From our living rooms, we watch television's version of the view from the watchtower. We watch, worry, wonder and hope that the likes of Pembleton, Tennison and Sipowicz can save us.

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