From its post-Super Bowl debut in 1993 to its coming NBC-mandated get-better-ratings-or-die sixth season, "Homicide: Life on the Street" has earned every bit of its reputation as one of television's top dramas.
Not that its run has been without problems. Despite its high-profile introduction -- not only did it debut in a time slot guaranteed to produce big ratings, but its executive producer was Oscar-winner (and Baltimore expatriate) Barry Levinson -- the show has never been a ratings smash. Last year, it finished third in its Friday-night time slot behind ABC's "20/20" and CBS' "Nash Bridges."
And its refusal to fit into the television mainstream -- in both structure (the show favors thought over action) and location (set in Baltimore, with interiors filmed inside an abandoned Fells Point recreation pier) -- has done little to endear it to television's powers-that-be. How else to explain the show's near-criminal neglect at the hands of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences?
But oh, what the show has going for it.
Inspired by former Sun reporter David Simon's 1991 book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," the show's depiction of intense police questioning has added a new term to the American lexicon: putting someone "in The Box." It has introduced a rogues' gallery that encompasses both the riveting (Luther Mahoney) and the ridiculous (Kellerman's bad-news brothers, who stole Babe Ruth's uniform). It has featured death by bowling ball, death over a pen and death in tribute to Edgar Allan Poe.
It's also weathered cast changes that would have sunk a lesser show. Ned Beatty, Daniel Baldwin, Jon Polito and Melissa Leo have gone. Michelle Forbes and Reed Diamond showed up. Isabella Hofmann and Max Perlich showed up -- then were gone.
This season, three new regulars will join the cast. Two were part of last season's death-of-Beau-Felton episodes: Jon Seda as auto-theft detective Paul Falsone and Peter Gerety as Detective Stuart Gharty of Internal Affairs. (Both have been re-assigned to the homicide unit, thanks to the department's new rotation policy.) The third, Callie Thorne's Detective Laura Ballard, is a brash Seattle transplant who shows up prepared to suffer no fools lightly.
So, "Homicide" marches on, each year embraced a little more warmly by the Baltimoreans who call it neighbor. Just ask production designer Vince Peranio, whose job includes scouting locations throughout the city and its environs.
"Many locations we've gotten have been merely because [the owners] were such fans," says Peranio, himself a native Baltimorean. "You go to these wonderful mansions in Ruxton and stuff -- what you're offering them as a location fee is a pittance. But they say, 'Oh, that's one of my favorite shows. Yeah, sure, you can film here, you can do a murder in my church.' "
Season 6 of "Homicide" kicks off Oct. 17. Here are what those in front of and behind the camera say about their show.
Tenure: 6th season
Character: Detective Frank Pembleton
Extra-curriculars: Being overlooked by the Emmys, lecturing on Shakespeare to area high-schoolers
On the show's evolution: Collectively, our characters had to become much more humane, likable and accessible. Because after a while, no one digs characters that they can't see into. So the opaque quality of our characters had to be finally dissolved and [the characters] made absolutely translucent.
On character development: I would rather keep the opaqueness, because it allows me a greater range of expression, because anything can happen. But once we find ourselves in a place where the audience is allowed to see into the frailties and vulnerabilities inside the characters, then a kind of emotional consistency wells up. . . . Eventually it does move your character within a smaller circle. Anything is possible for the character we can't truly see inside, because they maintain an element of mystery.
On Pembleton's stroke last season: That challenge was quite interesting, but of course, the television show can't contain a sensitive portrayal of a complicated rehabilitation and remain an action-packed cop show.
On the ratings: I think we can be patted on the back and applauded until the day we are canceled. We really have to understand the demands of the marketplace, which demands that we do a certain kind of show. . . . We are still a business, even though we are in the business of putting together art.
Tenure: 6th season
Character: Detective Tim Bayliss
Memorable on-air moment: During a visit to New York, tried to hit on Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy on NBC's "Law & Order"). No dice.
On the development of Bayliss: I'm really happy with what's happened to him over those last six years. There's really been a growth, from being this rookie who's learning things to going through a period of becoming a little bit more cynical about the work to finding a way of dealing with . . . [his] personal issues through his work -- and that's helped the cases that he's been investigating.
On the visual style: In the first season, we had a camera that moved around a lot. There were a lot of people out in television land vomiting watching it, because of the ride that they were on.
On on-screen violence: It's not something that I'm really happy about. But it's something that seems to be in style right now, for these types of shows.
On TV's influence: I don't know until this world comes to an end if any of this stuff really makes any difference at all, if having violence on TV, and the way that we show violence on TV, will have any impact. I don't think that people are watching our show necessarily and are going out and committing homicides, crimes. . . . There's a lot of suffering in my character's life, there's a lot of suffering in the world, and I hope that we're holding up some mirror to that. Maybe that's the best that you can do.
Character: Chief Medical Examiner Julianna Cox
Tenure: Second season
Extra-curriculars: Sported a tire-track on the bridge of her nose while playing the Bajoran Ensign Ro Laren on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"
On her character's evolution: I don't drink as much on the show anymore. I came in very strong, . . . drank a lot, fell in love with the wrong men, spoke too fast. But I think a lot of that's been tempered.
On her character vs. herself: On a human level, we're both women. But she's someone very different from me. We have separate flaws. We know what hers are, and I would be quite silly to disclose mine to you.
On researching her role: That's what the imagination is for. I have all the information I need. As far as witnessing an autopsy, no. If I played someone who were pregnant, I wouldn't necessarily have to go out and get pregnant in order to play that role.
On the male-dominated squad: It's primarily a male profession as well. I think that's realistic. It's only just recently, in Los Angeles, that I've noticed there's this big push as far as female cops, but that's only fairly recently. . . . For whatever reason, that's reality.
On the ratings: I know not from ratings. I know not from awards. I care not.
Tenure: 6th season
Character: Detective Meldrick Lewis
Self-description: A guy who does his job
Defining moment: Coming to grips with the suicide of his partner
Extra-curriculars: Teamed with Richard Belzer to nab a hapless bad guy who stumbled onto the set and mistook the actors for real cops; special-effects technician on such films as "The Fly" and "Videodrome"
On his character's ambition: Meldrick's not going to be chief of police, nor would he want to be. Meldrick's buying lottery tickets, hoping to get his 20 years and get a fishing boat.
On the ratings: We get like 12 million people a week watching us. If 12 million people watch us, and we're apparently doing well overseas . . . I don't think that you can appeal to everybody with a show like this, and I don't think that we should be trying to. Let "Nash Bridges" have all the people that don't want to watch us. I think we're doing OK, myself.
On what viewers can expect: We have 20 more of these to do this season, and I have no idea where we're going.
On life after "Homicide": I want to focus more on directing and writing. I've said this from the very first season, the very first episode: This is the best TV I'll ever do. I can't imagine doing anything that's more challenging than this has been, so I would try to steer toward features, steer toward directing.
Tenure: 6th season
Character: Lt. Al Giardello
Self-description: The anchor
Extra-curriculars: Got into a shouting match while "discussing" religion with a guy on a Baltimore street corner; in October, plans to marry Tessie Sinahon, whom he met at a Philippines airport; family research shows he is the great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria
On how "Homicide" has changed: We're missing Danny [Baldwin], we're missing Ned [Beatty], we're missing Melissa [Leo]. We're not doing as many jump cuts and camera moves. Our stories [now] more reflect action, rather than just talking about it.
On Giardello's stature: He steps in and brings, through his hard-nosed policies, some quiet into what could become a runaway storm.
On life as the chief: My character's in a strange position. While he is the center of a storm, the bulwark of the storm, there is not much information in terms of who he is. . . . To start giving the anchor frailties and stuff, he'd no longer have that kind of power.
On work vs. art: I took a big cut in salary to do this. I have not gained financially by doing this show; I did it for creative reasons. And with the help of God Almighty, now it's time for me to go back to work and make some money. My creative juices have been satisfied. . . . For me to love my art that much again, I would have to be a damn fool. And my mother didn't raise no fool.
Tenure: 6th season
Character: Detective John Munch
Self-description: Lenny Bruce with a badge
Extra-curriculars: Not quitting his night job as a stand-up comic and cynical raconteur; flicking on the Washington Monument Christmas lights; "arresting" a real-life bad guy who stumbled onto the set and mistook him and Clark Johnson for real cops
On his character: He's always dark, he has a gallows sense of humor, he's very opinionated, he reads a lot. The rest of the squad looks to him for that cynical take on things. He's always there to point out the chaos.
On Munch's development: We've learned more about him over the years, but he's basically the reflexively cynical guy that he always was. I always find it corny when a character on a TV show changes radically in a short period of time. I don't see any major changes coming, but you'll find out more about him, which is always interesting.
On life after "Homicide": I'm just hoping that Andre [Braugher] will let me ride on his coattails. He's going to be a major film star, and maybe I can be his sidekick, or play the heavy.
Tenure: 3rd season
Character: Detective Mike Kellerman
Self description: A broken man
Defining characteristic: Lives on a boat
On innocence lost: For me, the journey of Mike Kellerman has been about a man trying to grow up and become a man, and he's faking it. He has this very black-and-white view of the world; he believed there was good and bad, and good always won out and bad was put down. He found that's not true.
On Kellerman's place: He's not a supercop. Andre's character, Frank Pembleton, this guy's a supercop. [The audience needs] to see a guy who's constantly struggling. He's more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy on the show. He's certainly less cerebral and a victim of his own decisions and choices.
On changes in "Homicide": In the beginning, it was very close to the book. But you can only have a year or two of procedural drama; at a certain point, you need to add other things. I feel like, when I came on, there was a need for some energy and some action, and that was something I could provide for the show.
On fighting the good fight: I've always felt that an Emmy nomination would just be death for the show. Because once we're part of the mainstream, then we've lost everything that makes us unique. I think being the underdog, being isolated, away from the studio and Los Angeles, has made this show a cut above.
On the end: If this is the last season of "Homicide," my only prayer is that they let us know early so that we can go off with dignity and flair.
Tenure: 3rd season
Nickname: Non-Fiction Boy
First script: Episode 10 (with David Mills), "Bop Gun" (aired Jan. 6, 1994)
On reality: The journalism's the journalism, television drama is television drama. They both have their purposes, and they are not similar. I was very conscious that when I sold a book of journalism, it was not going to stay journalism. Nor did I want it to. If that book was put onto TV precisely as it occurred, we would be getting 9 shares, and it would be a very short-lived series.
On pleasing the suits at NBC: They often want more of a chase than we're willing to give them. Most arrests are two detectives ++ walking up to the door and saying, "Is Pee-Wee home?" We do a lot of that. [But] every now and then, the network wants our guys to run, maybe jump out of a helicopter . . . . There's prices that you pay for any medium, and to be on NBC Friday nights at 10 . . . if viewers want a perfect documentary, they've got to go to PBS.
On the bottom line: To credit NBC, they've given us a lot of rope. They won't give us all of the rope. . . . They've given us more rope than they've given a lot of shows. I'm sure there are a lot of people back in Burbank who think, "If we'd given them less rope, they'd have a 20 share by now."
On change: When Ned Beatty elected to leave the show, and particularly after [Jon] Polito had left, we had lost the older guy who can speak for the past, the older-generation guy in the squad room. And we felt it in Seasons 4 and 5. . . . That's why bringing on Peter Gerity. We really liked what he brings to the squad room.
On ringing true: There are moments when Clark Johnson is doing just routine police procedure where I almost believe he's a cop. He has sort of the temperament of a couple guys I knew.
Title: Supervising producer
Tenure: Sixth season
First script: Episode 3, "Son of a Gun" (aired Feb. 10, 1993)
On blood and guts: We're trying to tone that down, actually. To be honest, it got out of our hands a little bit in the third season. . . . When our detectives got shot, when we showed them graphically getting shot and slowed down the action -- when Felton [Daniel Baldwin] gets shot in the neck and in the side, Ned [Beatty] taking one in the head, the Kay Howard character taking one in the heart -- the ratings went up so much. . . . We got a little too carried away with that, we got a little intoxicated, said "Ooh, look at the numbers jump." That's the battle of trying to get ratings points.
On then vs. now: If you look at one of our earlier episodes, all our guys are kind of like, very cryptic and very cynical. They still are, but every so often, they'll pop a human moment, maybe to their partner, maybe to their wife.
On why Pembleton's stroke was a ratings bust: I don't have the answer to that. I thought we had set up, at the end of the previous season, something that would really interest the audience. Then, when the numbers came out, we were just mystified.
On what to expect this season: At least in the first four or five episodes, the Pembleton-Bayliss partnership is going to be featured. The network wants that, too -- we seem to do a little bit better with the audience when they're the focus.
On the Emmys: It's gotten to the point where it's a joke, and we expect not to be recognized. We've won so many other awards, you'd think we would at least get nominated for something. . . . It's become a shrug of the shoulders. There are some people in the writers' office who always will say it's not fair, but what are you going to do? If we walk away with that kind of sour taste in our mouths all the time, we wouldn't be able to keep writing the show we want to write.
Title: Supervising producer
Tenure: 4th season
First script: Episode 18, "Happy To Be Here" (aired Nov. 18, 1994)
On delving into the characters' personal lives: I think for the most part it has been a change for the better. I think when you live with characters, you can only get away with [ignoring their personal lives] for so long. I think the audience really wants to know more about the people. . . . Hopefully, we've achieved the right balance.
On Bayliss: I think what we're going to see this year with him is going to be exciting. He has a lot of personal difficulties. We've never seen him in a relationship with a woman, he's always had a back-and-forth relationship with Pembleton, as far as regarding him as something of a father figure. I think what we're going to see with those two is more equality of the partnership. No longer is Pembleton the better detective; Bayliss is coming along.
On the male-dominated cast: I like the reality of it, [because] it is a male-dominated profession. . . . Certainly, I wouldn't be adverse to having another woman on the show.
On mass appeal: It certainly would make our lives a lot easier if more people were watching the show. It would be more fun for us. It's certainly no fun being in third place. . . . I think it depends on what our competition is. "Nash Bridges" is a more accessible, more friendly-type show. It doesn't require you to think as much. . . . We're doing a smart, dark, difficult show. I would like to think that the millions of people who do watch our show would be enough.
Homicide's "victims:" Some cast members who have come and gone.
Detective Stanley Bollander
"The Big Man" was in the cast when show debuted in 1993. Character left after three seasons when he was suspended for running nude through a hotel lobby during a police convention, then retired.
Detective Steve Crosetti
After two years with the squad, character killed himself; partner Meldrick is still dealing with the aftermath.
Dr. Carol Blythe
Medical examiner; left in 1994. On-screen romance with Bollander.
Detective Beau Felton
Left cast but was pivotal to last season's finale, when character's body turned up. Off-screen romance with Isabella Hofmann (Russert).
Sgt. Kay Howard
Tough cookie and the only woman who survived from Day 1, she's already gone as this season begins, with her character stuck in the Fugitive Unit. Off-screen, plagued by high-publicity child-custody dispute with ex-boyfriend John Heard.
Videographer J. H. Brodie
Joined cast in 1995, giving directors even more opportunities to use shaky hand-held camera shots. Ousted after end of last season. Off-screen, had assault and handgun charges dismissed after dispute with neighbor in Baltimore.
Lt. Megan Russert
Joined cast in 1994 as one of two women on squad. Character ran off to Parisian romance but returned temporarily for last year's season finale. Off-screen romance, baby with Daniel Baldwin (Felton).
Pub Date: 8/31/97