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Producer takes fluttering pulse of 'Homicide'; TV: Executive producer Tom Fontana defends new plot lines in Baltimore's own police drama even as he admits that the show's future is uncertain.


So far, this has not been such a great season for "Homicide: Life on the Street." But it hasn't been a terrible one either, executive producer Tom Fontana said in a telephone interview this week on the state and fate of the NBC drama.

"Did everything new that we tried this year work? No. Did none of it work? No. There are things I'm very proud of in the first bunch of episodes, and there are things in retrospect that I wish we had done better," Fontana said.

Reacting to criticism in The Sun and elsewhere about the emphasis on newcomer Michael Michele and intra-office dating, Fontana said, "When people talk about all the loving stuff and all the stuff about people asking other people out for a date, I think, hey, wait a minute. 'NYPD Blue' does it -- that's what they're heralded for. And, in 'The Practice,' everybody's kissing everybody all the time.

"But, somehow, 'Homicide' is not allowed."

Fontana said he thinks the dating this season has been "handled in a very 'Homicide' kind of way," as opposed to "going melodramatic."

As he explained it, "We bring this incredibly beautiful woman [Michele as Detective Rene Sheppard], and we have every guy do what every guy would do, which is sniff around her. And she doesn't date any of them. And she doesn't sleep with any of them. And there's nothing more 'Homicide' to me than that."

As for Detectives Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) and Laura Ballard (Callie Thorne) dating, Fontana said he thinks "there's actual heat between them" and that the story-line works.

"So, I thought, wait a minute, what exactly did I do wrong here?" Fontana said. "If I did what was expected, which is that we introduce this incredibly beautiful woman, and she's got her clothes off in the second episode, and she now [sleeps] her way through the squad, then, yes, beat my head with a stick."

Fontana also took up the case of the other cast newcomer, Giancarlo Esposito, and his character, Mike Giardello.

"Giancarlo's position is a very difficult one for an actor to be in," Fontana said. "Where I have been at fault with his character is that I so didn't want him to be another version of Frank Pembleton [Andre Braugher] -- the angry, self-righteous [jerk] that we love -- that I think in the writing we decided to make this guy very much an observer, and an absorber, an outsider. His goal is not to cause trouble.

"But what happened as a result of having him be deferential, I think, is that we made him maybe less dynamic than the character should be.

"So, it's not Giancarlo's fault, it's mine, in that he was playing what was written. I feel like Giancarlo's a great natural resource that we have yet to tap."

Fontana promises fans of "Homicide" that they will see these characters develop more fully starting tonight with an episode dealing with race, titled "Shades of Gray."

It opens dramatically with a white bus driver hitting a black female pedestrian in lower Park Heights and being beaten to death in a mini-riot.

Race and racial attitudes are explored on a number of levels, including a personal conflict between Detectives Stuart Gharty (Peter Gerety) and Esposito's Mike Giardello.

"What I like about the performance [by Esposito] this week is that it does start to give Mike a little bit more of an edge, a little bit more of an attitude You have to let that develop over the course of a few episodes, which is what we will be doing."

As for the future of the series, which is currently starting production in Baltimore on the 16th of its 22 episodes for the season, Fontana said: "There is always uncertainty. There are a lot of factors still at play beyond the kind of things we talked about, and they all have to do with money.

"I would love to be able to say to you that we're back for next year and everything is absolutely going to be better than ever before. But, unfortunately, the truth is, we're hanging on by our fingertips."

Pub Date: 1/08/99

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