These 10 shows demonstrate what television can do in gifted hands, and don't let the elitists tell you it isn't art.
Go back through the 122 episodes of the just-canceled "Homicide: Life on the Street," and you will be astonished by how many great ones there were. "Homicide" might have a higher batting average of best episodes than any series this side of "Law & Order." And the highs on "Homicide" were definitely higher. There's plenty of room for disagreement, and we could easily include another dozen, but here are our Top 10 picks.
"Gone for Goode" (aired Jan. 31, 1993)
Crafting a TV pilot is as intricate a process of distillation and vision as any form this side of haiku. "Gone for Goode" is not just a well-crafted pilot, it is one of the best in the history of the medium. It introduced a sprawling cast of complicated characters and made us want to come back and visit this world again. Paul Attanasio did a splendid job of adapting and creating from David Simon's book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," but Barry Levinson's direction is even better. Levinson won an Emmy for it. He should have won two. -- D.Z.
"Three Men and Adena" (March 3, 1993)
This show won executive producer Tom Fontana an Emmy for writing. He should have won three. Fontana came to TV from the theater, and his playwriting prowess infuses every minute of this landmark hour. It introduced the interrogation room that came to be known as "The Box." It put Andre Braugher's Detective Frank Pembleton in that box with a suspect (Moses Gunn), another cop (Kyle Secor) and a few sticks of battle-scarred, municipal-green furniture and somehow managed to show us the human soul and the heart of darkness. The next time it plays on Court TV, tape "Three Men and Adena." And the next time some elitist know-it-all tells you TV has nothing to do with art, play the tape. -- D.Z.
(Jan. 6, 1994)
It is hard to believe this is a first script for any writer, but that's the case as Simon teamed up with David Mills, a friend since their days together at the University of Maryland. The newbie screenwriters got some help from Fontana, who wrote the storyline of an Iowa tourist whose wife is killed when the couple and their children wander off their tour of Camden Yards. Robin Williams was brilliant as the tourist, and the direction by Stephen Gyllenhaal ("Paris Trout") was as good as anything he's done on the big screen. The episode also made you stop and listen to the music -- really listen to the music -- under the direction of Chris Tergesen. For fun, the next time you view it, count the Parliament-Funkadelic references. Mills, who wrote a book last year about the group, is a P-Funkaholic. Mills and Simon got an Emmy nomination. They deserved to win. -- D.Z.
"A Many Splendored Thing" (Jan. 27, 1994)
NBC told the producers to include more "upbeat storylines and romance," and this is what they gave their Peacock bosses: Bayliss and Pembleton visiting the S&M; scene with Mr. Tim donning leather to cruise the neon river of sin known as The Block. The producers also gave them Detective Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) in a relationship with Ed Danvers (Zeljko Ivanek). Oh, sure, that's a match made in heaven. But there's also Detective Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty) and the much younger Peabody student (Julianna Margulies), and somehow it is as touching a love story as you could want. Now if only the couple could lose Munch (Richard Belzer), who keeps following them around philosophizing about the impossibility of love. John McNaughton ("Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer") directed. -- D.Z.
(Dec. 8, 1995)
Possibly Munch's finest hour. In an homage to hometown favorite Edgar Allan Poe, the detectives find a body that had been sealed years ago behind a brick wall. Munch suspects small-time drug dealer Joseph Cardero (Kevin Conway), and works at convincing him the man's heart still beats under a floor somewhere. Turns out he might be right. Directed by actor Bruno Kirby ("City Slickers," "When Harry Met Sally"). -- C.K.
"Prison Riot" (Oct. 18, 1996)
Bayliss is the only one who seems to care when a pair of murders take place during a riot at the state pen. The astonishingly talented Charles S. Dutton ("Roc") shines as Elijah Sanborn, an inmate who knows what happened, but wants no part of the police investigation -- until Bayliss uses one of Sanborn's kids to gain some leverage. Wonderfully acted, and as a bonus, the prison scenario lets us catch up with some of the crooks the cops have collared over the past 55 episodes. TV Guide chose this as one of the 100 greatest TV episodes of all time; it's easy to understand why. -- C.K.
"The Subway" (Dec. 5, 1997)
As he has done so often in "The Box" Pembleton is once again asked to plumb the depths of a man's soul. Only this time, it's not to extract a confession, but to keep a guy alive. Vincent D'Onofrio is John Lange, a Baltimore businessman who falls beneath a moving subway train. Or maybe he was pushed? Whatever the circumstances, one thing's almost certain: as soon as they get him out from under that subway car he's going to die. And the man charged with keeping him calm (while also trying to piece together what happened) is Pembleton, who wrestles with his own emotions as well as Lange's. James Yoshimura won a Peabody for writing this episode, which was also featured on a PBS profile of the series. Dramas don't come any better than this. -- C.K.
"Fallen Heroes" (May 1 and May 8, 1998)
The Luther Mahoney saga draws to a close. The final count: scores of drug dealers and their minions dead (not to mention Luther); three cops shot (Bayliss, Gharty and Ballard); and two cops off the force (Kellerman, forced to pay for taking justice into his own hands, and Pembleton, who realizes he can never look at police work the same way again). True, "Homicide" was never the same after Braugher left the show, but you can't minimize the loss of Reed Diamond's Kellerman, the brash cop always struggling to do the right thing, and rarely succeeding. A lot of viewers could identify with his aspirations and his frustrations. -- C.K.
"Sideshow" (Feb. 19, 1999)
One of several crossovers between "Homicide" and "Law & Order," the two finest drama series on television. A murder case with ties to New York and Baltimore attracts the attention of independent counsel William Dell (a wonderfully oily George Hearn). Dell doesn't give a hoot about somebody getting murdered; he'd much rather use whatever dirt he can gather to smear the administration (context: Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr). It's always fun watching Munch and Jerry Orbach's Lenny Briscoe trade quips, but the real treat here is watching Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy and Zeljko Ivanek's Ed Flanders team up against Dell, who treats them like a pair of bothersome gnats. -- C.K.
"Forgive Us Our Trespasses" (May 21, 1999)
You haven't seen this one yet. This is the final episode, which will air Friday night. Fontana wrote the script, and, without knowing if the series would be canceled, did a masterly job of providing more closure than a typical season finale. The Bayliss storyline takes us back to Ground Zero, the moral center of the series that he populated as Pembleton's partner. It's wonderful. But, most of all, pay attention to the language of the final scene and the way it echoes the language of the opening of the pilot. Those echoes and the final overhead shot of two detectives searching an alley in the night for something that seems impossible to find offer more insight into the human condition than we have any right to expect from TV. Thanks for the closure, Tom. -- D.Z.
Pub Date: 05/16/99