Homicide: Life on the Street

1993 | United States

Based on a well-regarded book by David Simon, this police procedural centred on the work of homicide detectives in Baltimore, Maryland. It was praised for its gritty feel and stellar ensemble cast, but was never a front-line hit. A loyal but relatively small audience kept the series going, as did critical acclaim. 

Homicide: Life on the Street was produced by film director Barry Levinson, who saw the series more suited to television than a movie. Levinson approached screenwriter Paul Attanasio, who developed the book and characters for TV and gave the series a dark, downbeat feel. A core group of detectives became as the focus of the stories, with several storylines in each episode. 

The initial cast included Detectives Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty), John Munch (Richard Belzer), Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). Leading the group was Lieutenant Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). Each character was clearly defined with strengths and weaknesses, professional concerns and personal problems. There were few shootouts or car chases on Homicide; the stories about the various cases and the relationships of the detectives held each episode together. 

The squad room's dry eraser board with listed cases (red for those still open, black for closed cases) was a running feature of the show. But like many out-of-the-norm programmes, Homicide didn't attract much of an audience after its early 1993 debut. NBC stuck by the series, even though fewer episodes were ordered per season than most other shows, they were generally slotted in tough time periods. But the network continued to press for changes to attract more viewers, including more scenes with romance and violence. (Homicide also featured several crossover episodes with another NBC crime drama, Law & Order.) 

Over the show's seven seasons, a number of actors came and went and there was a long list of guest stars, including Robin Williams, Lilly Tomlin, and many others who seldom worked on television. Perhaps the best-known regular cast member was the intense Pembleton, whose questioning of suspects helped Andre Braugher win an Emmy for best acting in a drama. Belzer's quirky Munch character moved to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and other shows after Homicide's demise. In an unusual move, Homicide: Life on the Street aired a two-hour television movie in May 1999, wrapping up the show's loose ends. David Simon would soon after create a critically-acclaimed series for HBO, The Wire, which took an even harsher look at the city of Baltimore beyond the police department. That doesn't take away from the merits of Homicide: Life on the Street probably one of America's best cop dramas of the 1990's.

Published on December 21st, 2018. Written by Mike Spadoni for Television Heaven.