Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Homicide: Life on the Street

In 1993, a show premiered after the Superbowl. It was Homicide: Life on the Street and its first and second season episodes were shown sporadically, equalling 13 in total. It is considered the precursor to the HBO show The Wire, as it was created by the same people and centered around the same town. It is one of the best shows ever produced on television. Well-written, excellently acted, and realistic, the show didn't have the sexiness of NYPD Blue; it wasn't a soap opera in any sense of the word, and it differed from Law & Order (a show that premiered 3 years earlier) and procedural shows of that ilk in that the murders investigated were not always contained to a single episode, or even a pair of episodes. The show was gritty; cameras were handheld, shaky, and scenes were often cut with a "jump" effect: characters would be in the same scene, standing in the same place, and the camera would have changed positions.

What the show runners did was create a television program could be sophisticated and dark and smart without being on a premium channel, without playing to people's baser desires, and without making the show sensationalistic or even terribly personal. The show's dynamic comes after the titillating action has occurred. There are no high speed chases, no shots of a grotesque and mutilated corpse for shock value, and no murders on screen. We come in after the homicide has taken place and our detectives are called on the scene, and the show is all the better for it. The show also does something incredible: it posts realistic outputs in terms of how many homicides the detectives solve. On a show like House or Bones, the audience has an expectation that the disease would be found or the murderer would be apprehended, because House and Bones are the best in their respective fields. But Law & Order's solved crime rates are incredible; as are CSI's, Cold Case, and numerous other cop shows. And I refuse to believe that every single detective in every department spanning Law & Order's franchise is the premiere in their field. Homicide had excellent detectives, those who were the best of the best, and it had a white board: unsolved homicides in red, solved in black. And the ratio between the two wasn't huge. Most detectives had as many or more red cases as they did black. And many cases we were introduced to in the course of the show went on unsolved, because that is the true way of a Homicide department.

Homicide's characters were not PC; they weren't always likable or nice or easy to route for. They were at times racist, sexist, wrong, or just plain assholic. But the thing we see day in and day out is how normalized their job really is to them. At one point, a character tells the husband of a victim that every detective remembers his first homicide, but no one remembers their 40th, or 50th. Because of that, the episodes themselves play more mundanely than one would ever expect a crime show's episodes to be. And this type of show is the precursor to Sports Night, or The West Wing -shows that also concentrated almost solely on characters at their jobs who do their jobs well and whose personal lives are left on the periphery of the screen even as we learn details about them. And because the show is so well-written, because it stands up against the shows of today in its intensity and its maturity and its ability to enthrall the audience, it doesn't matter that its first episode aired 15 years ago and its last original appearance on television was 8 years ago. Everyone interested in quality television should be prepared to watch it, and be amazed by it.

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