Homicide 2

Shout Factory’s Homicide: Life on the Streets (The Complete Series Box Set)

Adam takes a look at one of the best TV series ever created; Homicide Life on the Streets.  Recently released from Shout Factory in a Complete Series Box Set that includes not only all 8 seasons but the TV Movie and a wealth of Extras.

January 31, 1993 aka Super Bowl Sunday.

The Dallas Cowboys win against the Buffalo Bills.

This was not the most important broadcast that night.

The same channel and the same night a few hours later…

Homicide: Life on the Streets

Before all The Law and Orders, before The Wire, before True Detective and the myriad of other police procedural there was Homicide: Life on the Streets.  The show was the brain child of many very talented people with a singular vision.  The show is in a similar vein to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, but choosing Baltimore as its city not New York.  Based off of the David Simon (the same Simon that would go onto Create The Wire) book Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets, Executive Produced by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), created by Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco), and the show-runner Tom Fontana.  This brain trust ensured that Homicide would be “Must See TV” but it was anything but typical.

From the beginning the show actively chooses to cast a wider net than most shows ever would about the business of murders.  These homicide detectives were more human than any before them on Television.  They were not the heightened dumpster fires that the cops of NYPD Blue would be, they weren’t the bastions of decency that the men and women of Hill Street Blues were.  They were civil servants, working a job that required them to be more than just their badges and firearms.

The show went sideways procedural format.  Caring as much as it disregarded it baring on what was needed for the story they were telling.  From week to week the loose interconnected nature of the stories recalled Altman at his best.  Homicide would pivot its view point to the various detectives in the   squad room.  These were not just two dimensional stereotypes as many procedural find it easy to rely on.  These detectives would have conversations expounding on their passions, political beliefs, religion, sports, history and most of all death.

Bolander (Ned Beatty), Munch (Richard Beltzer), Howard (Melissa Leo), Lewis (Clark Johnson), Felton (Daniel Baldwin), Crosetti (Jon Polito), Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and Pembleton (Andre Braugher) were all detectives you came to know like friends during those first few seasons.  Their boss, Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) wasn’t the typical screaming angry Lieutenant.  Giardello was thoughtful, protective, strong willed.  Each of these men and women had a vibrancy, a well-rounded third dimensionality to their characters that felt that their lives did not simply begin and end with the TV episode.  Each new episode brought new shading to this squad; time had changed and evolved them.

Even things like actors moving on from the series became a part of the series itself injecting new members to the squad.  Like the death of Crosetti at the end of Season 2.  Or by the fourth seasons Bollander had left and Felton had also left the precinct. The additions of Kellerman (Reed Diamond) in Season 4 to fill some of the void left from Felton and Bollander.  Falsone (Jon Seda) and Ballard (Callie Thorne) coming into the squad in Season 6 adding a new dynamic to the squad. These either dictum from the Network or Actor’s career adjustments were portrayed as time passage.  Like any other job people come, people go, people live and people die.  It gives Homicide an unpredictable urgency that many shows try to emulate but few have done with such grace.

This sort of artful and aware storytelling by the writers that consistent of a talent pool that consisted of among others David Simon (The Wire), Frank Pugliese (House of Cards), Tom Fontana (OZ), Jane Smiley (Novelist, A Thousand Acres).  It was their unique handling of the stories being told and that allowed the show to not just remain relevant at the time but continue to be relevant more than 20 years later.

The show was never as simple as murder cases.  Fontana by brining on writing with journalism backgrounds had created a foundation for some of the most sobering and humane writing until Simon (who wrote many of the series signature episodes) would continue the work started on Homicide.

The show found its identity (and its stride) in its 5th and 6th seasons as it began to deal with Drug Kingpin Luther Mahoney (Erik Dellums) and his equally vicious sister Georgia Rae (Hazelle Goodman).  It’s during these seasons we see everything work on the show in a way that made it bigger than just another Police Procedurals.  It looked at city politics, corruption, the toll the work takes, the victims.

The writers were pushed harder and farther than a show at the time.  They wanted to strive beyond the “murders of the week” and had. It’s taking conventions and giving them a human face; the simple setup of a man (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) stuck between subway car and the station floor in the hands of Homicide becomes one of the most heartbreaking and thrilling pieces of television.  Rather than push it as some sort of ticking clock set piece the writers it keep the heart and humanity at the episode’s core.  This is not just exclusive to this episode but the entire series. It’s no wonder that the show won 3 Peabody Awards (and not a single Best Dramatic Series Emmy).

The dictum of good writing also allowed them access to equally as talented were the directors who ranged from Academy Award winders (Kathryn Bigelow, Barry Levinson, Barbara Kopple), future big budget A-Listers (Matt Reeves, Martin Campbell) and a huge assortment of Indie luminaries (John McNaughton, Ted Demme, Whit Stillman, Mark Pellington, Gary Fleder, Mary Haron, Brad Anderson, Lisa Cholodenko).  These directors sound like the Murder’s Row of television, two decades before TV began to pilfer the best and brightest from the Indie world.

The series is a marvel of directorial singularity via a style manifesto of sorts.  The direction cast as long a shadow as the writing did.  Levinson directed the pilot setting the tone which all the director’s followed but managed to place their stamp on.  Levinson’s direction of the pilot may be a bit of a cliché now but 20 years ago it was revolutionary.  The hand-held 16mm cameras roving the precinct and streets, the cross cutting and elliptical editing all were new and still feel fresh in the series. Though we have seen this style Homicide used it artfully in the hands of its directors.

As good as the directors and writers were its unreal to list the who’s who of great acting talents that appears in the show beyond the cast.  Robin Williams, JK Simmons, Steve Buscemi, Jake Gyllenhaal (see if you can find him), Neil Patrick Harris, Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Giamatti, Bruce Campbell, Luis Guzman, James Earl Jones, Jena Malone, Terry O’Quinn, Chris Rock, Lily Tomlin, Elijah Wood, Alfre Woodard, Wilford Brimley are some of the actor’s that guested on the show.

It was Williams who set the standard with his 2nd season role as Robert Ellison a tourist whose wife is gunned down.  The role as a good as anything that Williams ever did, showing the grief and confusion of a man in a strange land filled with apathetic officers.  Williams isn’t the only one, each one of the actors was given amazing material and lived up to or exceeded it.

The series never faltered even in its last season, still managing to

The special features include everything was on the original releases and the Homicide TV movie sequel that was only available as a separate release before.

  • Audio Commentaries On Select Episodes With The Cast & Crew
  • “Homicide: Life At The Start” – Featuring Interviews With Barry Levinson And Tom Fontana
  • “Homicide: Life In Season 3” – Featuring Interviews With Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Henry Bromell, David Simon, And James Yoshimura (Narrated By Daniel Baldwin)
  • “Homicide: Life In Season 4” – Featuring Interviews With Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Henry Bromell, David Simon, And James Yoshimura (Narrated by Isabella Hofmann)
  • “Inside Homicide” – An Interview With David Simon And James Yoshimura
  • “Anatomy Of A Homicide” – Hour-Long Documentary About The Making Of “The Subway”
  • Live Panel Discussion With Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, James Yoshimura, And David Simon
  • Law & Order Crossover Episodes
  • Homicide: The Movie (2000 Television Movie)

The special features are as thoughtful as the show itself. The nicest part of the collection is they managed to get the rights to the Law & Order (3 episodes) crossover episodes and Homicide: The Movie to fill out the collection as a truly great and worthy collection.

Though looking at the above listing one would think there wasn’t much in the way of special features the length of each of these features and the commentaries (of which there are 6) are quite substantial and more importantly worthy of the show by giving one a glimpse behind the scenes at the series.  The best features are on the commentaries scattered across the series by the various contributing writers, directors and actors on the series. These were during what I would like to call the heyday of commentaries where everyone pushed to be better.  The best of the bunch is what is arguably one of the best episodes The Subway (the one mentioned previously in this article) Writer James Yoshimura and Director Gary Fleder.

Equally as compelling is the hour long documentary on the making of The Subway, which gives us a look at every single aspect of what it took to create this compelling hour of television.  The interviews and panels amount to hours of content that thoughtfully dissect the season they are about.

Homicide: Life on the Streets isn’t just great television it’s vital storytelling and essential viewing.  This is ground zero for Televisions push to be more than just TV.  Without Homicide we do not get The Sopranos, OZ, The Wire and from there you can do the math on how not just ground breaking but necessary this show is.  The added bonus is that it as compelling and compulsively watchable a show as anything on HBO or Netflix right now.  What are you waiting for… with 133 episodes of genius television you won’t be disappointed with the purchase and the time spent binging something so good. HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATIONS!

Shout Factory’s Homicide: Life on the Streets The Complete Series Box Set is available now.

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