By now, everyone is used to the idea of using the time slot immediately following the Super Bowl — still America’s most watched event of any kind— to air special episodes of hit or cult TV shows. Friends, Grey’s Anatomy, The X-Files, Glee— all have examples of exposing shows that are already successful, and making them exposed to the world.
What is forgotten — particularly disturbing, since it has happened within the lifetime of this viewer— is that once upon a time, networks chose to debut series, and try to give a boost to shows that might not otherwise reach a larger audience. This year marks the 20th anniversary when NBC took a huge risk, and launched a show that, up until then, had never been seen on network TV, and has almost never been seen since.
In 1989, a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun named David Simon published one of the most memorable true crime books based on his experiences covering the homicide shift for the Baltimore PD. The book was called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. A best seller on the non-fiction list, it was the kind of book that you might well expect to get made into a movie. But two of the most original minds in entertainment — Tom Fontana, the creative force behind St. Elsewhere, and Barry Levinson, the Academy-Award winning director who was a Baltimore native and had set many of his best films there, bought the rights to Simon’s book, and decided to try an turn it into a TV series. One of their earliest decisions was that rather than film the show in Hollywood, they would shoot and create the entire series on the streets of Baltimore.
NBC in 1992 was in the middle of a major slump. The Cosby Show, which had been its prime sitcom had just come to an end. L..A. Law and Cheers, two of the network flagship series, were near the end of their run. Law & Order had attracted some creative buzz, but was still a cult show. And no one was paying much attention to a show called Seinfeld yet. So the idea of creating a series that could become the next Hill Street Blues hugely appealed to the network. They mostly stayed out of the casting decision, and let them create characters based— some directly, some more obscurely—on actual members of the Baltimore homicide unit. This meant, there were a lot of fat, balding, and downright unattractive actors on the show. They did push for a token woman, but while Melissa Leo was attractive, she wasn’t a supermodel. And for the first season, the majority of the episodes played like they were actual murder cases and not made for television. Cases would sprawl for more than one episode. The criminals would not be masterminds — in fact, one of the characters in the Pilot spoke for the unit when he said “Crime makes you stupid.” The characters would engage in a dialogue which bore little relation to the plot. And some cases, no matter how heartwrenching, would never be solved.
Homicide: Life on the Street premiered after the Super Bowl twenty years ago today. It was viewed by 18.8 million people— by the pre-cable standards of TV, a middling figure. Though critics raved about pretty much from the moment it premiered, NBC didn’t have the next L.A. Law. It averaged 10-12 million viewers per episode, and while those numbers would make it a smash today, it barely got renewed for a second season, and a very abbreviated one at that.
Even now, two decades after the series debuted, it is difficult to describe the impact Homicide had. It didn’t inspire a bunch of copycat shows. Or win a boatload of Emmys. Or make superstars out of the cast of actors— though many have gone on to success in the business. All it was, was the best show on television in the last decade of the twentieth century.
I know that Law and Order and NYPD Blue are considering the most groundbreaking police dramas of the last twenty years; I’m telling you outright, they were midgets compared to what happened on Homicide. Law & Order may have lasted twenty years, inspired countless spinoffs, and won a lot more Emmys: it never even dared to go places that Homicide did in a single episode. In fact, Law & Order was the complete antithesis of Homicide— it was based on headlines, with little room for any character development at all, and no room for change. Homicide did everything that show did, it did better, and it did without gimmicks.
NYPD Blue may have lasted twelve seasons and was considered groundbreaking because of its language and nudity. Homicide didn’t need it, and when it finally tried to use it in its final season, it was clearly a sign of desperation. I’ve always measured the difference between Homicide and NYPD Blue as distinct as this: On NYPD Blue, the characters talked like they were on a cop show. On Homicide, the characters talked like cops. Nobody on NYPD Blue went on diversion in its dialogue the way Homicide did.
When you watch any of the CSI shows that dominate CBS, you see how technology has surpassed character. Everyone cares about the evidence, and nothing about the cops. One episode of Homicide is enough to make you see how phony and fake those procedurals are. Real cops don’t have this kind of technological advancements; these cop are still using typewriters to write up their reports. And they never speak to the camera, they’re almost always looking at the crime scene.
Homicide was a landmark show, and yet it’s barely remembered today. Law & Order and CSI are practically showed on the hours on cable television. You can’t find Homicide anywhere (To be fair, it was one of the first TV shows to be released on DVD in its entirety.) Nobody on the networks try character based crime dramas any more; you have to go to basic cable for that. And when Warren Littlefield mentioned his triumphs on televisions in the 1990s in his memoirs, he goes into detail on Seinfeld, Law and Order and ER. Homicide doesn’t even get a footnote.
I find this offensive and unfair, and so, to prove that someone was paying attention, I intend to use this site to review in detail, all seven seasons of Homicide. I will go into detail of some of the things that revolutionized the medium, how the actors created some of the greatest TV characters of all time, and how, even if David Simon now considers it, his training wheels, how it laid the groundwork for some even more remarkable television in the twenty-first century. This show could’ve been the standard for cop shows; instead it became the last relic of an earlier era. We need more shows like Homicide, and more Fontanas and Simons, rather than Bruckheimers and Dick Wolf’s. They won the battle, but maybe history will judge them differently