Saturday, April 17, 2010

Old Homicide

As promised I checked out a little more of Homicide: Life On The Street and got even more of a feel for how special that show was. It's like no other American network TV cop show I've ever seen. It shows a world of grays, where even the "good guy" cops can guess wrong investigating a crime or do bad things and criminals sometimes go uncaught even when they admit to their guilt.

I watched the first four shows of Season 6 by which time the cast had changed drastically from the Season 2 shows I watched earlier. Richard Belzer, Andre Braugher, Clark Johnson, Kyle Secor and Yaphet Kotto were still there but old heads Ned Beatty, Daniel Baldwin, Melissa Leo and Jon Polito were long gone, replaced by younger actors whom I, in my limited modern TV watching, have not seen elsewhere. By this time the show was also in the midst of a long-running storyline about a drug kingpin and the revenge his family takes when he is killed by the police.  In the best of the shows I watched, though, that plot did not even appear. The episode was called "The Subway" and a still from it appears above. That's the future Detective Robert Goren, Vincent D'Onofrio on the right playing a man who is pinned under a subway train and has no hope of being rescued alive. The main focus of the show is what you see above, Braugher's character, Pemberton, talking to this man while the fire department works to free him, knowing he only has a few minutes left to live. As you'd expect the tone is somber and quietly powerful. Both actors are great in their roles and the show treats death as something brutally random and inevitabie.

That episode alone shows me why Homicide and its spiritual successor, The Wire, never became quite as popular as shows like Law And Order or The Sopranos.  There were no catchphrases or "cool" characters on this show, just a series of sobering realities and the realization that there are no cut and dried answers in life. It's amazing to me that a program like this lasted on a boradcast network for seven seasons. I don't want to become obsessed with this show and ignore all the other TV and movies out there but I will be checking out more of it every now and then.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bye-Bye CI

There is only one TV show I make any kind of effort to watch regularly even in reruns, Law And Order: Criminal Intent. I watched the latest new episode last night and I think that's going to be the end for me. There is nothing in the show I really want to watch any more.

All three of the Law And Order franchises have long been the only watchable network television for me. Once I got into Criminal Intent I found it really engrossing because it wasn't really a police procedural. It was a mystery show where Robert Goren, the brilliant Sherlock Holmes-like lead, just happened to be a police detective. I really got drawn into the show's formula of detectives Goren and Kay Eames investigating a murder and uncovering a convoluted plot that made no sense whatsoever once you thought about it but was compelling for the time you were watching. A handwriting expert who forges evidence discrediting a dead priest's candidacy for sainthood so his mother will stop giving the priest's foundation money? A recording engineer who leads a gang of homidical teenage bicycle thieves by indoctrinating them in the writings of Marcus Aurelius? A masochistic transvestite who decapitates his best friend to prevent her from writing a book about how he killed his mother when he was a boy? Hey, for 44 minutes it all made sense.

     That was how it worked for the show's first five seasons. Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe worked well together as the detectives and the show clicked along fine, even when Chris Noth, a veteran of the original L&O, and Anabella Sciorra were brought in as a second team when the show's grind started affecting D'Onofrio's health. Then things started to change. Rene Balcer, the original executive producer, left and the shows started getting more sensational and erratic in quality. The mysteries got plainer and Eric Bogosian replaced Jamey Sheridan as the detectives' captain, playing an almost needlessly belligerent character.

  Last season Noth left and was replaced by, of all people, Jeff Goldblum which was really a sign of trouble. The Goren character was a mass of ticks and eccentricities, the kind of character Goldblum could play in his sleep. It was obvious that they wouldn't keep two actors playing virtually the same character around for long and sure enough, as the ninth season began a couple of weeks ago, the entire old cast was replaced. Bogosian's character was killed, Goren was fired from the force and Eames resigned, leaving Goldblum, his new partner played by Saffron Burrows and the new captain played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

The actual plot of the premiere involving weapons traders and an African king assassinated by his son wasn't much but it was worth it to see how Goren and Eames made their exit. Then last night came the first show with the new cast, a story about the shooting of a crooked cop and a grandfatherly Irish gangster that was almost insultingly simple. That killed it. There was none of the show's juice left. There is sone talk that Burrows is not working out and that Erbe may return but I don't think that will rekindle my interest. I'll still watch reruns when they show up or check out early episodes I've never seen through Netflix but the present-day CI has lost me.

At the same time I've just discovered another highly acclaimed police show that's been off the air for 15 years, Homicide: Life On The Street. I knew David Mills, the TV writer, slightly and when he passed away a couple of weeks ago I suddenly wanted to see some of his work so I got a disc of Homicide that contained a renowned script of his, "Bop Gun". I watched all four episodes on the disc. I was a little underwhelmed by the first episode but by the time I watched all four, I got it. I began to see what a singular show this was, a polilce drama with complex characters and stories that resisted easy, didatic labels. I got the full flavor of Richard Belzer's John Munch for the first time and saw what a ferocious actor Andre Braugher can be. I don't know how intently I'll pursue all seven seasons of the show but I did rent another disc from Season 6 that, coincidentally, features Vincent D'Onofrio a few years before Criminal Intent. I'll be interested to see if the quality holds up.