Created by Paul Attanasio
Produced by Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana
Starring Daniel Baldwin, Ned Beatty, Richard Belzer, Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto, Melissa Leo, Kyle Secor
- Running audio commentary with Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana on the pilot episode
- Interview with producers Levinson and Fontana
- “To Catch a Killer: Homicide Detectives” episode of A&E’s series American Justice
- Superbowl XXVII commercials for the Season One premiere
- Song listing
- Cast and crew biographies
Released by: A&E
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 TV aspect
My Advice: Own it if you’re a fan of the series; if not, rent it and become a fan.
[ad#longpost]Homicide: Life of the Street is based on the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Some of the stories in the series were taken directly from the book, which was written by journalist David Simon, who spent a year with the Homicide unit in Baltimore. Originally intended to be adapted into a feature film, it ended up being adapted for television instead in 1993, with wonderfully dramatic results. The pilot episode opens with detective Tim Bayliss’ (Secor) first day on the homicide squad in Baltimore, Maryland. He is partnered with the fiercely independent Frank Pembleton (Braugher), and is thrown into the chaos of the squad right off the bat.
Giardello’s (Kotto) squad is like a dysfunctional family, sometimes working well together, and often butting heads and getting into pissing contests of a sort. Although we are introduced to the squad through the eyes of its newest member, the show has a stellar ensemble cast. The detectives range from the sweet yet bumbling veteran, Bollander (Beatty), to the squirrelly and much-divorced John Munch (Belzer) and fiery yet businesslike Howard (Leo), among others. Reigning over them all is their lieutenant, Al Giardello, a man who equally embraces both his African and Sicilian roots and who keeps the standards of his team very high. The chemistry between the characters is riveting, and adds a lot to the realism of the show. Each partnership has its own special kind of dysfunction–for example, star pupil Pempleton is saddled with the rookie Bayliss, while responsible Howard gets frustrated with her slightly lazy partner Felton (Baldwin).
Each episode has multiple cases being worked on by the squad, some of which are solved quickly (the death is really a suicide, someone confesses right away, or someone is stupid and gives him or herself away quickly and then confesses), and some of which are much more difficult, stretching over multiple episodes or never solved at all. For example, rookie Bayliss’ first case as the primary detective is the murder of an eleven-year old girl which becomes a case with which he struggles through the whole season. Each victim’s name goes up on The Board in the squad room, in red until the case is solved, and then in black, under the name of the primary detective. The Board becomes another through-line in the series–we see the names from previous episodes, either in red or black, each time a new name is added. Often we see names for cases we have never encountered, stories that were never told.
The series is very well-written and directed, feeling very cohesive despite the fact that it was often written and directed by different people from episode to episode. The through-line that makes the series feel so smooth, aside from its ensemble of very rich characters, is the cinematography, which, ironically, is not smooth at all. Using a lot of natural lighting over a huge range of different locations in each episode, the camera moves almost constantly. Adding to the slight unease and spontaneity of the scenes are jump cuts, which have no regard for the continuity of a scene, making you feel as if a bit of time has passed between lines (and you’re never really sure what you may have missed in that time). Also, occasionally a phrase or a line is repeated over again a few times, each time from a different take, and often from a different angle each time. The grittiness of the lighting and the odd angles, the seemingly unstructured shots, and the abruptness of the jump cuts give the series a texture that I believe many series today try to emulate and never quite achieve with the same success.
The features in this set are fairly admirable for a TV series that’s not currently taping more episodes. The two Superbowl commercials are neatly edited teasers that are kind of fun to watch, and the cast and crew biographies are pretty standard, but are nice to be able to refer to. Richard Belzer narrates the interview with Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, which is a short and concise overview of the series, dealing with everything from casting to ratings struggles with the network.
And perhaps one of the things that most adds to the atmosphere of the show is the music used in the series, which is why I love that they do a song listing on the DVD. It’s broken down by episode and has all of the information you need to find each song elsewhere. But by far the gem of the features is the commentary of the pilot episode with creators Levinson and Fontana. Each of them speak a lot about the uniqueness at the time of the cinematography of the show, with its hand-held cameras and jump cuts, which was apparently a running issue with directors who hadn’t worked on the show before. When it started, they got flack for it being too gritty and dirty (one of them makes a comment that the reason people felt that way at the time is that they were used to the colorful exuberance of Murder, She Wrote. They also mention how the actors were inspired to be more spontaneous because they never knew when the camera would be turned on them in a scene. All of the tidbits that they bring up about the history of the series and the reminders of how revolutionary some of the things about it were at the time add a lot to the richness of the series upon re-watching it. In addition to the features that are directly about the series, A&E also includes an episode of American Justice that profiles homicide detectives in a few specific cases from around the country. While it doesn’t reference the series at all, it’s still an instructive juxtaposition to the series to have real homicide detectives talking about their experiences with real cases.
If you have never seen the series, please rent this set and get yourself hooked. When it originally aired, one review stated that the show was “so good, it’s barely TV,” and I must agree. If you’re already hooked, go out and get it. It’s the kind of series you want to watch multiple times, and with the features, it’s well worth owning.