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September 21, 2005

I Kinda Liked the Streets of Baltimore

The other day, I was having one of those conversations that I always end up having about the best TV show... ever. While the Lynchophile in me is comfortable in waving my Twin Peaks tapes around (who has those, by the way?), and Lars von Trier made a good crack at it with The Kingdom, I had no doubt as to my absolute and final answer. Homicide: Life on the Streets is the pinnacle (to date) of television as a dramatic form.

I say this because I just caught a rerun of one of its finest moments while eating my lunch, and am shaken to the core just as I was ten years ago when I first saw it. Andre Braugher is one of the most watchable, mesmerising actors you will ever see on the small screen, and in a fair universe (or perhaps if he was white) would be a megastar. A few years ago, they tried to give him his own medical procedural, Gideon's Crossing, but it crashed and burned after a season (not sure if it made it past mid-way), despite the fact that Braugher could make even a colonoscopy seem like riveting drama. In Homicide, Braugher is Pembleton, a fiery Jesuit consumed by passions and fears we could never know. In this episode from season 3, Braugher is toe to toe in the interview room with a suspected cop killer, played by Steve Buscemi. As they dance around the idea of the shootings, the two of them trade rhetoric on the nature of civil society, the nature of hate, and in extended form, the central theses of Plato's Republic. The dialogue is electric and the atmosphere moreso. I've never seen a scene like it -- the way Braugher's face ripples a strange sense of satisfaction as he pulls the rage hiding within his victim, and slowly, but surely, his weaknesses. Every time Buscemi's white supremacist calls him nigger, he grows in strength. By the end, he's practically dancing. These five minutes may even be the best thing Buscemi's done.

And that was just a few minutes somewhere in the middle of season 3 of an epic and revolutionary series. I won't call it groundbreaking, because I don't know that anybody ever really set themselves up on that new ground. It wasn't just Braugher (who did pick up an Emmy somewhere along the way) -- the acting was universally excellent, particularly from Kyle Secor and the great Yaphet Kotto as the only consistently believable, powerful and non-caricatured black police chief I think I've seen on screens big or small. This was a cop show with few gunfights, and even fewer doses of bullshit. It wrestled, week in and out, with fundamental issues of humanity. Every week, the Baltimore homicide detectives would pick up the phone with apprehension, and stare helplessly at the lengthening list of red names on the white board, open cases a long way away from being rewritten in black.

If Homicide is remembered these days, it's probably mostly for the genesis of Richard Belzer's John Munch, the most stubbornly survivalist character in the history of television, surviving the cancellation and death of countless shows and now enjoying a comfortable twilight in the Special Victims Unit of Law & Order City. But for its amazing editing, its 16mm grime, its consistently brilliant writing, and the guts to push intellectual ideas further than any other show of its decade, I stand by my claim made in recent haste -- best TV show, ever.

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Posted by patrick at September 21, 2005 11:06 AM


you make a good point, paddy, but don't forget the last ep. of M*A*S*H -- and you've still to watch the bloody Sopranos... Tony gets my vote as best-ever tv character...

Posted by: marty at September 21, 2005 2:17 PM

Yes! I always had a soft spot for Lewis. Not really sure why.

Have you seen Deadwood?

Posted by: Ben Wooller at September 21, 2005 2:33 PM

Last ep of M*A*S*H - easily the best episode of any TV show ever, but it was never consistently brilliant over its long run. Then, neither was Twin Peaks. I mean, what was with that long bridge in the middle where James becomes mechanic to a scheming sex-starved rich woman who wants to frame him for murder? That was crap.

The Sopranos will find me when it's ready, I'm sure. Perhaps at the bottom of the Hudson wearing lead boots. But whenever. The time will be right.

Ben - god damn you got me. Deadwood would give it a bloody close run. It's just so hard to commit to a show on Foxtel, as the timeslots are all over the place. But Ian McShane's performance is every bit as terrifying as Braugher's was awesome.

Posted by: patrick at September 21, 2005 2:34 PM

oh, & i almost forgot -- i've ordered in "Big Brother Up-late" from Series 1. Good viewing.... HBO have launched a very expensive "coming soon" ad campaign for a new series "Rome". it looks mint.

Posted by: marty at September 21, 2005 2:42 PM

I have to agree with you. I remember that very scene too. The supremely intelligent Pembleton, playing a stereotypical, uneducated, working-class, black cop to Buscemi, whilst all the while, gradually giving him the rope, inch by inch, with which he'll hang himself. Pembleton could barely contain his delight as he slowly worked this guy like putty, before revealing his master stroke. Buscemi's copy of Plato was written in greek. ( I hope I got that right!)

The other episode that stays with me is, the one which Vincent D'Onofrio appears. A dying man, jammed between a train and the platform. The exchange between D'Onofrio & Braugher is breathtaking.

Posted by: Firefly at September 21, 2005 6:12 PM

Homicide was the best television show ever. It was incredibly brilliant at capturing drama, humor, pathos, wit, and it looked incredible. Every episode provided beauty, social critique and humor. I believe that each episode of Homicide can stand on its own as a unit--that in fact, each episode surpasses the quality of most feature films. You're so right about Andre Braugher--he lights up the small screen and is mesmerizing in an almost revolutionary way. Luckily, the entire show is available on DVD. I've watched Six Feet Under, and while it certainly is excellent, it doesn't compare to Homicide. Thanks for the comments about this show--I still miss it!

Posted by: Beth at September 21, 2005 6:40 PM

hey patrick- not about homicide, but i wanted to post somewhere immediate.

i just read something on your journal that stopped me from disappearing up my own ass. again.

so first of all - thanks!

it was about the flaming lips, and despite the fact you were in post BDO awesome-set thrall, i dusted them off and put them on again, because i'd shelved them for a bit. and you were right; no other band makes being waylaid-sad sound like such a fucking life-affirming party ... i mean, i knew and felt this about them already, but i'd forgot for a bit. how quickly we forget what's really important.

anyway, my point was just gonna be this: i love your criticism because it's cut with a powerful, palpable sense of humanity - you never wield your enviable knowledge like a sword, and the love for the big and bold and bright it carries is clothed in the flattering garb of quiet understatement. i needed to be reminded, and by someone who's maybe not in the immediate circle - it's an unfortunate fact that our immediates all too easily become part of the psychological wallpaper when we feel beset or emotionally lazy.

thank you, man. don't ever think no-one notices.

ps. the reds are still gonna knock your Chavski dicks in the dirt next week ... : ) you won't get nothing past reina, sissoko vs lampard and gerrard vs makelele will be battles to behold, and mr inconsistentia garcia will be so unpredictable (and crouch just so bloody gangly and tall) as to flummox terry, i reckon. bring it on!

Posted by: ruby at September 22, 2005 12:04 PM

I totally agree...best television show ever. Have you seen "The Corner" (a true story based on the life of a family torn apart by drugs) and "The Wire" on HBO? "The Corner" was a 6 part mini-series written by the David Simon and Ed Burns who were I think cops in Baltimore (or one was a cop not sure which one) they also wrote "Homicide" and a bunch of episodes of "The Wire".

Posted by: Sahu at September 23, 2005 10:17 PM

Scrubs and Arrested Development have some of the best comedy writing on TV today. Arrested Development especially has some very witty and intertwined plots. Oh and Curb Your Enthusiasm comes back to TV this week I believe.

Posted by: Jason at September 23, 2005 10:46 PM


Saw a link to this entry and had to come over and read it. You are correct, Homicide was the best show, ever. The episode you're talking about, to me, at least, has two other great scenes. When Braugher take the racist name calling from Buscemi and walks out of the "box" and yells - "He who looses control, looses!" Fantastic. Then when Braugher exposes his rouse to Buscemi and says "let me show you what the jesuits taught me" and proceeds to read Plato in Greek. Wow!

I'm a recent Saprono's watcher, however, it's no homicide. HBO can put swearing, violence and nudity where others cant and to be fair they don't put that stuff in gratuitously. However, David Simon had to work around those and still created great content with unbelievable acting. Yaphet Kotto as a "real" Sicilian. Crazy. A great episode is where he talks about how Italians don't except him cause he's blacks and blacks don't accept him cause he's Italian. To get great acting out of a Baldwin brother is difficult enough and somehow even Daniel Baldwin did great. A TV great came when Chris Noth from Law and Order handed over a convict to Braugher at the Baltimore train station and the two proceeded to argue over NYC versus Baltimore. The convict was none other than Baltimore's own Johnathan Waters. Pure genius.

BTW, I lived in DC all through the 90s and saw the actor playing Luther Mahoney and nearly flipped and one time saw the actor playing the chief of police in Borders on L St.

I only wish the DVD price would come down so I can buy all 7 seasons.


Posted by: Patrick McQuown at September 23, 2005 11:31 PM

best drama ..yes
best comedy and overall...the simpsons

Posted by: judson at September 24, 2005 2:00 AM

I love Homicide, but I also love Rescue Me. Tough choice. Your call, Sophie.

Posted by: KateCole at September 24, 2005 10:25 AM

I would argue Twin Peaks and M*A*S*H to be the best ever. It's a toss up which one of those is the best, but forced to choose I would say Twin Peaks. I really had everything you can ever ask for in a TV series.

Posted by: Fredrik at September 24, 2005 4:03 PM

Hi Patrick -

My comments on your Homicide post are posted here.

Posted by: KaneCitizen at September 25, 2005 11:32 PM

Fine by me. I'll take OZ over Homicide but I've no complaints with Homicide being called the best show ever. Pembleton is probably the best character on a TV show ever. Yup.

Posted by: bse at September 26, 2005 4:54 AM

"Homicide" was amazing, all right. I remember another scene from the episode you refer to. When Pembleton arrested Buscemi's character, the latter was getting a "massage" and was getting pissed at the "masseuse's" too-general talk about what she wanted to do to him. "You have to me more specific," Buscemi says.

At this point, Pembleton walks in, puts the barrel of his gun against Buscemi's temple and says, "Do not move, or I will shoot."

Buscemi (not missing a beat): "Now that's more like it."


Posted by: Mark at September 26, 2005 1:27 PM

(Weird, Typekey doesn't like your site.)

Wow, yeah, I was immediately thinking of that very same scene -- that was one of the high points of the series, brilliant stuff. The one downside of the d'Onofrio ep is that it was a one-off "signature" show, but the Buscemi one was woven into the show like anything else.

I'll take exception to the "best ever" judgement -- it's close but I don't give it that honor. For me, that will always be St. Elsewhere.

As for Munch, he's only been a regular on H:LOTS and L&O:SVU. He's done crossovers to the other parts of the L&O universe, but hasn't been a regular on any cancelled shows. And Munch is the link between the LOTS universe and Tommy Westphall's snow globe world. ;-)

Posted by: Dan Hartung at September 26, 2005 2:15 PM

that's some talk-back you've inspired there, paddy... and so, the nerd-spot piqued, here's my top five, in no particular order, or genre, or so on & on...

The Sopranos
The Simpsons
The West Wing
Fawlty Towers

Posted by: marty at September 26, 2005 6:27 PM

I can't believe all these people are so excited about MASH; it was a great show, don't get me wrong, but it's no Homicide. For years, I watched the show religiously, and even now, I feel a small pang every Friday night when it's not there. I know it's on Court TV or something, but I should just break down and rent the DVDs instead. Which I may have to do right now, new TV season be damned.

Posted by: Donna at September 27, 2005 3:06 AM

Makes one proud to be from Baltimore.
You should see HBO's The Wire. Also amazing. Really.

Posted by: Baus at September 27, 2005 6:55 AM

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