Now I’ve finally come to the end of all the seven years of episodes of “Homicide.” (Still not the movie.) I had read all the episodes of “The Wire” previously and seen a few episodes of “Homicide” randomly as broadcasted. Watching a long series like this is like reading a huge book and one comes to the end with mixed feelings. It has constructed a virtual world with a lot of reality to it, and yet the inventiveness of the writers, the parameters of the premise, the extent of the location and the personalities of the actors begin to wear. What makes this double series -- considering “The Wire” as developing out of “Homicide” with “The Corners” (haven’t seen it) as a transition -- interesting to reflect on is the tension between local, connected, reality-based people who are offering these serieses and the industrial bi-coastal business models who have no sense of any life but their own and their stubborn convictions about what will sell with sufficient return to support their own “lifestyles.”
The creative team did a good deal of fancy footwork to mollify NBC, but they were also hard on their own team-members. One actor, who began to buck and balk, was simply fired. I’ve done this myself on a very petite scale when I was teaching high school dramatics. I wrote plays for the kids who wanted to act and if one of them became uncooperative, the script was rewritten to kill him or never let him exist in the first place. I was not so sophisticated as this team, whose script-creation was many-layered.
First came the idea, the premise of a homicide squad in Baltimore and the idea of focusing on the effects on those persons rather than the excitement of the crime itself. The fact that the originating book came out of real life experience meant that they were actually aware that homicide detectives HAD lives and reactions. (This concept has since developed quite a bit. In the BBC mysteries detectives are human to the point of eccentricity.)
What NBC knew was violence and glamour, both very stylized. And big name stars. What “Homicide” knew was stories rooted in true life closely observed. They also knew about ensemble acting by committed and resourceful people. The end was obvious: the critics loved the show, NBC withdrew their money, and the creators of this show simply made some adjustments and took the same formula to a friendlier context which was open to the future. Money is only control up to a point, the “tipping” point. Content wins in the end.
The panel discussions at the end of the series and the comments that ran on top of the action in the actual episodes revealed what most people just can’t grasp about such productions: that they are the result of a melée of ideas that finally throws up one focus point that is translated into “beats” or scenes or points of plot development. Then someone goes off by themselves to write an actual script which is likely to be long. The script is given to an experienced second writer who cuts, slashes, reframes, adds, asks questions, and so on. Back to a small group which wrestles the different points of view on the table until a far more intense script emerges. This is what I’m guessing got lost towards the end of the series. The writers hit the beats, but no one was invested enough anymore to sharpen them.
Casting also had a lot to do with the creative energy of the scenes. It was anti-star, anti-big handsome hunk, and anti-glamour girl. But if the actors began to take their own input too seriously, they got bounced. Melissa Leo was too much for the good-old-boy writers and too real for NBC. Out. On the other hand Reed Diamond, who’s a hunk with his eyes too close together (like Lloyd Bridges), was hired to be a pretty but weak guy and fulfilled that role, but attracted enough affection to save his life. Erik Delums’ version of queenly crime mastermind sort of seduced those creative guys, and NBC had to force the writers to shoot him. (The writers defiantly made it a “bad”-- unjustified -- shooting and then sort of reincarnated him as his sister.) John Polito smarted off early and got bounced. I don’t know what kind of earthquake could have dislodged Yaphet Koto, Richard Belzer has made himself a cross-series fixture as a Yiddish Greek chorus, though NBC nearly fainted when he was hired, and Clark Johnson is (I strongly suspect) the character that most of the writers fancy they are. Michael Michelle and Giancarlo Esposito -- late additions -- were NBC’s dream come true, but they were always out of sync. Not a lot.
I’m interested in this sort of narrative “cultural criticism” that is in layers and labyrinths with the personalities and histories of a lot of different people interacting through a concentrated enterprise like a television series. It is no longer a transient medium since probably far more people watch the show on DVD over the years, repeating, watching the people age naturally, seeing the stories in entirely different cultural cycles and historical shifts, so that they become far more like a long book that is read and analyzed both for the story portrayed and for the dynamics under it. Some dynamics were as disrupting as personality wars and some were probably as accidental as a location not being available at the last minute. The producers set themselves the goal of hiring different directors, often feature film directors, but forced them into a high-pressure, moving camera mode which freaked some and made others shift to a higher plane. This was a conscious source of new energy.
“Homicide” was the first big experiment, beginning twenty years ago. “The Corners” and then “The Wire” proved that people would watch black actors and revealed a whole motherlode of experienced but nationally unknown people, as vivid and indelible as any movie stars. The next series by some of the same people is “Treme,” which is next up on my Netflix queue. They’ve brought back Melissa Leo. Hooray!