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Homicide: Life on the Street.

Some viewers in the more fortunate corners of America might take the new series "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern) as a first-rate urban melodrama. They might praise the show's eccentrically absurdist bent and savor the spice of its Baltimore location filming.

But to most other urban dwellers, I'd guess, "Homicide" looks like social realism Although real life is sometimes stranger. Consider the following:

Over the Christmas holidays, at a corner six blocks uptown from our New Orleans apartment, a 16-year-old kid was killed in a Wild West-style shootout after a highschool dance. A couple of months before, just around the corner from us, a new neighbor, who turned out to be in the drug-retailing business, came crashing off his balcony and into the street after receiving fatal gunshots from a business associate. About a year ago, a newly married young woman was shot in the head by a guy on a bicycle because she tried to hide in her car during a robbery attempt.

That is far from a comprehensive account, and the area around our apartment is not one of the city's toughest. Such an unsentimental journey through the streets of Baltimore is the weekly business of "Homicide," produced by filmmaker Barry Levinson, the presiding genius behind "Rain Man," "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Tin Men" and "Diner." It's Levinson's first foray onto the small screen, and, surprisingly, it is, if anything, tougher and smarter than any of his cinematic efforts.

Levinson's series is loosely based on a nonfiction book by David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Simon followed a squad of Baltimore cops, day and night, for a year, then published the results. The series strategy is the same.

The core cast comprises four pairs of detectives plus their commander, a unit devoted solely to the investigation of murders. When a case comes in, the victim's name goes up on a wall-size board in red magic marker, under the name of the officer in charge of the investigation. If, or when, the case is solved, the name is rewritten in black. As the commander remarks, "You can look up there [at the board] at any time and know exactly where you stand. There aren't many things in life like that."

The show follows several investigations at the same time. The scenery is shoddy. The camera work is rough and jumpy and all in your face. The streets are so real you can smell the hot asphalt and taste the vendor-cart hot dogs.

If any of this sounds like "Return to Hill Street Blues," well, that's because it does. The "Homicide" beat is less underclass-intensive than was the "Hill Street" precinct. The killers and killed in the early episodes are from a variety of socioeconomic circumstances, from trailer-park poor to row-house working class to the more comfortable middle rungs. As standup comic-turned-actor Richard Belzer (Detective John Munch) remarks to his partner (played by Ned Beatty) during one investigation: "Ah, green lawns, fresh air, nice houses ... this is the place for a murder."

While violence and death are the inescapable topics on "Homicide," there is very little on-camera violence. There's not much bang-bang in these cops' lives. As presented here, the work of a homicide detective is a combination of the intellectual and the intuitive. As a result, the detectives on "Homicide" represent a fascinating breed of proletarian philosophers and mystics.

Jon Polita, as Steve Crossetti, when not solving contemporary killings, is obsessed with solving the murder of President Lincoln. He's convinced that it involved a conspiracy reaching into the highest ranks of the Confederacy. Melissa Leo, playing the only woman in the unit, talks to the spirits. The ghost of a murder victim visits her at night. Her partner, played by Daniel Baldwin, consults tarot cards. Another detective has a theory that Baltimore's abandoned Memorial Stadium should be filled with water and turned into an aquatic theme park.

The unit's workdays and nights and off-hour commiserations are marked by fast-paced and fascinating bull sessions on these and other, more mundane topics. Often these discussions are held over pitchers of beer and punctuated by the thwack and squish of cracking Maryland crab shells.

As Levinson put it in Premiere magazine, "Most homicide cases never get resolved, so a lot of what homicide cops do is sit around and talk."

As in Levinson's Baltimore-based cinematic efforts, "Diner" and "Tin Men," "Homicide" shows a healthy respect for the wit, wisdom and repartee of self-educated, working-class men and women of the world.

Often absent from these gabfests are Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton, a stern, abrasive and ruthlessly efficient black veteran detective, and Kyle Secor, as Bayliss, his white rookie partner. They are the chief exceptions to "Homicide's" rule of the eccentric. Pembleton follows the laws of the street and comes perilously close on occasion to administering precinct house justice. Secor works "by the book" but is naive and indecisive in the clutch, at least at first.

While the ensemble of characters, as an organic whole, carries the weight of "Homicide's" appeal, the complex and uneasy relationship between Pembleton and Bayliss comes into focus early on as a source of dramatic tension driving forward the episodic and unwieldy narrative. They are the central characters of "Homicide," if in fact the show has a center.

Of course a Hollywood big shot like Levinson doesn't spend his days grinding out TV shows. He started up the series, and put his firm artistic imprint on it. And he might come back to the helm if it goes astray. But mostly it is left to hired bands to fill in the blanks and connect the dots over the long months (or years) of the show's weekly run.

So the best guarantee that "Homicide" will remain worth watching is not the Levinson imprimatur, but the deep and powerful acting chops of the show's motley ensemble cast. They are all very, very good. And Andre Braugher will probably come out of the series a major star.

But especially interesting, to my tastes, is the work turned in here by Richard Belzer, Ned Beatty and Yaphet Kotto, all truly exceptional performers who have been kicked around and badly underappreciated for decades. They have always been - respectively - too hip, too fat and too black for mainstream stardom. But here they latch on to their characters like pit bulls and run. They bring a depth of nuance and a sense of dimension and stature to their work that is rarely seen in any sbowbusiness genre, much less the usual TV cop sbow.

"Homicide: Life on the Street" is strong stuff. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. But it is also starkly unromantic and real stuff. It has no bimbos, no choreographed fight scenes and no cutting to the chase.

What "Homicide" does have, galore, are dead bodies and grim realities - and a sense of purpose about the search for justice and meaning amid those facts.

Danny Duncan Collum lives in New Orleans and writes about popular culture.
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Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Feb 19, 1993
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