Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Homicide: waxing nostalgic

Thinking about Munch prompted me to poke around YouTube for clips of Richard Belzer's other in-character cameos. While NBC seems to have successfully taken down any snippets of his appearance on 30 Rock, I did find a surprisingly large number of Homicide excerpts — even whole episodes.

If all you know is the pale shadow of John Munch that graced the squadroom of Law & Order: SVU, you need to see him in his original stomping grounds. Munch has gotten a lot more attention than the other Homicide characters only because he survived beyond the end of the show (and the subsequent TV movie). When you see him in his native habitat, you realize he was part of a special breed, one that thrived in an exceptionally well-written environment.

This clip, for instance, finds Munch in a typical moment of down time between cases, or at least between moments of active police work, in the company of his best partner, Stan "The Big Man" Bolander (Ned Beatty) and fellow detective Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson). Bolander and Lewis also figure prominently in the last ten minutes of "Crosetti", a wrenching episode that also featured a brilliantly written and acted exchange between Bolander and Gee about which I wrote a while back. Munch doesn't have much to do in these ten minutes but his brief exchange with Gee about eulogies is classic for the character.

The interactions between Bolander and Lewis show why Homicide, in spite of its flaws (see: Falsone, the Luther Mahoney storyline, all of the seventh season), is so much better than all of Dick Wolf's Law & Order series put together. Wolf fields AAA teams; Tom Fontana & co. played in the big leagues. I've seen the episode several times, but Lewis' reaction to the toxicology report, and Bolander's reaction to Lewis, still break my heart.

Note also how Baltimore is vital to the show's atmosphere in a way that New York never manages to be in any of the NYC-based Law & Order offerings. The outdoor shots in the aforementioned clip from "Crosetti" give those scenes tremendous impact.

I enjoy Andre Braugher's buttoned-up captain on Brooklyn Nine Nine, a character that nothing can discomfit. Nevertheless, I sometimes miss the more vulnerable Pembleton. Here, for instance, we see first Bayliss (Kyle Secor), then Kellerman (Reed Diamond), get under his skin. It's enjoyable to watch him lose his cool, however slightly: it humanizes the super-cop. Nor does Pembleton have to be irritated to show his softer side: sometimes all it takes is a few moments of enforced leisure, as in this interlude with Lewis.

I do love me some Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), too, and when the female super-cop has a real conversation with the male super-cop, it's always a special moment. Here's a quick, quiet, serious chat that directly affects one of Pembleton's investigations. This one, on the other hand, is nominally about one of Howard's cases, but ends up revealing far more about Pembleton's demons. "It's all in the caffeine."

These characters live and breathe and we care about them, thanks to superb writing, acting and directing. That's why the show's fans were and are passionate about it. Few TV shows manage to make us genuinely passionate. All hail Homicide: Life on the Street.

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