Friday, January 31, 2014

"Homicide: the comedy"?

In a (for the New York Times) fluffy celebrity piece, one of the Times' TV critics, Mike Hale, discusses why veteran dramatic actor Andre Braugher landed up in one of this season's unexpected comedy hits, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Much has been made about Braugher never having regularly performed in a sitcom, though one of his other shows, Men of a Certain Age, was a dramedy. Braugher himself thinks he got valuable comedy experience on what is still his best known TV show, Homicide: Life on the Street.

“Not many people are going to agree with me, but ‘Homicide’ was a comedy too,” he said. “It was a shoot-’em-up, and there were all these dangerous situations, but at heart I think it was an office comedy. We always came back to the squad, and the relationships were built upon mutual affection. And I always felt that they were comic in tone.”
The performer's perspective is often different from the audience's, so I won't hesitate to dispute Braugher's characterization of H: LOTS as "a shoot-'em-up". There was certainly gunplay on the show, but not nearly as much as there had been on earlier cop shows like Hawaii Five-O. Frankly, the shootings on H: LOTS always felt out of place on a show that defined its approach in its very first episode with Bayliss' declaration that he wanted to be on the homicide squad because he wanted to use his head, not his sidearm. In fact, there's an inexact but suggestive inverse relationship between the amount of gunfire in a given season of the show and the show's quality during that season.

But as for Braugher's larger point that the show was an office comedy, well, that's a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. Unlike Dick Wolf's Law & Order franchises, Homicide spent a lot of time delving into the detectives' downtime in the squad room. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these moments are comic ones, albeit with perhaps a grimmer edge than most of us see in our own workplaces. Many of the clips of the show in my brief walk down memory lane several months ago feature funny moments in and out of the squad room. Even the supremely dramatic conversation between Bolander and Gee in my very first paean to the show has the darkly comic exchange,

The Italians are an unforgiving lot.

I know — but we make great pasta. It balances out.

I made the point about Homicide's humor, in fact, in my own first thoughts about Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

I have a hunch that truly great dramas allow for the best laugh-out-loud moments, simply because the tension that is built up seeks any outlet for relief. I've laughed harder at ridiculous moments in The Wire than I have at virtually any sitcom. By contrast, mediocre dramas don't build up much tension, so their attempts at comic relief aren't really needed and, in fact, don't feel "earned".

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