Homicide - Life on the Street: The Documentary

I first read this after The Wire wrapped up in 2008:

Published in 1991 and covering the events of one year (1988) in the Baltimore homicide squad, it's about as relevant to the present (particularly in light of recent events, where I found myself asking aloud "Haven't you read Homicide?" to my computer screen every other minute) as air and water. It's a shame more people haven't (or won't) read it. Granted, sitting down with 600+ pages of unpleasant truths about cops and their communities isn't everyone's idea of a fun time. Still: probably a better idea to get some actual facts about police and communities vs. basing your understanding on #trendbait.

It was the basis for a television series (Homicide: Life on the Street) which is what brings me here today, but before I get to the show, here are the Ten Rules of the Homicide Lexicon according to the murder detectives of the Baltimore Police Department (staggered throughout the text like easter eggs:)

1. Everyone lies. Murderers lie because they have to; witnesses and other participants lie because they think they have to; everyone else lies for the sheer joy of it and to uphold a general principle that under no circumstances do you provide accurate information to a cop.

2. The victim is killed once, but the crime scene is murdered a thousand times.

3. The initial ten or twelve hours after a murder are the most critical to the success of an investigation.

4. An innocent man left alone in an interrogation room will remain fully awake; a guilty man goes to sleep.

5. It's good to be good; it's better to be lucky.

6. When a suspect is immediately identified in an assault case, the victim is sure to live. When no suspect has been identified, the victim will surely die.

7. A homicide is first red, then green, then black. This refers to a) the color ink of an open case as written on "The Board," that rectangle dry-erase board hanging in the squadroom that tracks active investigations, b) the money spent investigating the case, and c) the color ink of the murder on the Board once it goes down.

8. In any case where there is no apparent suspect, the crime lab will produce no valuable evidence. In those cases where a suspect has already confessed or been identified by eyewitnesses, the lab will produce print hits, fiber evidence, blood types, and ballistic matches.

9. To a jury, any doubt is reasonable. The better the case, the worse the jury. 

10. There is no such thing as a perfect murder. Anyone who believes otherwise merely proves himself naive and romantic, ignorant of Rules 1 through 9.

Sorry, guys.
Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999) ran for seven seasons on NBC. The ten rules above are the foundation on which it rests. It shared some things in common with NBC's more high-profile police procedural of the 90s (and beyond) Law and Order, and the two series crossed over several times. One of its detectives, Munch, even jumped ship to the Law and Order universe for good once Homicide went off the air. Munch appeared in-character on multiple shows on multiple networks, which has got to be as much of a trip for Jay Landsman, the real-life detective on whom the character was based, as it is for Richard Belzer.

But where Law and Order offered * neatly (if not always happily) resolved conclusions and an easy to follow format on a weekly basis, Homicide never strayed all that far from the sprawling storylines and cinéma vérité (well, cinéma vérité in writing) of Simon's book. At least when it was at its best.

* I initially wrote "offers," as SVU is still in production. But where the original Law and Order had an easy watchability that managed to stay ju-ust above the waterline, storywise, SVU, like some cape gannet twitched on meth and student union pamphlets, is easy-watching for whole different reasons.

Perhaps that accounts for its never quite catching on with a wide audience, despite multiple awards and much critical prestige. And although it wasn't a perfect show (especially the later seasons) today's Closet of Mystery excursion pretty much is:

Season 5, Episode 11.

The plot: It is New Year's Eve, and the homicide detectives are gathered at the precinct, eating pizza and awaiting the phones to begin ringing with the night's shootings, stabbings, and mayhem. Brody, an aspiring filmmaker and crime scene videographer who has been embedded with the detectives for the past year, (an obvious analog to David Simon, whose yearlong ridealong with the Baltimore homicide detectives yielded the Homicide book) takes advantage of the down-time to screen the documentary he's finally finished.

"The Documentary" as an episode plays to the cast's strengths as much as the documentary within the episode reveals the squad's (perhaps the nation's) complicated relationship with the right to privacy (perhaps all rights in general.)

What a great cast. Previous seasons had Ned Beatty, John Polito, Isabella Hoffman, and Daniel Baldwin, and later seasons would have an almost entirely different cast. (To speed things along, I'll trust the curious to find their way to imdb or elsewhere for more information on the actors, as well as the real-world detectives on whom their characters are based.) But this particular ensemble is my favorite. No other combination of performances and personalities suited the subject matter and approach / vibe of the show better.

Having already mentioned Munch, let's start with one of the other great police characters on TV:

It's probably just me, but Andre Braugher in all subsequent roles always seems like he's giving subtle clues to the audience that he'd rather still be playing Pembleton.

He also reminds me more than a little bit of TOS-era Shatner at times, though not in this episode.
Kyle Secor, one of the few who stayed for all seven seasons.
Melissa Leo, who has a solo episode which is one of my favorites of the series. I may just blog it up here if I get a mind to.
Reed Diamond, who specializes in playing unlikable characters. And yet, because of this, I always admire his professionalism as an actor and end up finding excuses to like the character. I thought he was perfect for Dollhouse, gone from the charts but not from my heart.
Clark Johnson, one of my favorite characters on the show, and the only one from Munch's Baltimore days who bothered showing up for his retirement party. He was great as Gus Haynes, as well.
Ditto for Yaphet Kotto, the Sicilian lieutenant. His assassination reunites the cast for Homicide: the Movie.
and Michelle Forbes - who shows up in all of your favorite shows eventually - as Chief Medical Examiner Julianna Cox:


 A subject the director knows well.
Brody's camera is running when the pursuit of one suspect causes Kellerman and Lewis to invade the set of (actual show executive producer) Barry Levinson as himself:
filming Homicide.

Ultimately this is a story about the right to privacy. The central murder is bizarre - a funeral home director soothes the loneliness left in the wake of his wife's Alzheimers by bringing home attractive lady corpses, putting them around the table as if he's having a dinner party, and taking pictures.

Melvin Van Peebles. (Pretty big coup for the series.)
When a nosy neighbor eventually disapproves of this one time too many, Mr. Jackson shoots him. And his wife. Ergo, Homicide.

"My uncle's a good man. He got a good heart. Why you got to ask about the man's backroom time?"
"I was lonely. I didn't hurt no one."
Well, except his neighbors. But the point stands: as strange as it is (and of course disrespectful to the living memory of the deceased in his care - itself perhaps a comment on the role of the homicide detective) why is this even involving the police? Only because someone couldn't mind his own business. It doesn't justify homicide, of course, but it's an interesting counterpoint to the other events of the episode.

(I should clarify that there was nothing sexual involved in any of this. He was just a lonely old guy who dressed up the newly deceased and gave them one last supper. If this was SVU, this would have been a necrophilia episode, naturally, with Stabler slamming Van Peebles against the wall and squinting angrily at him with Benson saying "Rape kit" four or five hundred times.)

Beyond the case itself, every subplot and line re-enforces the theme. Brody's camera captures the identity of Kay's boyfriend (a long-running mystery) as well as the Lunch Thief (another.) It also causes some discomfort to Pembleton, who's recorded manipulating a fender-bender to his advantage.

There's also Dee (Giardello / Yaphet Kotto)'s "night to remember," but I was unable to properly convey it via screencaps. So it goes.

Brody sums it up pretty well at the end when the detectives turn on him for submitting "their private lives" to PBS: You guys are detectives. It's not about the privacy, but about the work. It's about pushing past all the lines of all crap and get into what's real.


One of the motifs of Homicide was the same line of dialogue repeated a few times from multiple angles, like a stutter or a skip on a record. This is repeated in Brody's documentary with most of the detectives (rather wink-wink) saying "This is annoying. What the hell is this?" Only Pembleton defends the technique: I like it. It speaks to the repetitive and essentially meaningless nature of policework. The Coen Brothers would agree; too bad they never directed an episode of the series.

Also: the montage, which with a startling sequence of images (bodies, breakdowns, bleak landscapes, angry stares, flashing lights) conveys a sense of the where all the world-weariness comes from and asks how could anyone cope, much less carry on/ put down cases/ remain committed to "speak for the victim" (the homicide detective's creed) amidst this unending horror?

The song used ("Boom Boom Boom" by the Iguanas) is incredibly effective, as well. Hit play on that bad boy and let the sounds of 90s blues-based saxophone rock wash over your hearts and minds.

And it's boom boom boom
boom boom boom
boom boom all night long...
In the book, the big song of the summer (where the homicide count goes through the roof) is "It Takes Two" by Rob Base and DJ E-Rock.

Number 1 with a bullet. The song is this summer's hands-down winner for Sound of the Ghetto, with that deep-bottom bass line and those high-pitched screams on the quarter beat. Thick drum track, def rhythm and some sweet-voiced yo-ette wailing out the same two-line lyric. East side, west side, and all around town, the corner boys of Baltimore are fighting and dying to the same soundtrack.

That struck me in the reading as surreal. Box fans in every other window, with teenage girls dancing on balconies, as the detectives work in the courtyards below, projects to projects, alley to alley, wharf to wharf, getting eye-fucked from all sides, with "It takes two to make a thing go right" echoing through the air everywhere they go. I wondered why they didn't use it for this sequence, since it's so prominent in the book. Could be they couldn't, for whatever reason, but I'll have you know, I did line up the montage scene in this episode, mute the volume, and press play on "It Takes Two" to see how it worked. "Boom Boom Boom" works much better for this episode.


One of the best sections of the book is a ten or eleven page profane and cynical address from the (imagined) detective to the citizen in the interrogation room. It is recreated for "The Documentary," though, of course, sanitized for TV. (And edited down still further, below.) Every member of the cast (except Dee) participates. (Full clip here.)

You are a citizen of a free nation. Having lived your adult life in the land of guaranteed civil liberties you commit a crime of violence, whereupon you are jacked up, dragged down to police headquarters, and deposited in a claustrophobic anteroom containing three chairs, a table and cold brick walls. 

There you sit, for a half hour or more, until a Homicide Detective, a man who can, in no way, be mistaken for a friend, enters the room. He begins an uninterrupted monologue which one does back and forth for a half hour or so, eventually coming to rest in a familiar place. You have the right to remain silent. You have got the absolute right to remain silent. Of course you do. You're a criminal. They always have the right to remain silent. Your Fifth Amendment protects you against self-incrimination. If it was good enough for Ollie North and Mark Fuhrman, who the hell are you to incriminate yourself at the first opportunity? 

Wake up. Talking to a police detective, in an interview room, is only gonna hurt you. If it could help, we'd be pretty quick to tell you that. We'd tell you that you have a right not to worry. 

Your best bet is to shut up. Shut up now.

Let's face it, pal. You just carved up some drunk in a Dundalk Avenue bar, or bludgeoned your wife with a pick-axe, that don't make you a brain surgeon - you're gonna need the help of an expert.

But your rights to counsel aren't all they're cracked up to be. Once you actually call for that lawyer, there ain't nothing we can do for you. Your good friends in the Homicide Unit will have to lock you in this room. Next to scan your case will be a prosecutor from the Violent Crimes Unit, with the official title Assistant State's Attorney for the City of Baltimore. A bloodsucker like that will have an O'Donnell Heights motor head like you halfway to the gas chamber before you get three words out.  

Your best bet is to speak up. Speak up now.

"What if I still want a lawyer?"
We'll get you a lawyer. That's no problem. Got a whole pocket full of lawyers out there but maybe you should think first. Hm? Think. Cos, see, this is your opportunity to tell me what really happened. All right? 

He came at you, didn't he? He came at you. You were scared. Who would blame you?

It was self-defense. He came at you.  

Uh-huh, you venture cautiously.

Whoa, whoa Before we do that, I gotta get you your rights form. That's the problem with them things. Never around when you want 'em. It's like a cop, right? Here you go. Read that. I'm willing to answer questions and I don't want an attorney at this time. My decision to answer questions without an attorney present is voluntary. Just sign the bottom of the form.

You're history. If I wasn't busy writing your statement, I'd tell you so. I'd say, Son, you are ignorance personified. And you put yourself in for the murder of a human being. I might even admit to you that after all my years working murders, I'm still a little amazed that anyone utters a word in this room. Think about it, son. When you came through those doors, what did the sign say? Homicide Unit, that's right. Who lives in Homicide Unit? And what do Homicide detectives do for a living? 

You got it, bunk. 

And tonight, you took someone's life, so: when you opened your mouth... what in God's name were you thinking? 

The TV Tomb of Mystery is an ongoing catalog of one man's attempt to stave off  acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs until he can take better inventory of the ones already in his possession.
"The Documentary" was


  1. This sounds awesome.

    I remember "Homicide" being a big deal when I was in college, and there perpetually being campaigns to try to get more people to watch it. It seems to have never worked, and since I never saw an episode, I suppose I was part of that problem.

    I don't know if I'll ever get around to actually watching my way through it or not, but this post certainly makes it more likely.

    Fellow "Dollhouse" fan, signing off.

    1. Oh...! And if I do, I will most definitely start with the book.

    2. That's good to hear. The book needs to be read more. It's so much more relevant to discussions of urban crime and cops than the crap I see endlessly batted about on media, both social and mainstream. And even fringe. I keep muttering "Has anyone read the damn book?" to myself more and more.

      In related news, so far I'm doing a spot on impersonation of a cranky 40 year old.

      I don't know why Homicide isn't in syndication anywhere. For awhile, Court TV had it. I've got all the seasons (even the really rather ridiculous 7th one) but regardless. I mean, Law and Order is on 24-7. You'd figure a show that crossed over with Law and Order would be on at least 4-7.

      But they don't syndicate Hill Street Blues, either. I can't figure it out. I'm sure it's due to some complicated cash-and-rights wrangling.

    3. HSB is another one I'd like to see eventually. I'm very weak when it comes to my cop-show knowledge; I did see the first four or so seasons of N.Y.P.D. Blue on DVD a few years back, though, and enjoyed them quite a bit.

      I've been doing my cranky-40-year-old routine for about ten years now. Time to move into my early cranky-senior phase, I think. Except that would mean voting Republican and going to McDonald's for coffee every morning.

      Damn that.

    4. Dawn said the same thing to me earlier about it being a surprise only to myself that I think I've begun my cranky-40-year-old routine.

      I never saw much of NYPD Blue, actually. Nor the Shield. One of these days. I'm going to line up all the M-Squads, all the Adam-12s, and all the Hill Street Blues first, though. And even Barney Miller.

    5. I'd say that would be a project well worth tackling. If somebody gives me the ability to be 40 for the next 200 years or so, I might actually get around to doing it.

    6. I haven't got the DVD's yet but plan to. I watch homicide all the time on watchseries.com loooove it!!!

    7. Forgot to mention forget YouTube for homicide you can't get seasons 1-4 and if u do it's half screen copyright bull fertilizer

  2. Oh man, I knew you were rereading the Simon book but I didn't see this coming. Where do I start?

    This is my favorite incarnation of the cast too. I should say that I enjoy every Homicide cast though, even the final season where things were a bit more clunky and a pre-Gus Fring Giancarlo Esposito appeared as Gee's son. When I think back to Homicide, it's this cast that pops into mind. Everyone's fantastic, and they all play off each other really well.

    The Board is a great recurring image in every episode, and it's pretty much unchanged through the whole run of the series. I wonder if they used colored chalk and a chalkboard before dry erase boards came into vogue. Did Simon talk about that at all in the book? At any rate, it's a great visual reminder of how everyone's doing and shows you that Pembleton is the star of the group, usually with nothing but black under his name.

    I'd forgotten all about these rules and how Simon meted them out for the reader. That was a fun list to revisit.

    Did you see Homicide mentioned as the occasional footnote in the Robin Williams obits? His SUper Bowl episode was mentioned among his best dramatic turns in a couple places.

    This post has totally prompted me to fall down a YouTube rabbit hole of old Homicide clips. I'd forgotten this one, where the black detectives try to break down a racist Steve Buscemi:


    1. Ladies and gentlemen - the man who got me into the show himself.

      That Buscemi episode is great. There's a scene where they go and interview his character's co-workers, and one of them (a black guy) talks about how his dad thinks desegregation isn't all it's cracked up to me and how Buscemi's racism isn't all that weird to him. It struck me as the most controversial part of the whole series of episodes, not for its content but because it's really the only place I think I've ever even heard that perspective.

      Is it me, or does Bayliss leap a bit too eagerly into the breach in the interrogation scene? Pembleton is, as always, his usual unflappable self.

      I did indeed see mention of Homicide in the Robin Williams obits, and each time I felt a little pang of guilt for not celebrating that episode as publicly as perhaps I should have. I think his turn in that ep (and in Insomnia, though that's a different story) were his dramatic high water marks.

      I'm curious what other clips were found along the way down that rabbit hole.

      What a great show.

    2. It was mostly the Luther Mahoney stuff, which sort of explains why I liked this era of Homicide the best -- the whole two-season Luther Mahoney arc, where the sins of Season 4 haunt the murder police in Season 5, is terrific now and was just mind-blowing stuff back in the late 90s. The guy who played Luther was really great and I never saw him in anything again.

    3. And yeah, Bayliss is way too eager in that scene! Maybe he's overly proud of finding Steve Buscemi's shitty transcript. That's good police work.

    4. Thanks for this trip down memory lane. This show's a blast.

    5. You bet - thanks for telling me to watch it way back when!

      That Luther Mahoney arc is great and like you say, the only thing of its kind back then. The Wire came along and made Luther Mahoney seem only a signpost to greater things, but the shadow he casts is long.

      Kellerman is the bad guy of that whole saga or at least the corrupted/punished one, but Lewis kind of sidesteps it all, doesn't he?

      Meldrick Lewis may be my favorite of them all. I'd have to do a serious sit-down to figure it all out, but that would be my guess going into it.

    6. Groundkeeper Willie Erik Dullum played Mahoney he was also the medical examiner in the wire mostly in seasons 1-3 if I'm not mistaken. Agreed with all you said

  3. The Book by David Simon is gold and the series brought to life was incredible. Totally agree about Andre Braugher Still wanting to be pembleto I realized that in Striking distance with Bruce willis. I also thoroughly enjoy the similarities between the book and the show against the wire between storylines and arcs and Character's can't get enough.

    1. Glad to hear from a fellow fan. This show/ this book are so pivotal to my worldview and to my idea of cop drama.

      So many great episodes. I watched "Last of the Watermen" and "Kaddish" recently, as well as "The True Test," the one with Elijah Wood. All brilliant. I keep meaning to return to this series and blog up more of it - one of these days!