The Pilot episode for any television show must accomplish several things.
It must establish characters that we have never met before. It must explain what these characters are going to do. It must set a tone for how the show will take things--- serious, humorous or otherwise. It must establish the atmosphere of the series—particularly in place and time. And it must establish the basic stories the show will be telling. This is difficult depending on the number of characters that you are introducing, more so if you intend to tell more than one story at once. And it is very difficult depending on the tone that you take.
The pilot for Homicide succeeds at all of these in spectacular fashion. The series has to introduce nine distinct characters and what they do. It isn’t perfect
(we don’t get a real sense of Detective Howard or Lewis and Lieutenant Giardello, for example.) but it’s close. They make the job easier by splitting the detectives up into pairs, but we get an idea of how each pairing works too.
Detectives Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) have a kind of comically abusive relationship; Lewis is continuously mocking Crosetti’s philosophy and his heritage while Crosetti thinks deeply about things that often come out as non- sequiteurs (his line about the difference between men and women when going to the bathroom is the best example of this). Detectives Kay Howard(Melissa Leo) and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin ) hold a partnership where they are well a balanced despite the fact that she is a much better detective then him. Detectives Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) and John Munch (Richard Belzer) have the feel of a veteran influencing a younger cop (a bit odd considering that they are close to each other in age) Finally there is the mecurial lone wolf Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and the rookie Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). This might have a veteran-rookie relationship if it wasn’t for the fact that Pembleton has absolutely no desire to mentor this detective or anybody else. Supervising them is Lieutenant Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) who has a blasé attitude as well.
Then there is our introduction to the squad, which in its own way is as much a character as any of the detectives. There are the detective’s desks with a phone whose rings would become one of the shows trademarks. There is the interrogation room (or ‘the box’ ) where some of the shows greatest drama will occurs. And there is ‘the board’ listing open and closed investigations. This is so important that the show focuses on it at least a dozen times in this hour alone.
And though we don’t see many examples of it, the fact that we are in Baltimore seems to resonate a certain way.
A bigger difference in this show is how crime and criminals are displayed. Even in good police dramas like Law and Order and NYPD Blue criminals are mostly portrayed as intelligent and shifty. They are lying but they are clever about it. Here the criminals have a great naivete and foolishness. The murder of Henry Biddle for example. The killer is so idiotic that he calls his own house when the police arrive. And then when the cops ask him to come in for questioning, he does. This would be unbelievable, but it has been directly lifted from Simon’s book. Just as astonishing is the killer Munch and Bolander are questioning in the first act. His story is so badly shuffled that it’s no wonder that Munch gets ballistic. The intelligence (or lack of It) would be the rule rather then the exception. As Pembleton puts it so succinctly, “Crime makes you stupid.” We also get to see what would be a staple of the show; the interrogation. We see the way that police illicit a confession without violence. As Pembleton puts it, it is more a job of salesmanship than anything else. It also involves manipulation of the facts and the truth. Though the scene is not particularly dramatic, we do get a glimpse of just how dramatic and suspenseful a simple conversation can be.
This is one of the reasons that the show is funny. There are also any number of humorous moments. Pembleton’s refusal to go back upstairs when he can’t find the right car. And the sequence in the bar where Crosetti takes his revenge on Lewis’ mockery of him . They sound like how real cops behave or at least the cops in Simon’s book.
We also have the idea that some stories are not going to be resolved, not right away and possibly ever. We get started with the investigation into the ‘Black Widow’, a woman who has been murdering her husband for the insurance money but the story just seems to run aground halfway through. But the writers haven’t forgotten this; they are just waiting for the right time. And the little murdered girl that we see. Many shows would have just gone from this murder to a little while after. Homicide not only dealt with it, it would become the backbone of the first season, if not the entire show.
Also notable is the cynicism that envelops these detectives. In a fine moment near the end, Munch, Lewis and Crosetti are discussing getting out of the homicide business. Then they notice that they are being cased by a young thief. Munch walks up to him, takes out his badge and says: “We’re murder police; go rob somebody else.” No taking the would- be criminal in for questioning; no lecture. Just a plea to get out.
This cynicism is also critical in the idea of justice. After Pembleton elicits the confession, he gives a great speech on what will probably happen to the killer he has just coerced. There is no real justice; there is only what you can find.
This comes as a great shock to Bayliss who is still flushed with idealism about how homicide works. We will soon see how quickly he loses this. Though Kyle Secor doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, he will come to be the most understated actor on the show. In the final scene, as we see a little girl lying dead in the rain, he emerges from a small crowd, holds up his badge and says ‘Homicide’. In that one word, Secor carries more anguish and emotion then any dialogue could. For most of the shows run, Bayliss would be our window to the Homicide unit mainly because of his sensitivity and empathy.
Very few pilots have done so much in a single episode at creating memorable characters and atmosphere. There’s a lot we don’t know but we have a basic understanding of the characters and how they approach the business of murder. Even after the series was over, fans of the show as well as the creator would rank it as the best episode of the series. It is certainly one of the best pilots that any TV show (with the possible exception of The West Wing and Buffy) at setting the tone and describing the characters. This is the first of many great moments in TV that this show would provide and there would be quite a few. There are a few nits to pick (one doesn’t understand how the cases are being numbered, for example,) but this is brilliant on almost every level.
Rank by fans: 1st
My score: 10