The biggest shock surrounding the premiere of this episode in January of 1998 was not anything that happened on it (though there was a stunning plot twist). It was that Homicide, despite the fact that it had not raised its ratings, was going to be brought back for a seventh season.
As was often the case during homicide’s run, extenuating circumstances played a key role.
For starters Jerry Seinfeld had recently announced that he would not continuing his smash hit Seinfeld beyond the last season. This led to a huge and messy contract negotiat9ion with the producers of ER to keep it on the schedule for several years. Mad About You, a vital part of NBC’s Must-See TV lineup was considering changing networks (which never happened) Finally, on top of all this, NBC lost its professional football contract to CBS and FOX. In a matter of weeks NBC had gone from king of the mountain down to lords of the manor. This would also lead to NBC making a series of big investments for multi-year contracts of hit programs instead of investing revenue in new shows--- a decision that would ultimately lead to NBC dropping from first to third in five years.
All of these obstacles were down the road. For now NBC’s concern was on the here and now. Warren Littlefield decided that Homicide was a highly acclaimed program with a low budget, and that it would make sense to hold on to the show for at least a little longer. Unfortunately, they decided in order to keep it fresh, they would start tampering with it, a move ultimately killed the show.
Little of this is evident in ‘Shaggy Dog, City Goat’, a well written episode that features many of the trademarks of Homicide while focusing its attention on less profiled cast members. Bayliss and Pembleton are nowhere to be found, so the show turns its attention to M.E. Julianna Cox and newcomers Ballard and Gharty.
Using the construct of an annual meeting of the National Association of Medical Examiners, Dr. Cox is named Examiner of the Year (perhaps a subtle dig at Homicide’s own problem winning major awards despite critical acclaim) Cox has dinner with several of her colleagues where they discuss oddities. Cox wows her colleagues with her work on a case where a man jumped off a seven-story building trying to kill himself, but ended up getting killed when he was shot in the chest on the way down. Munch and Kellerman investigate and learn that shotgun blast came from the apartment of an old, feuding couple who played out a little exercise when something went wrong--- he would pretend to fire his shotgun at her--- only this time it was loaded. The capper? The victim was the couple’s son, who had loaded the shotgun hoping that his father would kill his mother and then, when nothing happened for a while, decided to end his life by jumping off the building where they lived--- ironically setting the stage for his own murder.
Sound familiar? It should. This is an urban myth used by medical examiners in teaching exercises. Furthermore, these exact circumstances would be described in the opening montage of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia. What gives the story its energy and wit is the work of Michelle Forbes, who for the first time in a long time gets something to do as she manages to solve the case on her own work. It also helps immeasurably that the feuding couple is played by television legends (and real-life husband and wife) Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows. They add a real zest and comedy to a tale that, under other shows and other performers could have been routine.
Meanwhile, in the here and now, Ballard and Gharty get the murder of a low-level drug dealer. (Strange. Its been a while since we had one of those.) This drug dealers was also a fraud known for selling bad packages. In an unusual twist, the killers are white dealers from the Appalachian section of Maryland--- or city goats, as Gharty condescendingly calls them. Turns out this not-very-enlightened detective is as condescending to white trash as he is to black gang-bangers. In a very disdainful way he tells a clearly unsettled Ballard about the inbred, redneck trash that make up a part of Baltimore’s drug trades. He’s not very enlightened, but the suspects in the killing are the children of incest. Ballard in the meantime, is going through her own version of culture shock. The ghettos of Seattle and the blacks of the West Coast are a far cry from what she is used to, and she clearly shows. Both detectives get seriously messed up in the fight, and Gharty says that they’ll never be able to catch these guys. (In fact, they do; it just takes a few weeks) Then again Gharty is a little distracted as he flirts with Billie Lou.
But the biggest shocker comes in two parts. Part one hits when Lewis, Kellerman and Stivers (along with Gee, the city, and the police department) in a wrongful death civil suit by Georgia Rae Mahoney of guess who. Everybody is upset about this but the one who gets really pissed is Meldrick. In a scene of anger, he’s goes to Georgia Rae’s house, gives her a tongue lashing, and bashes her in the face. This is an action so extreme that even Giardello, who stood by his men and let them stay on rotation, doesn’t intervene when Barnfather orders Lewis to be indefinitely suspended for his assault attempt. Meldrick hands over his gun and badge, grabs his hat and the football (which the detectives have been tossing around since season one) and walks out of the squad without a word. To be honest I thought that we were never going to see Meldrick again. And we didn’t--- for almost all of what was left of the season, As it turned out Meldrick would be very busy--- doing stuff that we would have not thought him capable of doing.
‘Shaggy Dog, City Goat’ is a layered story with ongoing storylines, dark humor and addled social commentary--- in short, it’s what we’ve come to expect from Homicide. Its not perfect, but if this was a representative of how the show would proceed into the post-Seinfeld era, it would have been in fine shape. Unfortunately, ‘twas not the case.
My score: 8.7