With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
Homicide: Life on the Street is my favorite TV show ever. The 1990’s show focused on homicide detectives in Baltimore, based upon actual Baltimore detectives featured in David Simon’s book Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets. Unlike the future gray line for law-breaking protagonists in shows like Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Dexter, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, House, The Shield, Breaking Bad… it was on Homicide where fairly likable public servants from time to time made egregious errors in judgment. They made speeches about certain beliefs in one episode only to contradict it a few episodes later. They showed the strain of the job revealing envy, jealousy, anger towards each other, both from dealing with dead bodies and lying liars to the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of their superiors. They couldn’t be anything but homicide detectives given their instincts despite the job often wearing the life out of them. They spoke for those who could no longer speak for themselves.
I have recently introduced my bride to the series. Having survived Oz and willing to throw herself into another series we are now in the 3rd season (the season it really came together).
In between noticing numerous character actors who later appeared in Oz and seeing how they’ve aged, we spend a lot of time dissecting the scenes, how well they were structured. She is familiar with police procedurals that mostly dispense with dialogue only to move the case along. Homicide was one of those gems that took time to explore the soul in the dialogue, putting you right in the emotional box with the detectives. And when you breathed the same air, the reward was immense.
20 years ago I watched season 2 and 3 in my college dorm trying to get anyone to care about this show which was critically favored but Nielson family shunned. Maybe it was the lack of action, or the somewhat depressing tone of the show not always ending on a high note or even with a closed case. Or maybe it was about race.
Watching this show now, in light of recent racial events, has been troubling for us. Mostly me. The show, with fidelity to Simon’s book, portrayed Baltimore demographically accurate. Homicide did not shy away from the giant black elephant in the room instead embracing the many issues that come from race. And 20 years later, these stories are alarmingly history repeating itself.
Identifying these minor or major storylines below by the races involved is intentional.
In the first three seasons:
A black teenage girl is found in an alley having been brutally murdered.
An unarmed black man is shot by a white officer while trying to flee.
A white homeowner shoots a Turkish teenager on his front porch and goes in front of a grand jury.
A white woman is shot in a supermarket parking lot on the boundary of the white and black side of town.
A black detective is asked by the black assistant commissioner to investigate a kidnapping complaint by a white congressman.
A Chinese student is murdered and the Chinese Embassy in Washington may or may not be involved.
A black teenager shoots another black teenager at a bowling alley, unaware of the consequences.
A black teenager kills the white wife of a family visiting the city in a robbery gone wrong.
A widowed black lieutenant struggles with dating and the color of his skin.
A black detective manipulates the confession out of a black suspect at the order of his black superior officer.
A black suspect taunts a black and white detective on their respective backgrounds.
A black cleaning woman loses her baby while working at the police precinct getting Child Protective Services involved.
A white officer is blinded by a black gunman during an arrest.
A black lieutenant fails to get a promotion based on political correctness by his black superior officers.
A white suspect racially taunts two black detectives.
A black journalist/ crusader is murdered by the drug cartel he was investigating.
Even though Homicide’s primary objective was to provide quality, intelligent entertainment as they explored relevant issues, this show remains the only television network drama to show racial diversity and its dimensions without sensationalizing or sermonizing. Week after week it displayed America in all her humble glory and tragic failings. Homicide did not have the answers to the weekly questions posed but it always dealt with these heavy issues in a straightforward and heartfelt manner.
What I loved most about the show was its humanity. Homicide was you and I.