There is no question that the show - among the most stimulating and entertaining series of the last 10 years and far and away the best new network show of the 1992-93 season - deserves the ultimate premiere showcase that NBC is giving it tonight, in the hour after the Super Bowl, about 10 o'clock on Channel 3.
There is a question, however, whether beery and possibly emotionally depleted viewers will be able to respond completely to the show's complexity, its jittery camera, dense dialogue and multilayered police-department characters who evoke memories of the folks from Hill Street Blues.
Sometimes, a TV show can be too good for its own good, demanding that viewers watch diligently - rather than eat dinner, tickle the kids or doze - even if it does reward them commensurately. Let us all wish fervently that this program's regular time slot, Wednesdays at 9 p.m., will diminish living- room distractions and allow an audience to develop the appropriate awe of its accomplishments.
From the first instant, you know this show will be different. Homicide,
from Oscar-winner Barry Levinson (Rain Man) and Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere), begins with a shot of the street - not a street scene, but the pavement itself, half brick, half concrete. There is a shadow and then another. Bodiless dialogue:
"If I could just find this damn thing, I could go home."
"Life is a mystery. Just accept it. . . . The quest is what matters; not
The two detectives - first one, then the other, then both - come on the screen. They use the flashlights they are carrying to provide lighting for the camera as they look for a shell casing or a bullet.
They bicker - the black one, Meldrick Lewis, laying some fairly heavy ethnic insults on the short, plump one, Crosetti. When he calls him a ''guinea" and "a little fathead salami brain," you know the camera work isn't the only thing that will be different in Homicide. (Don't worry, the banter, though crass, is good-natured, and Crosetti gets his licks in too.)
Perpetually tired of his partner's ramblings, Lewis says, "Hey, this is Baltimore, Crosetti. Where's the mystery?"
Moments later, the two bend over to look at a body lying on the street.
They try to solve cases (and often fail), these two homicide detectives and the seven others who work with them; they don't solve mysteries. Homicide, based on a bestselling book by David Simon, is no whodunit. It's about victims, offenders, police and the city of Baltimore. Just like the title says, it is about life on the street.
People keep committing crimes. The police keep dragging in criminals. One policeman compares the job to mowing the lawn.
Levinson , who's a Baltimore native and booster, and Fontana have found a way to combine the grim reality of such shows as Cops with the literary achievements of first-quality scripts.
There are no car chases or mob hits in Homicide. The violence is over before the cops arrive on the scene, though the bodies left behind are gory enough.
The show is shot tightly with a single camera mounted on photography director Wayne Ewing's shoulder. Ewing gets in the actors' faces in ways never seen before in TV drama, proving that "talking heads" are anything but dull.
The camera bobs, weaves, circles. Or it shoots straight on to a mute face as an off-camera voice talks.
Careful editing sometimes creates a visual stutter as the dialogue shifts; sometimes the film jumps back and repeats a shot, sometimes it shows the same face from five or six angles in the course of two seconds.
The techniques show criminals off to best advantage - deer in the headlights of police-car lights or bugs squirming in "the box," the police- station interrogation room - but also, in the style of Cops, they impart an enthralling immediacy to all the action and dialogue. They are Homicide's most obvious innovation.
Visual gymnastics aside, however, the show shines through its characters.
The best television shows - and the ones that have longevity - make you jealous of the characters on screen. Why can't your family be as loving as the Keatons? Why can't your office be as complex as McKenzie Brackman? Why aren't your friends as laid-back and accepting as the people at Cheers?
And why can't the people at your work have the same sort of intense relationships with one another and their jobs as these Baltimore detectives do?
Each has a strong and distinct personality. Some of them get along well, some barely get along at all.
There's the rookie, Tim Bayliss. Because of suspicions that he has made the elite squad through political shenanigans, nobody has much time for him. He goes through an ordeal in the second episode, which, characteristically, has an unexpected ending.
Frank Pembleton is the self-aggrandizing loner. His skills, he believes, are too refined to be shared with anyone else, and in some cases, he may be right.
Bayliss asks to sit in on Pembleton's interrogation of a suspect.
"What you will be privileged to witness," replies the master, "will not be an interrogation, but an act of salesmanship as silver-tongued and thieving as ever moved used cars, Florida swampland and/or Bibles, but what I am selling is a long prison term to a client who has no genuine use for the product."
There are Crosetti and Lewis, as much in love in their way as any great married couple. Philadelphian Jon Polito attacks his role as Crosetti with as much gusto as Crosetti displays when he smacks hard crabs with those little mallets they give you in Baltimore crab houses. (Crosetti eats a lot of crabs, and maybe the chromium has softened his brain a little.)
Kay Howard, the squad's only woman, is also the only member who has a perfect record of solving murders, at least over the near term. She has an uncanny ability to pick the solvable cases. Criminals seem to fall into her arms. Ghosts give her clues.
And sometimes her partner, Beau Felton, solves the cases for her. When he complains that Pembleton puts on airs by wearing a necktie with polo players on it, a colleague says, "Yeah, that would be like you wearing a tie with a brain on it." Where most series would make Felton a generic Neanderthal, Homicide provides shading.
Stanley Bolander and John Munch make the most complex police couple. You'd expect the superb Ned Beatty to bring humor and depth to the role of Bolander, but comedian Richard Belzer is completely surprising as the glib Munch, jaded after years in the job but still dedicated.
Invoking the name of Baltimore's gift to the talk-show world, Munch's exchange with a prisoner who has concocted the most foolish alibi in weeks is one of the first episode's super set pieces, one NBC has been using extensively in its promos for Homicide:
"You're saving your real good lies for some smarter cop, is that it?" Munch asks the prisoner. "I'm just Montel Williams and you want to talk to Larry King.
"I have been a murder policeman 10 years. If you're going to lie to me, you lie to me with respect. Don't you ever again lie to me like I'm Montel Williams. I am not Montel Williams. I am not Montel Williams."
And the prisoner looks up and mutters:
"Who's Montel Williams?"
And Bolander ambles onto the scene and asks the prisoner, "Is this Montel Williams from your neighborhood?"
As with most fine dramatic TV series, there's a lot of humor in Homicide.
The ninth cop is the boss, Lt. Al Giardello, whose minions call him G. Played by the imposing Yaphet Kotto, Giardello could be an emblem for the complexities of all of Homicide, an Italian black man, hard as granite, results-oriented, yet sympathetic to the needs of his workers and understanding of their abilities.
Giardello gives the police under him credit for their intelligence and their instincts. Usually, he lets them operate with no interference. He nudges them along sometimes. Sometimes - rarely - he screams at them.
Homicide treats its audience the same way. It's stimulating, challenging,
rarely obvious. Why can't all TV be this good?
HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET
Executive-produced by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana. Created by Paul Attanasio from the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. Premiere airs tonight after the Super Bowl on NBC (Channel 3). Show moves to its regular time slot Wednesday at 9 p.m.
Al Giardello - Yaphet Kotto
John Munch - Richard Belzer
Stanley Bolander - Ned Beatty
Steve Crosetti - Jon Polito
Frank Pembleton - Andre Braugher
Kay Howard - Melissa Leo
Tim Bayliss - Kyle Secor
Meldrick Lewis - Clark Johnson
Beau Felton - Daniel Baldwin