Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Streets I'm Watching

"Homicide: Life on the Street"
DVD via Netflix

I finally finished watching "The Wire" last month. I still don't feel prepared to begin breaking the series down critically, because (although I'm hardly the first to point this out) it's far more like a novel than any other television series and it would be foolish to begin higher-level analysis on a novel you've only read once. Before the year is out, I plan on getting the complete series box set and chugging through again. After a third viewing (summer '1o?), perhaps I'll have a few preliminary observations to share.

After finishing that weighty project, it's not surprising that I've gone to DVD comfort food these past few weeks. Immediately after "The Wire," I decided to give another go at watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation" all the way through in order. I've seen all the episodes (I think), but unlike "Deep Space Nine," "Next Gen" doesn't benefit in the least from being watched in rapid succession. Since I purchased the DVD's several years ago, I've given "TNG" a couple of tries, but it never took. Sure, certain episodes ("Disaster," which I watched last night, is a favorite) I've cued up multiple times, but I don't think I was doing myself any disservice never going back for a second viewing of "Shades of Grey" or "Identity Crisis."

This time, in large part because my girlfriend hadn't seen any "Star Trek" at all and is rather enjoying the prolonged exposure (she loves Data), it looks like I'm going to get all the way to the end. We're in Season Five now. The first three seasons were really rough, way worse than I remembered. Most of the really great writers who leap to mind when I think of "Next Gen," like Michael Piller, Ron Moore, and Rene Echevarria, didn't come on board until the fourth season or later. Also, it seems to have taken the syndicated show some time to earn the respect of the character acting community. The guest performances for the first half of its run are almost uniformly ghastly (except for John De Lancie, who almost counts as a regular, and Colm Meaney, who would eventually become one on the spinoff). It's not until after "Best of Both Worlds" that folks like Terry O'Quinn, Ashley Judd, Michelle Forbes, Bebe Neuwirth, David Ogden Stiers, and so forth begin appearing to send you scrambling off to IMDb to figure out where else you've seen them. Forgot about Whoopi Goldberg, I guess... although I don't have an opinion either way on her schtick or her character Guinan, whatever it is that Whoopi does on screen can't exactly be called acting. In any event, no watching old "TNG" episodes for any of you until you've been through the markedly superior "DS9" at least half as many times as me.

Having the bulk of "Next Generation" in the rearview, including all of the stupendously bad first two seasons, I've finally stepped up to some new content. My "Wire" research led me to (creator) David Simon's extraordinary work of novel-length journalism, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and the book in turn led me to the television series that was nominally adapted from it. I must say, I nearly quit halfway through the pilot, sent the disc back to Netflix, and canceled the rest of Seasons 1 & 2 from my queue. "Homicide," the TV series, is not journalism. It's certainly not "The Wire."

What really drove me nuts watching the first "Homicide" TV episode was all the minor changes made for no reason. The series has the rookie cop played by Kyle Secor going out for his first case and winding up the primary on the investigation of the murder of a 12-year-old girl. That's stupid, insulting, and unnecessary. There's no way any big-city police department would put a wet-behind-the-ears rookie on a "red ball" like that (unless the mayor's office deliberately instructed them to do so, as happened to Kima on "The Wire"). In the book, Baltimore detective Tom Pellegrini had been in homicide for several months and had worked a handful of cases as primary before the case the TV show is vaguely retracing fell on his desk. That's pretty amazing as it is -- why did the show have to overdo it? Massive lack of respect for the intelligence of its audience is the only answer. As scripts continue to take big chunks of Simon's prose and turn them into grandstanding speeches for the comically implausible Andre Braugher character, you long for the foul, inarticulate reality of the real cops in Simon's book and the believably fictional ones of "The Wire."

But it's not the fault of "Homicide" or its talented if conventional writers, actors, and filmmakers that I didn't get around to watching it until after "The Wire" spoiled more or less all network cop shows for me. (Except "Life." Bring back "Life," NBC!) To Barry Levinson, who knows Baltimore pretty good, bringing Simon's book to the small screen meant making the concessions to storytelling and recognizable character archetypes that most movies and television feel necessary. And it's not as if they filmed the thing in Vancouver. The sets look right, the stories largely resist pat endings, and at least one of the cops has a mustache (although in the book, every single last one of them did, and also none of them were women). Clark Johnson and Ned Beatty are terrific, even more so if you are familiar with the real cops their characters are patterned on. Donald Worden, the 25-year vet from the book, is one of those amazing real life characters not even Charlie Kaufman could dream up. Watching elements of his personality show up in Beatty's Bolander and Lester Freamon from "The Wire" reflects how deep of an impression Worden must have made on the young David Simon.

Ultimately what I like best about "Homicide" the TV show is something that doesn't have to do with Simon at all. The early episodes borrow his prose a lot, as I mentioned, mostly in speeches by Braugher or Yaphet Kotto. But they can't repurpose any of his dialogue quoted from the actual cops, because (like most cops I assume) everything they say is irreparably vulgar. That puts the "Homicide" writers in an interesting bind. In attempting to repackage Simon's marvelous reporting as a TV drama, giving some glimpse into the offbeat personal lives of the detectives is part of the challenge. To serve both realism and the structural requirements of the televised, commercial-interrupted network series, the characters are given lots of wholly original off-topic dialogue. Thanks to the unflagging quality of the cast of regulars (except for the minor Baldwin brother, who's distractingly bad, like Charlie Sheen's insufferable "Two and a Half Men" manchild only as a cop) and guest casting that doesn't have to work out of the hole of syndication (a younger Edie Falco has a standout bit in an early episode), these scenes really pop. I really like listening them BS about Memorial Stadium, Robert Irsay, blue crabs... Baltimore stuff.

(Anybody watching the All-Star Game notice that the Orioles went back to putting "Baltimore" across the front of their road grays, after years of "Orioles?" I approve of the change. Might finally get that Melvin Mora jersey now.)

It's bittersweet watching Richard Belzer on "Homicide." As good as Belzer is, and as iconic as his John Munch character has deservedly become, neither holds a candle to Detective Sergeant Jay Landsman from the Homicide book. Almost certainly a relic from a bygone age (as reported in 1988, when the insular, men-at-work camaraderie of the homicide unit was in its death throes, beset by affirmative action, political correctness, and monumentally incompetent administrators), Landsman's singular sense of humor begins at necrophilia and then gets really dirty.

So, no more watching "TNG" until you do your "DS9" homework, and no "Homicide" until you read the book where it all started. Got it?

1 comment:

  1. I'm guessing it's because of the age I was when the series both started, but I was always a much bigger fan of TNG. I remember the early TNG being brutal, but I'm surprised DS9 rates that much higher for you.