The fifth and sixth seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street, the great Baltimore-based police serial, represent the pinnacle of television narrative, a slow-burning story arc that ratchets up external pressures and internal tensions which explode in the sixth season’s two-part Kathryn Bigelow-directed finale. In hindsight the fifth season quite conspicuously lays the groundwork for what’s to follow, though this avid Homicide-phile recalls vague feelings of disappointment with the show’s sudden, seemingly incongruous reliance on story structure. Through its first four seasons Homicide worked best when it dispelled with overt plot continuity, focusing instead on incident and anecdote to develop character. None of these earlier seasons built to any kind of revelation at year’s end and there was a glorious kind of satisfaction in the narrative inaction, a sense of the Homicide unit’s hellish, Möbius strip-like existence where the dead piled up faster than the living could sanely contend.
The focus changed when the writers decided that lead character Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) would suffer an out-of-nowhere stroke at fourth season’s finish. Suddenly, Homicide‘s soapier elements came to the fore and the result was a silly cliffhanger that left Frank’s future uncertain, driving the point home through a thuddingly obvious visual flourish with the screaming detective trapped in a metaphorical dream-world coffin. Not surprising that the weakest parts of season five deal with Frank’s recovery from his late-breaking malady. Highly praised at the time, Braugher’s performance has not aged well: at his best he never lets you forget that he’s acting, at his worst he’s as shallow as Paul Muni, contorting his face and stuttering his lines as if technique equals truth. It’s easy to look at television superficially, so the medium probably flattered Braugher’s methods; the ensuing attention, unfortunately, took away from the less showy stylings of an actor like Melissa Leo, still remarkable—in her final season—as the butch and mysterious Sergeant Kay Howard.
Fortunate that this and one other slight story misstep (an ill-conceived office romance) pales when compared to the rest of the season. Of particular note is the journey of Detective Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond), who begins the season under investigation for potentially illicit activities and ends it having planted the seeds of discontent—through a moment of amoral interaction with the Mabuse-like drug lord Luther Mahoney (Erik Todd Dellums)—that propel the sixth year to its apocalyptic close. The detective’s sanity slowly wears down over the first half of the fifth season and it culminates in one of the series’s finest sequences: a 20-minute discussion between the suicidal Kellerman and his partner Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), staged in the cramped space of a boat, that is a masterpiece of claustrophobic intensity. Slowly and harshly deconstructing a character’s distressing pangs of conscience, this scene represents Homicide at its transcendent best, illuminating the human condition even as it denies any morally superior sense of closure. It’s televisual cinema par excellence.
Presented over six dual layer discs in 1.33:1 full frame ratio, Homicide's desaturated visuals look grainy and degraded-where video artifacting begins and artistic intent ends is anyone's guess, but such technical haziness is apposite to the series's shades-of-gray moral code so consider that more than a compliment to the DVD presentation. The only audio option is an appropriately rough-sounding English Dolby Digital stereo track.
Writers Eric Overmyer and James Yoshimura provide commentary for the Barbara Kopple-directed episode "The Documentary." Homicide's creative staff have always been cynical and direct in their disdain of television network politics, so it's nice to hear the duo-in the space of seconds-shoot down the fifth season's flashier, NBC-mandated title sequence and then expose the lie behind the show's "Created by Paul Attanasio" credit. On the last disc is the "Inside Homicide" featurette (playable as either separate selections or in full), wherein Yoshimura and staff writer David Simon briefly discuss a few behind-the-scenes tidbits. Sorely missed on this set is the "Song Listing" selection, which credited the music choices for each episode on the prior season boxes.
Miranda #4: You have the right to own Homicide: Season 5.