The sixth season of Homicide: Life on the Street opens with a god’s eye perspective of detective partners Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) as they reenter Baltimore’s homicide unit after a three-month stint (summer hiatus, in TV parlance) in Robbery division. The invocation of an omnipresent deistic entity is no mistake—this is a year of significant change and Job-like challenge for the Homicide squad, one that begins in a blue-funk haze of uncertainty and concludes in ultra-violent, cathartic chaos.
Season five’s last-minute cliffhanger, in which squad commander Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) informed his detectives of the department’s new three-month rotation policy, foreshadowed several next-season cast changes. Out, unfortunately, is the great Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), and her replacements are three characters of varying, never fully developed interest: Seattle-bred goodie two-shoes Laura Ballard (Callie Thorne), working-class schlub and prior guest character Stuart Gharty (Peter Gerety), and brooding hothead divorcée Paul Falsone (Jon Seda). Of the trio, Falsone fares best, heading up numerous plot lines and tearing through the scenery with an overwrought brio that recalls the earlier pre-stroke Frank Pembleton—his actions are hardly profound, but still immensely entertaining. Gharty, meanwhile, just barely escapes from under the shadow of his predecessor in proletariat obesity Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty), while Ballard is an eye-rolling, diminutive cipher with an unnerving preference for comebacks of the “Oh yeah?!! Well…” variety (an early episode where she nearly succumbs to food poisoning acts as a well-deserved torture session, though she takes some subtle steps toward redemption in the Yaphet Kotto-penned “Secrets,” sharing a tender and honest dialogue sequence about sexual preference with the bisexual Bayliss.)
The season’s most pleasant surprise comes in the form of Braugher, an overrated actor I typically find superficial, mannered, and tic-happy (Pembleton’s fifth-season stroke recovery being a particularly excruciating example of the actor’s “only-on-the-outside” approach to his craft.) He’s toned himself down for the better in season six, making Pembleton more sober, world-weary, and contemplative, a formerly straight-laced man with clarity of purpose, now fraught with the uncertainty of one who’s been to hell and lived to tell about it. He’s at the fore of the season’s two best sequences: a slowly uncoiling, morally complex dialogue with a potential suicide abettor (guest-star Alfre Woodard) in the superbly anticlimactic episode “Mercy” and a no-holds-barred interrogation of crooked detective Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) in the Kathryn Bigelow-directed season finale “Fallen Heroes,” which resolves the two-season-long Mahoney organization storyline. There’s a brilliant moment where Kellerman viciously insults Pembleton—Braugher literally inhales his character’s rage (internalizing his usual paroxysms of performance) and betrays, through a near-imperceptible widening of his eyes, Pembleton’s violent implosion of self. Braugher won a well-deserved Emmy Award for this season—his last on the show—and his climactic scene in “Fallen Heroes” is an easy ascendant to a televisual pinnacle, a bittersweet farewell to Frank Pembleton, the simple, direct power of which transcends the often imprisoning and retrogressive medium it graces.
Homicide: Life on the Streets - The Complete Season Six is presented over six dual-layer discs in the original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. There’s a more robust color palette to this season, though the show’s handheld aesthetic tends to appropriately degrade whatever it films-image is thus on par with the previous season releases. An English track in Dolby Stereo is the only audio option and there are no English subtitles or closed captions.
A commentary on the excellent "Subway" episode (first disc) features writer James Yoshimura and director Gary Fleder talking openly and honestly about the production pains involved, be it dealing with the Baltimore transit authority or casting the lead guest role, which eventually went, with literally hours to spare, to Vincent D’Onofrio. On the sixth disc is the 1998 PBS documentary "Anatomy of a Homicide: Life on the Street," which takes a broader look at the production of "Subway." This is a must-see for all Homicide-philes interested in the behind-the-scenes creation of the best of all possible cop shows. Cast and crew biographies are also included.
Season six of Homicide suggests God is watching us.