Saturday, July 07, 2007

No Respect For The Dead

However superficial they may be, having to fit so much television history into such a short running time, I’m always fascinated by documentaries like the BBC’s Comedy Connections and the follow-up, Drama Connections. Unravelling a decidedly tangled extended “family tree”, the Connections series, much like last year’s eight-part The Story of Light Entertainment, illustrated how television got from where it was then to where it is now.

Eight years back, Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West, ran a long oral history from the drama writers who had worked in a nondescript two-storey structure, sandwiched between Ventura Boulevard and the 101 Freeway, on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City.

For most of the 1980s, the ground floor of what was simply refered to as “The Building”, was home to Bruce Paltrow, Tom Fontana, John Masius and the writers who produced 137 episodes of the hospital drama St. Elsewhere. Right above them Steven Bocho, Jeffrey Lewis, David Milch and their writing team turned out 146 episodes of Hill Street Blues.

If ever an American network/cable channel decided to make a version of Drama Connections that would certainly be a good place to start. The 26 writers who worked in the building would eventually leave the MTM dramas behind and go on to create or write for the likes of Miami Vice, Twin Peaks, Moonlighting, Law & Order, Northern Exposure, China Beach and Murder One.

One would also, indirectly, lead the way for The Wire, one of the greatest television dramas ever made. With Hill Street Blues regarded as one of the most innovative and acclaimed dramas of the 1980s, The Wire is one of the most innovative and acclaimed dramas of this decade, joining the two was Homicide: Life on the Street, which ran from 1993 to 1999.

Det. Beau Felton: You have the right to remain silent; although personally, I don't feel remaining silent's all it's cracked up to be... Smoke?

Like Bochco and Milch’s NYPD Blue, which premiered the same year and stole the headlines with it’s profanity and David Caruso’s bare butt, Homicide: Life on the Street came with a similar high pedigree. Although developed for television by screenwriter Paul Attanasio, the driving forced behind the show were director Barry Levinson and St Elsewhere’s Tom Fontana who began his career as a playwright.

The show was adapted from the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets written by David Simon. A reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Simon took a leave of absence to follow the lives of the city’s homicide detectives as they investigated the 234 murders that took place in Charm City that year.

Levinson, himself a Baltimore native whose most personal films; Diner, Tin Men and Avalon were set in the city, assembled a remarkable cast that included film actors Yaphet Kotto as Lt. Al Giardello, John Polito as the Lincoln assassination-obsessed Detective Steve Crosetti, Ned Beatty as Det. Stanley Bolander and comedian Richard Belzer as Det. John Munch. Behind the camera, episodes were directed by the likes of Peter Medak, Martin Campbell, Tim Hunter, Kathryn Bigelow, John McNaughton, Ted Demme and Whit Stillman, giving the show a specific cinematic feel.

Det. John Munch: Life should come with a money back guarantee. If you're not satisfied, return unused portion for a full refund.

Beginning as a mid-season replacement, the series premiered immediately after Super Bowl XXVII in January 1993. Fans tuning in for what they expected to see in a police procedural left disappointed. Shot hand-held on Super 16, mainly on location in an almost documentary style, with jump-cut editing, Levinson and Fontana’s edict for the show was no car chases and no gun battles. Neither would any of the murders be seen, only the grim aftermath as the police start their investigations.

What the show had going for it were smart scripts laced with a sly and marvellously subversive sense of humour. The grim reality of sitting at a desk waiting for the call to come in, combined with the detectives’ conversations, banter and arguments that would continue through the grim investigations, produced a remarkable snapshot of life in urban America throughout the last decade of the Twentieth Century.

After the initial nine episodes, the second year ran for only four episodes. It wasn’t until the third year that NBC commissioned a full season by which time less esoteric stories and cast changes were made to ensure the show’s survival. Such compromises didn’t stop Homicide from winning the Humanitas Prize in 1999, three coveted Peabody Awards and numerous Television Critics Association and WGA Awards.

Det. Steve Crosetti: Either it's murder, or this library has a very strict overdue policy.

In the fifth season, the episode Prison Riot saw the murder police investigate the violent deaths of two prison inmates. Many of the prisoners interviewed were characters familiar from previous episodes, caught by the detectives. The episode illustrated how jail time had altered their attitudes and personalities.

The idea of such a controlled environment, with its mixed races and tensions, fascinated Fontana so much that he went on to create Oz, the first one-hour dramatic TV series produced by HBO. Premiering less than a year after the Homicide episode was broadcast, the drama played out within Emerald City, an experimental unit within the maximum-security Oswald State Correctional Facility.

Oz typically featured numerous actors who had guest-starred in Homicide: Life on the Street. Lee Tergesen who played the newly incarcerated Tobias Beecher, and Eddie Falco, who appeared as Prisoner Officer Diane Whittlesey for the first three season before being cast as Carmela Soprano, had appeared together in Homicide as a uniformed officer wounded in the line of duty and his wife.

Sgt. Kay Howard: Do be a milk drinker. Don't be a crack addict.

By then David Simon was already working on Homicide, first as a writer and story editor before becoming one of the show’s producers. The year the show first appeared on NBC, Simon was on a second leave of absence from the Baltimore Sun to research and co-write The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood with Edward Burns, a 20-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.

A harrowing account of a West Baltimore community dominated by an open-air drug market at what was then Fat Curt’s corner at the intersection of Fayette and Monroe, the book was published to great acclaim in 1997. Three years later a six-hour adaptation, co-written by Simon, appeared on HBO and won the Emmy for Best Miniseries. Simon and Burns’ next collaboration, combining all their previous production and professional experience, was The Wire.

Channel 4 snapped up the UK rights to Homicide: Life on the Street, screening it on Monday nights in the slot recently vacated by the previous season of NYPD Blue. There it stayed until, not getting the audience figures the channel wanted, it was dismissed, unannounced to a late night slot. The final season didn’t even make it on air.

In the US, A&E gradually brought the series out on DVD, culminating in a boxset that collected together all 122 episodes, the three Law & Order crossover episodes (which Channel 4 ignored completely), and the TV movie that eventually wrapped up the show. Extras included selected episode commentaries, interviews with the likes of Levinson, Fontana and Simon, and documentaries.

Finally, earlier this year, Homicide: Life on the Street arrived on DVD in the UK. And what did we get?

The complete “first” season is actually the thirteen episodes of season one and two. Which means the soon–to–be–released third year is being labelled the “second” season. Well, “thanks” Fremantle Home Entertainment. That’s really big of you.

Det. John Munch: Homicide: our day begins when yours ends.


At 2:49 pm, Blogger Ian said...

I'm sick of being treated so shabbily by the different DVD release companies. The phrase "licensing issues" is too often used as an excuse for a shabby, lazy, delayed release schedule that just removes all the good stuff from the release that was made available Stateside months if not years before.

I'm STILL waiting for Season 2 and 3 of Oz (promised for May when Season 1 was released). And neither the HD-DVD player nor the Blu-Ray player I have can play Region 1 DVDs so I'm totally screwed unless I add yet another player to my system. Of course the chances are getting a refund of my Season 1 DVD (or for "Huff" or those "Frasier" box sets or "The Sheild" box sets) bought on the basis that the release company were going to follow through on their promise of releasing subsequent series on a timely basis, are a big fat zero.

In the meantime I'm at least able to buy import HD-DVDs for less than half the UK selling price - and with more extra's included than their over-priced lacklustre British counterparts. If only the same were possible for ordinary DVDs and Blu-Ray discs.

At 3:02 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Unfortunately the best bet for Oz are the Region 1 sets. Another show that Channel 4 shouldn't have been allowed to get their hands on.

Shown in the early hours of Friday morning as part of that dumb 4-Later strand. Brilliant. It's where they burned of EZ Streets as well.

At 3:36 pm, Blogger Lee said...

I thought Oz took a very sharp dive during Season Four with with some very daft plot lines, and I stopped watching. Up to that point, I think 4 treated it fairly well - usually it was on around midnight Tuesday.

At 3:51 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

That was the repeat within the last few years or so, wasn't it? I meant then C4 first showed it. What was the season the prisoners working in the kitchens put ground glass in the food of one guy they didn't like?

I loved the fact Fontana knocked the show on the head because he'd run out of ways to kill people.

At 4:10 pm, Blogger Lee said...

That was season one, when O'Reilly and Adebisi did in the Italian, Schibetta. You can't say it didn't get off to a good start!

4 started airing the show in '98 or '99. I think it was part of the 4-Later strand, but they definitely kept the scheduling pretty consistent for the first three seasons. Not sure what happened after that.

No doubt they have a history of treating imports shabbily; cf Alias, and Angel. Their own shows sometimes get short-shrift too - did you every see Buried, a sort of homegrown Oz? Great show, crappy timeslot. Still no DVD.

At 4:17 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I caught some of Buried because it was produced by World Productions. That was stuffed in the most useless timeslot.

Maybe they misunderstood the scheduler when he said, "Where do you want this Buried?"


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