As anyone who has been forced to share a screen with me knows, I love police procedurals. I wish I had a good or smart reason as to why that I could use. It’s not that I long to wear the uniform or any fetishism of the role of police in society. It’s not some pseudo-intellectual challenge for me to figure out whodunnit each episode. I think that it’s because for such a relatively strict format, it encompasses such a broad variety of stories, themes and even genres.
Just as an example, here are three that I’ll be looking at as part of this series:
- Intelligence – a slow, subtle and intricate drama about cross-border drug smuggling, inter-agency conflicts and undue political influence set in Vancouver.
- Flashpoint – occasionally po-faced, but mostly silly, melodramatic titillation following the Toronto “Strategic Response Unit”.
- The Bridge – a look at the internal mechanics of the force and the conflicting loyalties to the public, the badge, the brass and the unions. Again, set in Toronto.
Those are three police shows from the past decade that have come out of Canada. Off the top of my head I can think of procedural shows and movies from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Sweden, the UK and the US that I’ve enjoyed. Each country has its own opinions and politics surrounding police and crime that lead to a very different tone – even before taking into account the creative differences.
I want to start this series by looking at what is easily the best of the “procedural” shows, Homicide: Life on the Streets. It’s easy to see why this show is fantastic – based on a book by David Simon who you should all know from The Wire, The Corner, Generation Kill and Treme; Paul Attanasio was the show runner for this before picking up screen writing BAFTAs and creating House and while the main cast is superb, the supporting cast is only exceeded by Miami Vice in terms of top notch cameos and guest stars. Robin William’s appearance as a tourist who has just had his wife killed in front of his children (including a young Jake Gyllenhaal) is some of his best dramatic work.
Something altogether different that Homicide is notable for, is for being the first appearance of Richard Belzer’s “Detective John Munch” character. Thus, Homicide sits at the centre of one of the most bizarre television and movie mega-verses out there – one that just through his own character ties together Homicide, The Beat, Law and Order and its various spin-offs, The Wire, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, The X-Files and even Sesame Street.
What makes Homicide a remarkable show, especially for the early 90s when it aired, was it’s direct and unapologetic approach to the issues of race, poverty, drugs and violence. Everyone has preconceptions, vices, ambitions and fears. The police are understaffed, under-resourced and under intense pressure and scrutiny from the brass, city hall and the media (stop me if this is sounding at all like any other David Simon show). As the show went on, we saw changes to the format – moving away from the multiple plotlines in parallel and more towards the traditional procedural formula – one case per episode (often with a second case as a B plot) and a resolution by episodes end. Other episodes shift the perspective to show the investigation from the perspective of the victim’s family.
David Simon’s year spent alongside the actual Baltimore Police Homicide Unit as an embedded journalist comes through in the writing. It’s dark and bitter, but with the necessary gallows humour of those who work in such a grim role. Combined with the acting and frequently quite avant-garde direction for 90s televsion, it is a show you need to watch on those merits alone. But it’s where it diverges from what we have come to expect as the procedural format that we see it at it’s best.
The interrogation room scene is a staple of the police procedural. Usually in a procedural we see it happen with someone we know to be guilty, but where the police lack the evidence to charge them. The scene is a frequent Law and Order trope, the good guys doing questionable things while their captain tut-tuts disapprovingly, but it’s all worth it to stop the bad guy and his lawyer. But here, the explicit injustice of such behaviour is exposed, in the context of the episode, the scene is even more powerful: they need to confession because the only other option is that a police officer shot the unarmed victim. This is probably the best scene in the entire series. The boiling rage at the railroading of justice that leads to the scene happening explodes. We see Frank Pembleton make an innocent man confess, because that’s what he’s been told to do. It’s a story we hear more and more of as programs like The Innocence Project uncover such miscarriages of justice. The power of the the room is highlighted, the coercive nature of the environs, the cruel strength of misdirected authority. Braugher’s delivery of the final line: “he would have stood a better chance in the back of a paddy wagon with jackboots and clubs, he would have gotten a fairer shake” is the cold steel stuck through the heart of the viewer’s preconceptions.
Homicide was also unafraid to leave a case unsolved, sometimes a detective would catch a “stone whodunnit”. The episode would end with them being no closer to catching their killer. What is arguably the major character arc of the show – that of rookie Homicide Detective Bayliss, is centred around the Adena Watson case, not just a stone whodunnit, but a “red ball” due to it’s circumstances. It is his first case as a primary and for four seasons it hangs over him. He sees parallels where there are none and threatens his relationships with other detectives along with other cases. He tries and fails to move on time and again, while we see Adena’s family coming to terms with her death and moving on themselves. In the end, there is no resolution, Bayliss finally packs away the photo of Adena he had kept on his desk and gives up on ever solving the case. Though we occassionally see the emotional explosions and outbursts typical of the “detective can’t pin crime on guy he knows did it” scene in these shows, more often we see the after-effects of this event: the quiet resignation and a retreat into other cases, fantasies of life after work and indulgence in other vices. The plots and stories were less about the solving of crimes or justice, than they are about the impact murder has on everyone around it. For better or worse, the victims, murderers and police are people first and foremost, something that Homicide will never let you forget.