25 Days of Crime-mas Day 15: Homicide Life on the Street’s eternal appeal

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 01: Actor Andre Braugher speaks onstage during the “Brooklyn NINE-NINE” panel discussion at the FOX portion of the 2013 Summer Television Critics Association tour - Day 9 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 1, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 01: Actor Andre Braugher speaks onstage during the “Brooklyn NINE-NINE” panel discussion at the FOX portion of the 2013 Summer Television Critics Association tour - Day 9 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 1, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images) /

Homicide: Life on the Street is one of the defining TV crime dramas of the 1990’s. That makes it our pick for Crime-mas Day 15.

Homicide: Life on the Street helped shape the TV crime drama landscape in the 1990’s, and yet, many fans of the genre haven’t fully appreciated it. That makes it a natural pick for our next Crime-mas choice.

The NBC series was another example of a show that had the right people at the right time. Many of those involved, on and off camera, weren’t big names at the time—but they are now.

They also gave us some of the most intense and heart-wrenching crime stories of the decade, which is why anyone who loves TV crime dramas ought to have seen it.

Need to know more? Well, here’s everything you should know:

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The story behind the series

Homicide: Life on the Street comes from the mind of David Simon, who would go on to worldwide fame for one of TV’s best crime dramas, The Wire (as well as Treme, The Corner, and other great shows).

But this is where it all started for Simon. Before he was a TV creator, he was a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He followed the city’s homicide unit for an entire year and published the true crime book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. That book became the basis for this show, and the rest is history.

(The book is still readily available in print, and is a must-read for any true crime buffs. It’s one of the best true crime books ever.)

The now-recognizable cast

You’ll recognize at least half the cast of the series; the project was the breakout role for many of them. That includes Andre Braugher—now known for playing Captain Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he was the unquestioned star of Homicide as the tenacious Det. Frank Pembleton. He won an Emmy Award for the role in 1998, after multiple nominations.

Other series regulars throughout the run included Clark Johnson (now better known for his directorial career including Homeland, The Walking Dead and the first SWAT movie), Academy and Emmy Award winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Jon Seda (Chicago PD), Callie Thorne (Rescue Me), and Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul).

This is also where Richard Belzer originated the John Munch character that he later brought over to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

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What is Homicide: Life on the Street about?

As its title indicates, the show has the same mission as the book: it follows the Baltimore homicide squad. Unlike its contemporary Law & Order (which overshadowed Homicide at the time and even crossed over with it twice), the series didn’t tie everything up neatly at the end of each hour. There were often ongoing subplots.

It also wasn’t afraid to be gritty or controversial; the first season’s main storyline involves the murder of a young child that’s based on an actual Baltimore case. Later on, the cops go head-to-head with everything from snipers to bounty hunters to drug dealers. It pulled no punches, and that honesty was what made it so great.

Why should you watch?

The writing of this show is on par with, if not better than, any other contemporary crime drama. It had very few weak episodes (most of them in its final season, when it experienced a significant cast shakeup), and won not one but three Peabody Awards—one of the rare shows to take home that honor multiple times.

Braugher’s performance alone is worth the watch, acting-wise, but the ensemble is solid and at its best around season 4, when characters like Johnson’s Meldrick Lewis and Reed Diamond’s Mike Kellerman are introduced.

And then there are the guest actors; this series attracted some of the best actors around, period, during its time. The late Robin Williams gave his best performance ever in a Homicide: Life on the Street episode. Other guest stars included Gwen Verdon, Vincent D’Onofrio, Christopher Meloni, and an incredibly creepy Steve Buscemi.

Episodes to watch

“Three Men and Adena” (season 1, episode 5) is essentially a play, with the majority of the action taking place entirely in the interrogation room between Pembleton, his partner Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and their prime suspect. It stands on its own, though new viewers will want to watch the previous four episodes, which all lay the groundwork for this one.

“Bop Gun” (season 2, episode 1) is the show’s finest episode. It rests squarely on the shoulders of Robin Williams, who portrays an utterly destroyed husband and father, whose wife is murdered as the family vacations in Baltimore. Williams is amazing, and the other actors play off him so well, in ways that will both have you enraged and in tears. A young Jake Gyllenhaal also appears as one of the Williams’ character’s kids.

“Subway” (season 6, episode 7) will leave your skin crawling. Homicide is called when a man gets crushed beneath a subway train—but the man is still alive. To say much more would be giving it away, but Vincent D’Onofrio is heartbreaking as the victim, and it’s disturbing to watch an episode where the audience knows what’s going to happen to him before he does. But once you see it, you’ll never forget it.

Next. See the full 25 Days of Crime-mas schedule. dark

What do you think of Homicide: Life on the Street? Which TV crime dramas are making your list for the 25 Days of Crime-mas? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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