Question: This might be weird for a TV site, but settle a sports bet for me, please. Who played in the Super Bowl that was on before the first Homicide episode? I say Dallas and Buffalo. My friend says Washington and Buffalo. Who's $100 richer? Thank you. John F., Tempe, Ariz.
Televisionary: Well, since Dallas played Buffalo in the Super Bowl twice and Washington only did it once in the early '90s, around the time NBC launched Homicide: Life on the Street, the odds are with you having an extra Franklin in your wallet, John. And since you're right, you should. Homicide debuted after the first of those Super Bowl match-ups, in January 1993.
And the critical darling started defying conventional TV wisdom right off the bat since up until then shows with a Super Bowl lead-in tended to be utter successes (The A-Team, The Wonder Years) or complete duds (Grand Slam, Davis Rules) right out of the gate. Homicide was neither.
Funny thing, too. Even executive producer Barry Levinson went on record as saying that the first episode's fortunes rested on how good a game it was a slaughter meaning people would tune out early. ("This is the first time I'll be rooting for both sides," he said.) To the dismay of Levinson, network execs and Bills fans nationwide, Dallas eviscerated Buffalo, 52 to 17. Yet Homicide managed a number-seven ranking for the week just the same. An instant hit, then? Hardly. It would never see that kind of ratings strength again.
By April, the series ranked 86th out of 133 series, earning it a spot in TV Guide's "Save Our Shows!" feature. By the fall of 1994, it settled into a 10 pm time slot on Friday nights, but its future was by no means secure: With ABC's NYPD Blue claiming the cop-drama crown, NBC ordered only nine Homicide episodes the first season and only four the season after. Still, network Entertainment President Warren Littlefield understood it took an offbeat show like Homicide, which featured gritty, realistic police work rather than chases and gun battles, time to catch on. "It's attention television," he told TV Guide in 1995. For viewers, the degree of difficulty is high."
And how. With its devotion to character and detail over action and its stylish, heavy use of moving handheld-camera shots and jumpy editing, the series was new to the average TV viewer. To co-star Andre Braugher, that was part of its problem. "We have no one to blame but ourselves," he said. "It's really wonderful to make innovations in style, but we didn't take the time to bring our audience along with us. People were asking questions about the filming style instead of the story."
Perhaps, but by March 1996, the show was second to ABC's 20/20 in its time slot and the audience had adjusted to the challenging presentation. "[P]eople have become comfortable with the camera work and jump cuts," said Executive Producer Tom Fontana. "And they're more comfortable with these characters." There was more action, too. Well... by Homicide standards, anyway. "The joke used to be that our action was: A car pulls up to the curb and a guy gets out," Fontana said. "This season we did an episode with helicopters!"
More important, critics loved it and deservedly so (as I've said in this space before, the episode "Three Men and Adena," for which Fontana won a writing Emmy, remains one of the best hours ever broadcast on TV). Mystery writer J.A. Jance put it perfectly, describing the impact of a typical episode: "Victims who started out as a mere collection of letters have become full-blown people, leaving behind a trail of grieving friends and family," she wrote. "When the hour is over, I've spent those 60 minutes walking in someone else's shoes. That's what storytelling is all about."
Indeed it is, but of all the observations, the one from co-star Richard Belzer, was probably the most accurate. "It's a miracle that it's still on," he said halfway through the show's run.
Indeed it was. Homicide was too smart for TV. So when TV Guide's editors called it "the best police series ever produced by American television," it was only cause for partial celebration. The kudos appeared when the show was featured as "The Best Show You're Not Watching" in 1996.
In August 1999, Homicide broadcast its last victim's tale and became a victim itself. But by that time it had defied the odds to stay on longer than many a ratings-hobbled show, and it was quality that took it that far. Just ask the toughest cop-show critics out there actual detectives. "Whoever makes that show, they have the squad room down cold. It's closer to what we do than any other cop show on television," said New York City Det. Louis Scarcella in 1998. "It fits our life to a tee," added Det. Steve Chmil.
In fact, it was the two detectives' second-favorite cop show of all time, next to Naked City, a darned respectable showing considering how many have gone out over the airwaves. When told of the ranking, Belzer responded with the deadpan attitude that was the trademark of his character and his show. "Hmm... second all-time to Naked City?" he asked. "OK, I'll take that."