'Homicide' finds a steady spot in midseason lineup

November 17, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Only a few weeks ago, the question was whether Barry Levinson's "Homicide" would find a spot as a midseason replacement on NBC's prime-time schedule.

Now the question is how fast Levinson can get more episodes of the series about Baltimore homicide detectives to the network.

"Homicide" has not only been guaranteed an airdate in mid-January, but the network recently increased its initial order of six episodes by three more episodes and four additional scripts, Levinson said yesterday.

That means the series, based on the book by Sun reporter David Simon, is virtually guaranteed a regular weekly run on NBC through May 5. And that's making it the buzz of the TV industry.

There are three big reasons why "Homicide" is suddenly so important to NBC. One, the network's gamble on twentysomething viewers this season is not going so well and it needs some new, high-quality shows with mass appeal. Two, NBC brass got to see the first episode of the series and it looks like it's just what the doctor ordered. And three, it's not your conventional detective series.

"We're not doing a cop show with gun fights and car chases," Levinson said. "We don't even solve the crime every week. The show is just about these people -- the homicide detectives in Baltimore -- how they function and how they function with one another. . . . The entertainment is in the surprises that being authentic can offer. . . . The appeal is in what we learn about these people during the journey."

Yesterday in and around the Broadway Pier in Fells Point, you could almost feel the buzz the show is creating.

There was Levinson, just in from Los Angeles, standing at water's edge, wearing a white shirt, sleeveless sweater, blue jeans and clip-on sunglasses, posing for photographers from Entertainment Weekly, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times and other publications. And there were the reporters from up and down the East Coast following Levinson around the sound stage, recording every word, nodding, scribbling and leaning closer to try to hear the Academy Award-winning director talk about television.

Levinson admitted he doesn't know that much about TV -- at least not in the way network programmers do, with all their talk of demographics and audience flow.

In an interview with The Sun before other reporters arrived, he said he doesn't watch much TV.

"When I do watch TV, it's more often than not news," Levinson said. "I love documentaries. . . . But there's no specific thing that I tune into any more.

"I think there's sort of like a disenfranchised audience out there. They don't know what to watch any more. They're not hooked into the patterns that used to work out there."

Maybe it's better that Levinson doesn't know about TV the way network executives do. The conventional wisdom on Network Row is that hourlong drama series shot on location -- like "Homicide" -- are simply too expensive to make in these days of fragmented audiences and declining market shares.

So how is Levinson doing it?

"We're doing it by shooting the show differently, by preparing it differently. We have a lighter [smaller] crew. We move faster. . . . We're all hand-held cameras . . . We use some of what you see in reality TV for more authenticity. . . . It's different lighting and different camera movement."

The explanation gets kind of technical, but what it boils down to in part is Levinson's making lemonade out of lemons. It would be nice to get $1.5 million an episode out of NBC for "Homicide." But Levinson has to do it for $1 million per episode or less.

So, he essentially came up with a way to use the techniques of reality TV, news and documentaries to find a style that was not only less expensive but also matched the themes and vision of the show.

The result -- to judge from the viewing of a scene on a sound-stage monitor yesterday -- is a look and feel that's gritty, up close, constantly in motion, intense, natural and immediate.

Finding that style made it possible for Levinson to shoot the show on location in Baltimore -- where it will remain at least until Christmas instead of closing down this week, thanks to the increased order from NBC.

"We had to come to Baltimore for this series," Levinson said. "You couldn't shoot it in Los Angeles. You can only fake so much. You can't fake this city. . . . I think we're showing life in this series. . . . The life of these cops . . . the life of this city."

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