A ratings fatality, 'Homicide' ends short-lived run

March 31, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

After 15 years as a critic, I thought I had finally learned not to become attached to any TV series.

Then along came Barry Levinson's "Homicide," with its dark, wise, nervy look at the way life's really lived and the awful way death comes on the homicide beat in Baltimore.

The thing is, I didn't truly fall for the show until last week. And tonight, it ends its nine-episode run and disappears -- probably forever -- into the ether of Hiatus Land.

NBC's official word is that "Homicide" goes on hiatus after tonight's episode, which airs at 9 on WMAR (Channel 2). Rosemary O'Brien, a spokeswoman for NBC, said the network is still high on the series and that it could be renewed for next fall.

Renewal would be wonderful. And Levinson, who means prestige to a network badly in need of it, is fighting to get the show on the fall schedule. Furthermore, he appears to be waging a smart campaign.

Publicists for the show said they have talked to the NAACP, for example, in hopes that the organization will come out with a statement lauding "Homicide" for its enlightened depictions of African-American characters, such as detectives Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Lieutenant Giardello (Yaphet Kotto).

Such a statement would definitely be a plus while NBC decides the show's fate. But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has not made a formal statement about the show.

The bad news is that going strictly by the numbers, "Homicide" is not a good candidate for the fall schedule. It has two strikes against it -- ratings and production costs -- as network programmers sit down this month to map out next fall's lineup.

"Homicide" was put in a Death Valley slot opposite ABC's "Home Improvement" and never found an audience. Its ratings have been consistently bottom-of-the-Nielsen-barrel. Last week the show finished 72 out of 91 prime-time shows.

Worse, the show costs -- about $1 million an episode to produce. That's twice what it will cost to produce NBC's new prime-time magazine, "Prime Story" with Faith Daniels, which will replace "Homicide" at9 on Wednesday night. Projections are that "Prime Story" will attract at least one and a half times the audience of "Homicide."

One and half times the audience for half the price. You don't have to be H. & R. Block to figure out the math.

I wish I could tell you that you don't want to miss tonight's finale, but it's one of the weaker episodes and it's somewhat confusing.

Don't try to make sense out of it. Just savor one last turn by detectives Munch (Richard Belzer) and Bolander (Ned Beatty) and Lieutenant Giardello.

As for me, I'm going to savor the final scene of last week's episode, the one that made me fall for "Homicide."

It opened with a startling rooftop shot up Charles Street of the Washington Monument. It was late night in Baltimore.

Then we found ourselves inside a neighborhood tavern with Detective Bolander sitting alone at a Formica bar -- drinking and talking as a bartender (played by filmmaker John Waters) mechanically wiped a glass and listened.

Bolander's stream-of-consciousness rap started with Elvis and moved on to Marlon Brando and Orson Welles, as a rhythm and blues ballad on the jukebox oozed a melancholy, background mood.

At first, the goofiness of the rap brought a smile as you listened to Bolander trying to say something large about life and death when his brain clearly wasn't working well. But then, you felt the ache, as Bolander kept coming back to his ex-wife, their divorce and all the pain in his heart.

"Homicide" didn't try to ease the pain and make everything seem all right the way so much prime-time TV does. It simply showed us the pain and offered us a chance to connect with it.

That's probably not the way to make a hit TV series, but it is the way to make an authentic one.

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