'Homicide' and Williams create a dazzling drama

January 06, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

I had one of the best New Year's Eves of my life last week. NBC sent me the final four episodes of "Homicide: Life on the Street," and I watched them back to back.

That probably makes me a TV geek. But what a great trip it was.

You, too, can take that trip starting at 10 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2) when NBC airs the first of those four hours, an episode titled "Bop Gun."

If you haven't seen "Homicide," let me tell you: Outside of "Hill Street Blues," it's the best cop drama ever done for TV.

But despite winning Emmys last year for writing and directing, "Homicide" did not make NBC's fall lineup. Scheduled against such shows as "Home Improvement," the ratings were awful.

Only four episodes were ordered for this season. The four will air tonight and the next three Thursdays in the "L.A. Law" time slot. This will give the network enough episodes of "L.A. Law" to last through May sweeps.

There's something wrong with a world where "Homicide" plays backup to "L.A. Law." However, Barry Levinson & Co. are going out in style. Tonight's episode features Robin Williams as a guest star.

Williams, of course, hasn't done TV since "Mork and Mindy." But for Levinson, who directed him in "Toys," Williams came to Baltimore and filmed this episode. (Na-noo, na-noo to you, NBC. Do you knuckleheads have any other producers with that kind of clout?)

And it's not just a glorified cameo, either. Williams is a dead-solid bet to win an Emmy for his work. He plays a father from Iowa who comes to Baltimore as a tourist. As he and his family are leaving Oriole Park at Camden Yards and returning to their car, three teens confront them. One of the teens pulls a gun and shoots the wife dead.

There are several other Emmy-worthy performances tonight besides Williams'.

There's one for director Stephen Gyllenhaal ("Waterland" and "Paris Trout"). Watch what the camera does to communicate the grief of the woman's young son when he's brought to homicide headquarters. You can almost feel the child unconsciously pressing his face hard against the cool wall tiles, trying to anchor his spinning head.

There's another Emmy for the script. It is one of the most ambitious scripts you'll see on TV this year. It attempts to take viewers from a feeling of repulsion and outrage over a horrible act of violence, to understanding the act from the teen gunman's point of view. And it succeeds.

At the end, there's no less revulsion and anger, but we are left with some understanding of what's happening with guns and death in our cities. The script was co-written by David Mills and David Simon, the Sun reporter who wrote the book on which the series is based.

There's also an Emmy for Melissa Leo, as Detective Howard. The script puts her on a personal journey to get inside the head of the gunman. She makes all the right moves to involve us in her odyssey and make us care about the answers she finds.

Do yourself a favor. Tape tonight's episode. And then tape the next three -- on Jan. 13, 20 and 27.

And then, next New Year's Eve, play them back and relive one of the greatest cop shows that ever was.

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