Flair, sass make premiere a happy return LTC

October 14, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Maybe "Homicide: Life on the Street" is only the second-best police drama on network television, behind "NYPD Blue." But what a wonderful second it is.

It's been so long since the last episode aired in January that I forgot how smart the dialogue was, how rich the acting is, how the show manages to play viewers back and forth between funny and profound, light and dark -- like maybe no show since "St. Elsewhere" (which was the work of "Homicide" executive producer Tom Fontana).

The first time through tonight's season premiere, which will air at 10 on WMAR (Channel 2), I was so blown away I stopped taking critic's notes and started writing questions with giant exclamation marks and question marks behind them:

* How could Andre Braugher not get an Emmy nomination? The Emmy?? Is Pembleton the avenging Jesuit, doing God's work in "Homicide"??? Is Dennis Franz really any better than this????

* Lewis and Munch -- what a great, crackpot comedy team!

* Melissa Leo is dynamite! Her performance makes it ladies' night!!

It is ladies' night on "Homicide." The story is about finding the body of a woman, who happened to be Baltimore's Volunteer of the Year, mostly naked in a Dumpster behind St. Stanislaus' Church in Fells Point. I say "mostly" because she was wearing one white glove. Solving her murder becomes a politically hot "redball" matter.

The main business of the hour is introducing and getting viewers to care about Lt. Megan Russert (Isabella Hofmann), who runs the night shift and who is feeling the heat to solve the murder.

Russert has been added to the cast in hopes of bringing sexual tension and energy to "Homicide" -- the stuff NBC believes is responsible for the ratings difference between its show and ABC's "NYPD Blue." The lady lieutenant is sleeping with one of the male detectives. Is it love, or only boy-toy time?

Fifteen minutes into the show, it's clear that Hofmann can play in this league with the likes of Yaphet Kotto and Ned Beatty. But only time and Nielsen will tell if viewers are going to care enough about Russert to give "Homicide" the ratings boost it needs to survive.

It's in a killer time period, opposite "Picket Fences," the Emmy-winner as best drama two years straight, and "20/20," the second-most-successful newsmagazine on television. Viewers must really care for "Homicide" to make it.

Don't miss the first few minutes tonight -- before the opening credits. Bolander (Beatty), Munch (Richard Belzer) and Lewis (Clark Johnson) are involved in one of those deliciously loopy conversations that have become a "Homicide" comic trademark.

This one begins when Bolander becomes outraged by seeing a couple in bed on a TV screen in the squad room and demands that the set be turned off. The three wind up arguing about whether networks make producers put sex in TV shows to get ratings, or whether the producers put it in on their own and the networks try to make them take it out.

It's a brilliant little comic overture to the brilliant hour of drama that follows.

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