'Homicide': Frank's place Premiere: Braugher's strickened Detective Pembleton fills the squad room with extraordinary power on NBC's cutting- edge cop drama.

September 20, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"I know I t-t-talk funny. I walk funny. I'm a little bit slow. But I still know this job," Frank Pembleton tells his old partner, Tim Bayliss, at a point in tonight's "Homicide" premiere that is almost too intense to watch without cringing.

'But y-you don't think I'm good enough to be your partner. Do you?" Pembleton continues after starting to walk away.

"That's not true," Bayliss says uncomfortably.

"I'm the same man," Pembleton hisses into Bayliss' face. "I'm the same man. Y-you don't think I'm the same man, do you? Y-you think I'm never going to be the same. "

The question is will "Homicide: Life on the Street" ever be the same with its hero -- the character who came to represent the unit's highest professional aspirations and defined its moral center -- so shattered by a stroke that he can't handle the squad room lunch run because he can't remember how to spell pizza.

"Pizza. P-e-t-e-s-a, pizza," the desk-bound Pembleton says, becoming more and more confused as he picks up the phone and tries to carry out one of his new duties -- placing the office lunch order.

Say it ain't so, Frank. Heroes are not supposed to be laid this shuffle-step-stammer-talk low on American television. In Greek tragedy, sure, after you sleep with mom and anger the gods and all that. Shakespeare, too, if you listen to the kind of jealous trash Iago talks or the murderous whisperings of the Missus Macbeth. But not in prime-time network television while Don Johnson is doing Elvis-as-a-cop in "Nash Bridges" on CBS and Barbara Walters is schmoozing Bill and Hillary on ABC.

Andre Braugher's performance in the two-part "Homicide" that starts tonight on NBC is simply stunning. I say that, because I truly did not think Braugher could get any better than he has been the past two seasons. But he has taken his game, as they say, to another level, and it is a level you will not see anywhere else in weekly television -- Emmy or no Emmy.

For those who missed last-season's cliffhanger ending to "Homicide," Pembleton suffered a stroke while questioning a suspect in the box. Viewers were left wondering if and how the unit's star detective would return to work.

The first quarter of tonight's season premiere is mainly buildup to Pembleton's physical entrance into the squad room. I say mainly, because there is one piece of backstage-onstage business the producers quickly have to take care of -- the missing Megan Russert (Isabella Hofmann).

Russert, we are told in various more and less believable accounts, appears to have visited Washington one day, met someone from the French embassy there and run off with him. According to Capt. Roger Gaffney (Walt MacPherson), she is pregnant.

The reason for this story line is that Hofmann -- wife of former "Homicide" cast member Daniel Baldwin -- is on "maternity leave," according to Kim Grabowski, a spokeswoman for NBC. Grabowski said Hofmann has not yet given birth, but that she was told by her doctor that she shouldn't work during the pregnancy. Grabowski says Hofmann could return to the show -- perhaps, as soon as the end of this season -- but tonight's episode has Sgt. Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) cleaning out Russert's desk and linking her to the permanently departed Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty).

"We got a damn revolving door here. Megan runs off with Pepe LePew. Stan retires. Pembleton's late," Howard says, directing the viewer back to the main business of tonight's show -- Pembleton's return and the fact that he is more than an hour late for his first shift.

Of course, there are deaths to deal with in the meantime. An older woman is found dead in her kitchen in Pig Town, while a pig is found in her basement. A neighbor sitting on his front stoop across the street is questioned in connection with the woman and the pig. The neighbor is played by Artie Donovan -- you can imagine how much useful information the detectives get from him. There is also a hostage crisis at a middle school, which becomes the focus of action for both tonight's episode and Part Two, which airs next Friday.

But the dramatic focus is on Pembleton. And, from the moment director Ted ("The Ref") Demme uses the camera to make us see how the flight of steps up to the squad room -- which Pembleton used to take two at a time in a gallop -- now seem like Mount Everest to our wounded hero, the intensity builds. Helping it build, it should be noted, is Kyle Secor who delivers his own Emmy-worthy performance as Pembleton's ex-partner.

Executive producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana are taking a huge risk with the fall of Pembleton. Given the usual range of risk taken by successful network television series, one could call it monumental.

I think some viewers are going to be uncomfortable seeing this once attractive hero in such reduced circumstances of mental and physical health. But what a tremendous dramatic arc the producers are starting to rig into place for those viewers willing to let themselves experience a deeper range of emotions than television usually plumbs as they follow Pembleton on his hero quest -- destination unknown.

Season premiere

What: "Homicide: Life on the Street"

When: 10 tonight Where: WBAL-TV (Channel 11).

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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