Anger in the squad room TV: NBC's 'Homicide' returns, and a new face -- white, female -- is hogging the limelight. A rude welcome back for Pembleton. She and he don't mince words.

October 17, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There's a new star detective in Homicide, and Pembleton (Andre Braugher) doesn't like it one bit.

"She's Laura Ballard, flavor of the month, detective du jour," Munch (Richard Belzer) says, sarcastically welcoming Pembleton and Bayliss (Kyle Secor) back from their three months of duty in robbery.

"Which makes the rest of us?" Pembleton says, not finishing the question as his blood pressure starts to rise.

"Well, the phrase chopped liver does come to mind," Munch says, excusing himself to pose for a picture with Ballard (Callie Thorne), who has just solved a big case and is the employee apple of Lt. Giardello's (Yaphet Kotto) eye.

Pembleton chopped liver? Pembleton -- Mr. "I Will Speak For Those Who Are Slain in Baltimore" -- playing second fiddle to a newcomer, a Seattle transplant, no less, in her late twenties with only three years' experience? He came all the way back last year from a stroke for this?

The real-world casting changes are cleverly played for workplace laughter in the opening moments as "Homicide: Life On the Street" returns for its sixth and possibly final season tonight on NBC. By the time Giardello gives Pembleton the bad news that he is going to have to share his desk with Ballard -- who has decorated it with a Seattle pennant, flowers and pieces of china -- you can't help but smile.

But that's part of the power of producer Anya Epstein's teleplay, because the amusing dislike-at-first-sight of Pembleton for Ballard is the setup for what turns out to be one of the most serious, frank and compelling discussions of race in any medium since Dennis Franz used the "n" word on "NYPD Blue" two years ago. It's entertainment greasing the skids for sociology, prime-time and profound.

"Homicide" returns with a three-week story arc involving the death of a Haitian domestic worker employed by one of the most powerful men in Baltimore, snack-food king and philanthropist Felix Wilson (James Earl Jones). Her body is found in a restroom at the Belvedere Hotel during a dinner honoring Wilson.

Pembleton is the primary investigator of the woman's death. But he and Bayliss are backed up by Ballard and her partner, Stuart Gharty (Peter Gerety).

From the very beginning, the investigation seems compromised by the extreme deference Pembleton and Giardello show Wilson and his family, and it isn't long before Ballard, who is white, starts wondering aloud whether Pembleton would be treading so lightly around the Wilsons if they were white.

In next week's episode, which was written by producer David Simon, there's a squad-room shouting match with Pembleton sharing his prejudiced thoughts about people who are Irish, barrooms in working-class Hampden and political power shifts in city hall. Ballard and Gharty, too, take off the gloves in laying out their perception of Realpolitik in "majority-black" Baltimore.

Of course, there is more to the two episodes made available to critics than the supercharged discourse on race. But most of it has to do with "Homicide" trying to reach a wider audience and higher ratings to stay on the air. In other words, it's about entertainment.

There's more danger than usual, with a gunman on a motorcycle shooting at cops tonight. The producers have us looking through the gun sight as the shooter takes aim at Lewis (Clark Johnson). Gun-sight point of view has been questionable behavior for any television show since Dallas, 1963.

There's also a pseudo-chase scene involving helicopters that ends with an airport capture and a kick in the crotch. "Homicide" is better than this.

Next week, there's a dead body at Camden Yards and cameos by Orioles pitchers Scott Erickson and Armando Benitez. The whole take-me-out-to-the-ballgame sequence seems forced, but maybe that's just post-Cleveland depression on my part.

Still, it's great to have "Homicide" back with new episodes. And, compared with what it accomplishes this week and next in its discussion of race and the performances of Braugher and Gerety, my complaints are mainly quibbles.

With the Orioles ending their season before most of us were ready for it to happen this week, the new season of "Homicide: Life On the Street" isn't arriving a moment too soon to fill some of that civic void.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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