Script makes the collar Preview: Thinking outside the box, 'Homicide' writers craft a gem that rewards viewers' faith.

January 30, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There is one thing you could always count on with "Homicide: Life on the Street" -- a great scene when Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) went into "the box" with a suspect.

Tonight, in a two-hour movie version of "Homicide" on NBC, Pembleton gives up on "the box" as the best way to get information from a suspect in the murders of two priests and takes his game to a new level. The result is a scene that comes as close to poetry as any prime-time cop drama should ever hope to.

After deciding that a young drug dealer wasn't going to be scared by talk of jail or eternal hellfire, Pembleton and Ballard (Callie Thorne) drive the kid to a deserted strip of sand and brush along the bay. The sun is shining and sweet blue water stretches as far as the eye can see as Pembleton takes out his gun and tells the kid to take a look around, because it is the last look he's going to get at this world if he doesn't start to talk.

As scared as the kid is by his impending death, what registers on his brain is all that water. It's apparent that he had never been to the bay, and the expanse of blue stuns him almost as much as Pembleton's gun.

"Is that the ocean?" the kid asks in a trembling voice.

"No, son, it's the bay," Pembleton answers.

And before the scene ends, your heart is touched in ways you never thought it could be touched by a punk like this. Prime-time television seldom gets as deep or smart as it does in the final scenes of "Something Sacred."

It is not the acting in these scenes as much as it is the writing. Producers Anya Epstein and David Simon wrote the screenplay (she the first hour, he the second). Look for their names when Emmy nominations are announced in July.

The title -- "Something Sacred" -- is a play on the controversial ABC drama "Nothing Sacred," about an inner-city priest. Tonight's "Homicide" centers on the murders of an inner-city Baltimore priest and a monsignor.

The prime suspects are a pair of young refugees from Central America who were living at the rectory in which the first priest is killed. Check out the detectives -- both black and white -- for prejudice toward the pair. "Homicide" takes racism beyond black and white.

The heavy lifting in terms of dramatic acting is done by Peter Gerety as Gharty, an aging Catholic detective battling his own demons of rage and diminishing faith. His is not the angry, intellectual, Jesuit angst of Pembleton, but it's still got soul -- lots and lots of soul -- enough to remind you how well "Homicide" does religion when it sets its sail in that direction.

There's also some humor, sort of. Several of the detectives go undercover as priests in a desperate attempt to catch the killer. NBC has been promoting this aspect of the show to well, high heaven. I think it is almost as contrived as Chris Cagney (Sharon Gless) and Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly) dressing up as hookers in "Cagney & Lacey," but I admit to smiling at Munch (Richard Belzer) as a priest who speaks Yiddish just before busting a couple of thugs who try to mug him.

In the end, despite its added length and all the pluses cited, "Something Sacred" isn't in a league with the December episode titled "The Subway" that featured Pembleton and a man trapped under a subway car. But it's close -- close enough that, if not something sacred, it is at least something special.

'Homicide'

When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. tonight

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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