Cancel the Autopsy NBC has developed a new appreciation for 'Homicide,' and with new blood the gritty police show could be on the street for many more seasons.

September 24, 1998|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Last year at this time, the consensus was that "Homicide: Life on the Street" was starting its last season on NBC.

Tomorrow, the critically acclaimed cop drama based in Baltimore will start its seventh year, and the end is now nowhere in sight.

As the Emmy-Award-winning Andre Braugher put it in an interview last week, "If the quality of the writing is sustained, I believe the show has the potential to go on for many, many more years."

And this, despite the loss of Braugher whose Frank Pembleton character handed in his badge last May after a shootout that left his partner, Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), seriously wounded.

There were other losses last spring. Michelle Forbes' character, Dr. Julianna Cox, drove her Mustang into the sunset before the season even ended. And Reed Diamond's Mike Kellerman left the department weighed down with all that baggage from the killing of drug lord Luther Mahoney.

So, why the renewal and sudden sense of optimism?

After Jerry Seinfeld's surprise announcement last Christmas that was ending "Seinfeld" and the "ER" holdout a month later that resulted in NBC's paying $14 million per episode for the doctor drama, network executives took another look at "Homicide" and suddenly realized what a near-perfect property it was.

Yes, it's overall ratings were low, but it was the 12th most popular series on television with upscale viewers (households with income over $75,000). Furthermore, NBC was co-producer of the series with Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson. That is an all-important fact because corporate parent General Electric decided the best way to avoid another "ER" is for NBC to own a piece of as many series as possible on its schedule.

And there's all that prestige. For the past four years, "Homicide" has been named either the best drama or the best show on television by the nation's critics.

"Love is in the air at 'Homicide' this season," Fontana says, explaining that there is going to be more emphasis on personal lives and relationships.

One character several cops want to have a relationship with is Detective Rene Sheppard, played by newcomer Michael Michele. The big off-season acquisition, though, is Giancarlo Esposito, who plays Federal Agent Mike Giardello, son of Lt. Al Giardello.

Braugher will be missed, but wait until you see Esposito and Yaphet Kotto go head to head this week as father and estranged son trying to solve a murder in Little Italy.

"Homicide" lives on.

Here are what the characters of 'Homicide' are up to this season.

Character: Tim Bayliss

Actor: Kyle Secor

Update: It is hard to believe this character was once known as Kyle Secor rookie Tim Bayliss. He seems very much the veteran in his seventh season. Bayliss survived the bullet wounds he suffered protecting his partner, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), last season. But he's trying to make new sense out of life. It includes lots of Zen talk, some of it to newcomer Rene Sheppard (Michael Michele), whom he asks out in the fifth episode. Tom Fontana says all aspects of Bayliss' sexuality will be explored, despite NBC urging that he stick to the heterosexual. Secor has been getting better and better, and maybe it is time to start thinking about an Emmy for him this year. He probably deserved one as a supporting actor last season.

Character: Al Giardello

Actor: Yaphet Kotto

Update: The big news for Giardello is the arrival of his estranged Yaphet Kotto son, Mike (Giancarlo Esposito). Their dynamic between them is one of the things expected to fill the void left by Pembleton's departure. Tomorrow night, Al Giardello's cousin is one of several residents of Little Italy who are murdered, and Giardello takes it hard. Watching Kotto and Esposito work together reminded me of how much I loved Kotto in Paul Schrader's "Blue Collar." What a treat it will be if he consistently plays at that level this year on "Homicide."

Character: Meldrick Lewis

Actor: Clark Johnson

Update: Lewis starts out the season teamed up with Sheppard. Clark Johnson In the second episode, they investigate the death an identical twin, and things get kind of weird. The guest star in week two is Joe Perry, of Aerosmith. He does not play a twin. Johnson will also direct an episode this year, as will Secor and Braugher. Johnson is one of TV's most underrated actors. He gets more lines in the early going this season, and he delivers.

Character: Laura Ballard

Actor: Callie Thorne

Update; The Seattle transplant starts out the year on desk duty, nursing the foot wound she suffered in last year's finale. She is also having feelings (as they say on "NYPD Blue") for Falsone (Jon Seda).

Character: John Munch

Actor: Richard Belzer

Update: Munch is Munch. Who Richard Belzer would ever want him to change? He's a wonderful, original, strange and dark character as imagined by the writers and refined by Belzer. There are, though, a trip to the urologist and some problems with the IRS in store for Munch this year.

Character: Paul Falsone

Actor: Jon Seda

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