Building a show on a load of hype Preview: A PBS documentary on 'Homicide' goes behind the scenes. But it's marred by not doing its homework.

November 04, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Anatomy of a Homicide: Life on the Street" is a disappointment.

The PBS film about the making of an episode of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" is not so disappointing that you'd go out of your way to avoid it. In fact, if you're a "Homicide" fan, you'll probably enjoy seeing some of the backstage business with screenwriter James Yoshimura. It's also visually interesting, with cinematography that mirrors the jumped-up look of the series itself.

But the documentary is built on a hyped narrative constructed out of misinformation that suggests -- and there is no nice way to say this -- ignorance on the part of filmmaker Theodore Bogosian as to how network television works.

Such ignorance is deadly in a public TV documentary that bills itself as an "extraordinary television event" -- an "up-close look inside the creative universe known as dramatic television [where] art and commerce constantly clash."

"Anatomy" says that last fall "Homicide" was a "beleaguered series" facing "imminent cancellation." But it was neither beleaguered nor facing imminent cancellation. In fact, it was about to get an early pick-up for the 1998-1999 season in January -- a rare display of support for any show from any network.

The only way "Anatomy" is extraordinary is in structure. The first part (70 minutes) is about the making of last season's acclaimed episode titled "The Subway." That's the one with guest star Vincent D'Onofrio as a commuter who is trapped beneath a subway car. Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) bonds with the victim during the man's final hour on this earth.

Yoshimura wrote it and was nominated for an Emmy. Yoshimura and David Simon, on whose book the series is based, produced the episode, which won a Peabody Award. Most of the second hour is a rebroadcast of "The Subway" episode itself (43 minutes long) which aired last December.

Smart deal for both sides. PBS essentially gets an hour of free programming (worth up to $750,000 for a top-flight documentary) courtesy of Baltimore Pictures (Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana) and NBC, which co-produce and co-own "Homicide." NBC and Baltimore Pictures, meanwhile, get a chance to promote their series by showing one of its best episodes to upscale PBS viewers.

Bogosian describes the program by saying, "In many ways 'Anatomy' is Jim Yoshimura's story, the travails of a writer to make his brainchild take shape and flourish. In other ways, it's a larger look at how a beleaguered network series, in the face of imminent cancellation, can push the creative envelope to survive."

The Yoshimura part has some nice moments. Viewers will see him on the phone horse-trading with the network over crude language. They will hear executive producer Jim Finnerty complaining that Yoshimura wrote a script set in the subway before he found out whether transit officials would let them film there. They'll see executive producer Tom Fontana in the editing room looking through hundreds of images and then putting his finger on the one crucial shot they failed to get while the cameras were rolling.

But it's the "larger look" that ultimately undoes "Anatomy."

The nut of the documentary is contained in the following statement from narrator Will Lyman: "In July 1997, after five acclaimed seasons, NBC finally gives 'Homicide's' producers an ultimatum: Become more popular than 'Nash Bridges' [the competition on CBS] or be canceled. Now, the television world wonders how much longer 'Homicide: Life on the Street' can survive without dumbing down or lightening up."

There was an ultimatum given. But it was given in May 1997, not July. Why does that matter? Because "Homicide" was already in production in Baltimore -- with scripts written and new cast members in place -- in July. No network -- especially one that owned half the series as NBC does -- would give such an ultimatum to producers when it is too late to make appropriate changes. Such directives are given in April and May when series are renewed or canceled.

This is Network Programming 101.

To not know that is to have no sense of the real rhythms of the world the documentary purports to take viewers inside of.

Then, to fuel the "imminent cancellation" story line, the narrator says, "In mid-October 1997, the series opens to some of its lowest ratings ever and 'Homicide' fans are suddenly afraid that NBC might actually cancel their series early in the season."

This is pure hype. There never was a shred of a chance that "Homicide" would have been canceled last fall, since NBC had ordered 20 or so episodes the previous May. Networks do cancel shows in the fall -- sometimes after just three or four airings -- but the series that get canceled that quickly are new ones in which the network investment seldom extends beyond an order for six episodes.

This is Network Programming 102.

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