Number's up for `Homicide'

NBC kills acclaimed Baltimore cop drama after seven seasons

A victim of poor ratings

May 14, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

After seven seasons of critical acclaim but endless ratings struggle, the Baltimore-based television drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" is dead.

NBC confirmed the cancellation late yesterday with a statement saying: " `Homicide: Life on the Street' has been a favorite among critics and millions of viewers for the past seven years. While it won't be returning next season ... we tip our hats and express our gratitude to Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana and the rest of the extremely talented cast and crew who have brought top-notch, award-winning drama to NBC."

The statement was signed by Garth Ancier, who became NBC's president of entertainment Monday.

The loss will be especially felt in Baltimore, where the series is estimated to have injected $18 million to $21 million into the local economy each of the past several years.

"We expected to be canceled after nine episodes, after 13 episodes, after 33 episodes," said David Simon, producer for the series and author of the nonfiction book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," on which the Peabody Award-winning police drama was based.

"Ultimately, we ran for 122 episodes, which is longer than the vast majority of network series. It was a blast and I'm proud to be associated with it," he said.

Baltimore's Emmy- and Oscar- winning director Barry Levinson optioned former Sun reporter Simon's book for $10,000 in 1991 and brought it to television in 1993.

"In the end, everything is only about numbers," said Levinson, referring to ratings and profit margins.

"But it's not often that you have a show that, ultimately, really makes its mark in television history, and I think we did that," he added. "We affected storytelling and camera style, and also pointed a camera at another place rather than the traditional New York-Los Angeles world."

In addition to the innovative camera style and storytelling, what made "Homicide" special and what it will surely be most remembered for are its enlightened and matter-of-fact depiction of a multiracial workplace and its unbending moral vision in an era of spin-doctoring, relativism and Washington lies that rose to the level of impeachment.

" `Homicide' was one of the great breakthrough dramas in television history," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University and author of "Television's Second Golden Age," an examination of prime-time drama in the 1980s and '90s.

"It logged many hours and years of really fine American dramatic storytelling. It was a masterpiece of a show, and it's sad to see such a great program end," he added.

"The hardest thing about going off the air is that there are so many great people in Baltimore who it will affect. I feel like the manager of a Chevy plant today who has just been told by headquarters they're going to close the plant," said Tom Fontana, the show's Emmy-winning writer and co-executive producer.

"But I want to stress to the people of Baltimore that Barry and I are committed to finding another series and returning to Baltimore to make it," Fontana said.

In his statement, NBC's Ancier said: "We have great confidence in the production team [Fontana and Levinson] and are working toward a pilot commitment" for the 2000-2001 season.

In a development yesterday that might help soften the blow to the local film industry, Simon confirmed that he is conducting negotiations with HBO to film a six-hour limited series based on his second book, "The Corner," that he hopes will be made in Baltimore.

Yesterday's cancellation was not unexpected. The possibility had been discussed in The Sun since December, as the series struggled to find itself dramatically and slipped in the ratings with the departure of Andre Braugher, who played emotion-charged Detective Frank Pembleton.

But the possibility of cancellation has stalked "Homicide" virtually since the night it debuted -- at 10: 25 p.m. Jan. 31, 1993 -- in the coveted spot following the Super Bowl.

The episode, "Gone for Goode," which earned director Levinson an Emmy, was seen by 18.8 million viewers, which would be the most ever to see a single episode. But NBC executives considered it a sub-par performance.

Nor was the series as widely celebrated by critics as it is today. Levinson and Fontana employed cutting-edge technical devices, in part to keep production costs down, but also to create a gritty and arresting new look. These involved shooting on Super-16 mm instead of the more traditional 35 mm film, the use of hand-held cameras moving freely among the actors, and, most of all, the use of jump cuts in which a scene is repeated several times in fast succession.

Levinson had French film director Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" in mind, especially with the jump cuts. But some critics complained that they found the style "jarring" or that the camera movement made them "seasick."

"I imagine anyone who has been drinking a lot at a Super Bowl party might have trouble following the show," Levinson said.

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