`Homicide' fittingly goes out the way it came in

Television: After 6 1/2 years, some clues remain hidden. But echoes of the past in the last episode magnify the deep and moving relationships the series has found.

May 21, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The final moments of "Homicide: Life on the Street" find Detectives Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Rene Sheppard (Michael Michele) in an alley in the dark searching for clues to the murder of a man whose body lays nearby.

Lewis probes a clump of weeds with the toe of his shoe and the beam of his flashlight. "If I could just find this thing, I could go home," he says, not explaining what exactly the "thing" is.

"You won't find what you're looking for," Sheppard says dismissively, shining her flashlight on the other side of the alley.

"What? Why not," an irritated Lewis asks.

"It's a mystery. Life is a mystery. Just accept it," she says, as the camera shifts to an overhead shot that shows the two of them walking alone, with their flashlight beams looking small and hopeless against the surrounding darkness.

"Yeah? Well, that's what's wrong with this job," Lewis says. "It ain't got nothing to do with life."

Those are the last words we'll ever hear from the flawed and fabulous characters of "Homicide: Life on the Street," whose final episode airs tonight. The echoes of language and existential sensibility to the pilot 6 1/2 years ago are unmistakable. And, if you are anything like me, they will launch you on a melancholy roller coaster ride back through the series and then rock you with the realization that "Homicide" is really, truly, finally gone.

Last week, I picked tonight's finale, "Forgive Us Our Trespasses," as one of the 10 best of the 122 episodes in the "Homicide" canon. As I sat down to watch for a second time last night, I feared I had picked as much with my heart as my head, wanting to look forward to one last great episode in the immediate wake of the cancellation news.

This isn't a great-great episode, but it is resonant, moving and, most of all, representative of a cultural process that "Homicide" illustrated as well as any series in TV history: the struggle and inevitable compromise necessary to create art in a medium designed primarily for commerce.

When Tom Fontana, the series' Emmy Award-winning executive producer, wrote tonight's episode, he didn't know it would be the last. But he knew it might be. So, as he explained to The Sun, he layered it with as much series' closure as he could, just in case NBC pulled the plug.

"Forgive Us Our Trespasses" has many "Homicide" trademarks, as well as a storyline with Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) that takes the series back to the Ground Zero of its moral center, a location it strayed from this season with the loss of Bayliss' partner, Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher).

It starts with one of the stylistic innovations that "Homicide" pioneered under executive producer Barry Levinson: a series of elongated jump cuts. Bayliss and Sheppard are repeatedly shown climbing the steps of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse with different dates printed at the bottom of each repeat. The technique not only compresses time and gets us instantly into the story, but it also suggests the Sisyphus-like repetition and futility of their jobs.

That futility blasts right through Bayliss' usual Zen-boy detachment when Luke Ryland (Benjamin Busch), the man who broadcast the murder of two women on the Internet, goes free because of mistakes made in a collapsing legal system. Bayliss takes his anger out on State's Attorney Ed Danvers (Zeljko Ivanek), which leads to a career crisis.

As Bayliss searches his soul, his relationship with Pembleton and the inviolate moral vision at the series core is brought sharply into focus.

"Seven years ago, I walked in here with a file box and a lot of idealism," Bayliss tells Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). "I had a clear vision of justice and morality. And whatever has happened to me, around me, I still have that."

Bayliss wrestles with death, God, justice, vengeance, crime and punishment. He wishes aloud that Pembleton was there for guidance. Viewers will see Pembleton in montage, but nothing summons his ghost like Bayliss saying in a soft voice, "Yeah, I loved him."

Secor has several great moments, including a scene with Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) that ends as Bayliss reaches out to touch Munch in a way you can almost feel right through the TV screen.

Lighter side not forgotten

The lighter side of "Homicide" -- its screwy, almost Beckett-esque sense of comedy -- is also there. Lewis and Detective Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) have one of those in-the-car discussions that Levinson seems to have invented. They are talking about Munch's upcoming wedding to Billie Lou McCoy (Ellen McElduff) and the possibility of any two people finding what Falsone calls "wedded bliss."

"They got as much chance surviving a nuclear holocaust as they do just staying married," Lewis says.

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