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Death and the Network

We have argued, time and again, that Homicide: Life on the Street has outlived its glory days and needed to be put to out to pasture. The stories had gotten big and topical, an uneasy fit for a show where the crimes the detectives investigated were merely doorways into an exploration of their own fallibility. The actors brought in to punch up the show were incapable of inhabiting their roles with the understated and gritty intensity that the first squad had. Over the last two years, the show was the televised equivalent of watching your favorite local coffee joint turn in to McDonald's.

Yet I watched the show last night with a lump in my throat, because it was the end of the series, and the end of an era in television. At its best, Homicide was television that could leave you staring at the screen in silent thought long after the ending credits rolled. Characters you only saw once -- as the perpetrators of a murder or the people indelibly affected by it -- burned on to your consciousness and stayed there longer than they deserved. The brutally mundane world of investigative police work -- systematically sifting through information, trying to decide which lies are worth pursuing, summing up a human execution in ten pages of paperwork -- became an accessible doorway for elegant meditations on the nature of humanity.

And it is only fitting that the most accessible door, Kyle Secor's zen detective Tim Bayliss, is the one that both opened and closed our relationship with the series. In the very first episode, we saw him standing in a squad room that willfully ignores him -- a gangly idealist whose very presence irks the seasoned cops. He was the viewer stand-in, the one who would introduce us to the business of cleaning up after a murder. Over the next seven years, he's become one of the squad members, but uneasily. And in the last episode, he must decide whether to stays in a lifeless job, or rejoin the world of the living.

Secor wasn't the series' best actor -- Andre Braugher was Homicide's uncontested heavyweight and Clark Johnson its unsung underplayer -- but he ably played its Everyman, the one who grappled with the moral questions that accompany a crime. He didn't provide the elegant meditations on the reasons we kill or are killed; he just provided the understandable reactions, then reached beyond them to help illuminate why we react to whatever we don't understand.

Sometimes, these flashes of insight are nearly spontaneous; in the show's third year, when Bayliss is given the unpleasant task of investigating his squadmates in the execution of a cop assailant, he concludes that some murders are going to go unpunished -- and it might be better that way. The long, sad sweep of the Adena Watson case -- Bayliss's first case, a murdered little girl whose killer slipped out of his hands -- lays at the other end of the spectrum.

The Adena Watson case was never resolved. We never do find out how to live with the unsolved murder of a child, but we learn how Bayliss has come to live around it. And in the end, we understood how the detectives lived around their jobs, picking apart the darker corners of the human psyche while trying not to get eaten by whatever lurked there. They did it through drinking, through dying, through sardonic humor and intense metaphorical discussion.

There has been no other show that has grappled with the conflicting human needs for privacy and exposition like this one. There has been no other show that could mixed the existential with the accessible so well. Homicide was the rare gem that managed to simulate the world around us while offering an insight into it, and the picture it showed wasn't always easy to watch. That doesn't matter. Now that Homicide has gone, its dark and pungent brew has left the television viewer's palette a little poorer.


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