Monday, June 15, 2009

Homicide: Life on the Street and the Modern Man

Even though it ran for the better part of a decade on a major network and sucked up all the critical acclaim in the world, Homicide: Life on the Street is likely to be perpetually overshadowed by its "cousin" series, the much-loved The Wire. And this is fitting. Much of the latter seasons of Homicide feels like a sort of rough draft of things that would be revisited, with much more depth, in The Wire. The Baltimore setting, the presence of David Simon, and quite a few of the details and focus on police procedure are things the shows have in common, but The Wire utilized the sort of serialized storytelling that television affords in a novel way--and that can be taken in both senses of the word. The Wire managed to create a sprawling but disciplined and tightly plotted crime saga that continually kept integrating new dimensions of reality into itself, and it was a show that could legitimately be called art while still being accessible, captivating, and funny. This doesn't get at the the political (though rarely topical) tropes of the series, which shows an entrenched power structure that is motivated purely by retention of that power, and the pathos of the individual stories, which had the sort of dramatic force not usually found on T.V., even on HBO.

But rarely doesn't mean never, and Homicide provided one of the most vivid realizations of personal tragedy and downfall ever on television through the lens of its protagonist, Tim Bayliss. And, in its own way, Homicide used the television serial format in a novel way, too, by showing an individual's deterioration over time, organically. The Wire tackled a lot of issues and had both an epic and personal focus, but one show can't explore everything. Homicide explored some interesting territory with respect to modernity and came to some interesting conclusions.

Homicide went on the air in 1993, and by the time it had ended it had gone through several distinct phases. The first phase included the first two seasons, as well as parts of the third. In the early years, Homicide stayed true to its source material: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by, who else, David Simon. The show went for a gritty, almost documentary feel, depicting the life of a murder cop as draining, difficult, repetitive, but important and thankless. The show was always supposed to be an ensemble, especially during the early years, but some characters captured fans' imaginations. Tim Bayliss, as played by Kyle Secor, was probably not one of them. During the early years he came off as a fairly bland presence in the squadroom. The show's real breakout character was Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), the intense and prickly black detective who felt, more than anyone else, his motivation as "speaking for the dead," as he put it. The show began with Bayliss's entry to the squad and, much like The Shield, introduced us almost immediately to the event that would come to haunt him for the rest of the show: in Bayliss's case, it was the Adena Watson killing. We also learned that Bayliss was repelled by kink of any sort--while investigating a murder in the S&M community, he angrily insisted that "sex is love," which prompted Pembleton to launch into one of the show's defining speeches, about the importance of knowing one's dark side, and that one couldn't see into the killer's mind without it. Even during that episode Bayliss's facade begins to crack--we last see him in a red-light district, in a leather jacket, and while he declines the various entreaties with disgust it is clear that he has a fascination with the seamy and the morbid, albeit one that is very suppressed.

The early seasons of Homicide are great--there's never been anything else like them on television--but it soon became clear that there wasn't a long-running show to be found in the source material. From Season 3 onward, the show became more of a standard police procedural, albeit an extremely smart one that still treated the political and psychological aspects of the job with their appropriate gravitas. What did not abate was the Bayliss storyline. Bayliss continued to be preoccupied with the Watson case. In Season 3, Bayliss rapidly enters into a sexual liaison with a barely-known woman that involves some moderate kink--despite some initial hesitancy. More significantly, he is manipulated into attending an art exhibit for convicts when the woman uses the Watson killing to get him to go along, as part of the way for him to explore his dark side. With Bayliss, sex and violence are always intimately connected--his breakup with Emma leads to him attempting a robbery, in this case (and the breakup was based, in part, on his own distaste for kink). It is important to remember that Bayliss's quest is one that is fundamentally based on a desire for justice, and that he goes down these roads out of a desire to be better at solving murders and making things right. During a Season 4 episode, Bayliss checks in on Adena's mother, and finds that she's actually done a better job of handling the murder than he has. She is confused and upset by this realization. The show tried to explain Bayliss's Adena Watson obsession in the following season by revealing that Bayliss had been sexually abused as a child, which was a little too pat and was rarely mentioned later. Still, while he is certainly motivated by a desire to good, Bayliss's moral compass begins to take ever larger beatings as the show goes on.

In the final seasons of the show, Bayliss continues along the same track of sex, violence and moral degredation. He conducts an affair with a coworker and begins to experiment with bisexuality. It isn't so much his sexual orientation that is relevant here, so much as his ever-increasing promiscuity. In the last season he is more or less outed as bisexual. Presumably because he is searching for a way to rebuild his ailing moral compass--not to mention having had a near-death experience--he becomes a practicing Buddhist, which he abandons after shooting a man to death. It was an odd and unpopular choice for the show to make Bayliss undergo such a sudden shift, but in retrospect it makes sense that Bayliss would have tried to find something to cling to while everything he valued began to slip away, and the nonviolence of Buddhism jives with Bayliss's own sympathies. Nevertheless, it just doesn't work. By the time the "Internet Killer" shows up and gets off on a technicality, Bayliss is already prepared to take matters into his own hands.

Note that this is all gradual--Bayliss's story takes place over years, in fits and starts. In other words, just like real life does. There are plenty of episodes where Bayliss is just Bayliss--an eager, smart, compassionate detective. But over the show we see him change in ways that respect his character. The final episode is something of a masterpiece of television: Bayliss's inability to realize the flaws inherent in all human systems causes him to pay a dear price and, since his compassion is not balanced by morality, prudence or even good old-fashioned squeamishness, he can't stop himself from killing the killer. Many fans found the finale unsatisfying, and the demand was sufficient to create a rather bad series finale that nevertheless had a few solid moments. But those who paid attention knew what happened--Bayliss's violence toward a state's attorney for screwing up the case, his discussion with John Munch (Richard Belzer), who he had long suspected of commiting a crime similar to the one he's contemplating, and later Bayliss's abject apology to the attorney in question. By that time there wasn't anything to be angry about. The conversation with Munch is really fascinating, both because of what's said and what's unsaid. Bayliss tries to probe Munch, to figure out if he could live with killing a guilty man. Munch most likely did it once and, if so, he doesn't seem to have let it bother him one bit. Bayliss, however, is not cut from the same cloth, and it winds up bothering him quite a bit--the scene where he confesses to his now-retired partner Frank almost makes the jumbled and implausible mess of the TV movie worth it.

So much for the struggles of Tim Bayliss. What makes it all resonant is how Bayliss's struggle is the struggle that we must all of us go through in the world today. We live in a world in which pain and suffering is more immediate to us than ever before. It's not just a homeless person on the side of the road any more--generations ago, the sorts of genocides, brutality, corruption, and so forth that have always gone on--and probably always will--were simply unknown unless you lived in the areas affected by those specific crises. Even in America, there are lots of people who get an unfair shake, and it seems almost inhuman not to care. Of course, it seems also foolhardy to sentence oneself to a life of misery because the world is the world, a la Bayliss. One solution--one that seemingly a lot of Homicide's characters use, is to keep it all at a distance. This, however, requires a deadening of the self that tends to have rather serious consequences that are much more broadly felt--for example, hardly any of the detectives on the show had relationships or really even friends. The one character on Homicide who was able to have something resembling a real relationship was Frank Pembleton, and in Simon's book his secret was in being able to respond to killings with empathy, as opposed to grief. It's a tricky thing to pull off, but considering how so many of these questions have yet to be addressed by society it seems like as good an idea as any.