Homicide: Life on the Street Retrospective

Partners on the Street, Part 1: Exploding the Myth of Partners as Brothers in Blue

They worked together. But not always the same way. wikipedia.com

Almost from the beginning of television as a medium, the police procedural has always believe in the idea of eternal partners. No doubt the lion’s share of this is due to the idea of consistency among audiences: the idea that the viewer will only tolerate the same old, same old week in and week out. Either they would work as a team, as they did in Dragnet or Hill Street Blues, as part of a squad, as they did in Barney Miller or as the seventies and eighties would make a habit of, by themselves, most famously in shows like Columbo and lesser series like Banachek.

This pattern was not something even the constant rotation of cast members in Law and Order would alter. There was always a constant for the length of the procedural: Chris Noth might have given way to Benjamin Bratt and then to Jessie L. Martin, but Jerry Orbach was always there: for all you knew, they were the only two cops working murders in the 27th Precinct. NYPD Blue might have been willing to do radical things with language and sexuality, but it fundamentally didn’t alter that format throughout its entire run. Dennis Franz would work with Jimmy Smits, then Rick Schroeder, then Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Admittedly, there were some variations: by the time the series reached season three, there were four other detectives in the precinct and that basic number would be the same until the end of the series. But it remained fairly consistent in that line of partnership for most of its run: Nicholas Turturro worked with Gordon Clapp, Kim Delaney with Andrea Thompson, and the only changes came when one or more left. Rare was the time you would ever see, say, Medavoy working with Russell, and usually it had to do with one of their partners being injured or on leave. Even when the squad worked together on the same murder, these partnership almost never varied.

This pattern remained true throughout the 21st Century. Benson and Stabler worked together for more than a decade together, and the only time Benson wasn’t there was when Mariska Hargitay was on maternity leave. After Chris Meloni left the series, her character rarely worked with anyone else, and I think that more than any other reason is why she is now the head of the Special Victims Unit. Criminal Intent essentially followed the original’s pattern verbatim throughout its run: even when there were more than one set of partners, the twain rarely met.

Nor did this fundamentally change anything when it came to Peak TV. The Shield., in all the ways it fundamentally broke the mold, was traditional in that sense: Claudette and Dutch were essentially working cases throughout the length of the series, and only after Claudette became head of the squad did Dutch work with someone else. Shows like The Closer, Major Crimes, and even The Wire didn’t alternate from that pattern: Provenza and Flynn worked together from the Pilot of The Closer and stayed together pretty much until the last episode of Major Crimes. There were some alterations with The Wire — Bunk worked with McNulty and Lester throughout the show — but it never seemed as critical to the series, because so much of the police work was based on the detail, not the Homicide Unit. The CSI franchise was formulated entirely on cops working with investigators and there wasn’t much alteration even with the constant shift of actors. Not even the most highly acclaimed procedurals like, say True Detective, have dared mess with this format: it didn’t matter how much time passed, Woody Harrelson was still working with Matthew McConaughey. That’s the formula and no one will dare screw with it.

Or almost no one.

I’m not necessarily saying that Homicide when it began its run in 1993 had an any intention of violating even this myth. There is a huge argument that circumstances forced the change. But to their credit, once this change was forced upon them, Tom Fontana and his writers spent the remainder of the series steering into it, and willing to do anything to mess with the viewers comfort level.

When Homicide began its run, there were eight detectives and four partnerships. Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) and Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson); Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin); John Munch (Richard Belzer and Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty) and Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and rookie Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). In the pilot, the other detectives publicly groused about how Pembleton never worked with a partner which made Giardello intend to force him to work with Felton, who clearly disliked him. In that episode, the two of them are taking a car to a murder when Pembleton can’t find the keys to a squad car and rather than go up and get a new set, spends the next two hours methodically going through every car in the lot. Howard has taken Bayliss to see a dead body, and when they arrive in the squad, Pembleton is still searching. Howard finds her suspect and by pure chance, Bayliss takes a ride with Pembleton.

All of the partnerships in the first couple of seasons (together adding up to thirteen episodes) reflect variations on a theme. Crosetti and Lewis are the two detectives who work together well; Felton is supporting of the only woman in the squad, Munch is constantly trying to win Bolander’s approval, a man constantly speaking up his old partner, and Bayliss is the rookie trying to fit in with a man who openly disdains much of his values. They will spend the entirety of the series becoming friends, and at least on Pembleton’s part, denying that he is Bayliss’ friend.

It is conceivable that this would have remained the status quo for the series had not outside factors intervened. The first prior to the third season when Jon Polito either resigned or was fired (the truth has never fully come out even nearly thirty years) and was replaced by Isabella Hoffman as Megan Russert. The eventual explanation for Crosetti’s departure led to one of the great episodes in television history when Crosetti, having supposedly been on vacation for a month, is pulled out of the bay. The squad spends the episode trying to deny the obvious, which is that he has killed himself and none of them will ever know the reason why.

Almost any other series would have immediately named another detective to the squad. Homicide didn’t, using the very plausible argument that there was no money in the budget for another detective. So instead Lewis spent the entirety of Season 3 essentially floating from detective to detective on cases, usually with deeply flawed results each time. Sometimes they were hysterical as when Lewis drove Bayliss and himself to a crime scene and wrecked the squad car when they finally got there. Some of them led to far less congeniality as when Bayliss and Pembleton worked together on a shooting, and fundamentally disagreed about whether the shooter came from the black side of town or the white side of town. (Meldrick was convinced they should start with the latter; Pembleton believed the former.) Not once did of these occasions lead to a necessary click: though Meldrick would work with several of the detectives again over the years, he had never had the same comfort level with any of them.

Lewis, for better or worse, would become the detective who ended shifting partners the most over the series. When Season 4 debuted the next year, he finally got a permanent partner: former arson detective Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond). There was mockery from the other detectives on the squad at his inability to keep a partner, and the assignment seemed random more than anything else. The two worked well together and formed the base of a partnership for the next season, with far less stress. But in Season 5, the partnership would fracture because of Kellerman’s issues, both of which I have detailed in earlier articles: his investigation for bribery and the shooting of Luther Mahoney. More out of guilt than anything else, he switched partners again to new detective Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) in Season Six and finally to Renee Sheppard in Season 7 (Michael Michelle). Even then, he continued to cause conflict, not being able to stay with either partner do mainly to his own actions.

Indeed, in the final season we got a sense of just how false the idea of partner loyalty could be. He had been working for Sheppard for half a season and in the middle of an investigation into a crack house, Sheppard was beaten up and her gun was stolen. An infuriated Meldrick went on a rampage and stormed into a nightclub, demanding the gun back. At the end of the episode, he brought her gun and all seemed forgiven. But over the next several episodes, a nasty streak began to emerge. When Renee returned to the squad in the next episode, he brought her ‘a present’ — his hat with the bullet hole from the shooting still in it. The next episode, to welcome her back into the rotation, he switches calls with Falsone, giving himself an ‘easier case’ because he thought Sheppard wasn’t up to it. Sheppard found out, was angered, and spent the rest of the season infuriated with Lewis. Both detectives spent the rest of the show working with every other detective in the squad, before finally making peace in the final minutes.

Nor was this pattern entirely due to Meldrick. At the beginning of Season 4, both Daniel Baldwin and Ned Beatty resigned from the series due to the fact the show had to live on the bubble the first three years and that it had harmed their chances for opportunities. Felton and Bolander were both suspended due to drunken and disorderly behavior at a New York Police convention. Bolander’s character would retire at the beginning of Season Five; Felton’s final fate would not be known until the end of Season Five. (See earlier articles for more details.) This left both Munch and Howard without partners.

The series didn’t handle this transition quite as well. In the opening of Season Four, Kay would take the sergeant’s exam and get promoted early in the season. Unfortunately, sergeants are more advisory that they are investigators and her character became increasingly superfluous to the show as the series went on. She basically stopped working cases on her own, and much of the next two seasons had her barely out on the street backing up her fellow cops. She was essentially deskbound the rest of the series, even when Felton was found out to be murdered. Leo’s characters was written out of the show at the beginning of Season Six.

They handled Munch’s situation much better. He spent a fair amount of that season mourning the departure of Bolander and took it incredibly personally that he was ignoring his phone calls and refusing to talk to him. In a sad episode, Bolander has promised to show up at the Waterfront for a night of revelry but calls Bayliss and tells him he can’t make it, refusing to even talk to Munch.

Munch takes the loss of Stanley far more personally. When Megan Russert is demoted to detective halfway through the season, she ends up taking Bolander’s desk, and he tells her ‘not to get comfortable’. The two end up working together for the rest of the season, but this partnership is far more awkward than even his and Bolander’s: Russert presses him on his laziness throughout the rest of his run.

Naturally, when Isabella Hoffman left the series in Season 5, Munch spent that season a wanderer again, now trying to understand why his partners as well as his wives keep leaving him. Another series might have tried to force him and Lewis together during Kellerman’s suspension, but the two only work together once, and they barely talk to each other.

He eventually ends up working with Kellerman in Season 6, and while this partnership works a lot better than his last two, it ends the same way. In the final season, Munch finds himself working mostly with Bayliss (I’ll get to that reason a little later) but Bayliss’ personality after his shooting “rubs my rectum the wrong way.” He spends as much of Season 7 working with other detectives as he does with Bayliss.

As new editions came to the squad in the last two seasons, there were some partnerships with a certain amount of steadiness. Stu Gharty (Peter Gerety) and Laura Ballard (Callie Thorne) essentially worked together the next two seasons with no real problems, despite their age difference as well as some prejudices. Similarly Falsone would spent much of the last two seasons working with former narcotics detective Terri Stivers (Toni Lewis) and even less conflict. But even here, there was constant room for variation. Ballard would spend a fair amount of time working with many of the other detectives in the squad and Gharty and Falsone would do the same. A lot of these shared investigations would be rockier than others: in the aftermath of one, Munch would nearly hit Gharty with an ashtray and in another, Lewis would work with Ballard but spend a lot of time dismissing and demeaning her. But it is notable that by this time in the series run, the show had become comfortable with the idea of using the cast changes to create interesting variations on their themes. Lewis was just as likely to get into a pissing contest with Falsone as he was with Munch, and it was just as likely that Pembleton could get along just fine with Falsone. Homicide constantly believed in shaking up the viewers comfort level. The fact that it chose to do so with the basic tenet of the idea of the partnership was one of the best moves they made.

They were even willing to do that constantly with the partnership that was essentially the core of the series for the majority of its run. In the next article in this series, I will discuss the complicated relationship between Bayliss and Pembleton and how the writer’s decision to turn this partnership on its head led to some of its greatest moments for both actors and the series.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.