Homicide: Life on the Street

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
The season three cast, clockwise from far left: detectives Bayliss, Pembleton, Lewis, and Felton; Lt Russert, Det Bolander, Lt Giardello, detectives Howard and Munch

"You go when you're supposed to go, and everything else is homicide."

Before The Wire - hell, even before NYPD Blue - there was Homicide: Life on the Street. Based on the factual book Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets by journalist David Simon, the series charted the lives of a team of homicide detectives in Baltimore, Maryland, both on and off the clock. The show actually hung under the threat of cancellation after the first, but two Emmy nominations and the popularity of fellow soapy police show NYPD Blue got it renewed for a second season of just four episodes, making it the shortest season ever commissioned by a US network.

Over time, the show managed to build a comfortable - if not spectacular - audience, and traded in several of the older, less conventionally attractive cast members for young studs. Still, the series continued to achieve critical acclaim for what was then considered to be a realistic look at police life, with cases going unsolved, killers getting off the hook and officers having very real character flaws. It finished after seven seasons in 1999, with a TV movie wrapping up the remaining plot threads in 2000. It is generally considered to be the high water mark for Police Procedural shows, at least until David Simon returned with another Baltimore-based cop show, HBO's The Wire.

The character of Detective John Munch proved so popular that the character - always played by actor Richard Belzer - went on to make guest appearances in every Law & Order series (including a French spin-off), The X-Files, The Beat, Arrested Development, The Wire and even Sesame Street, and was a regular character in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Not to be confused with the Australian cop show Homicide, which ran from 1964 to 1977. It was produced by Crawford Productions for the Seven Network.

Tropes used in Homicide: Life on the Street include:
  • Accuse the Witness
  • Alternate Reality Game: Homicide: Second Shift, a web-based mini show.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: In "Kaddish", Brodie demonstrates his knowledge of Jewish burial rites and Yiddish, but his ethnicity is never stated directly. Munch also somewhat fits this trope - his name does not sound Jewish though he is confirmed as such.
  • Artistic License Law: Mostly averted.
  • Beard of Sorrow: Tim Bayliss during the latter half of Season Four, and then again in the movie.
  • Be as Unhelpful as Possible
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted in the first seasons, when the cast members ranged from ordinary looking to downright ugly.
  • Berserk Button: While usually very kind and pleasant, Gee's deep voice and imposing frame will haunt your nightmares if you even think of hurting a child.
    • Blind or no, you disrespect Teddy Pendergrass in Lewis' presence, he's going to kick your ass.
  • Bi the Way: Tim Bayliss. One of the first American TV examples, in fact.
  • Black Best Friend: One of the first prime-time Drama series to avert this trope by giving African-American characters leading roles and storylines.
  • Bolivian Army Cliffhanger: They ended a season with the entire cast getting reassigned.
  • Bottle Episode: "Three Men and Adena" widely considered to be one of the finest episodes of any television series in history.
  • Break the Cutie: Bayliss has this done to him in only a few episodes from his introduction. And it only gets worse from there.
  • Buried Alive: "Heartbeat", which contains multiple references to Edgar Allan Poe.
  • Bus Crash: At the start of Season Three, Steve Crosetti goes missing after returning from a holiday; he is found in the bay after committing suicide. In Season Four, Det Beau Felton is suspended, but is subsequently shot and killed.
  • Busman's Holiday: Howard ends up having to solve a murder on her holiday in "Last of the Watermen".
  • Butt Monkey: Brodie.
  • The Cameo: Famous Baltimore native John Waters, first as a bartender and then as a perpetrator being extradited from New York by Detective Logan. It's unclear whether or not they're the same character
  • The City
  • Character Depth: Often remarkable.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Lt Giardello, Det Crosetti, Det Pembleton, Det Felton. Partially justified in that Maryland has traditionally had a larger-than-normal Catholic population. Maryland was founded by Lord Baltimore, a Catholic refugee from Great Britain, who served as its first governor for 42 years in the seventeenth century. Predictably, Maryland became a haven for other British Catholic refugees. Baltimore also named his colony after Queen Mary, also known as Blood Mary, the last Catholic British monarch.
  • Crime-Time Soap
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Munch, Crosetti.
  • The Coroner: Julianna Cox, as well as Dr.Blythe, Dr.Dyer and Dr.Scheiner.
  • Crossover: With Law and Order and St. Elsewhere (see also the Tommy Westphall crossover chart for some Fridge Brilliance examining the resulting John Munch Intercontinuity Crossover).
  • Da Chief: Lt Giardello though it should be noted that Lt Giardello also has a rebellious streak and is often at odds with his own 'Da Chief'.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Munch.
  • Defective Detective: Bayliss.
  • Determinator: Bayliss, especially in his obsession with the Adena Watson case.

Det Bayliss: ...I'm not gonna stop until I put this case down.
Munch: I forgot about this side of you.
Bayliss: What side?
Munch: The obsessive side.

  • Depending on the Writer: Not a real problem, but definitely shows in "Bop Gun". This was written by David Simon, and used a lot of the lingo ("humble", "yo", etc) that was in the book and was later featured in The Wire. For most of the run, the show tended to use standard language, or included explanations with police jargon.
  • Deus Angst Machina: Bayliss was molested as a child, had a terrible relationship with his father, gets some of the shift's worst cases, has a complicated and mostly unhappy social life, has health problems, takes a bullet for his best friend who later quits the job leaving him alone, and is eventually haunted by the Vigilante Execution he commits.
  • Dirty Cop: Kellerman; in a mundane but unsettling example of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, as a consequence of being unjustly accused of being a Dirty Cop, he eventually does become one.

Kellerman: (to his colleagues, who have organized a party to celebrate his acquittal) I was accused of being dirty. Now I look at your faces and I realize I'll never get that stain off me. There's always gonna be a little doubt. But just for the record, I never took any of Mitch Roland's money, okay? ...but I guess I might as well had. (he leaves)

Det. Frank Pembleton: Good. "Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go."

  • Downer Ending: Many of them, but the ending of the final movie takes the cake, with Giardello dying and Bayliss either going to jail or killing himself.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Bolander was unceremoniously written off after the third season. Unlike Felton and Crosetti, however, he did avoid a Bus Crash.
  • Evil Is Dumb: Plenty of them. A prime example would be in the Season 4 episode Stakeout, when a young man picked up on a solicitation charge attempts to bargain his way out by admitting complicity in a series of serial murders.
  • Exasperated Perp
  • Fair Cop: Laura Ballard and Rene Sheppard were blatant attempts to get viewing figures up, after Executive Meddling.
    • Howard was rather attractive, but regular-looking, as opposed to Ms. Fanservice.
    • Russert, Stivers, and (for female viewers) Kellerman and Falsone weren't too shabby, either.
  • Fallen Hero: Kellerman.
  • Fatal Flaw: Bayliss' inability to keep himself emotionally distant from his job.
  • A Father to His Men: Gee.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Luther Mahoney, at least until his Villainous Breakdown.
  • Foreshadowing: In "Fallen Heroes: Part 1", Pembleton has the chance to shoot Junior Bunks during his killing spree in the police station, but he hesitates. In "Part 2", he freezes in front of an armed suspect and Bayliss takes a bullet for him. In general, Frank being a Non-Action Guy prone to making mistakes in dangerous situations had been foreshadowed several times (see also: first episode of Season Four, "Fire: Part 1").
  • Genre Savvy: Or possibly just pessimism: in the True Crime book on which the series is based, the Real Life cops take it as a given that, if there's enough evidence to convict someone's attacker, the wounded victim will survive and the perp will get off with a lighter sentence. If there isn't sufficient evidence for a conviction, the wounded victim will die, ensuring the case will never be closed.
  • Good Cop, Bad Cop: Often, but not always, played respectively by Pembleton and Bayliss (see the episode "Three Men and Adena"); inverted in "Double Blind".
  • Guns Akimbo: In "The City That Bleeds".
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: Junior Bunk Mahoney was a none-too-bright enforcer for his heroin-slinging family, and couldn't stop weeping when the squad brought him in. Fast forward a couple of years, and he's a gleeful sociopath who shoots up the squadron, injuring several main characters.
  • Handguns: Very rarely used in the early seasons. In fact, there wasn't a fatal cop-on-criminal shooting until Season Five.
  • Hero of Another Story: The day shift.
  • Heteronormative Crusader: Bayliss starts out as one, but comes to embrace his darker side as the show progresses.
  • Hollywood Police Driving Academy: Lewis must have been an honor student.
  • Idiot Ball: The Sniper episodes: The detectives couldn't figure out that "EROMITLAB" is "BALTIMORE" backwards?
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Subverted in the episode "Bad Medicine".
  • Insufferable Genius: Frank for the first four seasons. Then the writers bring him crashing down to earth, without his ability or anyone who wants to work with Him.
  • Intercontinuity Crossover: As of 2008, Munch will have appeared in no less than 10 TV series.
  • Internal Affairs: Ironically, Kellerman is initially persecuted by IA for being unjustly accused of taking bribes; later, his execution of a suspect is never properly investigated.
  • Internal Homage: The first scene of the first episode is repeated with the exact same dialogue in the last scene of the last episode. Also in "Nearer My God to Thee", Munch issues a cynical monologue about TV and technocracy; in "Kaddish", a Whole-Episode Flashback, a younger John Munch delivers the same monologue, but with a hopeful tone.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Lewis talks Kellerman out of suicide.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: The ending of "Requiem for Adena", with "Twinkle twinkle little star" playing as we see the soon-to-be-father Pembleton looking at the empty cradle and a burnout Bayliss trying to forget about his first case, the murder of a young girl, tossing the portrait of the victim (which he kept framed on his desk) in the garbage bin.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Very much averted as hitting suspects is illegal and most detectives can't be bothered with the risk. Only about three examples come up: all involving Bayliss and all ending with him being stopped and/or swiftly reprimanded.
    • - However, making suspects THINK they're getting physically threatened is not uncommon.
    • This exhibits the show's realism. In real life, hitting suspects for statements is absolutely forbidden and can destroy a detective's career. Acting threatening without saying or doing anything that looks to an objective observer like a threat is very much allowed and in use.
  • Jerkass: Felton, Gharty, Pembleton (arguably only in the first three seasons) and, after a long character arc, Kellerman.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Munch.
  • Jumped At the Call: Not the call per see but Bayliss is initially very enthusiastic about being a Homicide Detective.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: In one episode, Kellerman is disgruntled by the fact that the F.B.I are not interested in the matter of a corrupt judge that he's bringing to them. One of the agents later tracks him down and, off-the-record, admits that they're already investigating the judge but official policy is not to discuss corruption investigations with local authorities.
  • Karma Houdini: A realistically terrifying number of them.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Many examples but Munch really takes the cake on this one.
  • Lie Detector: Munch and Bolander trick a stupid perpetrator into thinking that a photocopier is actually a dangerous, radioactive lie detector.
  • Lying to the Perp
  • Medley Exit: Very frequent - and memorable.
  • Moral Dissonance: Lewis' behavior after his involvement in the Mahoney shooting is a fine example of this trope.
  • Mummies At the Dinner Table: In "The Documentary", a lonely mortuary worker borrows corpses so he can host dinner parties by himself.
  • Murder.Com: "Homicide.com".
  • My Greatest Failure: Bayliss eventually became a competent detective, but was always haunted by his inability to solve his first case, the murder of a young girl.

Bayliss: Don't you see, Frank? The killer beat me. He beat me. Dooley, Tucker, whoever he is, he beat me. It was my first case Frank, my first case. I hadn't even started to be a Homicide Detective yet, and he beat me. I put everything I had into that case and it wasn't enough.

  • Mystery of the Week: In later seasons.
  • Nice Guy: Lewis... until Season 6.
  • Nice Hat: Lewis is rarely seen outside the station house without his really rather cool trilby.
    • Pembleton was also given to wearing a pretty sweet fedora at times.
  • No Bisexuals: Averted; Tim Bayliss is bisexual.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Gharty was supposed to be this.
  • Non-Action Guy: Pembleton, one of best investigators of the squad, hates firearms and is a terrible shot.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Despite most of the characters being Baltimore natives, none of the cast were from there with only Lewis, played by Philadelphia native Clark Johnson, having the accent. Braugher's New York native Pembleton has a Chicago accent and Reed Diamond sounds more Brooklyn than "Bawlmer". Probably for the best as the Baltimore accent is very difficult to grasp and can be off-putting if done poorly (as Dominic West showed).
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Col. Barnfather was essentially this though later episodes were far more sympathetic to his predicaments.
  • Off on a Technicality
  • Out of Focus: Howard and Munch from Season 4 on.
  • Pay Evil Unto Evil: Mostly subverted.
  • Perp Sweating
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Detective - later Captain - Gaffney.
  • Police Procedural
  • Rabid Cop: Usually Pembleton.
  • Reading Your Rights: Mostly accurate.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Bayliss and Pembleton, respectively.
  • Repeat Cut
  • Retcon: In Season 1, Howard is the primary investigator on a double-homicide committed by a drug dealer named Pony Johnson. In Season 6, Johnson is the prime mover behind another murder. Because the actress playing Howard, Melissa Leo, had left the show by that time, the case was retconned to make John Munch the primary, so he could get the detectives up to speed on Johnson.
  • A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside An Enigma: When Munch and Kellerman work on a case involving a suicide jumper killed by a stray shotgun blast on the way down from a tall building, Munch describes it as "a riddle, surrounded by a mystery, wrapped inside an enigma, and stuffed inside a body bag."
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Not as much as some procedurals, but occasionally. In particular, the episode "Colors" is based on the real case of Yoshihiro Hattori, a Japanese exchange student who was shot dead by a paranoid householder in Baton Rouge while looking for a fancy-dress party.
  • Serial Killer: A couple of them, but only after the sober minimalism of the first two seasons.
  • Shout-Out: The non-plot names on the murder board are taken from the show's crew and their friends and family.
  • Shown Their Work: One of the most realistic cop shows around and one of the first to make realism important to its center. If you watch closely, you'll see that detectives almost never use their weapons or go to an arrest without backup. Similarly many of the cases, especially the more unrealistic ones, are based on real killings and detectives frequently use slang Baltimore cops use or quote them word for word.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Definitely on the cynical side.

Munch: (to Pembleton, former ace detective of the squad, who is returning to work after a stroke) You still walk on water, don't you Frank?

Det Kellerman: (shooting Luther Mahoney in cold blood) You have the right to remain silent.

    • It's never directly stated but heavily implied that Munch killed a violent racist who shot Howard, Bolander, and Felton.
  • Villain Episode: Third-season finale "The Gas Man" was almost a pure example, but the heroes ended up with dialogue anyway.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Luther Mahoney maintains his cool throughout his time on the series, knowing that he's protected himself very well and has nothing to fear from Lewis and Kellerman. But in his final appearance, when everything starts going wrong for him, he doesn't take it very well.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Luther Mahoney.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Munch and Bolander, of Type 2.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Bayliss for most of the series though when He breaks, he breaks hard.
  • Wrap It Up
  • You Didn't Ask: In "In Search of Crimes Past".
  • You Look Familiar: The actor who played Gaffney, Walt MacPherson, had previously appeared in the second season as an unidentified beat cop who finds an earring at a crime scene and offers it to Bayliss as possible evidence.