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Acclaimed 'Homicide' Hoping to Stay Alive : Television: NBC hasn't given the highly regarded series a high profile, but it has stuck with it. Tonight, the show's season opens with a few 'refinements.'

October 14, 1994|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"NYPD Blue" won the big ratings. "Picket Fences" again won the Emmy. But what some critics regard as the best drama on television won nothing last season except a quiet nod of "What the heck, let's take a gamble" from its network.

"Notoriously, anything that's different takes time, is going to be a struggle," said Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning director and executive producer of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street."

"And you have to surmise that there is going to be fear both on the part of the audience and the network. It just comes with the turf."

"Homicide" returns tonight after a nine-month absence. It was on for just four episodes last January--not much of a second season, after a nine-episode trial in early 1993 that included a ballyhooed premiere following the Super Bowl and then a luckless run against ABC's "Home Improvement," TV's top-rated show.

The problem--at least in snatching a large TV audience--isn't just a bad time slot. "Homicide" is a cop show without any shootouts, chases down dark alleys or high-speed car accidents. It's a who-done-it show in which many of the cases remain unsolved at the end of the hour. The characters in its ensemble cast of homicide detectives are complex, distinct and vivid individuals who don't behave predictably--more like characters out of a good novel than the recognizable and often cliched tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold or alcoholic-on-the-wagon curmudgeon types that people most police series.

Stylistically, the show is also unlike anything else, sometimes requiring viewers to work to understand what is going on amid the gritty lighting, the hand-held, whirling camerawork and the jump-cut editing. And, though the TV maxim states that women generally control what gets watched in most homes, this is a show about a man's world that until now had just one female regular.

"No wonder it's rough. Look at what's on television at just about any hour," said Daniel Baldwin, who plays one of the homicide detectives. "Excluding some news and educational programs, it's about 90% crap, and you're dealing with an audience that is willing to watch crap. Very few people out there today are interested in the art of listening anywhere in their lives, and our show requires you to sit and listen and think, and afterward to perhaps digest. You can't be chatting on the phone or balancing your checkbook at the same time. That is a lot to ask. Maybe we're all (expletive) crazy."

But NBC isn't going to settle for crazy just yet. Though it has seemingly waffled on its support for the show, the network decided it couldn't give up on what Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, called "a compelling show with an on-screen power filled with humor, compassion and voices that make it truly stand apart in its look and feel from anything else we've ever done."

"Homicide," did, however, require some "refinements," Littlefield said. First, because not enough women were watching, Isabella Hofmann was added to the cast as the co-director of the homicide department, sharing the top job with last year's honcho, played by Yaphet Kotto.

Second, each episode will contain fewer story lines, fewer fragments of cases from all the myriad detectives in the bureau, with each of the stories played out more fully.

Third, the style of the filmmaking will be restrained a bit--with more primary colors added and fewer camera moves and jump cuts to make it less choppy.

"Did we turn it into 'Matlock'? No," Littlefield said. "I don't think any purists who have embraced 'Homicide' will say, 'Oh, my God. What have they done?' This isn't ever going to be cookie-cutter TV. For an audience that is looking for a beginning, middle and end, and 'That wraps up another case--book 'em, Dano,' this isn't it. Even though we are a cop show, we don't have to play by the same rules. It's a gamble we are prepared to take."

Levinson and Henry Bromell, the co-executive producer who oversees the day-to-day production of the show in Baltimore with executive producer and head writer Tom Fontana, said the adjustments will not compromise the series in any way.

" 'NYPD Blue' is wonderfully written and acted television, but it's unrealistic. There is a lot of gun play and they generally catch the guy in an hour," Baldwin said. "We stick to the reality of this world. We don't have anyone riding in on a white horse to save the day."

"Homicide" is about the chess-playing, the inductive reasoning, the lucky and unlucky breaks detectives experience as they try to piece together a murder. Their lives are filled with victims, bodies that have been dead long before the detectives arrive on the scene.

"One of the most interesting things about people who do this, what it's like to be a homicide cop, is that these people will one hour be staring something absolutely horrifying in the face and an hour later they'll be taking their kid to a ballgame or trying to get their car back from an ex-wife," Bromell said.

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