Homicide: Life on the Street" didn't attract as big an audience as "N.Y.P.D. Blue," but it had a dedicated viewership when the TV drama series ended last August after seven seasons.
And now it's back for one final mega-episode, Homicide: The Movie (NBC, Sunday, Feb. 13, 9-11 p.m.). The story is as gripping, sobering, and grimy as ever. For regular viewers, there's the satisfaction of tying up loose ends. For casual viewers, it will stimulate a taste for more of this richly layered police drama. (Well, there's always syndication.)
In the first few minutes of the show, police Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) is shot by an unseen assailant as he gives a political campaign speech.
As a candidate for mayor of Baltimore, he has plenty of enemies, but he has friends too, all of whom come running from retirement, new professions, and vacations to find "G's" shooter. One way or another, the entire cast has been reassembled - even those who "died" during the run of the show.
But none are brighter or more tenacious than Frank Pembleton (played by Emmy-Award winner Andr Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), old partners who team up again to nab the bad guys, as G fights for his life.
Two parallel stories, one left over from last season's closer, illumine each other. When the judicial system fails the people (as it does very often), even a good man may be so disillusioned with its inequities that the line between good and evil seems to blur for him. And, indeed, one cop steps over the line.
Searching for G's assailant, the police visit suspect white supremacists and a black-power hate group, people who think they have the right to take the law into their own hands. These scenes underscore the conscience at the center of the story.
We understand the temptation to seek vigilante justice. But all the chaos such action generates unfolds with penetrating realism - there is nary a false or sentimental note throughout the story - except perhaps at the end when we are given a look inside the anteroom to heaven.
Aside from that one false note, writer-director Barry Levinson ("Wag the Dog," "Rain Man") searches out the fundamental truth of his moral vision in the stuff of police work, crime, and conscience, and makes that truth authentic.
Like so many other cop shows on TV, the emphasis lies in how hard the job is, how dehumanizing, and how inured to horror individuals become in the line of duty. But unlike many of the others, "Homicide" manages to reveal the officers' personalities while maintaining a kind of mystery - these cops are always set a little apart from us.
That distance was partly maintained aesthetically. Hand-held camera work, spinning movement, jump-cut editing, and other avant-garde filmmaking techniques give the show a raw, lively presence. It's the kind of filmmaking that might be obnoxious (and some critics found it so) in the hands of lesser directors, but usually remained fresh and occasionally even inspired here.
The "Homicide" movie includes some of the best of this approach. The titles are particularly artful - and rather agitating. We feel the tone of the film before it even starts - the mean streets, the selfish madness of crime, and the sorrow it creates.
The call of duty can be very costly to those who answer it. Police shows and war movies always investigate the brotherhood of men and women at arms.
In "Homicide: The Movie," the blue brotherhood sustains the cops, prompts quick and assertive action in apprehending the police chief's assailant, and leads to one man's heart-rending confession.
Poignant 'All the King's Men'
A week later in Masterpiece Theatre's All the King's Men (PBS, Sunday, Feb. 20, 9-11 p.m.), the brotherhood of men-at-arms leads down a more poignant and terrible path.
During World War I, a company of soldiers was raised and trained on King George V's estate at Sandringham, England, under Capt. Frank Beck. These grooms, servants, and gardeners were engaged in the fatal invasion of Turkey. Based on new evidence of the battle of Gallipoli, the film investigates the disappearance of the Sandringham company.
Captain Beck, the estate manager, is like a father to his young men - some of whom were never cut out for battle. Having grown up together on the estate, and having looked to Beck their entire lives as their leader, they are unusually tightknit. Their individual stories are modest and genuine. So much of the men's idealism voiced in the film reads as naivet after all the war movies and antiwar movies western culture has produced.
But there is something especially moving about this film. A fine script and Masterpiece Theatre's trademark luminous acting (Maggie Smith plays Alexandra, the queen mother) give the story real sand. And the truth behind the tale gives it heart.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society