How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

1
Homicide

Realism

BAMBI L.HAGGINS

Abstract: One of the most critically acclaimed but low-rated dramas in network
television history, Homicide: Life on the Streets approached the cop show genre by
trying to remain true to actual police work and life in Baltimore. Bambi Haggins
explores this commitment to realism by investigating the narrative and stylistic
techniques employed by the show to create its feeling of authenticity.

Homicide: Life on the Streets (NBC, 1993–1999), one of the most compelling and innovative cop dramas ever aired on U.S. network television, occupies a significant, if often overlooked, position in the history of television drama. Homicide is the “missing link” between the quality dramas of the 1980s, such as Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981–1987), and groundbreaking cable series unencumbered by network limitations, like The Wire (HBO, 2002–2008). While Homicide continues the “quality” tradition from its NBC dramatic forbearers—the multiple storylines, overlapping dialogue, and cast of flawed protagonists in Hill Street Blues, and the cinematic visual style and the city as character in Miami Vice (NBC, 1984– 1989)—it manages to convey a sense of immediacy and intimacy that can be as disquieting as it is engaging. Based on David Simon’s nonfiction book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which chronicled his year “embedded” with Baltimore’s “Murder Police,” Homicide does little to assuage the audience’s anxieties; rather, it brings a messy and unsettling slice of American urban life to network television. As a twentieth-century cop show, it offers an inspirational model for twenty-first-century television drama.

We might consider Homicide’s commitment to realism in terms comparable to those of the “RealFeel” index, a meteorological measure that takes into account humidity, precipitation, elevation, and similar factors to describe what the temperature actually feels like. Thus, by examining the look, the sound, and, most significantly, the sense of Homicide, and by attending to facets of “emotional

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