By Ken Tucker
Updated January 29, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Life is a mystery, just accept it. The quest is what matters — not finding, but looking.” So begins Homicide: Life on the Street. These words are spoken by Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito from Miller’s Crossing), a rotund Baltimore police detective given to philosophical musings while searching grimy back alleys for murder clues.

A bit later in Homicide‘s premiere, another detective, John Munch, played by the comedian Richard Belzer, takes offense at a murder suspect who he feels is lying to him. Munch believes this guy is saving his choicest information for a higher-ranking officer. ”Oh, I get it,” sneers Munch, ”I’m just Montel Williams — you want to talk to Larry King!” Belzer, whose stand-up act is fueled by finely honed contempt, works this line into a manic comic riff; his Munch pushes his face into the suspect’s and yells, ”Don’t you ever lie to me like I’m Montel Williams! I am not Montel Williams!” As Munch stalks off, muttering, the bewildered suspect looks around the police station and asks a passing officer, ”Who’s Montel Williams?”

Syndicated-talk-show host Montel Williams used as a metaphor for inexperience and the second-rate — that’s the sort of loopy yet dead-on dialogue that gives Homicide its novel twist. Feature-film director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) is a co-executive producer of Homicide, a cop show built around hard-boiled non sequiturs and Baltimore grunge. It’s so good, it may make people forget Levinson’s recent movie bomb, Toys, all the quicker.

Levinson directed the pilot episode, and his vision of Baltimore as a haven for gabby working-class heroes will remind you that this is the fellow who made the terrific 1982 film Diner, also set in Baltimore. Homicide‘s signature scene finds a bunch of off-duty police officers sitting around a dingy local crab house, bibs tied around their bulging necks, talking about the cases they’re trying to crack as they shatter crab shells with little wooden mallets, sucking out the meat with buttery fingers. It’s as colorful as all get-out and beats the usual cop-show coffee-shop scenery; to a native Baltimorean like Levinson, this must be the archetypal city setting.

Homicide centers on a sweat-on-the-walls police precinct headed up by Lieut. Giardello, played with witty impassivity by Yaphet Kotto (Alien). Ned Beatty supplies beefy conviction as a veteran investigator, and there’s a wonderfully vulgar performance by Daniel Baldwin as the crass, rude detective Beau Felton. Baldwin is a chunkier version of his movie-star brother Alec, and he has the same low, chalky voice; his dissolute Beau — a good cop with a bad attitude — looks as if he lives on Yoo Hoo and Tastykakes and lets Jerry Lewis in once a month to cut his hair.

Belzer has the series’ funniest, show-iest role — after all these years he has spent as a cult comic, it would be amusing if this drama made him a star — but Homicide’s most intriguing character may be Detective Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher (Glory). Pembleton is a preppy African-American who thinks his high rate of homicide convictions gives him license to be arrogant. Aloof and vaguely hostile to his colleagues, he’s a dazzling charmer with suspects, coaxing confessions with transfixing eloquence. At one point, he equates his method of interrogation with ”an act of salesmanship,” describing himself as being ”as silver-tongued and thieving as anyone who ever moved used cars, swampland, or Bibles. But what I am selling is a long prison term, to a client who has no use for the product.” When Braugher finishes a scene, you feel like applauding the TV screen.

Some viewers may find Homicide too self-conscious, too arty. For grit and poker-faced authenticity, the series is clearly intended as the next step beyond Hill Street Blues and Law & Order. Hand-held-camera work and jittery jump cuts in the editing make Homicide a child of film directors Frederick Wiseman and Jean-Luc Godard. The pervasive atmosphere is cynical, dark, and media-savvy. ”Frankly, I liked your story about the Jamaican better,” says Belzer’s Munch to a suspect who is changing his alibi. ”It had a sort of Elmore Leonard quality.”

Every Homicide conversation seems to begin in the middle. The show’s writers must be big fans of David Mamet — there are so many unfinished sentences, so much fractured slang and flip cop-shop talk, it’s frequently impossible to follow the details of any given murder case. Homicide may be the first crime show in which the crime is irrelevant; it’s the process — and the small, gradual revelations about the character of the crime solvers-that we’re supposed to be absorbed in.

But Homicide steamrolls over these reservations; it has the best tough-guy dialogue around and an acting ensemble that’s ferociously effective. Face it: Homicide is a killer. A

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