By Ken Tucker
Updated May 05, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

For its season-ending episode, Homocide: Life on the Street, goes to its greatest strength: Andre Braugher. As Baltimore police detective Frank Pembleton, Braugher is the target of a recently released convict, Victor Helms, who’s out for revenge. Helms, played by Bruno Kirby (City Slickers), blames Pembleton for the stiff six-year sentence he received for the death of a family in an explosion that Helms claims was an accident. He stalks Pembleton and Pembleton’s wife, Mary (played by Ami Brabson, Braugher’s wife in real life).

This is a plot as old as any detective story, but powered by Braugher’s performance and the quick, tense direction of Barry Levinson (Disclosure), one of the show’s executive producers, it’s a satisfyingly nerve-racking piece of work. There’s never been a better television actor than Braugher; he holds the small screen the way that major movie stars can command the big screen. There’s an intense intimacy in Braugher’s performance as Pembleton that belies the character’s cold, aloof exterior. And though I’ve come to praise Braugher, I shouldn’t bury Kirby: The actor’s rancorous ex-con, still furiously maintaining his innocence even as he schemes against the cops, represents a big acting stretch for a guy best known for playing lovable nebbishes.

Until this, its third season, Homicide was one of those critically praised, low-rated shows that seemed doomed. The very quality for which it was most praised — its unusually realistic, even bleak, attitude — was also cited as the reason so few viewers were tuning in. But the ratings have picked up over the past few months, probably because of two things: a four-week story arc in which Felton (Daniel Baldwin), Howard (Melissa Leo), and Bolander (Ned Beatty) were shot and seriously wounded; and an ongoing subplot about a bar bought and run by Lewis (Clark Johnson), Bayliss (Kyle Secor), and Munch (Richard Belzer).

The bar subplot has been played for laughs — it’s in Homicide to provide comic relief from the hard-boiled murder cases that are the series’ true subject. Naturally, I hate the bar. It is in the dramatization of the unrelenting grimness of messy police work that the series achieves its best effects. The jokey bar segments, like last week’s groaner that featured Jerry Stiller squandering his comic talents as a wrongheaded bartender, ruin the somber mood that makes the best episodes so effective. It’s especially galling in the case of Richard Belzer: The stand-up comic got a chance to tackle an interesting dramatic role, and now they’ve got him soliciting laughs again.

The bar subplot and the arc about the police shootings (during which we were supposed to feel teary-eyed sympathy for these damn good cops) come across as Homicide‘s concessions to ratings survival. As conceived by writer Paul Attanasio in adapting David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, Homicide was born from a pilot episode that made exciting drama out of messy deaths and humdrum lives. The show’s recent boost in the ratings suggests, depressingly, that viewers found the original version of the show to be too much of a downer.

Well, I hope whatever new viewers the series has attracted over the past couple of months enjoy this week’s season finale, because it represents a bracing return to Homicide at its bleakest. The constant chatter between Helms and his buddy Danny (Richard Edson, of Do the Right Thing) is hypnotically banal, and as Helms goes about exacting his revenge on Pembleton, he seems more pathetic than truly dangerous. Thanks to Braugher, Pembleton, for his part, is less heroic than unnerved and angry. Overall third-season grade: B+; but this week’s episode deserves an A.

Homicide: Life on the Street

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