By Ken Tucker
Updated February 16, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

When it premiered in January of 1993, Homicide: Life on the Street was a meticulously bleak show — morose, cynical, and allusive in a way nothing else on prime time was even trying to be. Critical raves poured in for these tales of the Baltimore homicide division; viewers, correctly suspecting a downer, stayed away in droves. In its 1994-95 episodes, Homicide tried frequently to lighten up, much to its detriment. But having cleared its squad room of some deadwood (Jon Polito and Ned Beatty, we’ve hardly missed ye), Homicide seems to have found just the right balance: Almost every week, it is as well acted and tough-minded as it ever was, while also offering the sort of snappy stories that can grab any viewer looking for merciful relief from the mannered eccentricity of that icky Picket Fences.

In a shrewd move, the producers of Homicide have managed to turn recent editions into mini-events that bring fresh attention to an ongoing show in need of a ratings boost. At the start of the season, for example, they didn’t just introduce a handsome new character designed to appeal to the lay-dees (blond, thick-necked Reed Diamond as former arson detective Mike Kellerman); no, they turned the first two episodes into a TV movie called Fire, a hot murder mystery about a series of deadly conflagrations. The two-parter enabled new watchers to meet the cast — in particular the show’s great police-detective/debate team of Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) — while also working Kellerman into the ensemble, and beginning the season with sizzle.

A couple of weeks later, Homicide hit a series high point with ”Thrill of the Kill,” about a psycho killer with a twin brother, which was as surprising and scary an hour as anything this side of the creepiest X-Files episode. On Feb. 9, the show pulled off a crossover plot with the cast of Law & Order that managed to do both shows proud. (Highlight — L&O‘s Benjamin Bratt to Braugher: ”You’re a self-congratulatory ass.”) Homicide has worked in guest stars such as Lily Tomlin (wonderful as a murderous old biddy) and Jay Leno (faultless as Jay Leno) without compromising the tone of the series. And later this season a few Homicides will be directed by a quirky collection of celebs (Kathy Bates) and big-screen directors (Il Postino‘s Michael Radford).

All this, and the regular cast is still more intriguing than ever. Braugher has been justly celebrated for his rich, risky portrayal of the flamboyant Pembleton, so it’s time to give thanks to others. Like Secor, whose new, interestingly ugly Romanesque haircut is offset by the understated interpretation of Bayliss’ dogged deductive powers; like Isabella Hofmann, whose recently promoted Captain Megan Russert was demoted back to detective in a superlatively painful story line; like Richard Belzer’s John Munch, who has become much more than a misanthropic wiseass (he’s now a fascinatingly sad, brooding misanthropic wiseass); and like Melissa Leo’s Kay Howard, whose promotion to sergeant has resulted in a gratifying increase in Kay’s cranky ambitiousness.

Add to this the presence of first-rate semiregulars like Clayton LeBouef’s stick-up-his-you-know-what Col. Barnfather; Walt MacPherson’s marvelously odious, bitter new Captain Gaffney; and current king of supporting actors, Max Perlich, as whiner-with-a-backbone Brodie, and you’ve got one dang fine show. I wish they’d get rid of that bar owned by Munch, Bayliss, and Lewis (Clark Johnson — also underrated!), since it’s never panned out as a comic subplot, but that’s a quibble. May the Homicides never cease.