A jump-cut above the rest

What is it about the hyperactive US cop series `Homicide' that makes it, and not the conspiracy-obsessed `X-Files', the true expression of Nineties malaise. By John O'Reilly

At the end of the American century, and in the week when a new series of the X-Files begins, cult TV is the battleground for the American imagination. On the one hand, there is the genre of science fiction, which Marxist critic Frederic Jameson suggests is an increasingly popular fantasy, symptomatic of the breakdown of older narratives of family, society and politics. When the body politic has reneged on an alternative future, where better to turn than science fiction? The X-Files is the downside to this shift. It demonstrates the infantilism of the American psyche, where the loss of faith in a political vision has given way to an ingenuous belief in everything else - from little green men, to government and cosmic conspiracy, to scary rubber entities that slither around in your toilet plumbing. On the other hand, there is crime TV like NYPD Blue, the procedural cop drama of big city alienation in which the urban nightmare never looked so good, And then there is Homicide, the operatic incubus of American TV.

With an array of awards and extravagant critical plaudits since its inception in 1993, Homicide has become a truly cult phenomenon. Created by Paul Attanasio, the writer of the myth-busting movie Quiz Show, Homicide is a nail in the coffin of another contemporary myth - that British TV is the best in the world. It has featured guest directors like Michael Lehmann, Peter Medak and John McNaughton and appearances by actors such as Steve Buscemi and Robin Williams. It has its own Web sites devoted to the squad room's whiteboard of solved and unsolved cases, to its pop music (the programme uses songs as a soundtrack rather than ambient snippets) and to on-line interviews with its stars.

But why should another cop show generate such enthusiasm from viewers and unembarrassed ardour from critics? Produced by Barry Levinson, this procedural cop show set in Baltimore is simply unlike any other. An Altmanesque ensemble piece that follows a range of characters, it initially gained some notoriety because of its high-energy editing techniques. The casual channel-surfer coming across Homicide will probably either kick the telly trying to fix it, or think they are suffering a drug-induced flashback.

Though Steven Bochco was a pioneer of shakily shot, multiple-narrative shows with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, it is Levinson's Homicide that stretches Bochco's format to the limit. If the agitated camera has become the sign of reality, Levinson is an epileptic of truth. Jump-cuts and double-takes pepper each episode to the extent that many people at first found it unwatchable. Yaphet Kotto, who plays the benevolently prowling, leonine Lieutenant Giardello ("G"), admitted as much: "People didn't dig it that there were too many jump-cuts. It jarred them around and they couldn't handle it ... Now we've modified it a little."

So the attraction of Homicide doesn't wholly lie in its disconcerting edits. If that were the case, we would surely have had EastEnders directed by Godard long before now. Certainly the hand-held camera gives the viewer the pleasure of eavesdropping or spying as it dips voyeuristically in and out of conversations ranging from bizarre assassination theories to studies of back pain. In the very first episode, for example, the depressed Everyman, detective John Munch (played by stand-up comedian Richard Belzer) tells fellow detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) that the best cure for his back pain is to do nothing, but Bayliss thinks it's a lie. "But why? Who's behind this big lie? Doctors have a lobby, chiropractors have a lobby - who lobbies for nothing?" "You do, Munch, in every day, in every way. You lobby for nothing."

As much as anything else, what marks Levinson's programme out from the hand-held turbulence of ER and NYPD Blue is that Homicide is simply darker, a mood communicated immediately by the credit sequence. Compared to the lush Mike Post signature tunes of a Bochco show, Homicide wears its desolation on its sleeve: from the expressionistic opening credits to the obligatory final shot of the whiteboard with its names and numbers of victims. And the central paradox of Homicide's camerawork is that, while its random ubiquity gives the illusion of objectivity, its refusal to identify with any one character merely underlines the sense of human isolation. If this sounds dangerously un-American in contrast to the X-Files' belief that there is some ultimate redeeming truth to be found, Homicide is indisputably in the American grain. Its depiction of the city is in the tradition of American realism that includesartists such as Edward Hopper and writers like John Dos Passos.

Because of this, its cult status is derived from a kind of enchanting bleakness. Any show that uses Portishead on its soundtrack is cultivating melancholy. Homicide is the 1990s antidote to the X-Files' credulous optimism that "the truth is out there". And if the X-Files has the capacity to scare, it's the fear of the bogeyman. Homicide's fears are the inner demons of sleepless nights. So, in this Monday night's show, when Detective Munch is on the trail of a killer-poet obsessed with Baltimore's own Edgar Allan Poe, the murderer is eventually stalked not by some ethereal spook but is devoured by his own monstrous guilt. For this reason, comparisons made by critics with the films of John Cassavettes make sense. Homicide is often funny, always sharp and quick-witted. But ultimately, at its narrative core, it is a study in pessimism.

At the end of the arson case in the current series, the expectant father, detective Frank Pembleton, needlessly tells us as much. "Everywhere I look I see a reason not to bring a child into this world. People setting other people on fire. People living like animals on the streets. No one can protect them. Not even their fathers. How am I going to protect my baby?" This is precisely why the most charismatic characters in the show are the wistfully disappointed Giardello, the fateful Munch, and the wired, driven, Jesuitical Pembleton (Andre Braugher). Pembleton is the instrument of Homicide's moral fatalism. His interrogations of suspects in "the box" (the interview room) are relentless and brutally dispassionate. In the last series, a whole episode was given over to one of these interrogations. What makes them often painful to watch is because of Pembleton's psychological double-bind. The confessions he inevitably and agonisingly extracts only serve to increase his disabling understanding of human cruelty.

Strangely enough, perhaps the cop show most similar to Homicide was the Michael Mann-produced Miami Vice. In the 1980s, while Hill Street Blues was applauded for its resolutely liberal tone, Miami Vice was regarded as disposable eye-candy. And it is true that Miami Vice represented a kind of designer melancholy. Though the central characters of Crocker and Tubbs moved in a world of Art Deco decadence made nasty by drugs, money and political corruption, its tone was a kind of Armani ennui, most recently portrayed by Robert De Niro in Michael Mann's Heat.

As with Homicide, audiences were often confused by Miami Vice's look, although, in the earlier show's case, it was due to its visual opulence. That said, viewers at the time didn't seem to care. When asked to explain the look of Miami Vice, Mann enigmatically replied "no earth tones." And, as the TV critic in the Dallas Morning News suggested, by integrating music into its narrative, Miami Vice is an obvious antecedent to Homicide. Homicide has used songs by, among others, Hendrix, the Pretenders, the Kinks, Belly and Nine Inch Nails as counterpoints to its images.

But, most of all, both shows are about the American dream in its twilight. A twilight made all the lonelier by the realisation that it was only ever a dream, and for many a bad one spawned by the original sins of slavery, racism and exploitation. Homicide is poignantly funereal because it is rooted in the personal and social disarray of America in the 1990s. The X-Files' blithe optimism is cult TV's zenith of historical denial, and what's worse is that its narrative engine is fuelled by that most peculiar and reactionary American paranoia about government. Its crude message is that you can believe in any supernatural or cosmic weirdness, but to believe in benevolent government - now that's just too bizarre. While the makers of Homicide have tempered its frenetic visual style and sewn in some upbeat tones into its texture, one episode tells you more about the heartbreaking and sometimes brutal realities of politics, racism and gender in urban America than a whole series of the X-Files. If, as the philosopher of pessimism EM Cioran says, melancholy is "the poetry of original sin", Homicide is without doubt its cop show.

n `Homicide' continues on Monday, C4; the new series of `X Files' begins on Thursday, BBC1

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