Back on the streets. At last

Fans of US cop show 'Homicide: Life on the Street' finally have reason to celebrate, says Iain Millar
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In two days' time, one of the most hard-hitting, darkly comic and critically acclaimed American drama series of recent years is back on British TV for its final series. No, it's not The Sopranos - the vacillations of will-he-won't-he-make-another-series creator David Chase coupled with star James Gandolfini's salary dispute has meant that this won't even air in the US until the spring. And it's not ER. TV hospital junkies whose favourite word is "intubate" are going to have to wait until January when E4 start showing the next instalments (March if they only get boring old C4). And Sex and the City has peaked early before bowing out for good - leaving only the tantalising prospect of man-eating Samantha's Hollywood spin-off to keep freewheeling power-girls from jumping up and down until their heels break. Six Feet Under? Getouttahere. No, at 10pm on Tuesday, The Hallmark Channel will finally bring to air the last ever episodes of... Homicide: Life on the Street.

Hang on - just rewind there a minute. Homicide: Life on the Street? Surely that finished years ago, sometime around the end of the last century? Well sort of. But not exactly.

If you've noticed that the other shows mentioned above are all on Channel 4 or E4 then you might think that they deserve points for keeping us so well entertained. But they really missed a trick when they let Homicide go in 1999, somewhere near the end of series six, after shunting it around the late-night schedules to the immense frustration of its fiercely loyal fan-base. No explanation was given and to this day C4 are tight-lipped about why they pulled it off-air. Controller of the day Michael Jackson's "experiment" of filling the night-time slots with oh-so-interesting art-sex animations started around the same time, so come to your own conclusions.

If you never came across Homicide, then a little backstory is necessary. Set in Baltimore, the series was created by local-born Hollywood director Barry Levinson and producers Tom Fontana and Paul Attanasio, and based on crime-reporter David Simon's book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets - a real-life account of the Baltimore PD's murder squad. It pulled in the plaudits from the word go. The Levinson-directed pilot episode won an Emmy and the notices were red hot. What made it so different, at least in the beginning, was the producers' avowed intention of "no gun battles and no car chases" and the show was at pains to stay unsentimental. Instead the writers concentrated on character development and ensemble playing, letting the detectives' matter-of-fact attitude to daily death play off deadpan gallows humour. And it never shied away from bringing the cops' messy and involved personal lives into the literary mix. And that wasn't all: Homicide foregrounded black actors in a way that no other main network show had done in a prime-time slot. The venerable US critic John Leonard, a long-time champion of the show said: "It's not just that you have lots of black characters every week who are powerful, but they're all complicated. They aren't there to teach white America a lesson in behaviour, they aren't there to be cautionary examples - they have their own complicated lives." Among those actors was veteran Yaphet Kotto (best known to British audiences from Alien) as shift commander Al Giardello, a black Sicilian in constant turmoil with his bosses but demanding the best clear-up rate from his squad, and the astonishing, award-winning performance from Andre Braugher as Detective Frank Pembleton, a conflicted yet devout Catholic whose high-psychology interrogations in the interview room known as "The Box" could extract confessions from the most recalcitrant sociopath. John Leonard described the detritus of one interrogation as "coffee cups filled with amphetamines and spiders".

In style, Homicide favoured low-key lighting, hand-held cameras and rapid jump cutting - often showing the same dialogue from different angles or using dramatic gestures, a door slamming or a hand striking a table, say, as a repetitive rhythmic device. The alienation effects went even further when, in one episode, two detectives chased a suspect on to a set where Barry Levinson and crew were making a show called Homicide, which in turn reflected a real-life incident in which two robbers had tried to give themselves up to the actors during filming.

Apart from a regular cast that at various times included Ned Beatty from Deliverance and Nashville (and too many other great films to mention), a Baldwin brother (Daniel), archly cynical stand-up comedian Richard Belzer and John Sayles/ Spike Lee regular Giancarlo Esposito, the list of guests was stellar. Episode directors, apart from Levinson, included Kathy Bates, Ted Demme, Steve Buscemi, Kathryn Bigelow, Mary Harron and Bruce Paltrow. Guest actors included Buscemi, Robin Williams, John Waters, Tony Lo Bianco, Jay Leno, Benjamin Bratt, Rosanna Arquette, Elijah Wood, Eric Stoltz, Alfre Woodard and James Earl Jones.

Then there was the record-breaking crossover appearances of Richard Belzer's character Detective John Munch. Munch managed to appear not only in all seven series of Homicide, but also made it into Law and Order, Levinson and Fontanas' later cop show The Beat, and even cropped up espousing his favourite conspiracy theories on an episode of the X-Files. He's now a regular on the Law and Order spin-off Special Victims Unit.

When bosses at NBC finally pulled the plug at the end of series seven (beaten too often in the ratings by the execrable Don Johnson vehicle Nash Bridges), fans bombarded the network with petitions to such an extent that the producers made a one-off movie (also showing on Hallmark in November) to tie up the loose ends. But they dropped the ball.

While a compelling curio for diehards (mea culpa) that tied up a lot of loose ends, structuring a script around the idea of reuniting every regular cast member (even including those who had "died") made for a shoddy plot and walk-on cameos that would never had made it past a junior script editor during the main run - although the return of Pembleton (absent from series seven) and his final moral clash with long-term squad partner Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) clawed back some of the lost impetus.

Perhaps Homicide's greatest problem was that it was made by one of the main networks. If it had had the support of an HBO - home to The Sopranos and Six Feet Under - then the sharp-as-a-razor scripts might not have fallen victim to big-time NBC executives uncomfortable with the brooding storylines and a below-quota number of happy endings. As it is, the first three series are selling well on DVD in the US (the full set should be available by 2005) and fan websites are thriving as hopeful chatroom contributors dream of a new series being commissioned. Yaphet Kotto told me that he would happily return "if NBC had enough money" and, on the third Thursday of every month in towns and cities around the world, followers get together to share their obsession. Maybe this week the UK fans will find some closure as the final shows begin at last. After that, if we're really lucky, they'll start showing the whole lot all over again.

Series seven of 'Homicide: Life on the Street' starts Tuesday at 10pm on The Hallmark Channel. 'Homicide' website: www.members.aol.com/hlotslinks; contact other fans at www.homicide.meetup.com

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