Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Perfect episodes: "Three Men and Adena" from "Homicide: Life on the Street"

(I realize the photo above is not actually from the episode in question, but I was too lazy to get a screencap, and my mom likes the photos. They make her happy.)

(Also, I was going to do an episode of The Sopranos, but I've been writing about that a lot lately, so I decided to do this instead.)

Homicide: Life on the Street is one of the grimmest, most realistic portrayals of the life of a police officer ever put on the air. I've read a lot of complaints recently about Without a Trace getting too grim, but that show features good people trying to do their jobs as well as they possibly can. It also has a fair share of happy endings. To be sure, it's a hard slog on occasion, but it's nothing compared to what Homicide was in its day. Only The Wire (which, incidentally, was created by the guy who wrote the book Homicide was based on) matches Homicide in the grim realities department.

Homicide, though it was never highly rated, occupies an important place in the evolution of the TV drama. It was not afraid to do episodes that were very true to life in just how little happened. It was not afraid to drop all pretext of faux-reality and go for a docudrama-esque feel. It wasn't afraid to shoot in a crumbling metropolis like Baltimore (which lends the show some of its grimness) for verisimilitude. The attempt to make the show seem like a documentary extended to the detective work, which was much more technically precise than anything that had come before. In that regard, the show has been a huge influence. The precise details of crime solving are more popular than ever, and Homicide had a hand in bringing them to television first.

One other thing Homicide wasn't afraid of doing was making shows that were deliberately stagey, that worked AGAINST the docudrama style. The best of these shows were ones that set up self-contained situations, moments that were essentially little one-act plays done with a small number of actors and sets. Often, these moves were to save money, but the scripts for these episodes were justly rewarded (indeed, the episode we're talking about won the Emmy for its writer, the legendary Tom Fontana).

Something to look at is how these episodes took built in limitations and turned them into strengths. "Three Men and Adena" centers around a true story from the book Homicide was based on. In the book, the murder of a young girl drove the detective at the center of the story (this is all drawn from true stories written down by a reporter). He had a main suspect, but he could never get the suspect to crack. He got one last shot at the suspect and brought in another interviewer to help him. The two could not crack the suspect, and the murder of the young girl remains unsolved to this day.

"Three Men and Adena" is based on that story in a very particular way. The death of a little girl also informs Homicide (though the case in the show is, of course, fictional). In this episode, the detective in charge of the investigation (Bayliss, played by Kyle Secor) joins his partner, the volcanic Pembleton (played memorably by Andre Braugher) to interview the main suspect in the case, an "Araber," which is a particular kind of street vendor.

Already, you can see where this is going. The show gets a time constraint (12 hours to crack the suspect). And we've got a tiny cast. Three men, in essence, doing battle in a tiny, tiny room. Three men, one set, one story. It's gloriously simple. And the cast and writer make the most of it. What could have been constraining becomes resonant, full of possibilities.

As writers, as critics, as anything, we can resent the constraints placed upon us, but as this episode shows us, constraints can breed better work. If we place a yoke upon ourselves, we will find ways to make that work. Narrowly focused art can be just as rewarding as wide-open art.

But there's so much more to learn from "Three Men and Adena." Fontana's script is dense, almost heartbreaking. The camerawork is claustrophobic. The episode makes you want to take a long shower (that's a good thing, trust me).

But my favorite thing is the Araber. I'm guessing that Fontana had been carrying around that particular idea or bit of knowledge for years before he found a place to employ it. As writers, it's tempting to just let go and say, "This fits here! Let's do it!" But if you wait for the perfect moment, those bits of information can add up to something more.

Here, that idea of the Araber and his chant/song creates one of the episode's most arresting moments. The Araber cries out what he would call when he had goods to sell. The whole episode stops for a moment, and his cry becomes, in a way, the cry of the audience, wanting this to end, but not knowing if it should.

So hold on to your darlings.

1 comment:

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