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Series / Homicide: Life on the Street

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The season three cast, clockwise from far left: detectives Bayliss, Pembleton, Lewis, and Felton; Lt Russert, Det Bolander, Lt Giardello, detectives Howard and Munch

"You go when you're supposed to go, and everything else is homicide."

Before The Wire - hell, even before NYPD Blue - there was Homicide: Life On The Street. Based on the factual book Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets by Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon and airing on NBC, the series charted the lives of a team of homicide detectives in Baltimore, both on and off the clock. The show actually hung under the threat of cancellation after the first, but two Emmy nominations and the popularity of fellow soapy police show NYPD Blue got it renewed for a second season of just four episodes, making it the shortest season ever commissioned by a US network.

Over time, the show managed to build a comfortable - if not spectacular - audience, and traded in several of the older, less conventionally attractive cast members for young studs. Still, the series continued to achieve critical acclaim for what was then considered to be a realistic look at police life, with cases going unsolved, killers getting off the hook and officers having very real character flaws. It finished after seven seasons in 1999, with a TV movie wrapping up the remaining plot threads in 2000. It is generally considered to be the high water mark for Police Procedural shows, at least until David Simon returned with another Baltimore-based cop show, HBO's The Wire. The realism stems in large part from Simon's experience writing his non-fiction book about a year embedded with BPD Homicide; viewers familiar with the book will have fun trying to work out which scenes are ripped from its pages (TOW has a list of the book's notable cases).


The character of Detective John Munch proved so popular that the character - always played by actor Richard Belzer - went on to make guest appearances in two Law & Order series (including a French spin-off), The X-Files, The Beat, Arrested Development, The Wire and even Sesame Street. Following the end of Homicide, Munch appeared as a regular character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit from its premiere until his retirement early in the 15th season, and has made occasional appearances since.

The show was created by Paul Attanasio and was produced by Baltimore Pictures, the production company of executive producer Barry Levinson, initially alongside Reeves Entertainment. After the first season, however, Reeves Entertainment's parent company, Thames Television, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and NBC assumed co-production duties.


This show provides examples of:

  • Aborted Arc:
    • A slightly ridiculous sounding plot about Bayliss being a teen activist was discarded for the infinitely more effective story of his childhood sexual abuse.
    • Pembleton's stroke arc was going to run longer, but fans wrote in saying they wanted the old Frank back. As a result NBC and the producers acquiesced and it was discarded in favour of Pembleton's marital problems.
  • The Ace: Pembleton. His reputation as a legendary detective is well-earned, considering the amount of black on his part of the board. Then, of course, is Kay Howard, who consistently has the highest closure rate (and her humps always get convicted.)
  • Accuse the Witness: Given the nature of the show, getting the wrong guy initially is relatively common. Going after one of the witness is always the next step.
  • Action Girl: Howard qualifies, and even Russert in "All Through the House," where she goes out on the street with Lewis because she misses the adrenaline rush.
  • Actor Allusion:
    • In "Heartbeat", Dr Dyer tells Dr Cox she's done dating homicide detectives after her break-up with Munch, and is now seeing a stand-up comic. She is played by Harlee McBride, Richard Belzer's wife.
    • A possible subtle one. When Pembleton is interrogating Gordon Pratt he mentions Jim Thompson and The Getaway. Talking about the film and its remake, Munch concludes that the remake wasn't worth remembering. The remake starred Alec Baldwin, brother of Daniel Baldwin who played Beau Felton.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Incidents off-handedly mentioned by Simon in the original, non-fiction, book would garner whole episodes based around them.
  • Aesop Amnesia: To an extent. Pembleton tells Bayliss that he's to embrace his vices and get to know them in order to be virtuous, because virtue isn't real virtue if it hasn't been tested. Because the context was a discussion of exploration of sexuality, Bayliss takes this to heart and learns to embrace the darker side of his sexuality, eventually identifying as bisexual. However, Pembleton's advice had a clear, non-sexual, element to it that Bayliss totally missed. As a result, he does not apply Pembleton's advice in dealing with his cases and Bayliss eventually snaps and executes Luke Ryland when he is freed on a technicality
    • In the episode where Felton is found murdered Howard mentions that Felton spoke to her about getting back together with his wife. This is in spite of the fact that Felton previously stated that he and his wife probably shouldn't be together.
  • Alternate Reality Game: Homicide: Second Shift, a web-based mini show.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: In Kaddish Brodie demonstrates his knowledge of Jewish burial rites and Yiddish, but his ethnicity is never stated directly. Munch also somewhat fits this trope - his name does not sound Jewish but he is Jewish - albeit non-practising.
  • And Starring: Ned Beatty as Bolander.
  • Artistic License – Law: Mostly averted, thanks to the source material coming from an actual police department.
  • Back for the Finale: The two hour movie brought back every single cast member, even those whose characters had died— they greet Giardello in the afterlife when he himself passes away, with the ominous implication that someone else will be joining them soon (there's an empty seat at the table).
  • Badass Longcoat: Pembleton usually wore a pretty cool trenchcoat when he was out in the field. Giardello also wore a fairly long wool overcoat.
  • Beard of Sorrow: Tim Bayliss during the latter half of Season Four, and then again in the movie.
  • Be as Unhelpful as Possible: Early in the series, Lewis paraphrases one of the 10 "Homicide Lexicon" rules that Simon laid out in his book: "Murderers lie 'cause they've got to, witnesses lie 'cause they think they've got to, and everyone else lies for the sheer joy of it."
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted in the first seasons, when the cast members ranged from atypically handsome/pretty (Pembleton, Felton, Howard, Bayliss, Lewis) ordinary looking (Bolander, Giardello) to downright ugly (Munch, Crosetti).
  • Berserk Button:
    • While usually very kind and pleasant, Gee's deep voice and imposing frame will haunt your nightmares if you even think of hurting a child.
    • Blind or no, you do not disrespect Teddy Pendergrass in Lewis' presence: His marriage more-or-less ended because his wife insulted his painting of Teddy Pendergrass.
  • The Big Board: One of the things that made the series unique. Cases would be tracked by use of a giant dry erase whiteboard. Open cases would be in red and closed cases would be in black, with reopened cold cases in blue. They used a similar (but not exactly the same) board in the actual Baltimore Police Departmentnote  and in The Wire.
    • In his guest appearance in Season 7, Kellerman would explain for the benefit of a jury exactly what 'The Board' is and how it works. Of course, long-term viewers most likely already knew, but it was good Description Porn nonetheless.
  • Black Vikings: Or, at least black Italian Americans, in form of Giardello and his family. Actually, a case of Reality Is Unrealistic as there are in fact pockets of mixed race peoples in certain parts of US who are African American in appearance, but identify with a European immigrant ethnic group, such as Italians, Croats, etc.
  • Bolivian Army Cliffhanger: They ended a season with the entire cast getting reassigned.
  • Bookends: Dr Cox's first and last sequences in the show both show her driving fast and listening to the same punk rock song.
  • Bottle Episode: "Three Men & Adena" and "Night of the Dead Living" in the first season both took place entirely in the squadroom. Both are fan favourites, the former is widely considered the best of the series, and even one of the finest TV episodes ever. "The Documentary" in Season 5 could also qualify.
  • The Boxing Episode: Detective Paul Falsone goes by the boxing stage name "Paul 'Sugar Ray' Falsone."
  • Break the Cutie: Bayliss has this done to him in only a few episodes from his introduction. And it only gets worse from there.
  • Break Them by Talking: What essentially drove the killer in "Baby, It's You" to confess.
    • Pembleton and Bayliss tried to do this to the Arabber but he wound up turning the tables on them, and while what he said about Pembleton is debatable (Pembleton generally appears to be proud to be a black man) what he said about Bayliss (how he has a dark side) was spot on.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Munch, Pembleton and Gee all have varying levels of this.
  • Buried Alive: Heartbeat, which contains multiple references to Edgar Allan Poe.
  • Bus Crash: At the start of season three, Steve Crosetti goes missing after returning from a holiday; he is found in the bay after committing suicide. In season four, Det Beau Felton is suspended, but is subsequently shot and killed after being reassigned (off-screen) to Auto theft in Season five.
  • Busman's Holiday: Howard ends up having to solve a murder on her holiday in "Last of the Watermen".
  • But Not Too Gay: Bi-sexual Tim Bayliss is never shown with a boyfriend, despite having been stated to have had sex with at least one man. The closest we come is Tim being rejected by one black, closeted, uniformed officer and going on a dinner date with a man who runs a mostly gay restaurant. As counterpoint, Bayliss is shown to have had at least one girlfriend whom he had a full blown love scene with. He also had brief affairs/flirtations with at least three of his female co-workers (Cox, Ballard, Sheppard) and Claire Kincaid.
  • Butt-Monkey: Brodie.
  • The Cameo:
    • Famous Baltimore native John Waters, first as a bartender and then as a perp being extradited from New York by Detective Logan. It's unclear whether or not they're the same character.
    • During the second part of the three-part Season 6 premiere "Blood Ties", in which Munch and Kellerman are investigating a murder during a Baltimore Orioles home game, real-life Orioles pitchers Scott Erickson and Armando Benítez made appearances.
  • The City: Baltimore, one of the archetypal Real Life examples.
  • Character Depth: Often remarkable for an episodic "Murder of the Week" series, although earlier episodes tended to be less 'episodic'.
    • The depth of character development in the early years probably hurt the reception of the newer detectives. This was especially true with Falsone, Gharty, and Ballard, who were made main characters in the first episode of the show's more fast paced sixth season, making their personalities seem arbitrary and flat in comparison with the traditional characters.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Lt. Giardello, Detectives Crosetti, Pembleton, Felton. Partially justified in that Maryland has traditionally had a larger-than-normal Catholic population than the rest of the United States.
    • Averted with Detective Lewis, who is a Baptist. It's the source of a great deal of banter with his partner, the devoutly Catholic Crosetti.
  • Crime Time Soap: May well be the Trope Codifier. Almost certainly the most acclaimed example.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Munch, but especially Crosetti. People more familiar with Munch's characterization in the Law and Order series may well be surprised to see that Crosetti was initially the crazed conspiracy theorist of the group.
  • Cop Killer: Used at least twice, with the same twist both times: the cop killer is himself killed shortly afterward, and the unlucky detective assigned to the case finds that nobody cares about justice for a dead cop killer.
    • "End Game" has Gordon Pratt, a racist Smug Snake (played by Steve Buscemi) shoot at three of the homicide detectivesnote  (he didn't manage to kill them) and practically brag about it — only to be shot dead in the last few minutes. In the follow up, "Law and Disorder," Bayliss is assigned to solve Pratt's murder and has to admit defeat because no cop will help him.
    • In the "Justice" two-parter, a cop killer is acquitted in court and murdered shortly thereafter. The dead cop's son (played by Bruce Campbell) is suspect number one, but nobody can figure out the evidence trail until one of the detectives casually mentions that he owns a derringer. Gee explains that when he was a junior policeman, the Baltimore police always executed cop killers without trial, and usually did it with a derringer (which was easy to dispose of, and couldn't be traced back to the department).
  • The Coroner: Julianna Cox, as well as Dr Blythe, Dr Dyer, Dr Scheiner and Cox's replacement Dr Griscom.
  • Crossover: With Law & Order and St. Elsewhere.
  • Crossover Couple: In the first Law & Order crossover "Charm City" and "For God and Country", Tim Bayliss has a crush on Claire Kincaid but it doesn't go anywhere.
  • Da Chief: Lt Giardello. While expecting some drama and criticism from his underlings, he demands loyalty.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Munch.
  • Determinator: Bayliss, especially in his obsession with the Adena Watson case.
    Det Bayliss: ...I'm not gonna stop until I put this case down.
    Munch: I forgot about this side of you.
    Bayliss: What side?
    Munch: The obsessive side.
    • Pembleton was, in many ways, exactly the same. To the point that he didn't care who he hurt in the process of getting to the truth, a prime example would be the episode 'Colors' where Pembleton jeopardized his friendship with Bayliss in trying to convict his cousin of murder.
  • Defective Detective: Bayliss, who suffers from identity issues and deep emotional problems. Throughout the show he struggles with childhood abuse, his sexual orientation, and his religious beliefs
    • Humorously one Law and Order cross-over had a suspect/witness mis-read Detective Munch's NYPD guest badge as 'Defective Monk'.
    • Generally most of the squad was this. All had personal problems, and the only one who managed to hold down a marriage was Pembleton, albeit with some difficulty. Then again, the pressure of his job did cause him to lose his Catholic faith and suffer a stroke.
  • Depending on the Writer: The series is fairly standardized, but the exception is Season 2's "Bop Gun." This was written by David Simon, and used a lot of the lingo ("humble," "yo," etc.) that was in the book and was later featured in The Wire. For most of the run, the show tended to use standard language, or included explanations with police jargon.
  • Deus Angst Machina: Bayliss was molested as a child, had a terrible relationship with his father, gets some of the shift's worst cases, has a complicated and mostly unhappy social life, has health problems, takes a bullet for his best friend who later quits the job leaving him alone, and is eventually haunted by the Vigilante Execution he commits.
  • Dirty Cop: Kellerman; in a mundane but unsettling example of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, as a consequence of being unjustly accused of being a Dirty Cop, he eventually does become one.
    Kellerman: (to his colleagues, who have organized a party to celebrate his acquittal) I was accused of being dirty. Now I look at your faces and I realize I'll never get that stain off me. There's always gonna be a little doubt. But just for the record, I never took any of Mitch Roland's money, okay? ... but I guess I might as well had. (he leaves)
  • Documentary Episode: In the fifth season episode "The Documentary".
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Pembleton will only go as far as to hold a gun and draw down armed suspects. The irony is that after his stroke he needs to pass a mandatory fire-arms exam to return to active duty.
  • Downer Ending: Many of them, but the ending of the final movie takes the cake, with Giardello dying and Bayliss either going to jail or killing himself.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Lewis, which becomes a Running Gag throughout the series.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Bolander was unceremoniously written off after the third season. Unlike Felton and Crosetti, however, he did avoid a Bus Crash.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The pilot has several, the most famous being Munch's "Montell Williams" rant.
  • Everybody Smokes: Early seasons depicted most of the cast smoking like chimneys and scenes set in the squad room were practically hazy with cigarette smoke. Bayliss and Howard's attempts at quitting actually led to strife withing the squad because they asked for accommodations (like a dedicated non-smoking section) that Gee was unable and unwilling to make. Smoking gradually became less of a feature as the series went on due to changing attitudes towards the habit.
  • Evil Is Petty: Equally common. One of the more horrific examples occurs in the season 7 episode Zen and the Art of Murder, where a Buddhist monk is killed because a homeless man he was feeding was offended that he offered him a spoon.
  • Exasperated Perp: Being interrogated by Frank Pembleton is a rather...trying experience.
  • Expy: The original cast were based on the Detectives from David Simon's book, but with names, genders and nationalities/race completely changed (examined in further detail here). Also notably the Baltimore police unit as depicted in the book had at least twenty detectives all told, and four Detective Sergeants. The series has eight detectives (although they're not the only people who work in the unit) and, until Howard passes her Sergeant's exam in Season 4, no Detective Sergeants.
    • The character Brodie was seen by some as David Simon's analogue, which would make him the only non original character to be based on someone from the book.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Pembleton goes through this in the movie; he can either turn in Bayliss for murder, which he doesn't want to do, or walk away knowing that Bayliss will probably commit suicide if he refuses to turn in his former partner.
  • Fair Cop: Laura Ballard and Rene Sheppard were blatant attempts to get viewing figures up, after Executive Meddling.
    • Howard was rather attractive, but regular-looking, as opposed to Ms. Fanservice.
    • Russert, Cox (although she's not technically a cop), Stivers, and (for female viewers) Kellerman and Falsone weren't too shabby, either.
    • Bayliss, with long hair and glasses, may very well count.
  • Fallen Hero: Kellerman
  • Fatal Flaw: Bayliss' inability to keep himself emotionally distant from his job.
  • A Father to His Men: Gee. The Movie drives this point home, as every detective that had appeared on the series previously returned to catch his assailant.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Luther Mahoney, at least until his Villainous Breakdown.
  • Foreshadowing: In "Fallen Heroes" part one, Pembleton has the chance to shoot Junior Bunks during his killing spree in the police station, but he hesitates. In part two, he freezes in front of an armed suspect and Bayliss takes a bullet for him. In general, Frank being a Non-Action Guy prone to making mistakes in dangerous situations had been foreshadowed several times (see also: first episode of season four).
  • Genre Savvy [or possibly just pessimism] — In the True Crime book on which the series is based, in cases where someone has been attacked with intent to kill but isn't dead when the homicide unit gets involved, the Real Life cops take it as a given that, if there's enough evidence to convict someone's attacker, the wounded victim will survive and the perp will get off with a lighter sentence. If there isn't sufficient evidence for a conviction, the wounded victim will die, ensuring the case will never be closed.
    • This idea was both played straight and subverted in the series itself. Notably in the Movie Pembleton and Bayliss catch Gee's shooter and it seems like Gee will make a perfect recovery...only for Gee to die from an aneurysm soon after.
    • In the factual book upon which the series is based two detectives actually dance around the room in joy after being told that the surgeons operating on their victim have had to crack his chest, a surgical Godzilla Threshold procedure which (at the time the book was written) had a sub-10% survival rate. The man dies, and the detectives get their clearance.
    Simon: Police are some sick fucks.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Often, but not always, played respectively by Pembleton and Bayliss (see the episode Three Men and Adena); inverted in Double Blind.
  • Guns Akimbo: In "The City That Bleeds".
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: Junior Bunk Mahoney was a none-too-bright enforcer for his heroin-slinging family, and couldn't stop weeping when the squad brought him in. Fast forward a couple of years, and he's a gleeful sociopath who shoots up the squad room, injuring several main characters.
  • Handguns: Very rarely used or fired in the early seasons. Generally the Unit (and Pembleton especially) prefer to draw down armed suspects as opposed to shooting them.
  • Headbutting Heroes:
    • During the first Law & Order cross-over, Pembleton tells Briscoe to 'shove it', and the BPD detectives and the NYPD don't seem to get along at all. They get on much better by the second half of the cross-over.
    • Generally Pembleton's arrogance puts him at odds with his squad members, particularly Felton, as he considers them amateurish. To be fair, he has a right to as, aside from Howard (who clears nearly 100% of her cases), Pembleton has the best clearance rate. However Pembleton gets along much better with his squad members than he does other squads and, as noted above, other Police forces.
  • Hero of Another Story: The other shift. They had their own web series during the final season.
  • Heteronormative Crusader: Bayliss starts out as one, but comes to embrace his darker side as the show progresses.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Frank and Tim. Frank later stated that Tim and his wife were the only people he truly trusted.
  • Historical Character's Fictional Relative: In "The Old and the Dead", it is revealed that Megan Russert is the cousin of Tim Russert, then the moderator of Meet the Press.
  • Hollywood Atheist: After the episode Extreme Unction Frank lost his faith, but it's debatable whether or not he became a full-on Atheist. Of note is the incident where he refused to attend Crosetti's funeral because he didn't believe any more and didn't want to go to Church, and the incident where he refused his daughter a baptism (only to recant, although he fails to attend said baptism, the result of which being his wife leaving him.)
    • Bayliss experiments with a variety of faiths, culminating in Zen Buddhism. However, the fact that he shot a man (one who pulled a gun on him) made him, in his opinion, a bad Buddhist. Bayliss eventually abandons religious belief entirely.
  • Hollywood Police Driving Academy: Lewis must have been an honor student. Ironically, however, the only time Lewis gets into a really bad accident, he's not driving the car, Mike Giardello is.
  • Hustlingthe Mark: In "All Through the House," Bayliss tries to rope in the detectives for a "friendly" game of hearts. Pembleton calls him out on hustling, while Giardello opts to instead take him to school.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • The Sniper episodes: Eight detectives really couldn't figure out that "EROMITLAB" is "BALTIMORE" backwards?
    • The first episodes of season six feature a murder committed by a member of a prominent black family. They give the idiot ball to Pembleton, who refuses to even consider that a member of this family would perpetrate this crime as they did a lot of good for the city, even though their only other lead was a long shot. The reason they gave Pembleton the idiot ball was so Ballard could look good. This didn't get her off on the right foot with fans.
    • The story arc where Bolander, Felton and Howard get shot. The Homicide squad spend two episodes hunting down the pedophile the detectives were supposed to serve the warrant on, despite the fact that everybody they talked to said he wasn't violent (and therefore probably didn't shoot the detectives), and despite the fact that they went to the wrong door in the first place. Finally, in the third part, they have the sense to hunt the man whose door they knocked on.
    • Ed Danvers' office picked it up in a series of errors involving Ryland, including not showing up for a hearing, allowing him to go free on a procedural matter. Then passed to Bayliss, who proceeded to punch Danvers in the jaw and eventually kill Ryland in the finale.
    • The Law & Order crossovers tend, probably due to Rule of Drama, to prioritize Jurisdiction Friction over solving cases Ed Danvers and Jack McCoy had to almost be forced to work together at times.
    • Generally played straight with many criminals, but the worst example had to be a kid who shot another teen in a bowling alley- he honestly believed the police had to let him go because the victim was not his originally intended target.
    • Meg Russert, when demoted TWICE by an angry Barnfather for not kissing his butt, simply pouts a bit and doesn't fight it, instead of going to her famous reporter cousin (Tim Russert had a cameo prior as himself, establishing this) and making massive media headlines over how corrupt the BPD was.
  • Improbable Age: Captain George Barnfather oversees the Homicide unit despite being younger than Gee. Actor Clayton LeBouef was 38 during the first season but could have passed for ten years younger. It gets even more ridiculous when he gets promoted to Colonel, making him Gee's boss's boss, all while looking younger than most of the detectives. No doubt intentional as he only had his job period due to greater willingness to pander to the upper brass, more so than any actual qualifications.
    • The episode Every Mother's Son features a fourteen-year old perp who shot a similarly aged victim in a bowling alley. Most of the characters highlight how he's too young to be killing people.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Subverted in the episode "Bad Medicine."
  • Insufferable Genius: Frank for the first four seasons. Then the writers bring him crashing down to earth, without his ability or anyone who wants to work with him.
    • Then late in Season 5 he regains his former ability only to quit at the end of Season 6.
  • Intercontinuity Crossover: As of 2015, Munch has appeared in no less than 11 TV series. They are: Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The X-Files, The Beat, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, The Wire and, no, this isn't made up, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Sesame Street and Jimmy Kimmel Live!.
    • It's a wordless cameo, but in "A Doll's Eyes", a young boy's heart is air-lifted to a Chicago hospital, where Mandy Patinkin is waiting, implying the hospital was Chicago Hope and that was Dr. Geiger. He was a heart surgeon, after all.
  • Internal Affairs: Ironically, Kellerman is initially persecuted by IA for being unjustly accused of taking bribes; later, his execution of a suspect is never properly investigated.
  • Internal Homage: The first scene of the first episode is repeated with the exact same dialogue in the last scene of the last episode. Also, in "Nearer, My God, To Thee" (episode 14), Munch issues a cynical monologue about TV and technocracy; in "Kaddish" (episode 73), a Whole Episode Flashback, a younger John Munch delivers the same monologue, but with a hopeful tone.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Lewis talks Kellerman out of suicide.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: The ending of "Requiem for Adena", with "Twinkle twinkle little star" playing as we see the soon-to-be-father Pembleton looking at the empty cradle and a burnout Bayliss trying to forget about his first case, the murder of a young girl, tossing the portrait of the victim (which he kept framed on his desk) in the garbage bin.
  • It Was His Sled: In-universe. A season seven case featured the accidentally fatal tranquillising of an old-movie theatre patron who drove away customers by spoiling the endings to classic films. Inevitably this came up.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Very much averted as hitting suspects is illegal and most detectives can't be bothered with the risk. Only about three examples come up: all involving Bayliss and all ending with him being stopped and/or swiftly reprimanded.
    • - However, making suspects THINK they're getting physically threatened is not uncommon.
    • This exhibits the show's realism. In real life, hitting suspects for statements is absolutely forbidden and can destroy a detective's career. Acting threatening without saying or doing anything that looks to an objective observer like a threat is very much allowed and in use.
    • In the episode End Game, Gordon Pratt believes that the Detectives will physically assault him and he says racially inflammatory things to the primarily black detectives, as a result the interrogation becomes an exercise in physical restraint. Lewis eventually leaves the room because Pratt makes him so angry.
  • Jerkass: Felton, Gharty (both accused racists), Pembleton , Munch, Bolander (while generally nice the way he treats Munch is exactly how Pembleton treats Bayliss) and, after a long character arc, Kellerman. Gaffney, however, is easily the biggest.
    • Danvers was originally, but this was probably because of the pressures of his job. As the series progressed he became much more likeable. Bayliss also followed similar character development, but he could be even more unlikeable if he outright hated a suspect, and at times his attitude would mirror Frank's.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Munch.
  • Jumped at the Call: Not the call per se but Bayliss is initially very enthusiastic about being a Homicide Detective.
    • This is reflected upon almost ironically in Bayliss' final scene in the series, Bayliss reflects on the many moments in all seven seasons, culminating in a recollection of what he said to Giardello when he first arrived.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: In on episode, Kellerman is disgruntled by the fact that the F.B.I are not interested in the matter of a corrupt judge that he's bringing to them. One of the agents later tracks him down and, off-the-record, admits that they're already investigating the judge but official policy is not to discuss corruption investigations with local authorities.
    • Kellerman experiences further friction when he finds himself working the same case as Falsone from opposite ends. The BPD refuses to share its information with Kellerman.
    • There was some friction between the NYPD, Pembleton and Bayliss during the first Law and Order cross-over. NYPD refuses to include Pembleton or Bayliss in their investigation so Pembleton, already annoyed at the fact he came all the way to New York for a 'We'll keep you informed', decides to work the case by himself. They then get a better interrogation of their suspect as a result of the information they had that the NYPD didn't. However, during this interrogation, Pembleton inadvertently violates the suspect's rightsnote  thus jeopardising the case and pissing off the New York authorities even more. Nevertheless the NYPD and the BPD then decide that it's probably best they work with each other rather than against each other for the remainder of the case, and the BPD are more accommodating when Briscoe and Curtis come to Baltimore.
    • The third Law and Order cross-over has this trope played straight, with the BPD and NYPD trying to work a case and the FBI and Independent Counsel probing that case to offer deals to the suspects in exchange for information about President Clinton's wrong-doings. Mike Giardello is caught in the middle.
  • Karma Houdini: A realistically terrifying number of them.
  • Kavorka Man: Ed Danvers, despite being short and balding, manages to date both Kay Howard and later gets engaged to a beautiful defense attorney. It should be noted that Ed is both a very nice guy and works in an impressive field which he is very good at. Then there is Kay's endorsement of him. Munch also, despite being a sarcastic, conspiracy-obsessed nut jerkass and not anyone's definition of attractive, dates and marries many attractive women.
  • Kick the Dog: Gee tells Felton, who had just come back to work after being shot, that he hadn't been up to the job for a long time, even before he got shot. To be fair, the episodes before that showed Felton drinking and becoming increasingly erratic after his wife disappeared with his children, and his name had more red under it than most. In addition Felton actually lost evidence (that turned out to be a red-herring, but he didn't know that) during one of his drunken escapades.
    • "You still walk on water, don't you Frank?" To be fair, Pembleton himself had previously kicked the dog when he didn't show Munch any gratitude for calling an Ambulance and then for coming to visit him while he was in the hospital (although, given what he was going through it's understandable. Pembleton also didn't think that Munch would care, given his persona around the squad room).
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Many examples but Munch really takes the cake on this one.
  • Later Installment Weirdness: Pembleton's Jurisdiction Friction battles with Rey Curtis and Lennie Briscoe in the later Law & Order crossovers can be seen as this, given his previously friendly relationship with Curtis' predecessor, Mike Logan.
  • Lie Detector: Munch and Bolander trick a stupid perp into thinking that a photocopier is actually a dangerous, radioactive lie detector. Such was actually common practice at the Baltimore Police Department and was detailed in the book the series was based on, and then later re-used in The Wire.
  • Lying to the Perp: Frequently in order to get a confession.
  • Mauve Shirt: Officer Chris Thormann, recurring mostly in the first season, and one of the few officers to appear outside of the main cast, chatting up many of the main characters, and being friends with Crosetti who mentored him. He even had a story arc, mentioning his wife wanting kids, then getting shot and blinded, and forced to live with the consequences, while his wife was pregnant. When Lewis investigates Crosetti's death, Thormann is seen at home with his wife, holding the baby. In a later episode Lewis and Thormann have become friends following Crosetti's death, and they celebrate an annual 'In memoriam' for him at a jazz club.
  • Medley Exit: Very frequent - and memorable.
  • Mood Whiplash: The conclusion of the movie. As the squad is celebrating Giardello's recovery and Bayliss and Pembleton catching his assailant, Brodie walks in:
    Brodie: " He died. Lieutenant Giardello died."
  • Moral Dissonance: Lewis' behavior after his involvement in the Mahoney shooting is a fine example of this trope.
  • Motor Mouth: Munch, on occasion. In one episode, he meets up with Gee at the laundromat on a lazy Sunday; Gee just wants to read the paper in peace and winds up storming off when Munch can't stop babbling about nothing. (A bit of a Kick the Dog moment, since Munch is hurt by the snub and comes across as kind of desperate for company.)
  • Mummies at the Dinner Table: In "The Documentary", a lonely mortuary worker borrows corpses so he can host dinner parties by himself.
  • "".
  • My Greatest Failure: Bayliss eventually became a competent detective, but was always haunted by his inability to solve his first case, the murder of a young girl.
    Bayliss: Don't you see, Frank? The killer beat me. He beat me. Dooley, Tucker, whoever he is, he beat me. It was my first case Frank, my first case. I hadn't even started to be a Homicide Detective yet, and he beat me. I put everything I had into that case and it wasn't enough.
  • Mystery of the Week: In later seasons.
  • Nice Guy: Lewis, Kellerman until late season 5, and Bayliss.
  • Nice Hat: Lewis is rarely seen outside the station house without his really rather cool trilby. Pembleton was also given to wearing a pretty sweet fedora at times.
  • No Bisexuals: Averted; Tim Bayliss openly identifies as bisexual later in the series.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Gharty was supposed to be this. It got toned down significantly, along with many other of Gharty's negative personality traits, presumably because the executives felt that viewers could not empathise with a main character who was both a racist and a coward.
  • Non-Action Guy: Pembleton, one of best investigators of the squad, hates firearms and is a terrible shot.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Despite most of the characters being Baltimore natives, none of the cast were from there with only Lewis, played by Philadelphia native Clark Johnson, having the accent. Braugher's New York native Pembleton has a Chicago accent and Reed Diamond sounds more Brooklyn than "Bawlmer". Probably for the best as the Baltimore accent is very difficult to grasp and can be off-putting if done poorly.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Col. Barnfather was essentially this though later episodes were far more sympathetic to his predicaments.
  • Off on a Technicality: Many examples, but the best is probably Luke Ryland's acquittal because of the state's failure to try him for murder within a 180 day period. This pushes Bayliss over the edge.
  • One of Our Own: A season three arc had the unit work over-time to catch the man who shot Bolander, Howard and Felton. The Unit and Pembleton in particular specifically refuse to let Violent Crimes (who would normally handle a non-fatal assault case) handle the case.
    • In season five, knowing that Daniel Baldwin was probably never going to come back, the writers killed off Felton for some easy drama. The result was the unit, again working overtime, to try and catch Felton's killer.
  • One Steve Limit: Mostly played pretty straight, or as straight as most TV series play it, but there were two Mikes in the main cast; Mike Kellerman and Mike Giardello. This isn't as noticeable as in some series because they were rarely on camera together (and were not main cast members at the same time) and because Kellerman was generally referred to by his last name and Mike Giardello generally by his first, as his father, Al Giardello, was also a major character.
  • Orphaned Punchline: Meldrick Lewis frequently tells the same filthy joke about a bear, of which the audience only ever got to hear the punch line: "You're not here to hunt, are you?" In one episode, his partner Kellerman only says that line, to which Lewis replies that the build-up to the punchline is the whole point. It's actually a real joke, and pretty funny.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: Several, usually acknowledged by the writers, when the show either wrote-off or were in the process of writing off characters.
    • Crosetti commits suicide but previous episodes demonstrated Crosetti to be a fairly Conservative Catholic and not suffering any significant pain other than arguments with his ex-wife and daughter.
    • The typically proper and conservative Bolander is unlikely to get drunk and get naked while on duty or at a function like a Police conference.
      • Hell, even characteristic drunk Felton is established to be the kind of drunk that simply stumbles from place to place, getting even more drunk, as opposed to what he's stated to have done to get himself suspended. Also, him and Bolander never hung out.
    • Pembleton's drive for his work would never allow him to quit the force. In fact, Frank turned in his badge under similar circumstances in Season 3 (angered at Departmental cover-ups, plus the Deputy Commissioner screwed him over), only to return after Bayliss asserts that he could never be anything other than a cop. This incongruity is addressed in the last episode of Season 7 (where Bayliss confides to Sheppard that he always thought Frank would come back) and the Movie (when Tim asks Frank to turn him in, saying he'll always be a cop).
    • Giardello runs for Mayor but throughout the series it's firmly established that Gee has no mind for politics, and commits what might be considered political suicide a number of times.
      • His focus on drug legalization was also highly suspect. While it could be motivated by the Mahoney affair (and the few drug dealers we see in the film aren't too happy about it because it'd put them out of business), it is very unlikely he'd want to legalize drugs and felt like little more than a weak excuse for his killer's motive.
  • Out of Focus: Howard and Munch from season 4 on, although Munch was never side-lined as badly as he was on SVU. This was because their partners had both been suspended and thus there was no one for them to play off of (although Howard and Munch often did team up themselves).
    • Pembleton (amongst others) in Season 6, in favour of the newer characters. Understandably people weren't happy.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Mostly subverted.
  • Perp Sweating: The interrogation room, affectionately termed "The Box", is where the magic happens.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Howard and Felton.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Detective - later Captain - Gaffney. Granger (who turned out to be corrupt) and Barnfather certainly had their moments.
  • Police Procedural: Though much more character and story based than most other examples at the time.
  • Promotion to Opening Titles: The series didn't engage in this as often as you might think, with a majority of the new regulars being introduced as regulars. However, Brodie was a recurring character during the fourth season, added to the opening credits for Season Five, while Gharty and Falsone appeared in the Season Five two-part finale, becoming regulars the following season. Gharty had appeared in the fourth season, a cowardly beat cop who somehow later was promoted to detective and moved to Internal Investigations.
  • Rabid Cop: Usually Pembleton.
  • Reading Your Rights: Mostly accurate, thanks again to the source material.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Bayliss and Pembleton, respectively; Bolander and Munch, respectively; Crosetti and Lewis, also respectively.
  • Repeat Cut: Used frequently in the first few seasons, toned down significantly thereafter until the show basically lost another of the things that made it unique.
  • Retcon: In Season 1, Howard is the primary investigator on a double-homicide committed by a drug dealer named Pony Johnson. In Season 6, Johnson is the prime mover behind another murder. Because the actress playing Howard, Melissa Leo, had left the show by that time, the case was retconned to make John Munch the primary, so he could get the detectives up to speed on Johnson. Why they didn't just write a scene detailing the necessary exposition with a mere mention of Howard instead is a mystery.
  • A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma: When Munch and Kellerman work on a case involving a suicide jumper killed by a stray shotgun blast on the way down from a tall building, Munch describes it as "a riddle, surrounded by a mystery, wrapped inside an enigma, and stuffed inside a body bag."
  • Ripped from the Headlines: A good deal of cases are almost carbon-copies of real Baltimore murders which happened during David Simon's time shadowing the Baltimore Police Department's Homicide Unit during 1988:
    • Bayliss's Adena Watson case was based upon the case of Latonya Kim Wallace, a young girl who was murdered in Reservoir Hill, becoming a "red ball" murdernote  Sadly, like in real life, Adena's murderer is never brought to justice.
    • The "Black Widow killer" Calpurnia Church from the first episode is based on Geraldine Parrish (Parish = Church, geddit?), who murdered a string of husbands - the BPD found tens of life insurance policies naming her as the beneficiary. She, like Church, pretended to be a voodoo master, and, like Church, the investigation into her crimes prompted multiple exhumations at city cemeteries.
    • The real-life shooting of Officer Gene Cassidy and the subsequent uphill struggle to secure a conviction for his attacker, Butchie Frazier, are the basis of a season 4 plotline for Crosetti.
    • The death of a Mr John Randolph Scott in suspicious circumstances likely involving BPD officers in the book is recreated in the TV series. Unlike in real life, the killer is brought to justice.
    • The more common example of reheating recent news stories was not deployed as much as some other procedurals, but occasionally made an appearance. In particular, the episode "Colors" is based on the real case of Yoshihiro Hattori, a Japanese exchange student who was shot dead by a paranoid householder in Baton Rouge while looking for a fancy-dress party.
  • Serial Killer: A couple of them, but only after the sober minimalism of the first two seasons.
  • Ship Tease: The first Law & Order cross-over has Bayliss go out with Claire Kincaid.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The non-plot names on the murder board are taken from the show's crew and their friends and family.
    • Also, Munch gets Falsone to partner with him on one case by saying, "I'm buying at the diner."
    • Somebody on the writing staff must have liked grunge, because there are perps named Layne Staley and Krist Novoselic.
    • In "Kaddish", Munch's high school love interest Helen Rosenthal is raped and murdered. This is a reference to the nurse of the same name who was a regular character in St. Elsewhere, which was likewise produced by Tom Fontana.
  • Shown Their Work: One of the most realistic cop shows during its time. Detectives almost never use their weapons or go to an arrest without backup.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Definitely on the cynical side.
    Munch: (to Pembleton, former ace detective of the squad, who is returning to work after a stroke) You still walk on water, don't you Frank?
  • Smoking Is Cool: At the beginning of the series it seems the entire unit smoked, with Bayliss and Howard being mocked for attempting to quit in the first season finale. Most of the replacement detectives were non-smokers, while most of the originals succeed in quitting. Giardello is explicitly retconned as a non-smoker; in the early seasons he enjoys cigars, but in season 4 he claims to have only smoked as a teenager, even telling Frank that “Smoking isn’t cool.”
    • Pembleton in particular had a love of cigarettes until he was finally forced to quit after suffering a stroke.
  • Smug Snake: Luther Mahoney. Also, Roger Gaffney, Deputy Commissioner James Harris and Independent Counsel William Dell. All the worse because he wins in the end.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Sheppard in the last season.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Pembleton is one of the triumphant examples in TV history. He's a Jesuit-taught omniglot, and during interrogations you can see both suspects and fellow cops struggling to keep up. He also peppers his dialogue with blunt colloquialisms, such as calling Ed Danvers "the midget dweeb" and warning a young Sympathetic Murderer heading to prison "keep your ass to the wall."
  • Spiritual Successor: The Wire. Both were based on Homicide: A Year on The Killing Streets, with The Wire essentially using the plots and characters that went unused for Homicide. David Simon, having greater control over The Wire as well as freedom from Network interference (See above), was able to make a more honest crime drama. Munch did have a brief cameo, talking about his former bar, and one of Luther Mahoney's family was mentioned, along with being set in Baltimore, so it at least has some subtle hints of being a sequel even if it's merely set in the same version of Baltimore.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Falsone and Ballard in the sixth season. They weren't well liked to say the least.
  • Stupid Evil: Many, many instances. It's made extremely clear that the vast majority of homicides are committed by petty criminals with poor impulse control and not evil masterminds. The crowning example has to be a perp in season 4 who, upon being arrested for soliciting a prostitute and with some heroin on him, offers to confess his involvement in multiple serial killings as an exchange, basically trading an at best minor sentence for life in prison.
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: Giardello appears to be on the road to recovery, but a few scenes later, Brodie informs everyone that he died.
  • Team Dad: Giardello, to the point that the squad won't take orders from Gaffney when he's appointed Captain unless Gee tells them to. Gee was so beloved by all the detectives that when he got shot everyone who had ever worked in the unit, regardless of whether they moved, quit or retired, came back to work the case.
  • Token Black Friend: One of the first primetime Drama series to avert this trope by giving African-American characters leading roles and storylines.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass:
    • Kellerman becomes more neurotic, suspicious, and unpleasant after he was charged by Internal Affairs. And even after he was cleared, he keeps on being an a-hole to his colleagues.
    • Lewis also qualified, particularly in the last two seasons.
  • Transplant: Munch joining Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
  • Trash the Set: The shootout at the end of the sixth season.
  • Tricked into Signing: A ourier who needs the detectives to sign for a package turns out to be a process server working with Georgia Rae Mahoney's lawsuit against the city.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Roger Gaffney. Giardello is not happy about Gaffney's promotion, along with the rest of the unit, who all hate him.
  • Urban Legends: A very complicated killing in the episode "Shaggy Dog, City Goat" is directly adapted from the Ronald Opus urban legend.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: A lot of the murders are dramatized versions of real Baltimore murders David Simon saw the real BPD Homicide unit work when he was writing his book.
  • Vigilante Execution:
    • At least two of them, involving respectively Kellerman and Bayliss. In each case, the killers are eventually broken by the consequences of their actions.
      Det Kellerman: (shooting Luther Mahoney in cold blood) You have the right to remain silent.
    • It's never directly stated but heavily implied that Munch killed a violent racist who shot Howard, Bolander, and Felton.
  • Villain Episode: Third-season finale "The Gas Man" was almost a pure example, but the heroes ended up with dialogue anyway.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Luther Mahoney maintains his cool throughout his time on the series, knowing that he's protected himself very well and has nothing to fear from Lewis and Kellerman. But in his final appearance, when everything starts going wrong for him, he doesn't take it very well.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Luther Mahoney.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Munch and Bolander; Pembleton and Bayliss; Lewis and Crosetti
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Bayliss for most of the series though when he breaks, he breaks hard.
    • This is particularly notable in the second season when Bayliss claims that sex is love and decries the act of sex for pleasure as 'dehumanising'. Pembleton makes a point of telling him that he's either pretending to be virtuous or is simply an idiot. Later in the series Bayliss drastically changes his stance as he begins to embrace his bi-sexuality.
    • Kellerman starts out as a kind of young idealist. Like Bayliss, he eventually breaks.
  • Wham Line: The conclusion of the movie. As the squad is celebrating Giardello's recovery and Bayliss and Pembleton catching his assailant, Brodie walks in:
    Brodie: " He died. Lieutenant Giardello died."
  • Wrap It Up: Homicide The Movie.
  • You Didn't Ask: In "In Search of Crimes Past".
  • You Just Told Me: Pembleton finally gets Kellerman in the Box to interrogate him regarding Mahoney's shooting. Pembleton knows Kellerman murdered him, but believes this is true because he thinks Mahoney didn't have a gun, and presses Kellerman to admit there was no gun. Kellerman finally shouts "He had a gun!" while unthinkingly miming a "gun hand" held to his side, mimicking Mahoney lowering his gun. Pembleton realizes then that yes, Mahoney was holding a gun, but no, he wasn't pointing it at Kellerman, and thus, Kellerman murdered Mahoney in cold blood.


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