'Homicide' fittingly goes out the way it came in

The final moments of "Homicide: Life on the Street" find Detectives Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Rene Sheppard (Michael Michele) in an alley in the dark searching for clues to the murder of a man whose body lays nearby.

Lewis probes a clump of weeds with the toe of his shoe and the beam of his flashlight. "If I could just find this thing, I could go home," he says, not explaining what exactly the "thing" is.

"You won't find what you're looking for," Sheppard says dismissively, shining her flashlight on the other side of the alley.

"What? Why not," an irritated Lewis asks.

"It's a mystery. Life is a mystery. Just accept it," she says, as the camera shifts to an overhead shot that shows the two of them walking alone, with their flashlight beams looking small and hopeless against the surrounding darkness.

"Yeah? Well, that's what's wrong with this job," Lewis says. "It ain't got nothing to do with life."

Those are the last words we'll ever hear from the flawed and fabulous characters of "Homicide: Life on the Street," whose final episode airs tonight. The echoes of language and existential sensibility to the pilot 6 1/2 years ago are unmistakable. And, if you are anything like me, they will launch you on a melancholy roller coaster ride back through the series and then rock you with the realization that "Homicide" is really, truly, finally gone.

Last week, I picked tonight's finale, "Forgive Us Our Trespasses," as one of the 10 best of the 122 episodes in the "Homicide" canon. As I sat down to watch for a second time last night, I feared I had picked as much with my heart as my head, wanting to look forward to one last great episode in the immediate wake of the cancellation news.

This isn't a great-great episode, but it is resonant, moving and, most of all, representative of a cultural process that "Homicide" illustrated as well as any series in TV history: the struggle and inevitable compromise necessary to create art in a medium designed primarily for commerce.

When Tom Fontana, the series' Emmy Award-winning executive producer, wrote tonight's episode, he didn't know it would be the last. But he knew it might be. So, as he explained to The Sun, he layered it with as much series' closure as he could, just in case NBC pulled the plug.

"Forgive Us Our Trespasses" has many "Homicide" trademarks, as well as a storyline with Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) that takes the series back to the Ground Zero of its moral center, a location it strayed from this season with the loss of Bayliss' partner, Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher).

It starts with one of the stylistic innovations that "Homicide" pioneered under executive producer Barry Levinson: a series of elongated jump cuts. Bayliss and Sheppard are repeatedly shown climbing the steps of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse with different dates printed at the bottom of each repeat. The technique not only compresses time and gets us instantly into the story, but it also suggests the Sisyphus-like repetition and futility of their jobs.

That futility blasts right through Bayliss' usual Zen-boy detachment when Luke Ryland (Benjamin Busch), the man who broadcast the murder of two women on the Internet, goes free because of mistakes made in a collapsing legal system. Bayliss takes his anger out on State's Attorney Ed Danvers (Zeljko Ivanek), which leads to a career crisis.

As Bayliss searches his soul, his relationship with Pembleton and the inviolate moral vision at the series core is brought sharply into focus.

"Seven years ago, I walked in here with a file box and a lot of idealism," Bayliss tells Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). "I had a clear vision of justice and morality. And whatever has happened to me, around me, I still have that."

Bayliss wrestles with death, God, justice, vengeance, crime and punishment. He wishes aloud that Pembleton was there for guidance. Viewers will see Pembleton in montage, but nothing summons his ghost like Bayliss saying in a soft voice, "Yeah, I loved him."

Secor has several great moments, including a scene with Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) that ends as Bayliss reaches out to touch Munch in a way you can almost feel right through the TV screen.

Lighter side not forgotten
The lighter side of "Homicide" -- its screwy, almost Beckett-esque sense of comedy -- is also there. Lewis and Detective Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) have one of those in-the-car discussions that Levinson seems to have invented. They are talking about Munch's upcoming wedding to Billie Lou McCoy (Ellen McElduff) and the possibility of any two people finding what Falsone calls "wedded bliss."

"They got as much chance surviving a nuclear holocaust as they do just staying married," Lewis says.

The conversation sent me back through my "Homicide" library looking for "The Gas Man," an episode that ended the series' third season on May 5, 1995. The bulk of that hour took place in a car with two loser ex-cons played by Bruno Kirby and Richard Edson driving around, sharing their crackpot philosophies of life while trying to find a way to kill Pembleton for putting them in prison.

The Levinson-directed episode typifies the risks "Homicide" took in storytelling. The hour is seen through the eyes of the bad guys, not the cops, and the in-car conversations are as funny as anything in such Levinson feature films as "Tin Men" or "Diner."

The entire episode played to a disco soundtrack, with Kirby's character saying that he found the secret to life while listening to disco music in prison: "Like the song says, do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight, get down tonight. Think about it, my friend, it's all right there in the song."

I have been replaying "Homicide" tapes like "The Gas Man" for almost a week now. I tell myself I have to do it for background, but I think there's something else going on. I've reached the point where -- like the character in Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" -- pieces of scenes, memories, real-life interviews and snatches of dialogue from the series are playing in a stream-of-consciousness loop in my head.

I started out searching for one crystal-clear, distilled image on which I would end this piece. Like Lewis in the alley, I felt if I could just find that thing, I could lay "Homicide" to rest in my mind. I was certain it would somehow feature Pembleton, the nexus of race and morality in "Homicide."

Maybe, it would be Pembleton in his dress blues standing at attention on the steps of the precinct house on Thames Street as a hearse passes by with the body of Detective Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) from the 1994 episode titled "Crosetti." Pembleton's pose is an act of conscience done in defiance of bureaucratic policy, which seeks to distance the department from the suicide.

Or, maybe it would be the scene from the start of the 1996-1997 season when Pembleton, former alpha dog of the squad room, comes back to work so shattered by a stroke that he can't even handle placing the office lunch order, because he can't remember how to spell pizza. Heroes are not supposed to be laid this shuffle-step, stammer-talk low in American TV. This is the stuff of Greek tragedy or Shakespeare.

A delicious mix
But, in the end, the scenes all merge together for me: Pembleton struck down by the gods plays straight into Bruno Kirby's character who just wants to get down, get down tonight.

And, maybe, that's the answer, the truth that Levinson and Fontana captured in this Peabody Award-winning series. Maybe we all live at the intersection of the cosmic and the comic -- that place we first found ourselves on the night of Jan. 31, 1993, when this gift from the gods, "Homicide: Life on the Street," debuted after the Super Bowl:

Lewis and Crosetti are looking in a dark alley for clues.

"If I could just find this damn thing, I could go home," Lewis says.

"Life is a mystery. Accept it," Crosetti tells him.

"You're in your own world, Crosetti," Lewis says dismissively.

"The quest is what matters," Crosetti answers, ignoring the insult. "Looking, not finding. I read about it in this book."

"Now, since when did you ever read a book?" Lewis says.

"I read this book, an excerpt of this book."

"Now, see, that's what I'm saying, man. You said you read this book, but you didn't read nothing but an excerpt of this book."

"It says you never really find what you're looking for, because the whole point is looking for it. So, if you find it, it defeats its own purpose," Crosetti says, lighting a cigarette.

"You're in your own little world, Crosetti, because there ain't no one wants to be there with you."

"You try to explain everything, you know? But there are things you can't explain," Crosetii concludes, sounding as if he hasn't heard a word Lewis has said.

That scene ends on the comic with the two cops shining flashlights in each other's faces, trading ethnic insults and threats.

Tonight's final scene ends on the cosmic.

Not a word is said as the camera shifts its point of view. Suddenly we're looking down with omniscience on Lewis and Sheppard searching through the hopelessly dark urban night for the "thing" that will finally let them go "home." The thing they will never find.