Homicide: Life on the Street — Killer TV No 8

70727-1NBC, 1993-99

‘It’s hard to meet single woman on this job. You meet plenty of widows, but the timing just don’t seem right.’ – Det Stan Bolander

Richard Belzer, Clark Johnson, Yaphet Kotto, Kyle Secor, Andre Braugher, Melisso Leo, Daniel Baldwin, Ned Beatty, Jon Polito

Identikit: Police procedural delving into the work of a fictional version of Baltimore’s homicide detectives.


logosBefore The Wire there was Homicide: Life on the Street, based on a non-fiction book by The Wire‘s creator, David Simon. A former Baltimore Sun reporter, Simon spent a year shadowing homicide cops and the resulting book was an unforgettable glimpse at the lives and work of detectives in that city – the slog of investigation, the tricks of the trade, the galling frustration of knowing whodunit but not being able to prove it. The TV series was an intelligent attempt to dramatise the book, and gave us a series that steered clear of stock characters and cop-show cliches. The cases ranged from the heinous to comic, such that involving the body of an old guy who turned out to still be alive. The cops bicker, ramble on, made bad-taste jokes. Filmed on 16mm handheld cameras on location in Baltimore, jump cutting scenes and with wonderfully natural performances from the likes of Richard Belzer, Ned Beatty and Melissa Leo, the series had a distinctive style, while the stories portrayed the camaraderie and occasionally the soul-sapping nature of the job. It included non-traditional elements of detective storytelling, such as unsolved cases and criminals escaping, and had more psychological depth and truth in it than all of the forensic fantasy shows that clog the networks these days.

Classic episode: Three Men and Adena (season 1, episode 5). Three characters – two detectives (Pembleton and Bayliss) and a suspect – in an interrogation room as the officers try to get a murder confession. Intimidation, bickering among the two cops, failure and how inscrutable the truth can be – masterful writing that won an Emmy for scriptwriter Tom Fontana.

Watercooler fact: Despite all its awards (Television Critics Association, Peabody) and critical acclaim, the seven seasons of Homicide always saw the series in a precarious position because of low ratings (it lagged behind the likes of Nash Bridges!). TV Guide called it the ‘Best Show You’re Not Watching’.

NYPD Blue — Killer TV No 9

600x600bb-85ABC, 1993-2005

‘Andy, I don’t know if you should be a cop, but I think you got a lot of guts.’ – Lt Fancy

‘ Yeah well, for a while there, I was wearing them outside my clothes.’

– Andy Sipowicz, on returning to duty after being shot

Dennis Franz, David Caruso, Jimmy Smits, Rick Schroder, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Kim Delaney, Gordon Clapp, Sharon Lawrence

Identikit: The personal and professional grind of law enforcement at the fictional 15th precinct of Manhattan.


logosMoving on from Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco and David Milch created this much-admired, long-running new show and simultaneously hauled the genre further away from TV’s homogenised world of The FBI, Hawaii 5-O and Madigan. Location shooting, bad language and nudity – the latter of which had the American Family Association frothing – gave the drama edge and depth, and it had a greater level of perspective on the harshness and injustice of police work than was common on mainstream TV at the time. The series hit the ground with sirens blaring. From the pilot onwards, NYPD Blue was focused on the characters. Our first glimpse of the abrasive Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz, another Hill Street veteran) is of him ‘flipping out’ in the courtroom as he loses a case against a mob guy (he appears to have broken the rules in getting Alfonse Giardella to court, anyway). His alcoholism is destroying him and his career, and later Sipowicz drunkenly attacks the gangster. Giardella retaliates eventually by shooting Sipowicz. This storyline, however, is used to give prominence to the characters of Sipowicz and his partner, John Kelly (David Caruso). Kelly is going through an emotionally cutting divorce, and now seems to be losing his work partner too – ‘You were like a father to me, man,’ he tells the unconscious Sipowicz in hospital. Dennis Franz played Sipowicz as the epitome of a hard-bitten New York cop (though with a heart of gold), David Caruso did his finest work here, and there were many standout performances along the way from actors who went onto further excellent series – David Schwimmer, Sherry Stringfield, Daniel Benzali and more. Booze, corruption, marital mayhem and death – NYPD Blue is a powerful drama. It survived Caruso’s departure during season two, with Jimmy Smits stepping in in fine style as Bobby Simone, another character with demons (he’s grieving for death of his wife). Bochco and Milch, with the invaluable input of Bill Clark, a former NYPD officer turned producer, guided the cop show into a grittier, more adult landscape with this indelible series.

Classic episode: True Confessions (season 1, episode 4). No fireworks here, but just a finely crafted episode in which Sipowicz bristles at working for a new boss, the alcoholic, slapdash detective Walker, and Kelly assists a wealthy, battered wife who shoots her husband. The episode, rated by TV Guide in the US as one of the 100 greatest of all time, is also a shock reminder that there was a time when David Caruso used to act, as revealed in the scene where Kelly’s addressing a tenants’ association and chokes up at the memory of his father, who was the victim of a shooting.

Watercooler fact: Dennis Franz was the only cast member to stay on the beat for the entire run of NYPD Blue, appearing in all 261 episodes.

Cracker — Killer TV No 10

max1221239162-frontback-coverITV, 1993-1996, 2006

‘You looking for a broken nose, pal?’ – Skinhead

Yeah, you know someone who can give me one, pal?’ – Fitz

Robbie Coltrane, Geraldine Somerville, Christopher Eccleston, Ricky Tomlinson, Lorcan Cranitch, Barbara Flynn

Identikit: A brilliant criminal psychologist with an addictive personality struggles to hold his personal life together while at the same time helping police to uncover vicious killers.


logos‘I’d prefer you not to smoke,’ says a cabbie to Dr Edward ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald. ‘Tough,’ he replies. His wife would prefer he stopped gambling their mortgage away, his kids would prefer not to lend him money, ticket collectors would prefer he paid his fare, friends would prefer he didn’t drunkenly insult them, detectives would prefer he didn’t belittle their investigations. ‘I drink too much. I smoke too much. I gamble too much. I AM too much.’ Fitz made cop show anti-heroes look puny. In addition to the classic drink and marriage problems, he was fat and self-loathing. But he was brilliant, with the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes, which he used constantly to try to deflect the police from clichéd thinking and going for easy suspects. And he was superbly ironic – noting that he was born on the same day as Twiggy, or telling a cop, ‘I’ve forgotten more about amnesia than they’ll ever know.’ Cracker was made twenty-odd years ago, but stands alongside Prime Suspect as the most powerful British crime drama in that time, far superior to the formulaic procedurals in twee settings that channel execs play safe with these days. Death was never treated lightly as a plot device, and the stories – about male rage, murder, Hillsborough, justice, atonement – were engrossing and thought-provoking. Cracker had writing by Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott, directors including Michael Winterbottom, and guest actors of the calibre of Adrian Dunbar, Robert Carlyle, Samantha Morton and John Simm. All of which was topped by the inspired choice of casting Robbie Coltrane in the lead. Coltrane won three consecutive Baftas for his indelible portrayal.

Classic episode: To Be a Somebody, with Robert Carlyle as Albie, a skinhead who embarks on a killing spree to avenge the dead of Hillsborough.

Spin-off series: A US version made by ABC was set in LA with Robert Pastorelli in the lead, but lacked the edge of the original.

Watercooler fact: Fitz was originally envisaged as a wiry man, with Robert Lindsay and Keith Allen both considered for the role. James Gandolfini, future Tony Soprano, was approached for the US version, but turned down the role.

http://www.crackertv.co.uk/index.htm

Boardwalk Empire — Killer TV No 11

BoardwalkEmpireS306-power-2

HBO/Sky Atlantic, 2010-present

‘Nucky, all I want is an opportunity.’ – Jimmy

‘This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stopping you?’ – Nucky

Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham

Identikit: The rise and regime of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the corrupt Treasurer of Atlantic County, who exploits the corrupt possibilities of the Prohibition period of the 1920s.


logosRichly textured and ambitious epic about that unhinged, thrilling period of Prohibition America in the 1920s. It’s the kind of show only HBO and the American cable networks could make, tackling a cast of real characters and big subjects that dwarf any and every series made in the UK. Steve Buscemi is the focus as Nucky Thompson, based on Atlantic City’s real corrupt political figure of Enoch L Johnson, who sanctioned and cashed in on the bootlegging rackets in cahoots with the most lurid gangland figures in US history – Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein. The series was adapted by old Sopranos hand Terence Winter from a book by Nelson Johnson. It’s a huge story melding Nucky’s back-room dealings and private life with the quiet but determined Margaret, along with events such as the Black Sox Scandal, the rise of Capone, presidential elections and gang wars. Oddly enough, it is occasionally criticised for its slow pace, but it remains psychologically sophisticated and a mesmerising portrait of a wild age. Winner of 12 Emmys, two for Outstanding Drama Series, and the Golden Globe for Best Drama Series.

Classic episode: Two Impostors (ep 11, series 3). Nucky, Chalky and Capone line up against Sicilian psycho Gyp Rosetti, who’s threatening to dislodge Nucky from Atlantic City. An attempted hit on Nucky, car chases, shootouts. After a slow build, the series delivered full-throttle gangster mayhem. Even Nucky was blasting, and Capone was cool amid the bloodbath – ‘I’ve been on the road for 18 hours. I need a bath, some chow, and then you and me sit down, and we talk about who dies.’

Watercooler fact: The pilot episode was directed by Martin Scorsese and reputedly cost $18million to produce.

Sherlock — Killer TV No 12

BBC1 Sherlock

Foggiest idea – Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

BBC1, 2009-present

‘Shut up.’ – Sherlock Holmes

‘I didn’t say anyth- ‘ — Detective Inspector Lestrade

‘You were thinking. It’s annoying.’ — Sherlock Holmes

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves, Mark Gatiss, Amanda Abbington

Identikit: The consulting detective updated to contemporary London.


logosWriters Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss who, while working on Doctor Who, often talked about their love of Conan Doyle’s creation and of Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of him, finally decided they should do their own updated version. Seeing the 60-minute pilot, the Beeb liked it so much they ordered three 90-minute films, which meant the opener had to be re-shot. Despite BBC1 then scheduling the re-shot opener in July, the middle of TV’s dead season, Sherlock was a rip-roaring success. Moffat and Gatiss updated the world’s most famous sleuth with loving care, verve and great wit, evolving some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s best-loved tales in modern, thrilling adventures in contemporary London. It works so well because, by stripping away the Victorian fogs, frock coats and Hansom cabs, Holmes re-emerges as the exciting contemporary character he was when the stories first appeared. They were helped by the inspired pairing of Benedict Cumberbatch as a forbidding, high-functioning sociopathic Holmes, whom he plays as ‘dangerous and perverse’. Martin Freeman as the downbeat but caustic Dr Watson immediately clicked with Cumberbatch at the script read-throughs, creating a great blend of genius and exasperation. Una Stubbs is fun as Mrs Hudson, while Andrew Scott was weird and chilling as Moriarty. This arch villain featured in the terrific Reichenbach Fall cliffhanger that concluded the second series, prompting a viral swirl online as devotees tried to work out how Sherlock was going to survive. It was typical of the twists and jolts that Moffat and Gatiss enjoyed throwing at audiences throughout. Series three got off to a messy start, obsessed with

Time shift: Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson in 2016's New Year special

Time shift: Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson in 2016’s New Year special

taunting viewers with the resolution of the Reichenbach cliffhanger, before progressing magnificently in the second and third instalments. It raised the stakes for the characters with revelations such as Sherlock getting a girlfriend, Watson getting a wife, Watson’s wife Mary Morstan being an assassin, Sherlock being shot, and Sherlock killing the evil Magnusson at the end (Sherlockian intellect for once giving way to bullets). It’s a twisting, spirited and funny joyride. And through it all, there is David Arnold and Michael Price’s distinctive music soundtrack.

Classic episode: A Scandal in Belgravia. The Reichenbach Fall got chins wagging over how Sherlock faked his spectacular death fall, but A Scandal in Belgravia was much more fun, as Holmes and Watson encounter naked dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in a quest for photos that compromised national security on her mobile. While Moffat’s storytelling (he wrote this one) can tie the plot in knots, this was still a fantastic blend of comedy and suspense, with plenty of cheek thrown in.

Watercooler fact: Matt Smith auditioned for the role of Watson. He was rejected for being ‘too barmy’, according to show runner Steven Moffat, who also oversees Doctor Who for the BBC. Soon after, Moffat cast Smith as the eleventh Doctor Who.

Law & Order Killer TV No 13

law-300x1401990-2010 NBC

‘I specifically asked for him to be put on suicide watch. Apparently, here at Riker’s, that means that they watch you commit suicide.’ – Detective Lennie Briscoe

George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Richard Brooks, Jeremy Sisto, Paul Sorvino, Linus Roache, Alana de la Garza, Sam Waterson, Jerry Orbach, Diane Wiest, Dennis Farina

Identikit: Police procedural come legal drama split equally between the cops who do the arresting and the lawyers who prosecute.


logosA tight format, with its ‘law’ and ‘order’ segments, gave the series a winning formula for 20 years, taking in Emmy awards and leading to a several major franchise of spin-offs. Telling the criminal-pursuit story and then the trial story meant that plotting and characterisation was extremely pared down, but this didn’t prevent the show from giving us good protagonists and memorable stories about challenging dilemmas. The series, created by Dick Wolf, was similar to a 1963 series called Arrest and Trial and a UK series also called Law and Order, with Wolf injecting a good dose of realism into the dramas and lining up the prosecution instead of the defence to be the heroes. Jerry Orbach, twice turned down in favour of George Dzundza and Paul Sorvino, eventually became a memorable Lennie Briscoe, while Sam Waterston (as assistant DA Jack McCoy), Chris Noth (detective Mike Logan), Diane Wiest (DA Nora Lewin) and Dennis Farina (detective Joe Fontana) all stood out in a terrific, evolving cast. Storylines were often ‘ripped from the headlines’, inspired by real murder, bribery or rape cases, some with complex racial elements. Each 50-minute episode was slick, packed with plot and subplot, and filmed on handheld cameras and snappily edited. The series was cancelled by NBC in 2010, meaning it narrowly missed usurping Gunsmoke as primetime TV’s longest-running drama.

LAW_AND_ORDER_UK_SAFE_04-pop

Law & Order: UK with Bradley Walsh and Jamie Bamber

Spin-offs: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, LA, and overseas revamps set in Paris, Russia and London.

Classic episode: Savages (season 6) – The death penalty has just been reinstated in New York. When an unlikely suspect murders an undercover cop, prosecutors must decide whether to press for capital punishment. DA McCoy (Sam Waterston) wants it, while Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) argues powerfully against. An excellent episode with a politically charged storyline.

Watercooler fact: When Chris Noth was jettisoned from the show by head honcho Dick Wolf, fans and critics were stunned and disappointed. Wolf had felt there was not enough dramatic contrast between Noth’s Mike Logan and Jerry Orbach’s Briscoe. But years later, Noth convinced Wolf to make the TV movie Exiled to wrap up Logan’s story, and Noth followed that up by returning as Logan for two seasons in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Dexter — Killer TV No 14

Dexter_S5_Gal_Bathroom_022

Showtime, 2006-2013

‘There’s something strange and disarming about looking at a homicide scene in the daylight in Miami. It makes the most grotesque killings look staged, like you’re in a new and daring section of Disneyland – Dahmerland.’ – Dexter Morgan

Michael C Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, CS Lee, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, John Lithgow, Charlotte Rampling

Identikit: Dexter Morgan uses his job as a blood-spatter analyst for Miami Metro Police as cover for his secret compulsion to murder people like himself – serial killers.


logosHBO bosses were horrified when Tony Soprano, star of the show, committed his first onscreen murder in episode five of The Sopranos. The boundaries of the TV anti-hero were pushed to breaking point in a short time, seven years later, with the arrival of Dexter. The premise is unhinged. Dexter Morgan is a Miami police blood-spatter analyst and closet serial killer, the drama’s hero/antihero. Dexter follows ‘the Code’ set out by his father, Harry, who wanted to keep him from murdering the innocent. This decreed that Dexter’s victims had to be murderers who killed without any justification. He must also, like a comic-book superhero, avoid having his secret persona exposed at all costs, forever to ape normal emotions and pretend to be normal. The series pushed the premise to breaking point by suggesting that a psychopath might develop certain feelings for those around him (his baby son, his step sister). His ‘feelings’ always seem open to question (Dex doesn’t know who he is, so our fascination with him centres on our own attempts to puzzle him out). There is usually enough ambiguity about Dexter’s motivations to keep the tension bubbling, and by toying with the reality of the serial killer’s cold mentality, the series DEX-castpair701i_copy.jpg_rgbsuccessfully explored the mind of these modern bogeymen. Dexter is something of a subversive social commentator – being so phoney, a ‘near perfect hologram’ of a man, he can easily spot the insincerity and machinations of those around him. And of course he is always way ahead of the cops in predicting a serial killer’s next move. Inspired by Jeff Lindsay’s slightly camp novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, its distinctive features were black humour, chilling tension and gruesome violence, and it successfully continued to ‘entertain’ for eight seasons. We’ve seen him stalk and be stalked by the Ice Truck Killer and the Trinity Killer, evading detection as the Bay Harbor Butcher, dispatching his evil brother Rudy, marrying and having a child with Rita, who is then murdered, leaving Dex as a single parent and with certain surprising feelings he never knew he had. Michael C Hall’s deadpan performance and narration have been key to its success. But it has been controversial, receiving criticism for its empathy with a killer. Always a minority taste, Dexter is TV on a knife’s edge, so to speak – a lurid and provocative take on a modern obsession and contemporary life.

Music: the main theme is written by Rolfe Kent.

Classic episode: The Getaway, the finale to series four. The writers had the courage to dispatch one of the show’s popular and best developed characters, Rita (Julie Benz). Dex believes he has got Rita to go ahead of him on a belated honeymoon, only for him to find her dead, along with Harrison sitting in her blood, fearing the boy will be traumatised as Dexter was in childhood. It appears Rita is the victim of John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer, whom Dexter has killed, but too late – he realises he had feelings for Rita and blames himself for her death. Season four is one of the most highly regarded series, and viewers were rocked by this finale. Michael C Hall and John Lithgow both won Golden Globes for their performances.

Watercooler fact: Jeff Lindsay was inspired to create the psychopathic vigilante when watching an audience of businessmen. He says,’I was speaking to a businessmen’s lunch. I was sitting at the head table and watching them smiling when they didn’t mean it and handing out business cards, and the idea popped into my head – serial murder isn’t always a bad thing. Not that I wanted to kill all these people, but it occurred to me that technically you could justify it. I started technically justifying it on the back of napkins and by the time I went home that day I had an outline for the first book and the idea for Dexter himself… I think it’s important that Dexter kills people who, according to his code, deserve it, and it’s a code that we can all agree with, to some degree at least. I wanted Dexter to be likeable. I wanted people to catch themselves rooting for a killer, and hopefully pause and go, Huh, is that right?’

The Adventures/Casebook/Memoirs/ Return of Sherlock Holmes Killer TV — No16

Casebook_of_Sherlock_Holmes_DVD_1110

ITV, 1984-94

‘How an English gentleman could behave in such a manner is beyond comprehension.’ – Sherlock Holmes on the traitor and murderer Colonel Walter

Jeremy Brett, David Burke, Rosalie Williams, Charles Gray, Colin Jeavons, Eric Porter

Identikit: The dazzling consulting detective and his trusty lieutenant thwart the most diabolical criminal masterminds of the Victorian age.


logosOf Arthur Conan Doyle’s 60 Holmes stories, 42 were adapted by ITV for this fond and faithful series, featuring a quintessential Sherlock from Jeremy Brett. Precise, eccentric, twitchy, hawk-like and with his verbal ejaculations, Brett’s sleuth was a riveting turn. The series was a textbook adaptation with pea-soupers, frock coats and hansom cabs. So faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation was the series that the closing credits of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featured some of Sidney Paget’s illustrations for the original Strand Magazine stories. However, some  storylines and plots were altered for TV, and a big change saw Holmes cleaning up his cocaine habit in The Devil’s Foot (an update approved by Conan Doyle’s daughter). It was hugely popular, particularly in the US, where it was shown on PBS. One weakness that the contemporary reboots Sherlock and Elementary don’t make is having flimsy, vapid versions of Dr Watson and Mrs Hudson (no fault of the actors, Edward Hardwicke, who replaced David Burke after the first series, and Rosalie Williams). Screenwriter John Hawkesworth (Upstairs, Downstairs) developed it for TV and wrote several episodes, along with the likes of Alexander Baron (A Family at War, Poldark) and Alan Plater (The Beiderbecke Trilogy, A Very British Coup). Granada TV even built a full-scale outdoor replica of Baker Street for the series. But it was undoubtedly Brett, veering between eccentric and depressive (a condition the actor suffered from severely), who galvanised the stories. He sadly died of heart failure in 1995, aged 61, bringing the series to an end, though he had apparently occasionally considered giving up the role owing to his ill health, not helped by his 60-a-day cigarette habit.

Classic episode: In The Red-Handed League (series 2) a prank is played on a red-haired man before we meet a man with long fingernails – the Napoleon of Crime himself. Eric Porter is diabolical (in a good way) as Moriarty, Tim McInnerny and Richard Wilson turn up in the cast, and Holmes thwarts a huge robbery of gold. Bizarre and mysterious as the best Holmes adventures often are.

Watercooler fact: Jude Law appeared in the 1991 episode The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, as the servant who impersonates Lady Beatrice, later going on to play Dr Watson to Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes on the big screen.

• The full Killer 50 so far – including The Bridge, Twin Peaks, True Detective, Inspector Morse and more – can be found here

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