(Author's note: This is an essay I wrote around February or March of 1996, during the third season of NYPD Blue and the fourth of Homicide. My opinion on each show has changed since. To sum up: I think NYPD Blue had more staying power and has been more consistent, but when Homicide was at the top of its game, it was better.)
It's come to my attention that David Simon, the journalist whose non- fiction book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" was the basis for the TV show Homicide, recently wrote a freelance script for NYPD Blue.
This bit of "creative crossover" between the two best dramas on television, coupled with a lot of recent minor sniping at each show on the "competition"'s newsgroups, got me thinking about the two shows. I love them both; a lot of people don't. In certain cases, people refuse to even acknowledge the merits of the other show because they feel they'd be betraying their own favorite. So I decided to write this little essay comparing and contrasting the two.
Before I go any further, the topic that needs to be gotten out of the way immediately is the perceived authenticity of each show. Most fans of Homicide are aware of the book by Simon (who also recently became a Homicide staff writer) and the fact that a lot of the stories and characters are based on the travails of real Baltimore cops. But NYPD Blue also has its own real-life inspiration. Bill Clark, a recently retired 25-year veteran of the NYPD, met with the series' creators frequently as it was being devised, giving them all sorts of story ideas and making sure that they got things right. Clark is now a technical advisor on the show, and many episodes are derived straight from cases that Clark worked in his years as a homicide detective. If the reality of the shows seem different -- the Homicide cops are a lot more erudite than the closed-lipped guys on Blue, it's because Clark (and a lot of his former coworkers, apparently) is a far more salt-of-the-earth type than Baltimore detective Harry Edgerton (the basis for Frank Pembleton). THEY'RE BOTH REALISTIC, okay? You want to slag some other aspect of one show, go right ahead, but can we quit beating this dead horse?
Now that that's been dealt with, let's get down to brass tacks. I think the difference between the two can essentially be boiled down to this: Homicide makes you think, while Blue makes you feel. There is some occasional crossover -- the recent Homicide episode about the brain-dead boy was emotionally draining, and I spent hours debating the recent racism-centered episode of Blue -- but for the most part, Homicide is a show for the intellect while Blue is a show for the heart. This would, of course, go a long way towards explaining Blue's ratings superiority -- the vast bulk of viewers out there don't watch TV to think, which is why the often-literary quality of Homicide may turn them off. Watching Sipowicz get worked up over a particularly brutal crime is far more instantly satisfying than, for example, observing Pembleton's inner struggle with his Catholicism.
Sometimes, the simpler nature of Blue can be irritating -- a weak episode may feel like Dragnet with salty language -- but Homicide can also occasionally become pretentious. An episode from earlier this year went overboard on the Edgar Allen Poe allusions, for instance. It was clever, but didn't seem real at all.
Still, the more complex nature of most Homicide scripts means greater potential for impact, because when the writers do add an emotional undercurrent to their thought-provoking scripts (as in the episode with Crosetti's funeral, for instance), the effect can be almost shattering.
Homicide's scripts are also far less predictable than Blue's, from both a moral and strictly plot-wise perspective. An episode of Blue traditionally follows the following format: Sip and Simone investigate a murder, do a few interviews, collar a suspect (who's usually apparent right from the get-go), then frighten him into confessing. The style and number of the assorted subplots vary, but the main plot is almost always the same. It's very frustrating. On Homicide, you very often have no idea what the hell is going to happen at any given moment, including the very real possibility that the killer (if you ever even find out who it is) is going to get away scot-free. And although confessions are obtained far more often these days (usually by Pembleton), the *manner* in which they're obtained is always varied -- the detectives never seem to use the same specific tactic twice. Using the same gambits -- "You don't want the death penalty, do you?" or "Your partner gave you up already" -- over and over may be more realistic, but it's much less dramatically satisfying.
The Blue writers habit of pairing off all the characters is also rather irritating and formulaic. Where they do excel over the Homicide writers, in my opinion, is in portraying the bleakness and despair to which this kind of job exposes you. The cops on Homicide generally treat their cases with casual disregard -- they cauterized their emotional nerve endings a long time ago to keep from going nuts at the sight of each new dead body. Again, this is probably a more realistic approach (though Bill Clark's writings in the book "True Blue" makes it sound like he was often very affected by the crimes he worked), but at times less dramatic. Sipowicz's monologue last year about the baby whose father fed him to the family dog after bashing his skull in was riveting stuff. Homicide does occasionally let its detectives (usually Bayliss or Pembleton) to get emotionally involved in their cases -- like Frank's grief at the death of the racist militia leader during the Law & Order crossover -- but not often enough for my liking.
Strangely enough, Blue has been the more realistic show this year, at least in terms of stories. Homicide has aimed for more sensational plotlines to boost ratings, and it's worked in terms of gaining more viewers, but the show's traditional hyper-reality doesn't mesh very well with the fantastic storylines (like the Hangman-playing sniper). This new tradition of redball after redball (that's BPD vernacular for a high-profile case), coupled with the series' recent fondness for music video-ish montages, can have a real detrimental effect if a particular episode has other things wrong with it; if a poor outing of Blue feels like Dragnet, then a weak edition of Homicide reminds me of Miami Vice.
But even if Homicide's storylines are becoming increasingly unrealistic, its cast of characters isn't. Though the series hasn't been a true ensemble show since the start of last season, the supporting characters on Homicide are still far more fully-realized than the ones on Blue could ever hope to be. I know so much about the characters' individual quirks that I can always tell how Gee or Meldrick or Kay are going to react in a given situation. I can't say the same about the Blue supporting cast -- I can't really give an opinion on how in character Lesniak's newfound clinginess is because we've been given so little sense of what makes her tick. When we're presented with a conversation between Munch and Russert, I feel like I'm eavesdropping on two real people; I don't get that same feeling when we're given a similar scene between Martinez and Medavoy. The litmus test is this: if Homicide revolved around Lewis and Kellerman or Munch and Howard instead of Pembleton and Bayliss, it would probably still work; doing the same with Martinez and Medavoy would require spending a lot of time beefing their personalities up so they would be remotely as complex or interesting as Sipowicz and Simone.
When it comes to the lead characters, though, the two shows come to a stalemate. Andre Braugher has received a ton of press lately dubbing him "the best actor on television," and is largely deserving of the praise. But the flashy, silver-tongued Pembleton is a far easier character to show off with than the introverted Simone or the coarse Sipowicz, and I think Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz are doing equal wonders in their respective roles -- in a bit of a twist, it's the performances on Blue that are more subtly brilliant. (Kyle Secor as Bayliss is no slouch, either, but he's largely a foil for Braugher.)
There's a nagging question for me, though -- why do I have a larger emotional attachment to the sketchier Blue supporting characters than I do to the ones from Homicide? I suppose an argument could be made that the investment of time I put into my fandom of Blue (through writing the episode reviews and maintaining the web page) has translated into an emotional investment, but I think there's more to it than that.
Two of the key elements of television are familiarity and comfort -- as Marshall McLuhan, the late media critic, would say, it's a "cool medium." Unlike movies, where your involvement is over within two hours, TV requires you to come back week after week, and you have to really like certain characters to do that. This may be why Blue seems more popular with Jimmy Smits than with David Caruso -- for all of Caruso's edgy brilliance, he was still *edgy*, and occasionally off-putting. Smits is just as good, but in a more toned-down way.
Homicide happens to be a very cinematic show. They manage to get independent filmmakers like Tim Hunter and Peter Medak to direct shows week after week (as opposed to Blue's stable of talented but traditional TV directors), which gives the show a wonderful but rough look to it. Their direction also gives the various performances a harder edge like Caruso's -- that's fascinating, but by the same token, it makes it harder to feel attached week in and week out to the brusque Kay Howard than to the puppydog James Martinez.
So I think what it comes down to is this: in any given week, Homicide probably has better potential to wow me, but Blue is still the show I look forward to the most each week. Does that make sense?