Those of us who watch television for a living sit through a lot of bad TV, so you can't blame us for wanting - hoping, praying - to like some shows before we pop a tape into the VCR. But even programs that look good on paper can sometimes disappoint.
That's not the case with NBC's "Homicide: The Movie" (9 tonight), a fitting and nearly flawless send-off to the acclaimed series "Homicide: Life on the Street."
Executive producer/writer Tom Fontana performs a successful juggling act, finding spots for 21 regular cast members from the show's six-season prime-time run. Everyone has a part, even if it's brief. And the dialogue sounds absolutely appropriate to the character.
Of course, the question for some coming to the tube tonight is whether this movie stands alone. The answer is yes ... and no. Plot-wise, "Homicide: The Movie" should make sense even to non-fans. But so much that's right, dare I say "perfect," about the film depends on knowing the characters and understanding the context.
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"Homicide: The Movie"
When: Feb. 13 at 9 on NBC.
Starring: Andre Braugher, Kyle Secor, Yaphet Kotto.
What's most right is the return of Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton, a former detective on the squad who now teaches a college ethics course. Braugher, a powerful presence, left the series before its final season, and the show was never the same without him.
Pembleton returns to the squad room after the shooting of Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), former boss of the homicide unit. Now a mayoral candidate, Giardello (a.k.a. Gee) gets shot while making a campaign appearance.
In a sequence set to mopey rock music - typical "Homicide" - viewers see all the regulars getting the news about their former leader.
Munch (Richard Belzer), now a character on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," gets a phone call in New York. Stan Bolander (Ned Beatty) sees a news report on TV. Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), a member of the fugitive squad, hears it over a squad car radio. Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) hears the news from an AM radio station. Giardello's son, Mike (Giancarlo Esposito), has become a beat cop after quitting the FBI and learns of the shooting from another officer. Even that unnamed, gray-mustached SWAT team leader is back.
Stuart Gharty (Peter Gerety) now sits in Giardello's old office, but he's saddled with arrogant rookies, including one played by Jason Priestley (a.k.a. the new Falsone) and the same bosses who dogged Giardello, including Col. Barnfather (Clayton LeBouef) and Capt. Gaffney (Walt MacPherson).
Det. Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) took a leave of absence from the squad after May's series finale, which implied he may have murdered a killer who got off on a technicality. "Homicide: The Movie" definitively answers that question.
The reunion of Pembleton and Bayliss brings about the movie's most emotional moments. "Homicide" was always at its best when these two characters were paired in small, intimate scenes, either in conversation in a squad car or while putting a suspect through 20 questions in the box. In "Homicide: The Movie" viewers are treated to both.
When he returns to the squad room, Pembleton takes note of the "excessively blue" walls, repainted after his departure. Bayliss tries to tell Pembleton how much he enjoyed working with him, underscoring the true love (and I don't mean anything sexual) between these two characters.
What always made "Homicide" stand out, and what comes through clearly in this movie, is the sense that it wasn't just a TV show you watch. "Homicide" is so literate, you have to read it. For example:
"Homicide" reruns air on Court TV, so naturally Mike Giardello punches out a Court TV reporter.
Ed Begley Jr. appears as a nameless surgeon, but Fontana has said Begley was playing Dr. Victor Ehrlich, a character on Fontana's "St. Elsewhere."
Miss Sally, a children's show host watched by the lewd prisoners on Fontana's "Oz," can be seen briefly on a hospital TV.
Munch's estranged wife, Billie Lou (Ellen McElduff), tells him, "I guess you have to eat your words about never coming back to Charmed City." Munch asks rhetorically, "When did I say that?" Billie Lou must have heard it while watching "Law & Order: SVU," because it's exactly what Munch said in the pilot episode.
Fontana wrote "Homicide: The Movie" with James Yoshimura and Eric Overmeyer, who were also veterans of the series, and they get all the details right.
From videographer Brodie (Max Perlich) and his non sequiturs to the meeting of former and current medical examiners Juliana Cox (Michelle Forbes) and George Griscom (Austin Pendleton), who theorize on Giardello's shooting, "Homicide: The Movie" doesn't feel like a slapped together follow-up. It's a loving tribute to a talented cast, characters of unparalleled depth and writing that puts some of today's most popular novelists to shame.
"Homicide: The Movie" proves its case: TV can live up to its potential as a medium for superior dramatic storytelling.