Baltimore Bullets

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THE BOTTOM LINE: Hollywood heavyweight Barry Levinson tries a cop show. It's good, but it's still a cop show.

In the besieged Metropolis of network television, mild-mannered shows are too often expected to be Superman. Barry Levinson, the acclaimed director of the films Diner and Rain Man, was commissioned by NBC some time ago to develop a TV series based on David Simon's book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, an account of real-life Baltimore homicide detectives. With a Hollywood heavyweight taking a crack at one of TV's most durable genres, the project seemed like a good bet.

But suddenly, an enormous amount is riding on it. NBC, the onetime kingpin of prime time, has seen its fortunes turn sour almost overnight. Its biggest hit of the '80s, The Cosby Show, took early retirement last spring, while several other veterans -- The Golden Girls, Matlock and In the Heat of the Night -- were given their unconditional release. (All were later picked up by rivals.) The network's last remaining Top 10 hit, Cheers, will call it quits at the end of this season; highly regarded younger shows like Seinfeld have not lived up to ratings expectations; and with the loss of David Letterman, even NBC's dominance of late night seems in jeopardy. The network is desperately in need of a miracle. Homicide: Life on the Street, which makes its one-hour debut in the coveted time period following the Super Bowl, will have to serve.

Though set and filmed in Baltimore, the show never wanders far from the old Hill Street Blues neighborhood. There's the inevitable ensemble cast (fancy TV talk for lots of characters), a jumble of story lines and a gritty street atmosphere. But Homicide owes an equal debt to a more recent series -- Fox's reality show Cops. Like that video-verite program, Homicide pays less attention to the crime solving (cases come and go so quickly it's hard to keep track) than to the character and workaday lives of the crime solvers.

A strong cast -- including Yaphet Kotto, Ned Beatty and Richard Belzer -- helps make the group portrait work, and Levinson (who directed the first episode) shows off his Diner talent for small talk tinged with satire. ("Dry wall," says one detective, musing about leaving police work for another job. "You put up dry wall, and you got a sense of accomplishment.") Though the hand-held camera and jump cuts seem like affectations, the show hums along smoothly and is refreshingly light on violence. Detectives who grill suspects in Homicide do it with verbal cunning, not strong-arm bullying. (Belzer to one: "If you're gonna lie to me, lie to me with respect! Don't you ever again lie to me like I'm Montel Williams. I'm not Montel Williams.")

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