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Creator Recalls Landmark Cop Show on DVD

8 Apr, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

Even for the series creators of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” it was easy to forget how things that network executives found risky about the show's presentation have been incorporated into shows that came after it.

The show stretched David Simon's book about a year riding with the Baltimore Police homicide squad into seven seasons of hourlong TV drama.

“For me, it was an opportunity to take a television genre that has been done literally since the beginning of TV, the cop show, and tell the same kind of stories in a different, imaginative way,” co-executive producer Tom Fontana said. “It's kind of like reinventing the wheel. You know what the wheel is, but you add a little of this or a little of that and ask, ‘Does it make it a worse show or a better show?’

So when Fontana sat down with his counterpart, Barry Levinson, to do commentary on the show's first two seasons, it was like perusing a long-forgotten scrapbook with a friend.

“What struck both Barry and I was that when ‘Homicide' first came on the air, the network was really down on us for the camera work. It was all hand-held and documentary style. We were pressured to calm that down,” Fontana said. “Over time, on a lot of other television shows it has become common.”

The show combined that shoulder-surfing, ride-along point of view with an expressionistic use of lighting and color calculated to create a mood for every scene.

“The color -- we tended to desaturize the show,” he said. “Again, the network pressured us to make it sort of brighter. Now it looks more normal. It had color.”
But because of the quality of broadcasting and receiving equipment, what all viewers saw was not necessarily equal, something Fontana looks to the disc set from New Video (due May 27; prebook April 29) to correct.

“The difference between doing a television show and a feature is, in a feature they spend 12 hours to light something because it will be shown on a big screen,” he said. “On a TV show, you can spend 12 hours setting up the lighting, but [how viewers see it] depends on how good your TV is. You are not getting a uniform look across the country. On the DVD, you're getting a purer version of it.”

Revisiting the show to do the DVD commentary was like a walk into the past.

“Neither of us had seen the first episode in a long time -- I had not seen it in about eight years,” Fontana said. “I would hope that I am constantly trying to improve my work, looking at what was successful and what was not successful, even though it's hard for me to watch stuff that I've written a long time ago.”

Fontana tries not to be too self-critical in revisiting his older work. Instead of viewing it with 20/20 hindsight, it's more like looking at an old snapshot in a photo album.

“Like many other people in this business, I would hope the work speaks for itself. If we're having fun, it's not about getting into the film theories, it's about reacting viscerally to the work that we've done,” he said. “I see the DVD as another way to tell the same story, in the same way that the ‘Oz' [another Fontana/Levinson collaboration] book is another way to tell the story. You can put in scenes that were cut, you can have a commentary, you can have the seminar and it becomes not just an adjunct part of the storytelling, it becomes another part of the storytelling.”

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