Ordinary language is all right.
One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.
'Just burned a few eggs': oh, that's charming.
'Just burned a few burgers': do you not have any sense?!
A notion of responsibility may also help me address one of my core problems in accounting for Homicide, the distinctively self-conscious quality of its performances. Not its actors' performances, so much as its characters' constant performance—which seems so rare a quality on television that I generally feel at a loss as to how to deal with it, and not just because I have little feel for how to talk about acting. It would be wrong, I think, to simply call this quality actorly or theatrical, even in the case of an extreme like Pembleton. That would be to misidentify the tactical character of so much of the performance done in-show. And it moves constantly: on, off(ish), high, low, broad, acute, up, dropped (for a moment of truth or business or relative honesty). This is not exactly unprecedented, on cop shows in particular, where lying suspects, lying witnesses, and professionally/dispositionally mendacious cops are usually shown engaging in dishonesty as is consistent with the premises of the whole genre, if not always for more than melodramatic purposes. (It takes some art to raise this kind of lying to a source of real drama.) But on Homicide it is as if, I don't know, most everyone—suspects included—is allowed by the others a certain degree of continual self-masking or auto-prevarication as a condition of their working or living together in their world, so long as it doesn't impede the ultimate aims of their work. Or even perhaps more than that: guilty suspects still have their own performances, generally, and they are not, as a condition of the narrative's closure, compelled to give them up just because they have been revealed as or have even admitted to being the killers. This may leave them appearing defiant, or unrepentant, distant somehow, still confined within themselves or their lives, but not in the doomy manner of a typical witness-stand confession or a resigned decision to take the deal on Law & Order, where the defendant becomes, in an instant, one of the condemned. On Homicide, perhaps, hardly anyone is in that sense condemned. Is shown to be, at that stage, to the others, or to us. (Condemnation comes later.)
I generally think of this poem of Brecht's when I suppose that there is a special quality to the acting on Homicide:
ON EVERYDAY THEATRE
You artists who perform plays
In great houses under electric suns
Before the hushed crowd, pay a visit some time
To that theatre whose setting is the street.
The everyday, thousandfold, fameless
But vivid, earthy theatre fed by the daily human contact
Which takes place in the street.
Here the woman from next door imitates the landlord:
Demonstrating his flood of talk she makes it clear
How he tried to turn the conversation
From the burst water pipe. In the parks at night
Young fellows show giggling girls
The way they resist, and in resisting
Slyly flaunt their breasts. A drunk
gives us the preacher at his sermon, referring the poor
To the rich pastures of paradise. How useful
Such theatre is though, serious and funny
And how dignified! They do not, like the parrot or ape
Imitate just for the sake of imitation, unconcerned
What they imitate, just to show that they
Can imitate; no, they
Have a point to put across. You
Great artists, masterly imitators, in this regard
Do not fall short of them! Do not become too remote
However much you perfect your art
From that theatre of daily life
Whose setting is the street.
Take that man on the corner: he is showing how
An accident took place. This very moment
He is delivering the driver to the verdict of the crowd. The way he
Sat behind the steering wheel, and now
He imitates the man who was run over, apparently
An old man. Of both he gives
Only so much as to make the accident
intelligible, and yet
Enough to make you see them. But he shows neither
As if the accident has been unavoidable. The accident
Becomes in this way intelligible, yet not
intelligible, for both of them
Could have moved quite otherwise; now he is showing what
They might have done so that no accident
Would have occurred. There is no superstition
About this eyewitness, he
Shows mortals as victims not of the stars, but
Only of their errors.
His earnestness and the accuracy of his imitation. He
Knows that much depends on his exactness: whether the innocent man
Escapes ruin, whether the injured man
Is compensated. Watch him
Repeat now what he did just before. Hesitantly
Calling on his memory for help, uncertain
Whether his demonstration is good, interrupting himself
And asking someone else to
Correct him on a detail. This
Observe with reverence!
And with surprise
Observe, if you will, one thing: that this imitator
Never loses himself in his imitation. He never entirely
Transforms himself into the man he is imitating. He always
Remains the demonstrator, the one not involved. The man
Did not open his heart to him, he
Does not share his feelings
Or his opinions. He knows hardly anything
About him. In his imitation
No third thing rises out of him and the other
Somehow consisting of both, in which supposedly
One heart beats and
One brain thinks. Himself all there
The demonstrator stands and gives us
The stranger next door.
The mysterious transformation
That allegedly goes on in your theatres
Between dressing room and stage – an actor
Leaves the dressing room, a king
Appears on the stage: that magic
Which I have often seen reduce the stagehands, beerbottles in hand
To laughter –
Does not occur here.
Our demonstrator at the street corner
Is no sleepwalker who must not be addressed. He is
No high priest holding the divine service. At any moment
You can interrupt him; he will answer you
Quite calmly and when you have spoken with him
Go on with his performance.
But you, do not say: that man
Is not an artist. By setting up such a barrier
Between yourselves and the world, you simply
Expel yourselves from the world. If you thought him
No artist he might think you
Not human, and that
Would be a worse reproach. Say rather:
He is an artist because he is human. We
May do what he does more perfectly and
Be honoured for it, but what we do
Is something universal, human, something hourly
Practised in the busy street, almost
As much a part of life as eating and breathing.
Thus your playacting
Harks back to practical matters. Our masks, you should say
Are nothing special insofar as they are only masks:
There the scarf peddler
Puts on the derby like a masher’s
Hooks a cane over his arms, even pastes a moustache
Under his nose and struts a step or two
Behind his stand, thus
Pointing out what wonders
Men can work with scarves, moustaches and hats. And our verses, you should say
In themselves are not extraordinary – the newsboys
Shout the headlines in cadences, thereby
Intensifying the effect and making their frequent repetition
Speak other men’s lines, but lovers
And salesmen also learn other men’s lines, and how often
All of you quote sayings! In short
Mask, verse and quotation are common, but uncommon
The grandly conceived mask, the beautifully spoken verse
And apt quotation.
But to make matters clear: even if you improved upon
What the man at the corner did, you would be doing less
Than him if you
Made your theatre less meaningful – with lesser provocation
Less intense in its effect on the audience – and
—The issue, then, is the nature of the modulation of responsibility for one's everyday performance of self.
—Somewhere, there, too, in the way the show fuses its comic and tragic and procedural elements via its focus on responsibility, lies its answer to the 'televisual' artistic problem of accounting, internally to itself, for its own character as an ongoing concern. The oft-felt futility of never being able to do enough, the hilarity of having to keep doing it that way.
—I had been thinking of responsibility on Homicide thematically, or in terms of how its obviously essential interrogation and confession might function to articulate its thought about responsibility. That covers obvious elements of the show's structure—the anxieties surrounding open cases on the board, say, and the overloading of effects derived from 'the box', with partners watching each other, squadmates and Gee watching interrogators, etc.—but I had been overlooking just how much responsibility structures the dramatic exchanges, down on the level of conversation. 'I'm the primary', they say, of course, constantly, and with Bayliss as the newbie and viewer proxy at the show's outset, assigned the Adena Watson case, it's liable to seem as if 'being primary' is primarily a matter of shouldering a responsibility imposed from above or from the outside, even if it has its moments of assertion—Bayliss to his squadmates, which when it finally comes draws slight smiles from them—or moments of organizational absurdity, as when Bayliss blows up at Barnfather for leaking information about the case, then is forced to kowtow despite being in the right on just that principle (which Bayliss cites as such, a principle), that responsibility rests with the primary. But partners, permanent or temporary, also wield this claim as they contest back and forth about how to work, essentially to fend off criticisms of how they work. There's an element of the personal suffusing every such interaction, in a way that you can rarely see on Law & Order, where streetside case-talk is more squarely deliberative or zetetic and disagreements almost never rise to such a level that an individual detective feels he has to go it alone. On Homicide, partners or squadmates will often sound more like they're saying to a primary detective on a case: 'I don't like the way you're doing things', 'you're going about this all wrong'. 'You're wrong', they almost say, not about anything, but wrong as a person (i.e. 'you are a wrong person')—or rather, as a detective, the job title that Bolander modulates easily into an honorific, partially withheld, as he enunciates it over and over again while addressing Munch in the first episode, to goad him into solving the long-open Jenny Goode case: 'De-tec-tive Munch'.
Obvious enough, but I think it also helps explain other elements of the show I've long wondered how to reconcile (in my account, at least: I think they are deeply reconciled in the show, or at least in a perfected state of tension or contrast with one another). For example, the comic subplotting, which more often than not can have its moments in any given case, or can be assigned in any given episode primarily to one set of partners (favoring Bolander and Munch, I think, intuitively, but that might just be false to the evidence). It's often associated with a bit of class- or local-color-based grotesquerie, and not just laterally with, I don't know, Flaubertian studies in human stupidity. But perhaps the key note in scenes or moments like these, particularly where criminals are concerned, is that their very owning up is the funny thing, the laugh line. Second best, the realization by detectives of who is responsible and why. Like Aunt Calpurnia the family-and-friends serial killer (who does it for the insurance fraud), or the rich old lady who kills her verbally abusive husband after being disappointed by his failure to die earlier the same day (resulting in two calls of the same detectives to the same house: exact repetition as comedy gold). There is probably a whole range of tonalities here, and odd ones, as indicated by the way Jimmy, the culprit in the Jenny Goode case, is shown repeating, blankly, over and over, 'I was drinkin… I was drinkin… I was drinkin…'. Not funny, not tragic, not satisfying (though Munch feels satisfied later), not anything—drained of affect, like Jimmy is as he mouths his excuse over and over, to no avail. (He's been found responsible but hasn't taken any responsibility, and becomes, at best, a figure of pity, but not a compassionate sort—the kind that looks away.)
Probably because it's attached to the assignment of ultimate responsibility, this sort of comedy is usually black. A lot of the other humor on the show comes from the constant conversation, mostly between partners. And these too tend to be marked by a kind of preoccupation with responsibility, or with substitutes for responsibility. Fixations. Crosetti is a key character here, at the beginning: he's defined by his constant worrying at the Lincoln and (sometimes) Kennedy assassinations, at 'the power structure', at anything that promises to uncover some conspiracy. The comedy being that he's obsessed with responsibilities which have (a) already been assigned, (b) are not his to assign, except as an American birthright, perhaps, and (c) are imagined as so profound as to seem, perhaps, unassignable by anyone. Later, after his suicide, Lewis' cool distance will be retroactively redefined as his failure to have been responsible for the one he worked most closely with. The motif between Pembleton and Felton, who are not partners but keep being assigned tasks together, is their quarrel over whether Felton is a racist. Bolander is a sad sack, divorced but preoccupied with his responsibility for the failure of the relationship; as the senior partner he projects this back onto Munch, held responsible for not being Bolander's old partner as well as for sundry instances of near-malingering or plain old constitutional unfitness to be a policeman. Munch, with ready-made semi-funny Lenny-Bruce-style rants probably contributed sometimes by Belzer himself, is then characteristically aggrieved or mock-aggrieved by exactly the kinds of things 'out there' about which nothing can be done—thus his habit of berating the television or the newspaper—or about which something should have been done but for all the world wasn't. (Thus, his joke about the Irish potato famine and the plentifully available fish that must have surrounded Ireland.) Howard, like Lewis, is something of a blank compared to the others, and thus seems to have something to do with their self-sufficiency, their concealment of any particular difficulties with responsibility they may have. Thus Lewis' surprise wedding later on is just that, a surprise to everyone. Thus when Howard 'goes home' only to solve a murder, and is reproached by the people there, including a former lover, for having left and vanished into the city and her work, we're to understand that that's just what we usually see when we don't see as much of her there, at work: her having vanished. (Thus her hair, hard to miss but also somehow easy to hide behind.) But in this it seems Howard may be a functional (within the show's dramatic machinery) counterpart to her partner Felton, as his family drama and his divorce and his affair with Russert always tend to intrude into their working relationship, which in terms of the assumption of responsibility would mean that he always has an excess of claiming or owning up to do. Likewise, with Lewis, as Crosetti is replaced by Kellerman, with his own problems. —Not all of this makes for particularly hilarious dialogue, but it does tend to be the site of different modes of comic exchange, I think just because of the underlying nature of the responsibilities being entertained and the relationship to the partner.
When Pembleton tells Bayliss he'll never be a detective because he can't think like a criminal, see things like a criminal, his proof is the difference in what they each see as they drive down the street. Bayliss sees the usual stuff. Pembleton sees everything as if it has his name on it: i.e. as 'mine'.
(Thus, mine to take.)
(From drafts of my TV project, ca. May 2012…)
The show is called Homicide, ambivalently, the name of the phenomenon, and of, let's not say the study of the phenomenon, but of the inquiry into the phenomenon. It is the name of both the act, and the institution of questioning the act. But 'homicide' is the (intentional) killing of one human being by another. Somehow, this means that to work homicide (work Homicide?) is to be concerned with human beings who kill other human beings. Is it to be concerned with why they do, with how human beings could do such things? The detectives themselves are ambivalent about this. Pembleton, seasoned, denies that Bayliss is ever going to learn such things. He counsels him to think like a criminal (which, however, he says is beyond him). One way of hearing this is as advice to think about the acts of a criminal, and the victims of a criminal, as a criminal does. Which perhaps chills one, seems cold: think indifferently of crimes as the ones who do them think of them, as the easy or quick or stupid or thoughtless or enraged way of getting something, making something happen, making somebody go away.
The name of the show is also the name of the job, and accordingly the show makes its focus the job, and those who work that job. Not, however, in some kind of heightened scrutiny of the lives of those who heroically protect us, or in a morally superior or morally salacious way. Rarely has a show focused so squarely on work as work, on the job, and it seems that it may have succeeded at this precisely because police work is such an unusual job.
Though there is certainly an element of law running throughout Homicide (it appears plainly in the second episode, when the assistant D.A. stops in to harass Howard about the quality of the case she had handed over to him to prosecute, or even in the first episode when Pembleton alludes grimly to the work of the prosecutor in leading his suspect rapidly to the gas chamber), its focus on homicide makes the involvement of the legal system somewhat tangential, an occasional complicating and vexing factor. The focus is on murder, on wrongful killing; and this is almost always taken to be unquestionably wrong, immoral. So Homicide is about human beings as moral beings. As a show about, at least as an ongoing premise driving the recurrence of the show (and the continuation of the job), the commission of homicides, the show is about wrongdoing. But as a show about the investigation of homicides, the show is much more about a much more troublesome aspect of morality: that dimension of it in which we are called to be responsible for others. 'We work for God', says Howard by way of introduction to Bayliss as he wanders in on his first day. 'We speak for the dead', Bolander intones to his partner Munch to try to prod him to close a cold case.
On another show these might be said proudly. You can imagine them being part of a voiceover during the credit montage, laying down the law-and-order, good-versus-evil, light-against-darkness thematics where they are expected to be for a cop show. Howard says it in passing, in wry wonder at something, though what we do not know, as Bayliss moves on and they do not discuss her remark. (Why wonder whether we might have understood what she said better from hearing her discuss it? Because the detectives on this show discuss, endlessly, anything. As Lewis and Crosetti pass from scene to scene, Crosetti's stream of speculation about the Lincoln assassination precedes and announces him and his partner like a leitmotif, even as he momentarily shifts focus to discharge some business in the squadroom. Bolander's anecdote about having sex 'iguana style' catches in Munch's ear and as they keep talking, through the day, about Bolander's love life, Munch can't help but be drawn to the phrase again, which he relishes saying: 'iguana style'.)
But we might speculate. Why wonder at being people who work for God, or at saying that one's job is work done for God?
They seek confessions, moreso than convictions, because the show is so concerned with responsibility for others. Some police may be responsible for preventing crime, for upholding order, but detectives in particular are made responsible for victims on our behalf so that we might punish murderers for their crimes and see that justice is done for families of victims and for the rest of us. They assume the responsibility; and it is accordingly important to them that they be able to hear from the perpetrator that he is the one responsible. In doing so he relieves them of their responsibility.
The assumption of responsibility is subtly apportioned. A crime becomes a detective's case, 'my case', 'my body', 'my crime scene', 'my witnesses', 'my evidence', 'my interrogation', 'my interview'. But it never thus becomes 'my crime'; the wrongdoing, and the legal responsibility for it, remain the perpetrator's. While the perpetrator is unknown the ownership of a crime is thus peculiar. Though in some sense a crime is something which we as a society are collectively responsible for—meaning, something we must respond to, answer to, concern ourselves with, if not accept some of the blame for, for example in allowing our society to come to such straits, or to allow some among us to do so—we certainly do not want to say that a crime is 'ours' prior to identification of the perpetrator. And we certainly do not want to say that the crime is the victim's, though in some cases the victim exerts a strong pull on us when our thoughts turn to assignments of responsibility, as if the obviousness of her owning some part of the crime owes something to the ease with which she could solve our puzzle about responsibility. But before we know the perpetrator, or at least before we have some idea of the perpetrator's possible identity, it can seem as if a crime is just there, just something that happened, an event, not something that anyone can be made responsible for. This is one thing that is horrible about homicide. In particular, about the kinds of homicides which call for detection. One person does wrong, perhaps the worst wrong, to another, who dies. The doer is responsible but cannot be made responsible because no one knows who he or she is, knows that he or she is the one (who should be held) responsible. It falls to us, and thus to the police, and thus to a homicide detective, to find this person. His responsibility is to make him or her claim responsibility for what he or she has done. When this happens then we can feel, and say, that we have borne our responsibility, which one among us (the perpetrator) had temporarily broken.
There is a sense in which this kind of justice, this aspect of doing justice, does not do what one wants. 'It won't bring her back', we hear victims' families, and detectives, say about victims. This can make especially the detectives cynical, resigned. 'It's like cutting grass', Crosetti says when Munch pegs the number of murders per year (rising) around three hundred. One expects that they are more confirmed in this attitude by what they see, by what they know about people, what they learn in the course of their work: the inevitability of lethal violence's eruption out of, and into, even the lives of ordinary people.
Detectives take responsibility for solving crimes on our behalf. This leaves them in the narrower position of not often having much anyone else to turn to to take responsibility for them. They turn to each other, and they turn to their superiors. These prove to be as liable to causing disappointment as any other potential bearer of responsibility.
'Don't think, but look!' —Done best when you've got something to look at.