In 1991, then-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon published Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, documenting a year he spent observing homicide detectives in Baltimore. Two years later, producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana and writer Paul Attanasio adapted the book into a TV series for NBC, which ran until 1999.
So: fictional Baltimore detectives based on real-life counterparts. So far, so simple. The levels of reality got more complex in a fifth-season episode, “The Documentary.” The premise is that the Brodie (like most of the characters, he’s known by his last name) has played hooky from his job as crime-scene videographer and has surreptitiously made a documentary film about the homicide unit. On a quiet New Year’s Eve in the squad room, he tells the cops about the movie, and slips the tape into a VCR machine for a private viewing. For those keeping score at home, we’ve now got a (fictional) documentary about (fictional) detectives based on real-life cops.
The title of Brodie’s opus is a mouthful: “Back Page News: Life and Homicide on the Mean Streets of Baltimore.” (The font in which it’s given is the same as that of the “Homicide: Life on the Street” credits we see rolling over the opening of Brodie’s movie.) Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) detects a bit of plagiarism.
Munch: “Mean Streets”? What, are you ripping off Scorsese?
Brodie: I wasn’t ripping him off, I respect the man. But he doesn’t hold a candle to great documentary filmmakers like Robert Frank, or [D.A.] Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, Ken Burns.
Munch: Oh yeah, Ken Burns. He’s the only one who’s ever managed to make something more boring than baseball. A documentary about baseball.
Another name Brodie might have added to his list of documentarians is Barbara Kopple, director of Harlan County U.S.A and many other classic films. Guess what: as we see in the final credit, she’s the director of this episode of Homicide Life on the Street. (It was Kopple’s first foray into fictional directing. She would subsequently direct two more episodes of the series, and one of a later Levinson-Fontana production, HBO’s Oz.)
A few minutes later in the documentary, two cops chase a perp into an alley. What do they encounter there but two other cops who’ve chased down another perp, shouting, “Freeze!” But it turns out they’re all actors, making TV show called “Homicide.” We know the name because it’s on the cap of the director, Barry Levinson, playing himself. The shot goes back and forth between the homicide squad (from Homicide: Life on the Street) and Levinson’s “Homicide” crew as they stare at each other and say “Homicide?” “Homicide?” “Homicide.” The layers are now dizzying.
Ever the cinephile, Brodie, holding his camera, introduces himself to Levinson and pronounces himself a “big fan.” He adds, “I’ve got to tell you, the real police in Baltimore, they don’t say, ‘Freeze.’ It’s a television thing, I think.”
Coda: The Brodie character didn’t appear in the sixth season of Homicide. In the opening episode of the season, we’re informed that his documentary, Back Page News, has won an Emmy.