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Take "Homicide' back to the street

Tom Fontana, the executive producer of Homicide: Life on the Street, has a year-end message for fans of the show: Things are going to get better in 1999.

In a letter sent to some critics last week, Fontana offered the first public acknowledgement by the producers that the first half of the season has not exactly been a triumph for the award-winning police drama.

"Okay, we know some people think the show has been a little "off' so far this season," Fontana wrote. "If so, I think that's because we have been playing with a couple of different elements and adjusting to the voices of the newest characters. As always, we've been trying to avoid the rut of writing and producing the same thing every week."

With the letter came two preview cassettes _ one titled "Shades of Gray," which will air Jan. 8, and the other "A Case of Do or Die," scheduled to air Feb. 12 in a key "sweeps" ratings month.

Fontana offers them as evidence of the promised improvement, saying, "Now, after the two-part "Kellerman, P.I.' episodes, which brought back Reed Diamond, as well as the upcoming "A Case of Do or Die' and "Shades of Gray,' we feel all those elements are starting to gel. But you'll tell us, right?"

The letter, which I received Dec. 18, ends with Fontana inviting phone calls to further discuss the state of Homicide. I made my phone call the moment I received the letter, only to be told Fontana could not do an interview until the week of Jan. 4 at the earliest.

So, okay, Tom, let me use this forum to tell you what I think: The two episodes do show signs of improvement, especially "Shades of Gray," which gets the series talking about race again _ something it seemed to have foolishly forgotten about this fall. But Homicide is still not back to where it was last season when I felt absolutely confident saying it was the best drama on network TV.

Homicide is not in the same class with NYPD Blue, ER and Law & Order this year. In that sense, even though Homicide is a fine show, it is now a second-tier drama in a league with series like Chicago Hope. And the loss of Andre Braugher is not the sole cause.

The biggest problems are the emphasis on romantic relationships and new actors. The former resulted in some of your cast members privately using the term Homicide-Lite to refer to the series this fall.

You did have one relationship moment that worked: when Laura Ballard (Callie Thorne) saw Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) with his shirt off in a boxing ring slugging it out. Sex, violence, sweat, leather and lust all flashed across her eyes. It was hot and it was heavy. But it was only one smart moment in an overall frothy theme of who's-dating-whom.

This is not a series about dating, Tom. Happy Days and Three's Company are series about dating.

And, along with the emphasis on dating, came all the emphasis on newcomer Rene Sheppard (Michael Michele), by far the least experienced actor in the cast. Michele may turn out to be terrific, but, given her level of experience, she should have been eased in with baby steps this year, not put in the middle of the batting order on opening day.

Meanwhile, three fine actors who have been with the series since its beginning _ Kyle Secor, Clark Johnson and Richard Belzer _ were treated like role players.

"Shades of Gray" highlights both the promise and some of the major problems with Homicide this season. You have a great grabber of an opening with a white bus driver hitting a black woman in lower Park Heights and being beaten to death in a miniriot.

As his death and that of a Jamaican drug dealer whose body was found nearby are investigated in this neighborhood, called Little Jamaica, the sociology is nothing short of brilliant.

Race and racial attitudes are explored at multiple levels, and we are taken inside the neighborhood as only Homicide can take us into a subculture. In this sense, the episode is as good as Homicide has ever been.

But "Shades of Gray" fails to connect at the personal, dramatic level. We are supposed to feel the larger racial tensions in the conflict between Stuart Gharty (Peter Gerety) and Mike Giardello (Giancarlo Esposito) as they go about their investigations. But it never happens, and the problem is with Esposito.

In an interview at the start of the season, Esposito told me he was getting notes from Barry Levinson saying he should try to make his character more accessible for television. He said, though, that he felt he had to ignore such notes and work from within his own sense of the character.

He should have listened to Levinson. Esposito's Mike Giardello is still way too remote. As much as I like Esposito as an actor in feature films, he has not calibrated his performance to the more intimate medium of television. As a result, he has not been much help in filling the emotional vacuum left by the departure of Braugher's Frank Pembleton. That's probably Esposito's fault as much as anybody's, but, again, the producers should not have him batting cleanup in so many episodes.

If I'm being a little hard on the series, it's probably because I love it so much. Or, maybe, it's because of a deal you guys cut with Court TV cable channel.

The cable channel is showing a 24-hour marathon of Homicide episodes that started at 12:01 a.m. today to usher in the New Year.

Court TV sent critics the first three episodes from 1993, and I have been comparing that cast _ Ned Beatty, Jon Polito, Daniel Baldwin, Braugher and the others _ and the concerns of their characters to this season's Homicide.

So far, Tom, it has not been such a happy comparison. I hope you're right about "those elements starting to gel."