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"Homicide: Life on the Street"

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In its first episode of the new year, called "Shades of Gray," Homicide: Life on the Street (Friday, January 8; 10 to 11 p.m.; NBC) recovers some of the exalted form -- and the signature ambiguity -- that even executive producer Tom Fontana seems willing to admit it's been missing in the post-Andre Braugher era. We get a race riot in which a white bus driver is stomped to death after he's run down a pregnant West Indian immigrant while shouting at a couple of black passengers to turn off their competing ghetto blasters. Except that everything's more complicated -- island music versus hip-hop; Jamaican newcomers versus long-time-resident African-Americans; a crooked white cop who may have used the chaos of a total social breakdown as a convenient cover to waste a witness; the color-coded blinkers in the cops' own bunker; even multicultural disdain (like "those Northern Italians who think they're Swiss or something") -- which is why Giancarlo Esposito ends up saying, "Sometimes I get the feeling that this city has grown subtle on me." The series always has been.


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