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Killer Casting

Season after season, "Homicide: Life on the Street" -- TV's best drama -- responds to cast defections with ever more compelling characters and the actors to play them.

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Life on the mean street without Andre Braugher begins this week for Homicide: Life on the Street (Friday, September 25; 10 to 11 p.m.; NBC). As usual, while executive producer Tom Fontana was moonlighting on HBO with maximum-security Oz, his Baltimore blues spent the summer recovering from bullet wounds and cast defections. Since its remarkable debut right after the 1993 Super Bowl -- an operatic aria of urban entropy, an amphetamine rush of handheld cameras, a feedback loop of conspiracy theory, cognitive dissonance, and complicit cackle -- the best dramatic series on network television has suffered the losses of Jon Polito, Ned Beatty, Daniel Baldwin, Isabella Hofmann, Melissa Leo, Michelle Forbes, Reed Diamond, and now Braugher, the best actor on network television, a seething Vesuvius of black lava whose Frank Pembleton quit the bunker last spring on a matter of principle but whose real argument had always been with God.

So what does Homicide do about this gaping hole in its eschatology? It signs up two more nonwhite actors: Giancarlo Esposito as Mike Giardello, the long-lost son of Yaphet Kotto's Lieutenant Al Giardello, a sling blade of nervous intelligence and repressed ferocity who has been laboring as an FBI agent in an Arizona desert he finds "too hot, too dry, and too Anglo-Saxon"; and Michael Michele as new detective Rene Sheppard, a slinky milk-chocolate former beauty-queen nominee who is immediately hit on by both Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Falsone (Jon Seda). This color-coding of a fictitious precinct house signifies and resonates. Most TV series that bother to integrate at all tend to congratulate themselves on a single recurring African-American principal: See James McDaniel on NYPD Blue or S. Epatha Merkerson on Law & Order. Homicide began with Braugher, Kotto, and Johnson, added Toni Lewis a couple of seasons ago, and now ups the ante with Esposito and Michele -- characters who generally are more complicated than their white counterparts.

Giardello, for instance, is both black and Italian. We earlier met his estranged daughter. In Friday night's episode, "La Famiglia," we meet his son Mike, who removed himself to punish the father for the absences of childhood. We meet as well an entire neighborhood where black people speak Italian instead of jive. Mike has returned to Baltimore to mourn the death of a surrogate father, one of three elderly Italians found butchered in their bathtubs. That the solution to these murders will be discovered in the distant past of labor racketeering on the waterfront, and deep down in the unspoken Giardello family history, compounds the complications of the father-son confrontation. We will spend a semester finding out whether the combination of Esposito, certainly a fine actor, and Michele, certainly a gorgeous one, adds up to an approximation of Braugher's apocalyptic microclimate. But maybe they won't have to.

They might not have to because of Bayliss. If Richard Belzer's Munch is the wisecracking reality principle on Homicide, Kyle Secor's Bayliss is the woozy pilgrim. There are rumors that the network was not exactly thrilled last year with Bayliss's postmodern attitude toward his own sexuality; he played with it, as if curious to test fancy French theories on the social construction of gender, as if trying on gay to see if it fit. Friday night he returns from the dead, which is about as postmodern as you get. Not, he assures the rest of the squad room, a "near death" experience but the real thing: "I actually died. Water . . . air . . . earth . . . I could feel them all breaking apart . . . dissipating." By the end of the hour, Bayliss is sounding almost Zen Buddhist. By the end of the season, if this is a harbinger, Munch will be playing a flute and Giardello will be talking to a turtle.


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