Ancient Histories

Remember: Cast members from the many permutations of Homicide, reunited for the TV movie.Photo: Patrick Harbron/NBC Photo

For most of Homicide: The Movie (Sunday, February 13; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC), our favorite African-Italian-American gourmet police lieutenant and disappointed father, Al Giardello (a.k.a. Yaphet Kotto), lies between life and death on a hospital bed in Baltimore with seven seasons of TV memories leaking out of a pair of bullet holes. Big “G” has been gunned down at a photo op in the middle of his campaign to be elected mayor. In a quasi-Egyptian borderland between the heretofore and the hereafter, he will experience the usual black-and-white flashbacks, a drowning handheld camera, and symbolic autumn leaves. Meanwhile, every cop who ever worked a night shift for him is out looking for his assassin, which is the two-hour TV film’s excuse for reuniting the cast and characters of the canceled series for one last long day’s journey into fidget, qualm, and dread.

Thus the reappearance of Frank Pembleton (André Braugher) from a job teaching morals at a local Jesuit college; Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty), who retired to play his lonely cello; Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), the tomboy detective; Dr. Juliana Cox (Michelle Forbes), who rode away in her big white convertible after exposing corruption in the medical examiner’s office; Megan Russert (Isabella Hofmann), who became a brunette; even Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) and Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito), who were both supposed to be dead. But the most disquieting reappearance is that of an 11-year-old pigtailed black girl, for no more than five seconds, with a hop and a skip. Although she isn’t named and doesn’t speak, we know that she’s Adena.

Adena’s 1993 strangulation and disembowelment was the preeminent unsolved Homicide case. When Pembleton and Bayliss (Kyle Secor) failed to coerce a confession from Moses Gunn in an Emmy-winning episode that trapped all three in the dirty light and appalling intimacy of the interrogation “box” for an hour of junk food, chain-smoke, self-doubt, caffeine jitters, and pornographic crime-scene photographs, it was the defining moment not only for Bayliss, who would spend the next six years on a guilt trip into questions about free will and his own sexuality, but also for the series, which ceased all of a sudden to be a cop show and became instead literature. It is fitting, then, that Homicide: The Movie should conclude with Pembleton, the Roman Catholic who believes in black and white and good and evil, refusing absolution to Bayliss, the Zen fisherman turned Dostoevsky Jesus freak.

Otherwise, it’s rather slapdash. Executive producer Tom Fontana, than whom nobody on television is more pomo-intertextual, includes so many inside jokes that I’m sure I missed half of them in my single sitting – from cameo appearances by Ed Begley Jr., referencing Fontana’s previous series (St. Elsewhere), and by Eamonn Walker, referencing his new one (Oz), to what I take to be parodic riffs on the jump-start cinematography of ER and NYPD Blue. But we are less invigorated by the references and reappearances than we are merely reminded of the program’s bunker camaraderie, its stress notes and bluesy syncopation on matters of race and class, and its patrolling of the bloody border between skinheads and mud people. If you aren’t already a fan, you may be mystified. If you’ve always been one, though, this is closure – like a guillotine.

Early on in the mini-series Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (Sunday, February 13, and Wednesday, February 16; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS), it is well to remember that when Thomas Jefferson seduced his daughter’s maid, the slave girl Sally, in prerevolutionary Paris in 1787, she was 14 years old. Her age may strike the contemporary sensibility as being more scandalous than her skin color. No matter how we dress it up now that the DNA evidence is in, the sexual politics of this “love story” are equally problematic.

With Sam Neill as dithering Tom, Scottish-Nigerian newcomer Carmen Ejogo as fetching Sally, Diahann Carroll as mother Betty, Mario Van Peebles as brother James, and Mare Winningham as sad-sack step-niece Martha, not to mention efficient walk-ons by René Auberjonois, Zeljko Ivanek, and Kevin Conway (as Tom Paine) and a Monticello mocked up for a million bucks, the mini-series is a distinct improvement on Jefferson in Paris (1995), the Merchant Ivory wet dream that may have introduced us to the Thandie Newton who’d be wonderful in Beloved but also gave us the preposterous Jefferson of Nick Nolte.

My wife once wondered in the rubble of Mycenae how anyone could have got any thinking done in all that heat and light. I thought that maybe back in those days they had roofs – and bright barbaric colors, too, such as Sir Arthur Evans imagined for the Palace of Knossos on Crete. It is one of the many delights of The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (Wednesday, February 9; 8 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) that, thanks to the miracles of 3-D camera work and modern computer animation, we see the ancient past with Technicolored ceilings. As Liam Neeson leads us agreeably through the consensus scholarship on Athens from the sixth century to the fourth, B.C., we are even permitted to admire a 40-foot statue of Athena that is reliably reported to have stood in the Parthenon, back, of course, before Elgin stole those marbles. And I yield to no one in my wonder at a bunch of guys in sandals inventing science, philosophy, and democracy.

But on our way back from the Delphic oracle in a battering-ram trireme just in time for a Sophocles tragedy, we might consider the subversive thought that, really, Socrates could have left town, or even said he was sorry. Why should we take Plato’s word; didn’t he make up Atlantis? I. F. Stone, after decades of studying the language and the texts, wrote a contentious book, The Trial of Socrates. Maybe it wasn’t just a free-speech issue, since Socrates didn’t even believe in free speech except for an educated elite. Maybe they were tired of his best students, like Critias and Alcibiades, trying to overthrow the city-state. And maybe, fed up with Spartans, Persians, wars, and the plague that knocked off Pericles, they didn’t like his attitude. We aren’t told by The Greeks that a swing of 30 votes out of 500 would have acquitted him, or that on a second vote to decide his punishment, he actually lost 80 votes because he’d insulted the jurors.

Still, I am being churlish. It was Socrates who was hard to like, not The Greeks.

Ancient Histories