City Homicide: articles


Crimes and consequences

Forget forensics. Seven's new cop show, City Homicide, delivers drama, writes Debi Enker.

THIS is not a crime drama focused on forensics, nor is it a police procedural. That's the first, and the second, thing that you need to know about City Homicide.

The people associated with the Seven Network's new Melbourne-made cop show make these points about it early and often. Those working on-screen and behind the scenes on the 14-hour series are not aiming to compete in the crowded market of American franchises such as CSI and Law & Order.

So City Homicide doesn't feature a team of robotic, torch-wielding crime-busters armed with an arsenal of whiz-bang gadgetry. Nor does it concern itself too much with the mechanics of building and prosecuting a case: as cast member Nadine Garner notes as she prepares to film the final two hours of the series, she's yet to do a courtroom scene.

The creators, John Hugginson and John Banas, who have also written all of it, have carefully marked out their turf and been mindful of the elements that will distinguish their show from others of its ilk.

This drama is about character development, the psychology of the person driven to commit the crime and the investigation that leads to their identification: whodunit, why they dunit and how they got caught.

It aims to establish a vibrant and engaging crime-fighting team - a quartet of keen, clever and competitive young detectives - and to follow their work and relationships with their superiors and significant others.

"We're staying away from forensic stuff," explains Hugginson.

"The detectives talk the crime through, they come up with ideas, they think laterally, they investigate as opposed to waiting for the white-coated tech to come through the door and say 'Look at this'."

By contrast, notes Seven's head of drama John Holmes, the American shows are heavily procedural.

"You don't really learn a lot about the characters from one hour to the next. On CSI: Miami, you don't really get much of an idea about what makes David Caruso's character tick. It's about the crime and the forensics. This is more about what makes our cops tick and how they interact. It involves a bit of forensics, but mainly it's about good detective work.

"We were all great fans of NYPD Blue and really enjoyed the way that it managed to blend professional and private lives without becoming serialised. We're not going back to the Cop Shop days of a continuing drama with a case a week: our serial elements will poke through the crime. It's about how our cops are affected by the crime."

Shane Bourne, who plays detective senior sergeant Stanley Wolfe, says: "What I like about this show compared to some other crime shows is that it deals with the lives of the detectives, their relationships with each other and also their private lives. So you see how it affects them, which is a more interesting thing, not only to me as an actor, but as a viewer, because it's always intrigued me how someone would deal with these things on a day-to-day basis: how doing a job like this affects your family life, how it affects your relationships."

Garner, who plays detective senior constable Jennifer Mapplethorpe adds: "It's not a cop show per se because it's only about homicide and it's more psychological. There's some gun-wielding stuff in it, but mostly it's not gun-oriented. And it's not forensic: it's not about standing around and looking at bullet wounds and entry and exit points."

In the double-episode opener, Garner's character is introduced as a recent recruit to homicide. Jennifer has received a desired transfer from the fraud squad to join detectives Simon Joyner (Daniel MacPherson) and Matt Ryan (Damien Richardson) in a team led by Wolfe. The return to the unit of Duncan Freeman (Aaron Pedersen), who has been under investigation following a shooting incident, means she might get sent back to fraud, which sets up a certain tension between her and the cocky Duncan. But Wolfe recognises her qualities and intervenes.

At the end of the movie-length premiere, Jennifer dubs her colleagues "the three musketeers" and wryly suggests a particularly Australian motto for them: "It's all for one and bugger the rest," she remarks as they exit the pub.

The camaraderie between the male detectives provided the seed of the idea for the series, after Seven's then-head of program development (and now director of programming) Tim Worner had a chat with Holmes about a 1999 ABC telemovie he'd seen called Secret Men's Business. In it, a group of old friends - played by Marcus Graham, Jeremy Sims, Simon Baker and Ben Mendelsohn - reunite for the funeral of their teacher.

Worner and Holmes agreed that they wanted to develop a show that would feature a bunch of good-looking actors and explore the bonds between them and the dynamics of their friendship: the rivalry, the tensions, the loyalties and the affection.

They commissioned Hugginson to write a "bible", outlining the key elements of a new police series: the characters, their histories, the nature of their work.

Hugginson, who had worked as a writer and producer on Blue Heelers and Water Rats and as Nine's network script executive, wrote the treatment, which he recalls was "very male-focused, three young guys with a boss". But it was moved to the backburner as Seven proceeded with productions including Always Greener, Marshall Law and headLand.

In the middle of last year, the network decided to revive the project and asked Hugginson and his writing partner Banas (Water Rats, Blue Heelers, Murder Call) to have another look at it. The pair had worked together productively on the 2004 revamp of All Saints for Seven and found that their skills complemented each other: Banas has the speed - he can turn around a first draft in a few days - and Hugginson is strong on structure.

"They are good writers and they are blokes and they like to tell the sort of stories that have what I call 'biff' in them," says Holmes. "Their stories can be a lot of fun but they move quickly. They understand strong plotting."

In the process of revising the project, which had working titles including The Squad and Murder Squad, the writers added a couple of female characters to the mix.

"I think it is very textured and quite rich," says Garner of the drama that emerged. "We've all made a commitment to finding the layers in each scene. It's never just plot points. It's always trying to find an attitude, to find what might be running between different characters at any given time.

"And there's rivalry between the detectives," she adds. "Although they work as a crew, they're very competitive. They're there for each other, but they're also there for themselves."

As the young guns work on their cases and their careers, their boss keeps a close eye on things and answers to his boss, detective superintendent Bernice Waverley (Noni Hazlehurst). Bourne describes his character as something of a father figure to his team and a man with "a very clear-cut view of right and wrong, a bit black and white.

"Wolfe's a teetotaller and a practising Christian in a very hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up way, helping the disadvantaged, the homeless, the disaffected. He's certainly not a bible basher, although there was a bit of that in the early drafts."

Bourne says that Wolfe recognises that Jennifer is smart and an asset to his team, and, as the father of two daughters, he has some sympathy for her struggles in the male-oriented police culture. On the other hand, according to Bourne, Duncan is "a real loose cannon, a wild card. Stanley respects his dedication and his ability, but he's not convinced about him".

Then there's Simon, "a shiny, young, smart fellow, a bit too smart sometimes, so Stanley has to give him a clip round the ears. He's charming and his weakness is probably women."

In contrast, Matt reminds Stanley of his younger self, "head down, bum up, dedicated, a pretty straight-ahead kind of guy who wants to do things the right way".

Bourne, who once played a villain on Cop Shop, is having some fun with a role that allows him to say, "Go home and get some sleep". In that line, he smiles, there's the echo of police shows past, of gruff senior officers played by Jack Fegan or Alwyn Kurts sending their people home for a well-deserved kip at the end of a tough case.

That connection to police shows past is strengthened by the presence of a couple of other Cop Shop cast members as semi-regular characters, John McTernan as the assistant commissioner and Gil Tucker as the coroner, Mac the Knife.

Appropriately, City Homicide is aiming for a look and feel that is fitting for its times. On the site of the old HSV7 newsroom in South Melbourne, production designer Otello Stolfo and a team of 10 have built a huge set for the homicide squad offices.

He says the desired look was stylish and modern, with a colour palette that was both warm and muted. "I didn't want anything too bright," Stolfo explains. "The scheme of the office is basically red/grey and grey/brown with a bit of blue, and we've carried that through the whole show."

The base is intended to feel like a busy space. "I wanted to get a lot of depth into the set," he says. "I hate little boxy sets. I like to get levels in all my sets so you can get layers behind the action." This one has also been designed to allow for maximum flexibility of the camera movement, for hand-held and Steadicam work, for dolly tracks.

Even the walls of the two glassed-in offices are on wheels so they can be moved to allow for a single shot to take characters from the lift, through the open-plan space and into the boss' offices.

It's also fitting that Seven, the home of Melbourne-made police drama for decades, should be trying to revive the genre. From Homicide in the 1960s and '70s through to Cop Shop in the '70s and '80s and Blue Heelers, which ended its 12-year run in 2006, Seven has regularly had a cop show on the air, and the network has a history of producing ones that last. But even with that encouraging past, there are always nerves associated with the launch of a new show.

"There are no pork-pie hats in this one," says Holmes. "But I hope it will ignite the audience's imagination."

The Debi Enker
August 23, 2007
The Age