City Homicide: articles

Credible cops

HECTOR Crawford's prophetic statement "Cop shows always come back" is the abiding catchcry of the television industry in this country. Crawford understood implicitly that the popular form of the modern-day police drama demonstrates an intrinsic robustness that supports complex issues. It's a generic form in which the policeman is used as a vehicle to explore contemporary society.

Seven's City Homicide is the latest in the genre and a captivating show it is too, a character-based ensemble drama exploring tightly knit tales of depressingly squalid but resonant events.

Told through the eyes of four young detectives and their superiors, the series weaves character and event, plot and detail together with acute dramatic skill.

Created and written by John Banas and John Hugginson, the writing team behind Blue Heelers and Water Rats, the show features Nadine Garner, Daniel MacPherson, Aaron Pedersen and Damien Richardson as the young coppers. Shane Bourne and Noni Hazlehurst are their jaded bosses and the talented Marshall Napier, John McTernan, Kat Stewart and David Field are among the supporting cast.

They are all excellent and in time should become part of our lives the way the pork-pie hat wearing cops of the original Crawfords Homicide did 40 years ago.

Banas and Hugginson's stories bear a lot of plot and their narratives possess a great deal of power but still allow the actors room to move. It's easy to see they relish the space.

The two writers experimented with the series, writing and overseeing every script, though they had worked together on other series. It's rare for writers to have this degree of control in what is traditionally a producer's medium.

They work out plots together, with no scene breakdowns or script department interference, removing the need for the workshop approach that constantly bedevils local drama.

After that they write various versions individually, which the other then edits. "We do everything together," Banas says. "So the process is leaner and more focused than the usual practice."

City Homicide works off the idea that murderers fascinate people, offering sometimes scary realisations about the link between pleasure and horror. The detection methods of policing absorb us too: routine interrogation, painstaking scrutiny of bureaucratic records, legwork, the use of informants and, especially, serendipitous trial and error.

This is why the procedural remains one of the fastest growing genres in crime fiction. People enjoy reading about, or watching, police working as a team, gathering and interpreting evidence, rather than trusting in an intuitive individual's brilliance in solving crimes.

But as Banas and Hugginson are keen to point out, City Homicide is deliberately not chained by policing processes and techniques of detection. "We can draw on procedures when we need them and let the drama take its own path without interference," Banas says.

"We make it credible but are not hidebound by bureaucratic accuracy."

He says they deliberately eschewed "the CSI-sort of thing", too. "In the real world, forensics are corroborative; they don't solve crimes," he says. "They are used mainly in court to substantiate evidence."

Hugginson says they wanted to "get back to the old-fashioned notion of cops sitting there and slowly working things out". Their crew of detectives is nicely disreputable. The men wear bad suits and squabble like the progeny of a dissolved and loveless marriage.

The women are gritty. We sense an empathy with criminals their male colleagues don't share, an understanding of fragile humanity, and that they, at least, might understand the socio-psychological motivations that underpin crime.

Like real police, the show's detectives struggle to solve crimes, the men sympathetically dishevelled and fallible, with limited intuition, relying on grimly realistic humour to balance the depressing realities of the job. Their investigations seem haphazard, poorly co-ordinated and lazy.

"If you three had half a brain between you, it'd be lonely, with respect," Noni Hazlehurst's long-suffering detective superintendent snaps at her troops. But whatever their reasoning deficiencies, they possess enough honour and attitude to traverse the dangerous cityscape, as sterile and sordid as the world of T.S. Eliot's Wasteland, to confront the terrible world of murder and its consequences.

They are easy to identify with. Like many viewers, these plodding cops have to write reports, keep superiors informed, follow the rules and obey regulations. And they must manage personal lives that affect their jobs.

The show works out of a nicely qualified realism set against the disorderly facts of social disintegration and anomie. And the lean, tight scripts are given just the right, visually mobile, explicit treatment.

These days the best TV dramas are shaped not so much by reality as by the style and lightning-quick brilliance of efforts such as Jerry Bruckheimer's forensic cop shows and Dick Wolf's Law & Order franchise. Action is the new character and talk is emblematic, condensed and abbreviated, a device that accelerates narrative.

The plotting is good in City Homicide, something you rarely find in local crime series.

It's almost as if the creators of crime TV have never read the great crime novels and have little idea of the fecundity of the genre's conventions. (Both the show's writers, though, share an admiration for top crime writers such as Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane.)

Hugginson and Banas get the generic creeping hysteria just right so that the edgily melodramatic narrative is entertaining, even when describing unpleasant social situations.

In this first two-hour episode Hugginson and Banas handle what appears to be a serial arson threat to children, ushering us into the kind of darkness crime fiction addicts relish.

We are a long way from the Blue Heelers setting of Mount Thomas, which seemed to hark back to an older Australia where people left their doors unlocked. That show turned on its audience's longing for safe places, love it could trust and truths it could believe.

City Homicide takes us beyond reassurance and confronts us with the frustration inherent in murder. Instead of answers to the big questions all we get are the banal details of a crime. They are all we can grasp.

By Graeme Blundell
August 25, 2007
The Australian