City Homicide: articles

A force to be reckoned with

In a genre known for forensic gimmickry and too-cool-for-school styling, City Homicide is a cop show out of time.

"We thought people had had enough of CSI and getting into the blood cells," says writer John Banas, who created the series with fellow writer John Hugginson. "We were more concerned with making people who were believable doing things that were believable. In the real world, murders are solved by detection and hard slog, not by a test tube in a lab."

Their instinct was right. City Homicide, which returns to Seven this week for a second series, was a critical and commercial success when it aired last year. Its most refreshing aspect was a defiance of the American cop show convention of special effects, pseudo-fictional forensics and overstyling.

"What we set out to do is a one-hour murder-mystery, which we think is the spine of the show, and it's essential that every week there is an intriguing murder-mystery," Hugginson says.

He says writers tend to fret about how their work will be transformed to the screen. Yet early in the first series he and Banas realised they were in safe hands with producer MaryAnne Carroll, affectionately referred to as "Mac".

It is Carroll's responsibility to turn a script into a tight hour of television or, if that can't be done, take it back to the writing room for the creators to solve.

"She's a pain in the arse sometimes, she works so hard on producing the scripts," Banas says. "The thing that's most exciting about her is one of the things that is most annoying about her as well."

Carroll is just happy to have made a show viewers responded to. "We made a series that people watched and that is a really hard thing to do," she says. "You don't always know what it is that will make people want to watch - you just make the best show you possibly can."

City Homicide is driven by clinical storytelling with a focus on police procedure. Yet it gently taps into the private lives of its characters: young homicide detectives Jennifer Mapplethorpe (Nadine Garner), Simon Joyner (Daniel MacPherson), Duncan Freeman (Aaron Pedersen) and Matt Ryan (Damien Richardson) and their bosses, Bernice Waverley (Noni Hazlehurst) and Stanley Wolfe (Shane Bourne).

"If I had to pick one thing we felt we were still sort of massaging," Hugginson says, "it would be the personal lives of the characters, without them interfering with the show as a homicide show ... I personally like a straight cop show [but] I agree we have to offer up something about their personal lives that humanises them, otherwise they're just machines."

Banas is more drawn to the personal stories but agrees they work best when woven into the crime story.

"That's quite hard to do and ... we're finding that balance," he says. "Less has been more, in a way. It's great because you get little windows into people - the way they function, the way they feel - and that provides some perspective to the crime story."

Hugginson says the challenge is not to make the show seem too familiar. "Essentially, you don't want the audience to say, 'I saw this in an American show five years ago,"' he says. "One of the rules we had was that if one of us said, 'Hang on, I'm sure I saw that five years ago or a year ago,' we would abandon it. You get inundated with so many different murders and research takes you here and there. For us, it was always about finding interesting murder stories in a modern Australia."

Significantly, Hugginson says, the "modern Australia" police genre is less parochial than it once was. "Since we've done Water Rats, for example, the world has become such a smaller place. The audience accepts our cops talking to cops overseas or interstate cops, whereas in the past it was much more parochial and very much centred on their world."

The art of making television, particularly drama, is imprecise. In the case of Nine's Canal Road, for example, the mistakes can be seen easily in hindsight. But predicting those mistakes, Hugginson, Banas and Carroll agree, is next to impossible.

"You can only do what you're satisfied with yourself," Hugginson says. "I've never written anything thinking, 'They're going to like this out there."'

Adds Banas: "It's like any business. A hiccup is only a hiccup if you catch it early."

Michael Idato
June 30, 2008
Sydney Morning Herald