Bottle Up and Explode
Three Men and Adena
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"We've got all night."-Bayliss (Kyle Secor)

Homicide: Life on the Streets was always ahead of its time. Debuting in the early months of 1993, the show was a pitch-black police procedural, gritty and realistic with a sharp attention to detail, all at a time when most television viewers expected tidy endings and light banter. It's fight to remain true to its own ahead of the curve style means that while much of the TV from the era has aged poorly, Homicide is as thrilling today as it was when it first aired. In March of 1993, the show debuted its fifth episode, which would become acclaimed as the greatest episode the show ever produced, and be widely considered among the greatest hours of television ever made.

Directed by Martin Campbell and written by Tom Fontana (the show's Executive Producer, who won a Best Writing Emmy for the episode), "Three Men and Adena" has a shockingly simple premise: following weeks of investigations into the grisly murder of Adena Watson, Detectives Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and Pembleton (Andre Braugher) are at the end of their rope. Fearing a harassment suit, they have one last chance to get their prime suspect, arabber Risley Tucker (the stellar Moses Gunn, in his final performance) to confess. They can keep him for twelve hours, and that's exactly how long the two plan to interrogate him for.

The murder is a brutal one, and it has deeply affected Bayliss, even moreso considering it's his first real case as a homicide detective. He is adamant that Tucker committed the murder; Pembleton is less sure. Over the course of the 45-minute episode, which spans the entire twelve hour interview and takes place almost entirely inside the interrogation room with just these three actors (the rest of the cast is relegated to making short cameos throughout), the interrogation changes the perspectives of all three men and leaves each deeply affected. Bayliss enters the room ready to be the bad cop to get the man to confess, even nearly putting his face against a burning pipe at one point and constantly screaming at him to tell the truth. Pembleton has a much more reserved, conversational approach, asking Tucker about his job, his struggle to overcome alcoholism, and why people would pay him for produce when they could just go to a grocery store.

By the end of the interview, during which Tucker never confesses, Bayliss is no longer convinced of Tucker's guilt, while Pembleton is sure they are letting a murderer walk free. Even Tucker himself seems unsure, admitting at one point late in the interrogation that at that particular moment he doesn't know whether he killed her or not. The episode is a tour de force for all three actors, giving each plenty of time and space to play out a huge range of emotions, and letting the chemistry between Secor and Braugher breathe as their two detectives work out a rhythm together. It's also shockingly dark, with Tucker admitting pedophilic feelings for Adena, at one point wailing "the one great love of my life was an 11-year-old girl," and digging at Pembleton and Bayliss, accusing the former of being a traitor to his race and the latter of concealing a dark side that he is afraid to confront.

NBC Executives pressured the show to conclude the episode more satisfyingly, indicating for certain whether Tucker committed the crime, and preferably ending the episode with his arrest for the murder of Adena Watson. Yet the Watson case was based on the real 1988 slaying of Latonya Kim Wallace, (whose murder investigation is chronicled in the book the series is based on, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, a journalist who would go on to create The Wire, a show that owes much to Homicide stylistically) a murder which was never solved. Tom Fontana fought for the case to remain unsolved because, ""¦we felt that it would be a disservice to the real girl, to have this fake T.V. solution. Because it's not OK that she died, that no one took responsibility."

Not only does the ambiguity that hangs over "Three Men and Adena" pay homage to Wallace's death, it must also be viewed as a formative moment for the future of television as a medium. Nowadays, its commonplace for the villains in a procedural to get away with their crimes every now and then, if only to prove that our heroes are not infallible and to remind us of the importance of their work. Yet at the time, the vast majority of procedural episodes ended with the crime solved, the perpetrator captured and punished, and everything tied up neatly in a bow. That Homicide refused to play into the expectations of television viewers at the time may have hurt it in the ratings, but it ensured that the show would pave the way for the serious dramas for decades to come.

"Three Men and Adena" plays out more like a one-act play than an episode of television, with the three characters and the sparse set reminiscent of the way a play on the same topic might be staged. Campbell never shot from the same angle twice throughout the episode, ensuring that the episode would remain visually interesting even as it was confined to the single, unadorned interrogation room. As in all the best bottle episodes, the tension escalates throughout as time grows scarce, the cops get more desperate, and their quarry grows tired, weary, and increasingly upset. The episode is masterful on every level, from Campbell's stunning direction to Fontana's dark, pulpy, brilliant script, to the phenomenal performances by Secor, Braugher, and Gunn. "Three Men and Adena" is a masterpiece of the bottle episode form and, more than that, one of the all-time great episodes of television history, both in and of itself and for what it meant for the future of television. Because of Homicide in general, and because of this episode in particular television became darker, grittier, more realistic, and more ambiguous. In short, because of "Three Men and Adena," television was on the road to becoming the stunning, surprising, incredibly rewarding medium that it is today. And that's no small accomplishment for one episode.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

1/15: "The Dinner Party," Frasier

1/29: "The Apartment," Californication

2/12: "The Conversation," Mad About You

2/26: "Fly," Breaking Bad
Tags: Homicide: Life on the Streets
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