Homicide: New York review: Grisly true-crime tales told with care

Dick Wolf, the mastermind behind the Law & Order franchise, understands the value of sticking to a winning formula. In each episode of his latest Netflix docuseries, Homicide: New York, viewers are greeted with a familiar yet evocative introduction: “On the island of Manhattan, there are two detective squads dedicated to homicides: Manhattan North and Manhattan South. They investigate the most brutal and challenging murders. These are their stories.” The iconic “chung chung” sound effect is almost implied.

Cops on the scene at New York's Carnegie Deli in 'Homicide: New York'

While this isn’t Wolf’s first venture into true crime, he once again demonstrates his commitment to a proven formula. What sets Homicide apart as a standout true-crime offering is Wolf’s knack for creating compelling characters. Across the five-part series, viewers are introduced to the men and women behind the investigations and prosecutions, portrayed not just as professionals but as individuals with their own vulnerabilities, quirks, and regrets—far more than mere talking heads.

Homicide embodies the essence of New York City in every aspect, from the gritty vernacular of the detectives (“I had to cut my partner off, he was in the middle of devouring a Suzy Q and chugging a Yoo-hoo, his dinner of choice”) to the iconic crime scenes scattered across the city, including landmarks like Carnegie Deli, Central Park, and the Financial District. Each episode follows a loose template reminiscent of Law & Order, tracing the trajectory of the crime and subsequent investigation, spanning anywhere from 10 days to an astonishing 21 years, before delving into the prosecution of the perpetrator.

While the motives and methods behind the highlighted murders in Homicide vary significantly, they all tap into the primal fears that transform a crime from mere statistic to macabre media spectacle: from senseless acts of violence (such as the 44-year-old murder of Michael McMorrow by two 15-year-old private school students) to chilling cases of kidnapping (such as the mysterious disappearance of Eridania Rodriguez, a 46-year-old cleaning woman, within a downtown high-rise). The series also explores harrowing incidents of home invasions (like the execution-style shooting of Jennifer Stahl, 39, and four of her friends in her apartment above Carnegie Deli), the terror wrought by serial killers (such as the reign of the East Harlem Rapist, who terrorized the upper Manhattan neighborhood for over seven years), and the fatal consequences of unchecked greed (as seen in the brutal stabbing death of millionaire Howard Pilmar inside his Midtown office).

While many true crime shows center on sensational events, Homicide distinguishes itself by spotlighting the investigators and prosecutors behind these grim cases, revealing them to be not only excellent storytellers but also compelling individuals in their own right. Retired Midtown North Detective Rob Mooney, a lifelong Deadhead, attributes the diverse fan base of the Grateful Dead for aiding him in identifying the unlikely culprits—two seemingly innocent teens—in the McMorrow murder case. “You don’t judge a book by its cover,” he reflects. “And in this case, that turned out to be true.” Homicide demonstrates that effective detectives possess qualities beyond mere skill, highlighting the importance of personal quirks in their work. For instance, Detective Brian MacLeod’s ability to maintain focus while combing through hours of surveillance footage, aided by his earbuds and heavy metal music, proved crucial in cracking the Rodriguez case. Meanwhile, retired Detective Irma Rivera, hailing from the Alphabet City housing projects, approaches her interrogations with empathy, finding “something good” even in the criminals she encounters—a tactic that ultimately leads to a breakthrough in the Carnegie Deli massacre case.

Although every case in Homicide concludes with the perpetrators behind bars, poignant interviews with the victims’ families underscore the lingering void between conviction and true justice. Frank Pilmar, tormented by the belief that he could have intervened to save his son Howard, still grapples with unanswered questions, even at 95 years old.

As a production under the helm of Dick Wolf, Homicide generally presents law enforcement in a positive light. However, the series doesn’t shy away from the detectives’ self-reflection and introspection. Retired detective Scott Wagner, who unknowingly interviewed one of the murderers years before his apprehension, continues to question himself, pondering whether he could have paid closer attention or detected any signs. For these dedicated officers, closure is often elusive, and some cases remain hauntingly unresolved.

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