It was with a tinge of sadness that I watched Richard Belzer's final scene as John Munch last night on Law & Order: SVU. "Munchkin" (as he was more affectionately known on his original series Homicide: Life on the Street) had reached mandatory retirement age, and was saying goodbye to the police force. Munch's colleagues threw a party/roast for him, and then at the very end of the episode he packed-up his desk and quietly walked away.
Belzer's departure from SVU (which, to be honest, I only began watching in 1999 because the Munch character had transferred from Baltimore to New York) affects me because of his ties to Homicide and, in extension, my life at that time. The older I get, the more memories I have, and the more they tend to shape and mold my life. When a through-line of that life, even a minor part of it, ceases, then it can cause a moment to reflect.
Odd as it may sound, Det. John Munch is such a through-line.
Homicide: Life on the Street was a staple of my television viewing throughout most of the 1990s. It's one of those things, like grunge music, Blur, goth crowds, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck and Euro-dance that says to me: this was the '90s. Munch debuted on Homicide in 1993, and was there until it ended in 1999, automatically transferring over to SVU that same year. That, dear reader, is almost 21 years of consistency.
When I think of Homicide, it isn't just the solid writing, unique directing and excellent acting that comes to mind, but of the evenings spent with my mom and her then-partner and her kids, watching the new episodes as they aired on NBC. I remember those shared moments, of when Munch tried to catch a murder suspect until the man bricked himself up inside a wall. When Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) had a stroke. When a man (Vincent D'Onofrio) was pushed in front of a subway train and the entire episode was Pembleton (and us) watching the man die, slowly.
So much has changed since then, as it often does in life. Relationships and people have come and gone. TV shows have ended and begun. Presidents have been elected and then seen their time in office come to an end. Landmarks have been attacked. People have died. Wars have been fought. Life, as it always does, has changed its course time and time again. But John Munch was always there. Not anymore. That link to the past is now part of television history.
Last night, right before the character walked out of the SVU squad room for the last time, the phone rang as he was deep-in-thought (with a clip from the old Homicide show, no less). Startled, he answered the phone and mistakenly said, "Homicide," before correcting himself to, "Special Victims Unit." I thought that was a nice touch. For a second, it was kind of like the '90s again.