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"NYPD" Blew

Now that we've all had a few minutes to mourn the passing of another television season, it's time we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and reflected on what we've learned over the past nine months.

Perhaps most obviously, being subjected to the antics of two guys and a girl--in any situation and on any network--carries with it the same trauma as being kicked repeatedly in the old bean with a steel-toed jackboot. Second, while a closeted lesbian is a funny lesbian, a lesbian with an agenda is not. And third, apparently Brooke Shields' deal with Satan runs until the new millennium.

Clearly, these are just a few examples--space constraints restrict me from launching into my much-lauded essay on the socio-political ramifications of Urkel's evolution into überman.

One other important lesson we learned this year, though, is just how far a quality show can stumble. Take Mad About You. Among other problems (e.g., the omnipresence of heretofore sparsely used supporting characters), the show lost a hearty dose of the realistic tone that made it such a pleasure to watch in its earlier years. Witness Paul accidentally receiving David Copperfield's pants from the dry cleaner: Paul and the Magical Mystery Trousers embarked on 22 impossible minutes of surprising (to him) scarf-, flower-, and rabbit-snatching from the depths of his loins. That wasn't Mad About You--it was Shemp warmed over.

But alas, that's a sitcom; we expect them to be goofy. When a drama starts to go south, it's another matter altogether.

Or, in this case, a crime.

Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue began its run in 1993 as one of the most controversial programs in television history. Several ABC affiliates initially refused to air the show because of the coarse language and bared body parts that were and are its trademark. It was a different kind of cop show from the man who gave us Hill Street Blues. The pilot had one of the main characters--Dennis Franz's Andy Sipowicz--gunned down while soused out of his mind and shacked up with a hooker, for crying out loud. From the first, it was clear that this was going to be an interesting show.

That first season became famous both for David Caruso's star-making turn and his swan song. As John Kelly, Caruso--not exactly an imposing fellow--somehow projected a sense of genuine toughness combined with healthy doses of compassion and vulnerability. In so doing, he made women swoon--no small feat for a slight, pasty-faced redhead.

The show didn't miss a beat after Caruso's ill-fated decision to heed the siren call of the silver screen. Blue pinned the luckless Caruso's badge to Bochco veteran Jimmy Smits as Bobby Simone. In fact, Steven Bochco has said that the character of John Kelly, presumably without the Irish monicker, was originally conceived as a vehicle for Smits.

Smits himself had already pulled something of a Caruso, having left L.A. Law in 1991 to follow his star to the silver screen. Fortunately for Blue fans, the fickle finger of film flipped him the bird (as anyone who has seen "Switch" will understand), much as it would soon do to Caruso.

Caruso's and Smits' "good cop" contrasting with Franz's "bad cop" has always been the backbone of the gritty, dark Blue. In interrogation scenes, some faux-fatherly concern on the part of Simone inevitably gives way to a raucous bitch-slapping from Sipowicz. And, apart from their dealings with deadbeats and ne'er-do-wells, the interaction between the two has significantly contributed to the humanization of Andy Sipowicz.

His partner may be changing yet again--Smits is leaving the show early next season--but Sipowicz has always been the one to watch anyway. His battles with alcoholism, his bigotry, his contempt for authority; from the start, Andy Sipowicz was the character that for some strange reason you respected but who, if you saw walk into a bar, you'd be sure to either buy him a shot immediately or pass him in the doorway on your way out.

Over the years, Sipowicz has significantly mellowed and his most disturbing flaws have been dulled, a metamorphosis that was no doubt borne of necessity. After all, the guy was gunning for a heart attack, cirrhosis, or another round of bullets in the back. But it's a testament to Franz's immense talent that, as the character has been domesticated with a wife (Fired Up's Sharon Lawrence cooled down to just the right degree) and an infant son, he has become no less interesting.

In fact, he's basically the only reason left to watch. Sure, Smits is swell, but he's pretty much outta there. And besides, his lovey-dovey routine with Kim Delaney's Diane Russell was wearing thin. With the gratuitous butt and everything-but-the-nipple shots becoming more and more scarce, their home life has become more and more cloying.

The rest of the characters run the gamut from nearly invisible to barely tolerable. When James McDaniel's Lt. Fancy, for instance, tells one of his charges to "Keep me posted" on some pending investigation, he means it. And he'd better, since that's pretty much the only thing he's likely to say for the remainder of the episode. When given an actual story line--usually dealing with racism in some form--McDaniel proves he can hold his own with the stalwart Smits and Franz.

One would have hoped that, as the series progressed, he would have been given the opportunity to get up from his desk and stretch his legs more often. Unfortunately, he's still mostly relegated to handing out walkie-talkies, approving one character or another's "lost time," telling people that he'll "keep a good thought" for them, and introducing himself to one of the precinct's revolving-door receptionists.

Then there are the Keystone Cops of the series, Medavoy and Martinez. Longtime viewers will remember that Greg Medavoy used to carry on a hot-and-heavy extramarital affair with the now-departed office bombshell, Donna Abandando. At the time, with his chronic allergies, less-than-dashing looks, and somewhat nebbishy personality, there was a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required on the audience's part to buy into this, the most unlikely coupling since Brooke Shields and comedy. But hey, he seemed like a nice guy and it wasn't as if he were a flat-out dipshit.

But such a union would be positively unthinkable now, since Medavoy has, in fact, degenerated into a flat-out dipshit. Preoccupied in the past couple of years by a bizarre peanut-butter addiction, a struggling weight-loss program, and impending fatherhood via a lesbian pal whom he'd artificially inseminated, he's become a terrible cop, his behavior just plain silly, and his demeanor not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the show. If we wanted a simpering station-house clown, we'd resurrect Jack Soo.

Medavoy's usual partner, the increasingly chubby James Martinez, is coming off of his best season yet, mainly because he was absent for a huge chunk of it. Nicholas Turturro, who must be John's adopted brother, was off for several weeks playing Sammy "The Bull" Gravano in NBC's miniseries, "Good-Enough-for-TVFellas." While the aforementioned weight gain was presumably affected for that part and not the result of repeated binge-eating brought on by the sudden realization that he is a terrible, terrible actor, it also served the purpose of finally giving Martinez a second dimension.

Character faults aside, most of NYPD Blue's problems of late--and the reason many people I know have become increasingly disenchanted with the show--can be traced to a theory (in two parts) I like to refer to as "We Have Ways of Making You Talk Like Us."

Part 1: The inevitable confession that has become de rigueur in the past couple of years. Nobody works an interrogation room like this squad. Take the most hardened criminal, about to "lawyer up," practically spitting at our heroes in cocky, bold defiance, and by the end of the hour he'll be reduced to tears, trembling, head down, and writing out his sworn statement on the magical legal pad of justice. Never fails. Guaranteed.

Don't get me wrong. Nobody likes to see insolent young toughs get what they deserve more than I do, but can't we mix it up a little? Catch somebody in the act. Have someone actually go off to trial, their guilt as yet undetermined. Hell, since it happens every once in a blue moon in real life, maybe a case could go unsolved. But not on Blue. More people sing on this show than on Cop Rock.

Part 2: The show's dialect. Co-workers naturally develop a verbal shorthand over time despite their varying backgrounds, but on Blue, the same phrases are bandied about over and over, especially during the interrogation scenes.

Looks like you really found yourself in a jackpot.

We'd like to try and help you get out from under this thing.

Maybe you didn't mean it to happen, maybe things got a little heated and you didn't mean to hurt anyone.

You know, if you show remorse, the judge'll look favorably on that.

Why don't you write it down?

It's not just the officers, though. Everyone on the show eventually resorts to using the same cadence, the same deliberate speech patterns. Not since the stories of Damon Runyon has a cast of characters spoken in such homogeneously offbeat dialogue.

On one episode, a very refined, effete man -- I believe he was an art professor -- spoke in the well-heeled, snobbish tones one would expect from his character. For a while. By the end of the show, reacting to what he perceived as mistreatment, he was up and about, threatening, "I'm gonna press charges, what you done to me!"

NYPD Blue was once a show that you dared not miss. It could be again if it breaks its lazy habits and exercises the diverse, compelling characters, dialogue, situations, and resolutions that were its stock in trade in its early seasons.

Will Blue ever reclaim its former glory? Now that CBS has taken Brooklyn South off the beat, maybe Bochco and David Milch will have more time to iron out the rough spots on Blue and turn the tide.

But as for me tuning in again? I think I'll take a little lost time first.


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