NYPD Blue has long been considered one of the best shows on television, earning a slew of Emmy’s and critical praise for its acting, writing, and take-no-prisoners dialog. The show combines innovative camera work with gritty plots, complicated characters, and enough naughty language and partial nudity to keep even the casual viewer glued to her television set. It’s been a winning combination for eight seasons, and the build-up for the new season’s premiere has been considerable.
Despite NYPD Blue‘s stellar reputation, it has had some problems, starting with its confusion about how much time to devote to the crimes the cop-protagonists are called upon to solve, and how much to spend on their personal lives. Unlike Law & Order, for example, where the characters don’t really have personal lives, NYPD Blue has a tendency to ignore the cop show angle in favor of the home lives of its leads, particularly lead detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz). This is in some ways understandable, since Franz has brought to life a fascinating character in Sipowicz: he is a racist and homophobic jerk you can’t help but love (he really struggles with his prejudices), a hard-ass who would rather slap around a perp in the interrogation room than simply hear a confession—basically, an all-around asshole. But he also has a tender side to him that the writers of the show exploit, and they do it well. Knowing that even a glimmer of honest emotion from Sipowicz is worth its weight in Neilsen gold, they have repeatedly put him in situations where he can’t help but break down, admit his emotions, and shed a tear or two. Again, this makes sense: Franz is a superb actor, and it would be a waste of his considerable talent if they didn’t milk him for all he’s worth. But the show has gone a bit overboard. For a while, it seemed like everybody Sipowicz knew was dropping like flies; in a matter of only a few seasons, no fewer than three members of Sipowicz’s inner circle bought it. First there was Andy Junior (Michael DeLuise), Sipowicz’s sometimes estranged son from his first marriage to then-alcoholic ex-wife Katy (Debra Monk). Andy’s breakdown at the loss of his son, and his return to his own bottle, was the stuff of sweeps week dreams.
Then it was Andy’s partner Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits), who took what felt like about three and a half years (but was only really about three weeks) to die from complications following a heart transplant—it was a ratings drive I haven’t seen since somebody shot JR. Again, Andy hit bottom and again, we cried for him. But he had the comfort of his wife, Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence), and new baby Theo to comfort him, and he has since come to terms with the loss of his partner. But no sooner could he comfortably go back to his weekly AA meetings when Sylvia dropped dead, shot in a courthouse ambush by the father of a murder victim aiming at the defendant Sylvia was prosecuting. And now, as the last season ended in what has become a predictable tear-jerker episode, it is revealed that baby Theo is sick, possibly suffering from leukemia. If I were a character on NYPD Blue, I wouldn’t go within 100 feet of Andy Sipowicz.
The real bright spot on NYPD Blue as of last season, is the addition of Danny Sorenson, played by an all-grown-up Rick(y) Schroeder, to replace the sainted Simone. Who knew that the little kid from Silver Spoons could handle a complicated adult role so well? Truth is, he does more than handle it; he excels at it, and I’d be surprised if he weren’t giving Franz a run for his Emmy. Part of this may be that he’s a well-written character; while Simone was always the perfect good guy who had compassion for everybody and rarely said a foul word, Sorenson is far more complex. This is a guy who has issues. With a troubled family life and a propensity to hoard office supplies in his pockets when he gets upset, Sorenson is a bit of a loose cannon. Despite the obvious pressures of replacing a beloved cast member, Schroeder has managed to one-up Smits: not only is his character more interesting, but he is perhaps even more willing to show his naked ass to the world, in true NYPD Blue style.
And that’s not all the pressure—NYPD Blue has a reputation for detective turnovers (remember David Caruso?). This is especially true for its female characters (remember Sherry Stringfield and Amy Brenneman?). Jill Kirkendall (Andrea Thompson) finally left at the end of last season, after several years of being referred to repeatedly, by male characters, as “the one with the nice tits,” and Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) has become perhaps the most boring character ever conceived on the show. Since losing her husband Bobby, she has moved out of her formal grieving period, but hasn’t done much but occasionally warm the chair located between Andy and Danny in the squad room, “being there” to interpret Andy’s cryptic facial expression and comfort Danny when he goes on drunken benders and gets into fights with his girlfriend. In this sense, she exemplifies the problem NYPD Blue has with women characters: they are props. They hold the crying children at crime scenes and serve as sexual companions for the boys in blue, but with the exception of Diane’s unresolved (and terribly mishandled) child sexual abuse, the women don’t have much to say or do unless there is a man involved. Certainly this problem isn’t unique to NYPD Blue, but it’s disappointing in a show with this much promise.
If the 2001 season premiere is any indication, NYPD Blue is going to continue struggling with the same issues. While this episode manages a better balance between the personal and professional scenes (there was actually a considerable amount of time spent on the triple-homicide the squad was investigating), it is also predictable: Andy wants to beat up the perp, as usual; Diane is boring, as usual; Greg (Gordon Clapp) is geeky and ostracized by the rest of the squad, as usual; Danny is confused, as usual; and Baldwin (Henry Simmons) flexes his scary muscles to intimidate a perp, as usual. It’s a good formula, but it’s still a formula. And this episode ends in a disastrous and expected move: the no-longer-grieving Diane finally hops into bed with her dead husband’s replacement, Danny. It’s as though producer/mastermind Steven Bochco has trouble conceiving of two young, relatively attractive people working together without hopping into bed with one another. The show has gone through more than its share of office romances—Greg and Donna (Gail O’Grady), Andy and Sylvia, Diane and Bobby, Jill and Leo (Michael B. Silver), Danny and Mary (Sheeri Rappaport), and now Diane and Danny.
Enough already. It’s starting to look like Days of Our Lives, especially with so many of these characters now either dead or MIA. The only thing missing is an evil twin. While the rumored end-of-the-season departure of Kim Delaney might leave room for a better developed new character, it will also leave NYPD Blue without a single female character left. And not even the consistently smarter Law & Order could pull that one off.
So, one episode into the new season, NYPD Blue is already in a pinch. While the premiere episode did a better job of balancing the personal and the professional, people are still dying left and right around Sipowicz and the show hasn’t made any progress in moving toward good use of its solitary female character, Diane. While it might be fine and dandy for her to be Danny’s booty call when he and his girlfriend are on the rocks, which they frequently are, it’s hardly the kind of representation that will earn the show any new female fans. And while the show has already been renewed for another season after this year, the truth is that the current season may well be its (creative) swan song, and that might be okay. It’s hard to continue to do groundbreaking work, season after season, as the show’s current, ridiculously short season seems to suggest. Despite the innovation that initially set it apart from the rest of the pack in 1993, NYPD Blue looks positively ordinary now. Even if it did show us Ricky Schroeder’s naked ass.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/nypd-blue/