NYPD Blue Summary/Review by Alan Sepinwall aka sepinwal@stwing.org
Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

"Dress for Success"
Season 12, Episode 1
9/21/04
Teleplay by Matt Olmstead
Story by Matt Olmstead & Bill Clark
Directed by Jesse Bochco

It's the final season, boys and girls, and that means it's time to go a little retro. Amanda will be back for the next review, but when I got a look at this episode a few weeks ago, it was so good I decided I had to exercise my authority as Founding Review Guy and do the write-up on this one. But we'll talk more about the rich, chocolatey goodness after a...

SUMMARY

MEET THE NEW BOSS

Andy, John, Greg and Baldwin are investigating the shooting murder of a Dr. Edward Miller in a downtown hotel. His phone records show a call to a Larry Praegitzer in Jersey City, who explains that Miller used to be their family doctor, and just called to catch up and relate an embarrassing anecdote about a prostitute he accidentally brought up to his room. When Andy check with officials at the hotel, they can't find anyone who saw Miller with a hooker.

As the case is unfolding, Lt. Thomas Bale arrives, the long-awaited replacement for Eddie Gibson (whereabouts unknown). Bale and Andy have both heard of each other, since Bale is coming over from Internal Affairs. Though Bale seems friendly, Andy suggests to his colleagues that "Time to start covering your ass would be right about now, guys."

Baldwin finds out Miller was let go from his last few hospital jobs for confidential reasons, but that he was a sexologist for most of his career. Meanwhile, a dump of Miller's cell phone finds a call to one Eric Praegitzer (Larry's son), who comes in and says that Miller simply called him to ask for suggestions on things to do in the city. John has found a police report that Eric attempted suicide three years ago, and that Miller was the one who called it in; Eric says it was just a coincidence that Miller was in town, and that he was grateful to Miller for saving him. After Eric leaves, the detectives find out that he legally changed his name from Cynthia, suggesting he had a sex change operation at some point.

While the detectives are pursuing the case, Bale isn't exactly making friends and influencing people. When he sees Rita going out to investigate a lead in her case (see below) without giving him a heads-up, he insists that he be made aware of every detectives' whereabouts and progress at all times. He starts conducting "individual orientation sessions" with each cop, putting the fear of God into Medavoy when he passive-aggressively suggests the 55-year-old detective might want to think about retirement before the job passes him by. Greg tells Andy they've got a big problem with the new boss -- not that Andy needs to be told this.

Eric comes back in and immediately gets queasy when asked about his sex change operation. Andy asks if Miller performed the operation, but Eric insists it was another doctor. When Mr. Praegitzer comes in, he explains that Miller performed Eric's first sex change. He was born a boy, and when a botched circumcision destroyed his penis, Miller came onto the case and convinced the family that if they performed the operation now and never told Eric the truth, nurture would trump nature and he would believe he was a girl. Problem is, Eric always knew something was wrong, and when his parents told him the truth at 18, he rushed to have the procedure reversed. The suicide attempt came about when Miller tried to re-establish contact with Eric to discuss the situation. Praegitzer told Miller that he would kill him if he ever went near Eric again, and confesses to the murder. Andy says he'll go confirm this with Eric, then come back to help Praegitzer with his statement...

...much to the interest of Lt. Bale, who's been watching the entire interview through the two-way mirror.

Eric says his father isn't covering for him, that he didn't blame his parents for what they did after he was born (under the circumstances, what choice did they have?), but couldn't handle Miller constantly harassing him and trying to prove that his decision was correct. Convinced that both father and son are telling the truth, Andy and John head back to help Praegitzer massage his statement...

...only to find Bale already working on it with Praegitzer when they arrive. Furious, Andy demands that Bale come outside to talk to him, but Bale stands his ground and orders Andy to leave.

Later, in Bale's office, Bale wonders exactly how Andy was going to "help" Praegitzer with the statement, and says he won't tolerate any detective's attempts to fudge witness statements to guarantee a trial outcome they want. While acknowledging that the Praegitzer family's situation "sucks," he insists that this is the sort of thing a jury should get to decide, not cops. Andy starts insulting Bale's time in IAB, suggesting that Bale hasn't had enough experience dealing with "the real world," especially compared to Andy's decades and decades on the job, but Bale verbally slaps him down. The detectives try to argue that getting to give good people in bad situations a little extra consideration is an accepted part of the job; Bale replies that their job is to ascertain the facts and report them accurately, nothing more. John leaves, but Andy stays to take one more shot with Bale.

"I got 32 years on this job," he says. "I always planned on leaving on my terms. And that day's not too far away. But if I can't do my job, one that I can live with, morally, then I'm out the door."

"Eventually, that's a decision every cop has to make," Bale shrugs.

At the end of the shift, Bale addresses the entire squad, and tells them that he was selected to replace Gibson specifically because there was a sense from the department brass that "this is a rogue outfit. So I come with a specific mandate, from my bosses, to make this squad reflect today's job, today's policing. And it's gonna happen. So I ask that you join me in accomplishing what I've been instructed to do. In return, you'll have my complete allegiance and support. If you elect not to, you won't be working here anymore. I'm afraid it's that simple. And I hope it doesn't happen for anyone here."

Bale exits, and a panicked Medavoy asks Andy what they should do.

"Nothing," Sipowicz snorts. "I ain't changing a damn thing."

MEET THE NEW DETECTIVE

Gibson isn't the only member of the 15th squad to vanish since last spring. Kelly Ronson is gone, too, and Rita's new partner is Laura Murphy, an attractive blonde (yep, another one of those) who spent the last two years in the department's Applicant Investigations unit, looking into the backgrounds of people who want to be cops. Andy is skeptical of her fitness for real detective work.

Rita, meanwhile, has issues with Laura's tendency to flirt with male cops, like her old pal Ted Keogh, who's securing the crime scene at the murder of a homeless man named Shaun O'Hara, aka Illness. One of Illness' buddies, Road Dog, said they were spending the previous night with some "real squares" doing something called "street embrace," but that he left before Illness took a bullet. Laura asks Ted to look for King Tut, another homeless guy known to hang out with Illness.

Tut isn't very useful, even after Laura slips him a twenty, but does explain that Street Embrace is actually an organized program in which suburbanites and other well-off people pretend to be homeless for a night. Laura asks Ted to keep an eye on Tut, then goes with Rita to interview Zoe Prentiss, one of the two people who did the Street Embrace with Illness. Zoe, who lives in a huge apartment (even by TV-Manhattan apartment standards) acts surprised that Illness is dead, but can't offer much information on "Charlie" the other man doing Street Embrace that night -- and who gave phony info to the program's organizers, making him hard to find. Zoe says she was spending most of her time focusing on the homeless people's stories and didn't really talk to Charlie. She does confess, though, to bringing along some cash (a Street Embrace no-no) and helping the guys buy drugs.

Outside Zoe's apartment, Rita chooses an odd moment to confront Laura about her behavior around the male cops (she was also friendly with John), suggesting that if she doesn't cut out the flirtation, she'll lose respect from the guys. Laura says there's a difference between actively flirting (which she didn't do) and letting guys flirt with her without comment. "This is my first day in this squad," she says. "This isn't my first day on the job." Noting that her only problems on the job have been with women, not men, she dismisses Rita's complaint and gets moving.

A ballistics report connects the gun in the shooting to one owned by a private eye named Charles Isadore -- obviously, the Charlie who did Street Embrace with Zoe. He explains that he was hired by Zoe's rich father to go undercover and keep an eye on her, but she identified him almost immediately. At the end of the second night, Illness bought some crack with Zoe's money, and while Charlie was off taking a leak, he heard Zoe scream. When he ran back, an extremely high Zoe was claiming that Illness made an advance on her. Illness responded by suggesting he would never want to sleep with someone like her, and a pissed-off Zoe ordered Charlie to "Shoot him!" Charlie, completely exhausted from the experience of playing homeless, zoned out for a minute, and when he re-oriented, Zoe had his gun and killed Illness. He took the gun back and they parted company, agreeing to pretend the incident never happened.

Zoe, naturally, tells a very different story, but the detectives believe Charlie's version. Problem is, the gun's registered to him and there aren't any apparent unbiased witnesses. They want to keep both in custody for a while in hopes that the liar will crack, but Bale, concerned they might just be trying to milk some overtime, orders them to let Zoe go, turn Charlie over to the DA's and let them decide how to proceed.

Fortunately, Laura's request to Ted pays off; he spots Tut dressed in some fancy new clothes escorting a hooker into a nice hotel. They bring in Tut and get him to admit that he saw the whole shooting -- which played out the way Charlie described -- and that Zoe paid him $5000 to keep his mouth shut. Bale congratulates Laura on going the extra mile and says he'll talk her up to his bosses; Laura suggests the credit should go to Ted, since he did the legwork.

MEET THE NEW JOHN CLARK

John shows up to the Miller crime scene a half hour late, unshaven, unwashed and wearing the same clothes from the day before. He shrugs off Andy's frequent barbs and hints, and only agrees to shave after Lt. Bale strongly suggests it.

In general, this is a much looser, gregarious John than we've seen before, but Andy is worried that John is spending all of his nights getting loaded to drown out the pain of Jennifer's suicide coming so soon on the heel of his father's.

Near the end of the shift, John gets a page from his girlfriend and asks Andy to make a call on the Praegitzer case for him. Andy is so furious he hangs up John's phone and demands they have it out in the coffee room. John defends himself by pointing out that his after-hours activity hasn't in any way affected his work and tells his partner, "If it's got anything to do with how I spend my time when I punch out of this place, I don't want to hear it." Tensions remain frayed between the two, and when John starts cackling wildly after Bale delivers his My Way Or The Highway ultimatum, Andy threatens to go across his desk and kick John's ass. An interruption from Laura briefly defuses it, and John heads off to happy hour.

MEET ANDY'S NEW PROBLEM

As if Bale's micromanagement and Junior's party-hearty ways weren't enough on Andy's plate, he starts getting mysterious packages -- one of them including a dead rat -- and notes signed, simply, "PAB." He figures it's a bad prank of some kind and wonders what the initials mean. Near the end of the shift, Baldwin calls Andy outside, where the tires of the Sipowicz-mobile have been slashed, along with yet another "PAB" note, this on spelling out the full slogan: "Payback's a bitch." Andy realizes this isn't a joke, but has too many other things to worry about at that moment.

REVIEW

Confession time: When ABC announced that the show would return for one more season so it could go out with a bang, I shrugged. Not because I didn't want the show to come back -- any additional hours with Andy Sipowicz would be time well spent, I knew -- but because bangs had been few and far between for the show of late.

When David Milch left, it was time for him to go. Whether it was the pressure of writing scenes at the last possible minute or simple burn-out, the show became a mess at the end of his tenure: long patches of nonsensical plots and deliberately oblique dialogue interrupted by the occasional moment of genius. (I'd probably go with burn-out, by the way: "Deadwood" is being written under similar frantic circumstances, and it's incredible.)

After Milch, the show found more consistency, but at a price: greatness. The John Clark era has moved better, had more follow-through on subplots, more variations on the old formula and more plot logic. But it's been like watching an old power hitter stop swinging for the fences just to keep his average up. The singles are nice, but you came to see him hit a home run every few games.

(And most of the big swings -- Fraker vs. Rodriguez, Laughlin framing Junior -- have been big misses, in my opinion.)

So when I say I was pleasantly surprised by "Dress for Success," I don't mean it as a slight against the current creative team. They've been doing good work up until now. But this, this felt special. This felt like we might get that big bang, after all.

Let's take it plot by plot:

MEET THE NEW BOSS

I'm on record as being a fan of the Gibson-as-boss idea. I always liked John O'Donohue, thought he was funny yet plausible, and felt like he could provide some good comic relief in the final season. But when you get right down to it, he really wasn't that much of a change from Rodriguez, or even from the latter days of Fancy, in that his management style was strictly hands-off, allowing the squad in general and Andy in particular to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. A pretty good work environment for our heroes, but not one with much inherent dramatic tension -- fun to watch, but a bit boring.

The arrival of Lt. Thomas Bale, if nothing else, means that the final season will not be boring.

Bale could so easily be a cardboard villain like Fraker, a strawman for Andy to easily knock down, and it's a credit to both the writers and Currie Graham that he's a lot more complicated than that.

For starters, while Bale is going to cause a whole lot of trouble for our heroes, he's not some cackling bad guy or a socially-maladjusted creep who doesn't know any better. His agenda clashes with the modus operandi of the detectives, but it's one he was assigned rather than one he chose. If it wasn't Bale, the bosses would have sent someone else in to do the exact same job -- and that person might not have been as smart or innately decent as Bale seems to be. (The return of Lt. Dalto, maybe? I shudder to think.)

Is he wrong in some of his encounters with the squad? Absolutely. But he doesn't have the benefit of our years of experience with these people. He looks at Medavoy and sees an obsolete, aging clown, while we see a totally competent aging clown. He doesn't know Rita well enough to realize she wasn't trying to scam overtime, but given that he's been told that this is a squad out of control, why should he be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt?

And considering some of the shenanigans that have gone on in the 15th squad, even dating back to late-period Simone, it's really not a stretch to call this a "rogue outfit." You know and I know that Andy and company are good, morally upright cops, but a lot of wacky stuff has gone down in and around that squadroom over the last decade. It might be funny to have a scene where Bale just rattles off one-line descriptions of some of it from a departmental memo: "In late 1997, Det. Simone was suspended for refusal to cooperate with Internal Affairs, and later questioned in the murder of one Joseph Salvo... In 2000, Det. Kirkendall was implicated in a drug ring... In 2001, Det. Sorensen disappeared under mysterious circumstances... In 2003, Det. Sipowicz and Det. McDowell secretly married but continued to work in the same squad..." Etc., etc., etc.

And a very interesting thing happened during the big argument in Bale's office: as the scene went on, I found myself siding with Bale more and more. Yes, the jury system is fundamentally flawed, and yes, it's nice that cops can try to give consideration to good people in bad situations, but what Andy and the other cops have been doing for years isn't just giving consideration, but essentially acting as judge and jury in addition to law-enforcement. That's an awful lot of power to entrust to any one individual, even if they're the protagonist on a network cop show and we like their snappy one-liners.

(The question of how far beyond the legal limit we want our police to go has been one of the big themes of this series, from John Kelly covering up for Janice to Simone doing everything to make sure Jimmy Liery died short of pulling the trigger to all of the many, many, many, many beatings Andy has laid on perps he "knew" were guilty. In recent years, the question's mainly been framed in terms of everyone's favorite precinct game show "Who's A Collar?," with our lovely hostess Valerie Haywood. It makes sense that the major arc of the final season should return to the subject one last time.)

Now, I don't know how much of my sympathy with Bale's position has to do with Currie Graham's performance, the writing of the character or the fact that I'm sick of Andy being infallible and unimpeachable since Bobby died. Sipowicz used to be so fascinating because he was extremely flawed but always working to overcome those flaws; in recent years, he's been the patron saint for grouchy yet gallant policemen. His best opponents, from Fancy to James Sinclair, have been people who have successfully forced Andy to confront his own shortcomings, not cartoon villains who are clearly his moral inferiors. I'm talking about guys like Fraker, Laughlin, even John Clark Sr., who was eventually revealed to be a tool and a coward.

Graham certainly has the chops to stand up to our hero. As others have pointed out, he looks eerily like the young Kevin Spacey, and he has some of Spacey's quiet intensity. He was so subtly, brilliantly menacing in that interview with Greg that I expected Medavoy to go running home to his mommy -- or, at least, the old lady he slept with last year. Yet Graham was able to stand toe-to-toe with Dennis Franz, beloved star of the show for over a decade, challenge Sipowicz's ethics and method of doing business, and seem, if not completely in the right, then at least playing a strong, reasonable devil's advocate. That, my friends, is great acting.

Again, it would be very easy to make Bale a cheap villain, someone there to cause trouble for the good guys for a while and be vanquished shortly before the finale. Instead, he's something much better: a worthy adversary for Sipowicz, someone who may wind up influencing Andy just as much as Andy influences him.

At least, I hope so. We're certainly off to a great start. I look forward to more.

MEET THE NEW COP

Just what the show needs: another young hottie (male or female) playing detective. But you know what? Looks aside, Bonnie Somerville was convincing in the part. I already find her more interesting and believable than Rita, a character who was introduced badly and never really given a personality, but who is still around because, well, Jacqueline Obradors is a nice person and has been good in other parts with more specific writing.

Bonnie is a Brooklyn native, and she nails the accent, which goes a long way towards giving her credibility. I'm not saying every character has to talk like a Noo Yawker (Dennis Franz doesn't even try to disguise his Chicago tones), but it helps. Martinez and Lesniak weren't exactly two of the most fascinating characters in the show's history, but they lent the show a kind of authenticity it hasn't had as much of since Bochco decided he wanted to surround Franz and Gordon Clapp with a gaggle of young model-types -- which, if you watched any of ABC News' excellent "NYPD 24/7" over the summer, you'd know isn't remotely what your average squad looks like.

(Justine Miceli, by the way, is also a beautiful woman, but the hair, makeup and costume people made Lesniak look like a New York beauty, earthier and just a bit overdone. If that kind of attention had been paid to your Charlotte Rosses or Bonnie Somervilles over the years, I don't think the current casting approach would be quite as distracting.)

But let's move off the pretty thing and get back to the character herself. While the show has had plenty of female detectives, it's rarely explored the kind of unique challenges they face in this profession -- unless you consider the fact that the women inevitably wind up investigating all the rape and child-related cases to be a subtle commentary on gender roles in the NYPD. The difficulties a woman has to face in such a macho environment are enormous, and the question of how to deal with the constant barrage of flirtation and innuendo is a good one to explore. The fact that Laura comes from what sounds like a predominantly-male (and predominantly-firefighting) family gives her a perspective that Rita (family background unknown) may not have.

That said, what bug crawled up Rita's butt this week? She's never been the most rational, pleasant character in the past, but yikes. First, Laura was essentially flirty with one guy, Ted, and he's an old friend of hers. (Junior was hitting on her like it was last dance at the freshman formal, but she deflected it.) Second, why bring it up immediately after an interview with a female witness? If you want to stir up trouble with your new partner on your very first day together, shouldn't you at least try to do it in relative proximity to the behavior that's annoying you? I know the writers had to squeeze that scene in somewhere, but Rita came off looking even worse than in some of her post-breakup jealousy scenes with Junior.

A promising start for the new addition. I remember in the last year of "Hill Street Blues" (ironically, Milch was running the show then with Bochco gone, while here the situation is flipped), Megan Gallagher joined the cast as a beautiful cop constantly dealing with sexual harassment. Something about the final season of Bochco cop shows, I guess.

MEET THE NEW JOHN CLARK

Now this has some major potential, even if it's springing out of a couple of plot developments I didn't care for. (Senior and Jennifer's suicides seemed to be the writers' response to complaints that too many of Andy's loved ones were dying: "Fine. We'll kill someone else's relatives instead.")

What we have here is a very neat role reversal from the start of the series. John has become Sipowicz (minus the mustache and gut), while Andy has become John Kelly (minus the red hair and mannered delivery). The fact that Andy's a recovering alcoholic, while Junior still seems to be a social drinker (he's not taking clandestine sips at work -- yet) adds an extra layer to it. Because of Andy's history, he's sensitive anytime someone he knows is drinking a lot -- whenever Danny would announce that he needed a few drinks, suddenly Andy was the one getting stirred up. Junior knows this, which makes him even less likely to listen to Andy's advice right now.

While his behavior might be self-destructive in the long run, I've gotta say I prefer this version of John Clark to the one we've seen the last three seasons. MPG has always been very strong in the role, more confident and believable than a lot of people (myself included) expected, but the writers spent so much time trying to make Junior the anti-Danny -- no obscure family traumas, no office product fetishes, no rubbing snot in his girlfriend's hair -- that he wound up a little too perfect, too in control, too problem-free. He was a good cop and a good partner for Andy, but he wasn't always the most exciting second lead on a TV drama.

As the laughing-on-the-outside, probably-crying-on-the-inside John Clark, Mark-Paul was so entertaining, so compelling that I almost wish the writers had capped one of his relatives sooner. ("Andy, I've been really down in the dumps ever since my second cousin Frank got blown up by that drug cartel.") Back before he got all domesticated, Sipowicz used to go through his days with that kind of "I don't give a crap" attitude, and I've missed it. MPG pulls it off well. He has more little pieces of physical business, like the gum chewing or the way he leans in closer during interviews than he used to, and MPG is having a lot of fun with it. (It helps that he comes from a comedy background, even if that comedy was "Saved by the Bell." Jokes is jokes.) I hope Junior doesn't straighten himself out anytime soon. He's too entertaining to watch as is.

MEET ANDY'S NEW PROBLEM

If there was a troubling sign in this hour, it was Andy's "PAB" stalker. Two concerns, one big, one small. The small one: while I like to see our heroes dealing with multiple crises at the same time, this is arguably one too many for Andy right now. Between Bale's arrival and Junior's personality change, the stalker thing just seems like a distraction.

The big one: frankly, the idea of Andy having a vengeful stalker sounds, well, stupid. It's the kind of soapy, melodramatic, TV-ish plotline that the show avoids when it's at its best. (Before a certain cable channel introduced a slogan claiming that "it's not TV," the same description could have applied to classic "Blue.")

I hate to keep harping on Fraker, but him shooting Tony in his office was a classic example of what this show shouldn't be, and I'm worried that the PAB Person -- whether it's a perp Andy locked up, somebody he smacked around, or even a dirty cop he helped nail (for someone who hates IAB, Andy's taken down a surprising number of bad cops) -- will go down a similarly over-the-top road.

(And if you want me to play fair and pick out some examples of Milch going off the rails with this sort of thing, here goes: Dolores' death, the entire Cullinan storyline and especially Sylvia's death, plus the death of Joey Salvo and its nonsensical resolution, to name just a few.)

I'd like to believe I'm wrong, that the fact Bale is written with more nuance than previous Andy opponents suggests the producers are going to avoid some past mistakes. But I just don't see any good way to pull off this kind of story. We shall see.

AND NOW, A LONG AND MEANDERING PERSONAL STORY

(Feel free to skip ahead to the Quick Hits section if you're not into history or self-indulgent authors. It's really okay.)

I owe the show a lot, which is why I care how it ends. It's not an understatement to say that without "Blue," I wouldn't have the career or the life that I currently do.

In the fall of 1993, I was a sophomore in college, unsure of what to do with myself. Then I saw the first episode of a show called "NYPD Blue," and I was hooked. By the time 4B died a month into the series, I knew I had to say something about the show. A devout TV nerd, I had made friends with a lot of computer nerds, and they hooked me up to this World Wide Web thing. (This was back in the day when Lynx and Mosaic were the only two browsers and you had to drive uphill through the snow both ways to get to the Yahoo! homepage.) Inspired by the work of Tim Lynch, who'd been writing online reviews of the "Star Trek" spin-offs for years, I started doing my own version about "Blue," first for Usenet, then for Dave Chapman's "Blue" fansite, and, when Dave vanished, never to be heard from again, for my own site.

Now, understand that this was virgin territory, not only for me, but the internet as a whole. Outside of Tim and a couple of other sci-fi fans, nobody was doing anything like this. Television Without Pity didn't exist back then, not even as Mighty Big TV. And the widespread use of blogs was years away. I remember watching the third season premiere with my friend Danny Gingiss, who asked why I was taking copious notes. When I started to explain about the reviews, his eyes glazed over, strongly suggesting that I go out and get a life. (I became familiar with this look over the years; James McDaniel even gave it to me one time, though he was always polite and friendly after accepting the fact that someone could be so obsessive about his show.) About a year after I started, a guy named Scott Hollifield e-mailed me, asking for my "permission" to start doing similar reviews over on alt.tv.er. I told him that I had never bothered to ask Tim Lynch, so he was more than welcome to run with the idea. Pretty soon, I started seeing half the dramas in primetime getting their own weekly reviews.

I didn't save the earliest reviews, but thanks to Google's Usenet archive, I recently went back to take a look at them. Oy. Misspellings, bad grammar and, even worse, observations that make me cringe and wonder exactly when (or if) I stopped being such a dumbass. The first full review was for "From Hare to Eternity," the debut season's Christmas episode. Not only did I completely miss the point of the scene where John Kelly goes to visit his senile mother in the hospital (she mistakes John for his father and asks how "John Jr." is doing, which I assumed was a reference to a previously unmentioned child that John and Laura had together), but I actually wrote the following paragraph about the Licalsi/Marino/Giardella story arc, which I would later consider one of the high points of the entire series:

"Am I the only one who's getting bored by this whole Janice subplot? It's getting too distracting having to keep up with the goings on in the precinct without having to keep track of all the mob characters. Let's see this one wrapped up already."

I got better, people -- thank God. There were other missteps along the way, including the episode I trashed entirely because of a misunderstanding on my part about which characters had appeared in which episodes. (That'd be season two's "A Murder With Teeth In It," and you can find the entire embarrassing review on the website.) I tried "retiring" after season four's "Emission Impossible" (the infamous "Medavoy jerks off into a cup" episode), but came back the very next week because "Is Paris Burning?" was so damn good, I felt I had to comment on it.

I often built my entire week around the reviews. During the year I was an editor for the arts & entertainment section of the school paper, our big production days were Tuesday into Wednesday when me and my boss Mike Tuhy would pull an all-nighter, not crashing until sometime Wednesday afternoon. But whenever "Blue" aired a new episode, I'd take a three or four hour break to watch and review. To Tuhy's credit, he never complained once. (We had a few fights later on, but I think it was because he was sick of hearing me talk about Pearl Jam's "Better Man," not because of the review breaks.)

By the time college was coming to a close, I knew I wanted to work in entertainment journalism, but I hadn't lined up a job yet. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who worked at The Star-Ledger, the paper I grew up reading in Jersey, and I sent the features editor some clips of my stuff for the paper -- plus several print-outs of material from the Blue website, including a few reviews and my old "NYPD Blue vs. Homicide" essay. My boss later told me she hired me mainly because she was impressed by the web stuff. About a month after I started (initially as an intern), it turned out that the paper's venerable TV critic Jerry Krupnick, who had essentially been covering TV since there was TV, couldn't make it to the annual critics press tour out in LA, the biggest event of the year for TV reporters. The Ledger had to send somebody, and based on the passion for TV my editor saw in those "Blue" reviews, she decided to throw me into the deep end and see if I could swim.

I had thought it would take me five years to build my way up to that kind of job, paying my dues covering supermarket openings and school board meetings. Took me about five weeks. Eight years later and counting, I'm still in that job.

Maybe if "Blue" doesn't come along, I develop a similar passion for some other drama ("Homicide"? "ER"?) and build a website around that. Maybe not. But it was the right show at the right time, and because of it, I wound up with a great job, living not too far from my family (this was a very good thing, since my father died a few years into my new career, and I got to spend a lot of time with him before he passed), and in exactly the right place to meet my future wife. I've made friends with people on the show through those reviews, too; I'll never forget the look of pure joy on Bill Brochtrup's face when we met right before "Public Morals" came on and he recognized my name.

When the show began, I was living in a small dorm apartment that constantly reeked of pot (not my own -- honest) and fire extinguisher foam. Didn't have a girlfriend or any real direction. Nearly a dozen years later, I have a job I love, a wife I love, a daughter we both love, a nice house in the suburbs and, in general, the kind of life I'd always hoped for. Maybe I'd have similar people and things in my life without "Blue," but they wouldn't be the exact same people and things. Of that, I am sure.

We still have 19 episodes to go in this season, but I don't know if I'll be reviewing any of them online. These things take a long time to write if you want to do them properly (I'm amazed I was able to pull it off in three hours or so in the middle of the night way back when), and in a shocking development, it turns out that having a baby really eats into your spare time. Given Amanda's schedule, I might have to pinch hit later this year, but I wanted to play things safe and say this stuff now.

First, I wanted to send a big ol' thank you to everyone who has been involved in making this great American drama. I'm sure you figured you would touch viewers' lives and capture their imaginations, but maybe not in this way. So thank you, ladies and gentlemen of "Blue."

Thanks to the great Amanda Wilson, who stepped into the gig way back at the start of season six after my personal and professional lives kept me from doing this on a weekly basis. Since I didn't really start doing this seriously until season two, she's already been writing these things longer than I ever did.

And thank you, everybody who's been reading these things since late 1993. If I'd been writing into a vacuum, I probably would have stopped very quickly. But people kept telling me they liked them, so I kept writing 'em. Whew.

Thanks also for indulging me on this looooong stroll down memory lane. And with that, let's move on to the...

QUICK HITS

-I didn't really talk about the cases, but they were both very good, the sort of rooted in truth plots this show can do so well. The sex change plot in particular was rich with personal details and high emotional stakes, which made the Sipowicz/Bale argument that much more important. "Blue" and the "Law & Order" shows both build most of their stories out of real-life cases, though this show often uses older ones (from Bill Clark's days as a cop). The difference is, the "L&O" shows mainly use the real cases as a springboard for labyrinthine plots and an examination of the court system; "Blue" uses them to explore the human side of those NY Post headlines.

-One small complaint about the Street Embrace subplot. Whether or not "real squares" is a genuine bit of modern homeless slang, it still sounds like something out of an early '60s motorcycle movie.

-Sometimes, nepotism isn't so bad. Jesse Bochco (aka The Boss's Son) turned in another fine directing job, actually finding new ways to shoot verrrry familiar locations in the 15th precinct. The shot of Laura looking down on King Tut in the lobby was the first of its kind I can recall, and Bale's office was usually shot at different angles from when it used to belong to Fancy or Rodriguez or Gibson. Sometimes, it's the little touches like that that can keep a show seeming fresh even after a dozen seasons.

-Speaking of little touches, the scene where Bale suggests that Junior might want to shave mostly seemed to be about the tension between Andy and John the first time I watched it. But when I made a second pass through the episode to cherry-pick some quotes, I noticed that it's also a bit of a window into our new lieutenant. Bale is obviously not comfortable, both with his first command and the controversial nature of it, and he wants people to like him. You can see the sheepish look on his face when the "Grizzly Adams" joke barely even gets noticed by Sipowicz. Again, I think this is a good man who just happens to have different beliefs from our guys, and that one moment says more than you might think.

-Gibson got a throwaway line explaining why he was transferred out, if not where he went, but Kelly Ronson and Valerie Haywood didn't even rate a mention. Ah, well. As I understand it, Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon might come back on occasion, and it's not as if we need to know where our friendly neighborhood ADA is at all times. (And, again, for those wondering why Jessalyn Gilsig wasn't asked back, it's simple: the producers liked her but didn't think there was a huge amount of potential in the character, so they went in a different direction.)

-Connie, meanwhile, isn't coming back without Jimmy Carter to negotiate a peace accord between Charlotte Ross and the producers. Not that I'll miss all those scenes of Andy sitting on the couch with his lovely bride, but the problem is, Andy only opens up to two people in this world: his wife and his partner. One doesn't exist as far as the show is concerned, and the other is one of the many problems Andy needs to unburden himself about. Who's Andy going to share his feelings with now? Medavoy? John Irvin? (Not a bad idea, actually; at least it'd give Bill B. something to do.)

-Getting back to the crux of the Bale/Sipowicz argument, here's a question: If Andy really wants to look out for a guy like Praegitzer, why doesn't he just tell him to lawyer up, immediately? Seems like a more ethically kosher way to accomplish the same goal, no?

-Another plot logic question: why does Baldwin bother to ask Andy whether he drove to work today if Baldwin already has seen Andy's slashed tires?

-Speaking of that scene, if you thought the parking set-up outside the 15th Precinct looked different, that's because the show, with its reduced final season budget, didn't make the annual August trip to New York to film exteriors. So any time there's an outside scene this year, it's either on the Fox backlot, or on LA city streets. They've faked it as well as can be expected in recent years, but it's not ideal. (Interestingly, "CSI:NY," which has a much larger budget at this point, is also filming largely in LA, with occasional trips to the Big Apple. Take a look at the "Law & Order" shows, guys. Ain't nothing like the real thing.)

-So both of Greg's daughters are grown-up and one of them's married? Time, it does fly when you're on the air for over a decade. I can still remember Greg and Marie arguing over how to pay for braces for the girls. Sigh... And speaking of Medavoy's offspring, you'll notice he didn't mention the kid he fathered for Abby Sullivan and her late girlfriend -- one of several babies on this show that were introduced and rarely, if ever, mentioned again. (Others include Fancy's son and Connie's niece, who had already disappeared, Chuck Cunningham-style, by the end of last season.) Coincidentally, Currie Graham's one previous appearance on the show was in the aforementioned "Emission Impossible" in which Greg, um, helped conceive that child. Yeah, that's all he did...

-One moment between Laura and Rita that I laughed at, but wondered afterwards whether it worked for the character: right after their argument over flirting in the hallway, Rita heads down the stairs and Laura pauses to give a perfect Valley Girl "Oh. My. God." look of disgust.

CAST INFO

Both of our new cops are probably best known for their work on NBC sitcoms. Currie Graham (Lt. Thomas Bale) was on the last season of "Suddenly Susan," and was also briefly on the PAX medical show "Body & Soul." Most of the movies he's been in have gone straight to cable or video, but he's co-starring with Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne in the upcoming "Assault on Precinct 13" remake.

Bonnie Somerville (Det. Laura Murphy), meanwhile, had her big break on the WB's short-lived teen soap parody "Grosse Pointe," then played one of Ross' many obstacles to getting back together with Rachel on "Friends" (she's the one he met at Monica and Chandler's wedding), which she then parlayed into a starring role on NBC's short-lived "In-Laws." She also had a recurring role last year on "The O.C." as a lawyer who tried to seduce Peter Gallagher's Sandy Cohen.

Jason Cerbone (Ted Keogh) is best known for playing dim-witted gangster wannabe Jackie Aprile Jr. in the second season of "The Sopranos."

Leon Russom (Larry Praegitzer) has been on the show once before, as a retired FBI agent turned inept private security guy in season three's "Aging Bull." Russom's been around forever, going all the way back to '70s work on soaps like "Guiding Light" and "Another World." I still remember him best as the Malibu sherriff who smacks around The Dude in "The Big Lebowski."

Constance Zimmer (Zoe Prentiss) was one of the few decent things about NBC's awful sitcom "Good Morning, Miami."

Lou Myers (King Tut) ran the student commons on "A Different World" and has done a lot of movies, most recently "The Fighting Temptations."

Joel Bissonnette (Eric Praegitzer) played Arnaud on USA's "Invisible Man" series.

Matt Bushell (Charlie Isadore) did a couple of episodes of "24" last year.

Josh Jacobson (Road Dog) has been in "Not Another Teen Movie" and was a regular on the fourth season of MTV's "Undressed."

LINES OF THE WEEK

Actually, the biggest laugh for me came during King Tut's recounting of the shooting and his role in the cover-up (specifically the "I'm DONE thinking!" bit), but it doesn't translate as well out of context. Neither does Road Dog's laundry list of Illness' previous nicknames. Some other goodies:

Andy and John bicker while Greg's caught in the middle:
"You wore those same clothes yesterday." -Andy
"I actually bought 10 of this identical outfit. That way I don't have to waste time each morning wondering what I'm gonna wear." -John
"I hear Einstein did the same thing." -Greg
"You hear? Einstein? Dude was a genius!" -John

Andy giving an update on what Bale's been doing since he entered his office:
"On the rat phone trading rat stories with his rat buddies."

Greg is a little too interested in Dr. Miller's vocation:
"Sexologist? You mean, like, sex, like an expert on sex or something?" -Greg
"Easy there, killer" -Baldwin
"I'm just asking." -Greg

Andy trying to get John to do a little policework:
"Hey, Chief Dick-in-Hand, we're working a homicide."

NEXT WEEK

Amanda's back on duty full-time. She has a new job with different hours, though, so some of this year's reviews may not be ready bright and early on Wednesday morning. Sorry, folks. We try to provide speedy service when we can. And I may pop back up a time or two before the fat lady sings, not that anyone will want to hear from me again after this long goodbye.

Oh, you wanted to know what's going to happen next week on the show? D'oh! Anyway, Andy and John look into an adoption scam, the stalker strikes at something very dear to Andy, and Bale and Sipowicz don't exactly make nice.

See ya in the funny papers,
Alan Sepinwall