NYPD Blue, Season 3, Episode 10,
The Backboard Jungle

Story by William L. Morris
Teleplay by David Mills
Directed by Mark Tinker

To skip straight down to the review, click here.


After a young black man died in police custody (the ME says it was from a seizure), Fancy got together with a neighborhood political activist named Kwasi, who proposed a charity basketball game to help heal the black community's wounds. Kwasi assured Fancy that police presence would only serve to inflame things, so the Lieu told the bosses to give the game a wide bearth. That decision proves costly, however, when a shoot-out erupts in the middle of the game, killing two on the spot and wounding several others, not to mention all the people injured by the stampeding crowd trying to escape.

It's a disaster, both in terms of loss of life and loss of face for the department. Fancy assures Inspector Aiello that he'll take the heat for the decision to keep police from the scene, a sacrifice that Aiello assures Art will be repaid tenfold someday. On the scene, the 15th squad detectives begin to piece events together. While the game was intended as a chance for neighborhood kids to let off steam, it was quickly co-opted by a pair of rival drug dealers, who sponsored their own teams, composed of former college players in need of cash.

While the rest of the squad is interviewing witnesses, Andy and Bobby head off in search of Kwasi, who they find at Bellevue Hospital talking to David Bloom, a reporter for the Village View, a liberal downtown newspaper. Bloom's clothes are rife with bloodstains and bits of brain matter, but though he admits to being a witness to the shootings, he refuses to cooperate with the detectives further, suggesting they wait for his story to run. Kwasi is even less helpful, turning beligerent right from the get-go when Bobby asks him to come down to the station. Kwasi and Andy have words, and when Andy tells him to calm down, Kwasi defiantly says, "You're dealing with the one nigger in a thousand who knows what you can and cannot do." Oblivious to Bloom, who's frantically scribbling notes, Andy retorts by saying, "I'm dealing with the nigger whose big mouth is responsible for this massacre." Before things can escalate, Bobby intercedes, and arrests Kwasi for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, then pulls Andy and Kwasi towards the elevator. Bloom follows, and one of his notebooks accidentally drops out of his coat pocket right before the detectives push him out. Andy and Kwasi share some more choice words inside the elevator - when Kwasi suggests that Andy and Bobby should be happy that black people got shot, Andy notes that one of the (non-fatal) shooting victims was a white woman, and "her only crime was being on Houston Street when your low-life homeys decided to act their color."

At the stationhouse, Kwasi refuses to speak to anyone but Fancy, who's at One Police Plaza (NYPD headquarters) taking heat from the bosses. Andy and Bobby leave him in the coffee room to stew while they catch up on the rest of the case. The two rival drug dealers backing the game were named Petey Green and Charlton Moody. Lesniak has a skel named Bo-Bo in one of the interrogation rooms - one eyewitness saw him running from the scene carrying a gun. Bo-Bo, who talks and acts like he's half-asleep all the time, denies the allegation, but Bobby eventually gets him to admit he knew one of the two murder victims, and that he (the victim) used to be involved in the drug trade, but not anymore. After getting him to repeat his statement to try to catch some inconsistencies, they let Bo-Bo go.

Russell gets an anonymous tip that Charlton Moody was one of the shooters, but before Andy and Bobby can go pick him up, Fancy returns and calls them into his office - David Bloom has shown up at the stationhouse looking for his missing notebook, and an irritated Fancy tells the two to make sure he finds it before they go looking for Moody. Andy suggests thatBobby drop the book off at Lost and Found at Bellvue, then confronts Bloom, who still refuses to cooperate with the investigation, though he says he will testify about the material in his story once it's printed. Andy scoffs at Bloom, who reveals that the notebook in the detectives' possession is not the one where he took note of Sipowicz's "nigger" comment.

While his detectives are out picking up Moody, Fancy talks to Kwasi, who's far more cordial to Arthur than he was to Andy and Bobby. He tells Fancy about Andy's epithet, but not the context in which it was said. Fancy, furious over Andy's comment, lets Kwasi go, but requests that he ask around the neighborhood about the shootings.

Sip, Simone, Martinez and Medavoy pick up Moody at a funeral parlor, where he's picking out a casket for his bodyguard. At the station, Moody lawyers up. Fancy calls Andy and Bobby back into his office and tears into Andy for what happened at the hospital. Andy explains the circumstances, but Art's not satisfied - he doesn't feel Andy has the right to use that term under any circumstances. He takes a furious Sipowicz off the case and tells Bobby - who tries to defend Andy - to work the rest of the case with Diane. Privately, Bobby tells Andy that he wasn't comfortable with Andy's comments - particularly the one in the elevator. Andy blows him off, suggesting that Bobby go talk to a less bigoted detective.

Moody's lawyer doesn't budge from a "charge my client or let him go" stance, despite Bobby's best efforts. Meanwhile, Martinez and Medavoy bring in a teenaged witness, using leverage from a shoplifting charge she has hanging over her. After offering her protective custody, James gets her to reveal that she saw Charlton Moody shoot and kill the second murder victim at point blank range.

Kwasi comes back to the station, and confirms for Fancy that Moody was one of the two shooters, but that Bo-Bo (who, it turns out, works for Petey Green) was the instigator; he shot Moody's bodyguard, which started the whole mess. The second victim stopped working for Green a year ago, but Moody didn't know that. On his way out of the squadroom, Kwasi and Andy have words, and Andy's suggests that they settle things man-to-man, but Fancy breaks things up.

Bobby and the squad pick up Bo-Bo, and after Bobby bounces him off a couple of interrogation room walls, he confesses. At the same time, the teenage girl identifies Charlton Moody in a line-up, as Sylvia looks on. When they're done, she takes the girl and her mother back to the Houston St. projects to pick up some clothing before placing them in protective custody.

At shift's end, Andy confronts Fancy, who refuses to let Andy transfer; he knows that the bosses will just give him another bigot to take Andy's place (to send Fancy a message), and doesn't want to take the risk of the next jerk not being as good a detective as Andy. Besides, he says, he knows how to "manage" Andy's brand of bigotry. Enraged, Andy claims that he's been carrying Fancy during his tenure as lieutenant, but before things go too far, night shift Det. Vince Gotelli tells the Lieu that there's been a shooting by the Houston St. projects. Fearful that Sylvia may be involved, Andy asks Fancy to send him, and is surprised when the lieutenant agrees.

The shooting victim turns out to be David Bloom, who went back to the projects to do more research for his story, and was in all likelihood shot by someone looking to eliminate all witnesses to the event. Bloom realizes that he's not going to make it, and gives Andy and a uniformed cop his dying declaration: he saw Charlton Moody shoot and kill a man at the basketball game that morning. He loses consciousness, and the medics put him in the ambo, but Bloom (who couldn't identify his attackers) appears to be a goner.

After briefing Fancy, Andy heads home to Sylvia, who was long gone from the projects by the time the shooting took place. Andy tries to get some affirmation from his wife, asking if she's ever heard him say "nigger." She says no, but comments that he frequently uses a particular gesture on the job when referring to a crime involving black people. Andy says he does that to avoid using the n-word, and notes that lots of cops do it to avoid offending people. Sylvia tells Andy that she doesn't want their son to learn gestures like that, nor racist beliefs like Andy's.

Warning: I am about to lavish a huge amount of praise on this episode, but there is a big "but" coming towards the end, so be ready for it.

First a one-word review, followed by a bit of caution.

Wow. But they damn well better follow up on all of this, or I'll lose all faith in the show.

Perhaps I should expand on that. :) Taken as an independent entity, "The Backboard Jungle" was probably the strongest episode of the season, and one of the strongest the series has ever done. David Mills (who, after writing "Innuendo" last year, and "E.R.", "Aging Bull" and this this year deserves a huge raise) takes a character trait - Andy's bigotry - that really hasn't been touched upon since the first season, and delivers a slam-dunk episode that touches a lot of nerves with our three main characters.

At first, I was concerned. Having glanced at a bit of the pre-show publicity, I noticed several references to Mark Fuhrman. Then, when the n-word finally got uttered, my fear was that this was the show's way of saying, "Maybe Fuhrman's a racist scumbag, but our guy's aren't." In the context of that exchange, Sipowicz's use of the word was provoked by Kwasi's comment, plain and simple. In retrospect, it was an incredibly stupid thing to say - especially with a reporter in the background - but in the heat of an argument, people often say stupid things, especially when the person they're arguing with says them first. Couple that with Kwasi's seemingly unprovoked (aside from the more general black mistrust of the police) beligerence towards Andy and Bobby, and you've got the recipe for an uncomfortable statement about race relations.

However, my fears were quickly swept aside in the elevator scene - Andy was way, *way* out of line with that comment about how the shooters "decided to act their color," and as much as I thought that Kwasi was acting like a grandstanding horse's ass in front of Bloom, when he called Andy a racist prick, I had to side with him. And as the show went on, every one of Andy's attempts to defend himself only dug himself deeper, until we got to that nasty tongue-lashing from Sylvia, which hit me almost as hard as it must have hit Andy.

The show has taken steps this year (most notably here and in "Heavin' Can Wait") to returning Sipowicz to his bad boy ways from the early parts of the first season, which, while sullying the image of our hero, is a Good Thing, because it opens up a lot more dramatic potential. Here, we had a relatively interesting murder case, but it was made far more fascinating by bringing back the old Fancy/Sipowicz conflict, which led to such great moments in the first season. TV Guide's listings (which are generally compiled from press releases) often refers to the two as "uneasy allies," but that really hasn't been apparent for a long time - until now, that is. And I'm glad to see that Andy's bigotry is being taken seriously, instead of the joking fashion with which it was handled in "Curt Russell," when he worked the murder of that East Indian woman.

I also have to applaud David Mills (at the moment, the only African-American on the regular writing staff) for not painting a one-dimensional portrait here. Yes, Andy was in the wrong here, but most of his accusers had their warts, too. The whole incident was brought upon by Kwasi's attitude, and, as a believer in individual responsibility, I have a hard time agreeing with his philosophy that getting Andy in trouble will get back at all the racist cops who abused him over the years, even if Andy's offense was minor compared to theirs. Bobby got on his moral high horse (and before you Bobby-bashers stick this one in your files, ask yourselves whether the writers wouldn't have had Kelly say the exact same thing if he was still around), but he's had opportunities in the past to chastize Andy for similarly unenlightened comments (like the aforementioned "Curt Russell") and has, for the most part let it slide with a "tsk tsk." And Fancy was a bit out of sorts himself. The instant he heard what Andy had said, that was his entire focus - the particulars of the murder investigation (and how it would suffer by taking one of the primary investigators off it in mid-stream) didn't seem to be weighing heavily on his mind. This was not "Picket Fences"-esque sermonizing, where every character suddenly has an extremely well-informed opinion on the Issue of the Week; this was a group of people who deal with racial issues every day on their jobs, and still can't properly articulate their thoughts and feelings on the subject.

Now, here comes the big "but." There was a *lot* of stuff that went on tonight that is crying out for further development. Will Kwazi file charges against Andy? Will the Village View find Bloom's notebook that contained his notes from the hospital (and which should have still been on his person when he was shot) and run the story? If either or both of those things happen, will Fancy try to shield Andy? How will any or all of this (particularly their nasty exchange at the end of the shift) affect Andy's working relationship with Fancy? With Bobby? Etc.

From the introduction of Bobby Simone on, the show has shied away from dealing with the consequences of events of one episode in future episodes, which has become by far the show's biggest flaw. And no event since Janice Licalsi shot Angelo Marino has seemingly had more repercussions than what took place tonight. My fear is that nothing will come of this - that the death of David Bloom will signal the end of things. My hope is that a lot will come of this - that Andy's comment at the end that he hopes Kwasi will bring charges so he can defend himself to someone other than Fancy is a hint that things are far from over; that recent interview comments by Dennis Franz stating that Sipowicz is headed for a fall were about this in part.

So this is it: I'm giving NYPD Blue this chance to redeem itself in my eyes. One stand-alone episode, even one as fantastic as this, is not enough to totally restore my faith, nor, I suspect, the faith of lots of other fans. Maybe not in the next episode, or the next two, but somewhere relatively soon down the line, I want to start seeing what's become of all the events of tonight's show. If I don't, well.... I probably won't stop watching the show, but I'll hold it in much less esteem - it'll be just one more show I watch, instead of my most eagerly-anticipated entertainment, week after week.

David Milch, are you listening?

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