NYPD Blue Summary/Review by Amanda Wilson
Season 11 Episode 1
Teleplay by Keith Eisner
Story by Bill Clark & Keith Eisner
Directed by Mark Tinker
Still the best drama on TV, even if the old gray mare ain't quite what she used to be. Here's a bit of a summary followed by quite a bit more of a review:
Sinclair's version of things is quite different: he describes Fraker as a hero who was in the midst of uncovering a hotbed of corruption in the 15th precinct when Tony got wind of it and tried to kill him. Self-defense is his motive; he tells the jury Tony was reaching for his weapon and that Fraker had no choice but to unload on him.
Witnesses include Rita, Dr. Devlin and Andy. Devlin is forced to admit she's having a fling with Det. Clark and Sinclair makes Andy out to be a blackmailer.
All in all, not a bad day for Fraker and Sinclair. Fraker ended the day with a smug look on his face. Andy ended the day sweating profusely and hoping to God the whole case wouldn't hinge on him.
Freddie's sick butt is back in the squad room in a flash. Andy and Junior pull down the shades of the pokey room, take off their watches and give Freddie a choice: tell them everything or reach for Junior's gun. The implication isn't lost on old Freddie. He says he won't touch the gun but Junior assures him it won't matter; he'll just say Freddie went for it. Andy puts a nasty choke hold on Freddie and drives him into a wall. Freddie finally tells them that his brother found his green playground coveralls and called to rat him out to his parole officer. Freddie got mad and shot him, then chickened out of shooting himself in the head and shot his arm instead.
Andy promises Freddie that in addition to going away for the murder, he was going to make it clear to Adam and Mickey and the world at large that those kids were abused by him and that they aren't liars.
It is nice to have our old friend Blue back, after all, isn't it? Sort of like slipping into a familiar sweatshirt as the weather turns cold and remembering how much you liked wearing it all last winter. And the ten winters before this one. It's changed color a few times in the wash over the years--Kelly green to burnt Simone to a sort of washed out pasty color we'll call Sorenson and finally darkening, or, uh, Clarkening, into it's current state. The only trouble is, it's a whole lot thinner than it used to be, and, while it's comfy as hell, it's not keeping me too warm.
I was hoping for a bang-up season premiere, but instead got a faded out version of my old favorite. The problem, I believe, is all in the story telling. It's the same complaint I had last year: there is a serious lack of depth here.
Aside from the really stellar acting (everyone in this bunch gets better every year and they were all really terrific tonight), the thing that has made Blue stand out from all the other shows has been it's multi-layered writing. Law & Order, as we all know, is a police procedural show. The characters there are interchangeable and don't much matter. That's it's franchise. CSI is a bit like that too, only the writing on that show is dumbed-down quite a bit from that of Law & Order and certainly from that of Blue. Blue has always been The Thinking Man's cop show. It's completely character-driven, and that's it's franchise. In the beginning, its racy content and edgy look and language set it apart from the rest of the pack, but I believe it's always been the show's basic intellectual appeal that has kept it far above the others. The last season or so, however, I've been at a loss to consistently find that level of entertainment in Blue. And believe me, I love this sweatshirt, so I've been looking.
Take the Fraker trial as an example. Here we have an enormously explosive situation. One police boss shoots another in a scenario rife with corruption, revenge, infidelity and hatred. A lawyer well-known for raking up dirt on this precinct lands right in the thick of things, and the stink of corruption surrounds the 15th squad for the umpteenth time. Our heroes are put into a situation where they'll have to publicly defend themselves against bad guys who are supposed to be on their side. Reputations, careers, love affairs and at least one man's life hang in the balance. What a truly great story. It's filled with tension and drama, but if any of that came across on my little screen tonight, I missed it. What I saw was one lawyer laying out her case then another lawyer tearing it down. One lawyer getting the goods from her witness and the other getting his.... Maybe Sinclair had the upper hand a time or two, but who's worried? Not me. I wish I were.
Hey, I tried to pen a script once, and I know it's not a cake walk. I have enormous respect for writers. What they do is hard work, personal work. Despite what some lazy viewers would have you believe, these people are not out to ruin your favorite TV show. It's their livelihood, after all, and they take pride in it. But one has to wonder if they're really giving it their all. Some basic things were overlooked in this show. Like, where's the tension?
Here it is, in my review. Follow me for a bit: Sinclair is building a defense on the notion that Fraker is a hero uncovering crooked cops and that those crooked cops conspired against him. Things came to a head with the Lt. in that corrupt operation, and that Lt. got so scared and desperate that he actually tried to murder Fraker. Poor Fraker had no choice but to defend himself. What we should be seeing is Sinclair ripping into the entire, nasty, shady, dirty goings on in that precinct house from the very start. And just how would he weave all that together? With Andy, of course. We should be seeing him putting Andy right at the top of it all. Andy, who's been there since the beginning and has been involved in one way or another with everything bad, has done Tony a big favor by getting him out of trouble with Fraker, and Tony was just paying him back. "Yes, Andy Sipowicz is as rotten as they come," says my Sinclair as he reaches back into the Licalsi case, brings up Jill's liaison with her drug dealing husband, the murder of Rita's husband, the questionable shooting Baldwin and Greg were wrapped up in, Danny's whole FBI fiasco, Bobby's problems with Joey Salvo, the uniforms' problem with the girl in the police explorer program; even Fancy's scrapes with the brass could play a part. A good lawyer would link it all to Andy--the Godfather of the 1-5. And really good writers would find a way to make it look as if it's going to work.
Sinclair could also get into all the sex. Not just clouding Dr. Devlin's testimony by making her admit that she's sleeping with Clark, but tying the two of them up into a triangle with Rita who's husband, by the way, ended up dead. He could dig up Diane and Bobby's secret marriage and Connie and Andy's plans for their own. He could talk about Greg and Donna, Danny and his wacky anti-crime girlfriend, James and Adrienne, Greg and Abby and especially Valerie and Baldwin. To a person, these folks ignore department rules on a regular basis. "What else would they do?" he should be asking the jury. And the man at the top of this little station house of horrors, Andy Sipowicz, is, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, a mean and nasty drunk. He's cavorted with prostitutes and gotten an ass full of lead for his trouble. He's beaten perps to bloody pulps, gotten into scrapes over racial comments and yes, he even got his own son killed by giving him bad advice about how to be a cop. He drove his ex-wife to drinking, and it was his lack of responsibility in dealing with the drug abuse of a PAA in his squad that resulted in the murder of his second wife, Sylvia Costas. Andy Sipowicz is a man with no scruples. He's wreaked enough havoc on this city from behind that gold shield, and finally, he swept up into his corrupt little world Lt. Tony Rodriguez--who has his own checkered past in narcotics and who tried and failed before to harm our hero Patrick Fraker. Rodriguez owed Sipowicz after that little blackmail stunt and when Fraker turned the heat up and threatened to undermine Andy's empire, Rodriguez did what any good Mafiaesque underling would do: he tried to take out the source of Andy's worry. He tried to kill the highly decorated Captain Fraker.
And on and on. Does that scenario hold water? Would the jury buy any of that in the end? Of course not. Fraker has to lose. But that's not the point. The point is getting the tension and the drama wedged into the story on the way to its eventual conclusion. Just like in the courtroom the point is not to tell the truth (despite what Sinclair said tonight) but to cast reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. There is so much opportunity for tension here, but I'm not seeing any of it. I'm seeing point counterpoint in the courtroom. Truly excellent acting by Garcelle and Benzali and also by Jackie O. and Dennis in those scenes, but they could be working with so much more of a story.
Perhaps this type of story would be better served had there been a constant tension throughout the last several seasons of Blue. David Milch was great at keeping these guys on the edge more often over time. They are always Our Heroes, and that should never change, but they do things that are on the edge so that we're always questioning that gray area and the blue line around it. Cops have power we want them to have and need them to have, but we trust them not to abuse it. Sometimes our trust is betrayed, most of the time it's well-placed, but always we question it. We want them to be heroes for us, but when they are human it can be hard to take. It makes us feel shaky and unsettled. They're supposed to keep our world safe. What happens when they're as unsure and scared as the rest of us? That tension is the central question Sinclair should be shoving at the jury.
And how to make it look good? Courtroom scenes are notoriously boring. There's just no action built into a scene like that. People stand up, sit down and fidget. Occasionally an arm waves around or a sleepy judge wakes up and barks at someone. What else can you do? Well, thinking totally out of the box on this one, and knowing virtually nothing about putting together TV shows, how about changing the structure of things for a case like this? Assuming you know the outcome of the storyline, how about making the courtroom scenes retrospective without giving away the ending? Your current events are a bit shady, perhaps, so as not to give away the story of the courtroom drama, but you play back the events as they unfolded in court and you delve a bit into how those events have twisted our characters' lives. Example: We start the season with John and Rita struggling in their recently patched up relationship. Maybe it's Halloween in current time and the trial has lasted a month, so how did they get there? Through the retrospective of the courtroom story, we see Devlin had to testify that she's banging Clark. We see how that stressed Clark out completely. His already shallow relationship with her threw a big wrench into the gears, and when he once again reached for the Honey Bear jar, he thought about how that joyous act of passion landed his squad in a pretty dark place. It was cruel and unfair like life is bound to be, and so Junior had to choose between his perfectly pure desire and his perfectly pure loyalty to the squad. Rita will be there to share the guilt--the two of them banging won't have helped matters in the trial either--and this can be the basis for their rocky reunion. They get back together because together they can share passion *and* guilt. And by the time the trial is over--which is where we're starting our make-believe season--they're back in the sack together. Hey, I'm just thinking out loud here.
Another way to spark it up a bit that just flew out of my brain may have been to build the tension through the use of a completely different perspective. Of course, the media perspective is the first thing that comes to my mind since that's where my mind is most of the time. Also, it makes sense. Blue has simply got to stop denying the existence of the media in the realm of police work. Trust me, it's a constant and mostly unpleasant presence for the police, and it's also--as you know--a constant (and mostly unpleasant?) presence in all of our lives.
Now, I don't mean we look at this story from the point of view of a reporter, but rather from the point of view of a New Yorker following the story on TV. Instead of showing us Valerie's opening statement--brilliant as it was in both writing and acting--we could have seen a reporter doing a stand up about it. (A stand up, for those not familiar with the lingo, is the portion of a TV reporter's story in which they stand before the camera and tell you things.) So maybe you get totally wild and do the whole show that way, or you get less wild and you do parts of it that way. Like this: the courtroom story is told completely through the media and the rest of the show is your characters in their natural habitats trying to go about their lives while this frenzy surrounds them. Everywhere they go, reporters are trying to get them to comment on the trial. They walk into Freddie's house where they're investigating the murder of his brother and what's on TV? Channel 7's coverage of the trial. Someone with a radio is listening to it on the street and giving them a play-by-play. It's everywhere, and they can't get away from it. That's a way of stringing the tension of the trial all through the show rather than just going to it from time to time or having people comment on how businesslike Tony is being today. It's also a unique way of telling what could be a pretty boring-looking story. Oh yeah, I like that idea. Sure it changes the basic fabric of the show, but after ten years, why not shake things up a bit? It's NYPD Blue, after all, the original shake up show. And it's not like these brilliant folks didn't go out a thin limb with the Mike Roberts episode. That one was great and far more risky.
Let's carry it further: All this tension spills over into the characters lives in unexpected ways. In this scenario, we'd actually see Clark and Devlin dealing with the bombshell she dropped in the courtroom when she had to admit they're an item. Maybe he sees it on TV in that perp's house! Booom! That's how we all see it, and suddenly its impact is much bigger.
As for Andy and Connie: rather than having a hushed conversation over their desks reaffirming their commitment to each other, they watch trial coverage in bed the night before Andy testifies and they see Sinclair telling a pack of reporters how he's going to drop a bomb on Sipowicz and his dirty little affair with Connie. How he dug up court records of their recent custody battle over Connie's dead sister's baby. Their whole lives and the lives of their children are the top story at 11, and they huddle together to weather the storm or share doubts about whether they can make it. After his testimony, Connie waits outside the courtroom for him amid a throng of reporters. She wants to comfort him the way she did in the show we saw, but she knows better than to be caught doing that in front of the TV cameras at this point. Oh, the drama as they find a way to walk off into the sunset together without getting caught.
And what of the built in conflict between Baldwin and Valerie? At first, we're going to make this early part of the trial so rough on the 15th that things look bad for our heroes and Baldwin would then begin to doubt Valerie's dedication and ability. Oooo, more conflict. They could have a big fight over it.
Getting out of the relationships a bit, you could have this sex offender (or the suspect father) throwing a few lines at the cops about how corrupt they are and how dare they judge him after all the shit he's seen on the news about them. "You're the one who got your son killed, right?" the suspect dad says to Andy, "well, I'm trying to protect mine." That might have brightened up that tired little scene of Andy taking off his watch and Junior pulling down the shades. I mean, we've seen that so many times that we know nothing is going to happen. But if someone said that to Andy, don't you think he'd really lay into the guy? One to the kidneys, and who could blame him? Ah...tension.
Or remember the days when two or more stories in an episode had a common theme? There's an obvious one here that could have been developed: that sick feeling you get when you're wrongfully accused of something. Freddie was faking that feeling, but Tony really had it. Two men dealing with the effects of Supposed Wrongful Accusations (...sounds like an Alannis Morrisette CD...).
OK, you get my point. What it could be and what it was. It could be a story with many levels exposed. It could be a story with constant tension and upset and urgency. It was a story that was plain, simple and not as much fun as all that.
Finally, I wish there had been some sort of hook into next week's events of the trial. After watching the show, I don't even have a taste of what's to come and that's a shame. Aren't there supposed to be things in the previous scenes that drive you into the next one? A show with an arc, it seems to me, ought to include some sort of action that compels me to watch the next show. All I know after watching tonight is that Connie and Andy are having dinner and that the trial isn't over yet. I'd rather know something like Tony is getting called to the stand tomorrow to try to prove he's not homicidal. What must Tony being doing tonight? How are John and Jennifer dealing with all this? Rita? She says she's over whatever her issues are, but what does that mean? I'd have liked to have seen something that showed me she was over it. And what are Baldy and Val up to? Fraker and his girlfriend? Maybe she's plotting to blow the whole case wide open and we don't even know her.
I don't see previews of next week, by the way, but I shouldn't have to, should I? Shouldn't the show itself make me want to keep watching? Glad they're doing the arcs (more are planned this season)--that's a big plus--but I'm thinking a little more cliffhanger action from week to week would make it work a lot better.
I know it probably sounds like I hate the show, and God knows that's not true. It's my old sweatshirt, you know; sort of a staple of my fun wardrobe. I want to keep it forever and never have it fall apart. That's why I examine every stitch the way I do. I know I can get a couple more years out of this thing...I hope the folks putting it all together feel the same way.
Let's move on to the accessories, shall we?
William Dennis Hunt as Judge Burns: This guy was on Bochco's LA Law. He's also done West Wing and Frasier, and was in a couple of movies with Flesh Gordon in the title. I don't think I want to know what that means.
Brian Stepanek as Freddie Langford: He was in Murder by Numbers with Sandra Bullock. He's also done West Wing and Six Feet Under. And the poor guy is from Cleveland which might mean he's a Browns fan. He did such a good performance tonight that I'm just going to pass on making fun of the hapless Browns. It's difficult, though.
Michael Tinker as Uniform: Here's the man who took the bullet for Danny. Well, with Danny. He's done Blue a few times. He's a cop in the LAPD and he's Executive Producer (and director of this episode) Mark Tinker's brother.
Kevin Chapman as Brad Riggs: You may have seen this guy in CSI, 24, The Agency or The Practice. He's also working on some interesting movies. Check out imdb.com for more on him and most of these folks.
Arjay Smith as Mickey Economides: Fabulous job! Arjay was on Malcolm In The Middle for a year. He did Blue in 2001 and has also done West Wing and ER.
Phillip Van Dyke as Adam Wilentz: He's been on Without a Trace, Gilmore Girls and Boston Public.
Nick Sandow as Ray Wilentz: He was on Third watch for a year and did L&O three times.
Helen Slayton-Hughes as Grace Langford: She's done Judging Amy and Malcolm In The Middle.
Julia Murney as the playground mom: She did an episode of Sex in the City.
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