NYPD Blue Summary/Review by guest reviewer Alan Sepinwall aka sepinwal@stwing.org

"Off the Wall"
Season 10 Episode 17
4/8/03
Teleplay by Nicholas Wootton
Story by Bill Clark & Nicholas Wootton
Directed by John Hyams

Guess who's back? No, not David Caruso, but me, your humble ex-reviewer, pinch-hitting again for Amanda, who's tied up with some real-life stuff. Thankfully, I had to do this a couple of times last season, so the muscles aren't completely atrophied.

In short: It's great to have the show back after the inevitable spring hiatus, but this was a really by-the-numbers outing. I'll take mediocre "Blue" over "The Family" any day of the week and twice on Sunday, but let's hope the rest of the season is stronger.

SUMMARY

FATAL RICOCHET

Our trenchcoated heroes respond to a DOA call involving ex-con Kenneth Williams. Uniforms reported seeing a woman run off, but the witnesses -- Jenny Lu, a waitress at a neighboring chinese restaurant, and Clifton Shaw, a wheelchair-bound drug dealer -- claim they didn't see anything. John and Andy pressure Shaw into admitting he saw Williams and some pals jump his buddy Todd Grady, who fought back in self-defense, with the gun going off in the scuffle. A witness reports seeing Grady running around the corner, and Baldwin and Greg set up outside Grady's apartment. No one's home, but Grady rounds a corner towards them, then turns around when he sees the cops. A second later, he comes back and points a gun at Baldwin, who hollars "Gun!" and starts shooting at the fleeing Grady, along with Greg. One of the bullets goes through the wall at the corner. They go around the corner, and Grady's gone, but 13-year-old Theodore Lawson is gasping as blood oozes out of a neck wound from where one of the cops' stray bullets hit him. As Baldwin calls for an ambulance, Andy and John show up. Elderly neighbor Eleanor Hewitt pokes her head out the door, but is sent back inside by Andy. As Theodore stares at them in panic, the cops can't do anything but wait for help to arrive.

At the hospital, the detectives and Rodriguez get the bad news: Theodore died in surgery. They're all baffled about why Grady would have pulled a gun on cops if the shooting was a self-defense issue. Tony takes Greg and Baldwin's guns to send to ballistics to find out whose bullet killed the kid. Department brass shows up to get some answers, and Tony sends Greg and Baldwin back to the station to write their statements while ordering Andy and John to find Grady, ASAP.

When Tony returns to the squadroom, he's greeted by Reverend Walker, there on behalf of Theodore's father Jermaine. He's heard rumors that Theodore was shot by a white cop. Tony asks if the reverend's just there to stir up trouble; Walker insists he's trying to help a grieving father and his parishoners: "Better folks get information through me than rumors on the street."

Todd Grady has a minor rap sheet, and on two collars was bailed out by a Lashonda Harris, who the first uniform on scene identifies as the woman who ran from the shooting. Lashonda's a junkie on the methadone program, but before Andy and John can go look for her, the ballistics report comes back in: it was Baldwin's bullet that killed Theodore. Andy feels bad for Jones, but thinks everyone's better off that a black cop killed a black kid. He offers Baldwin an attaboy, but Baldwin's not hearing anything positive right now.

At the methadone clinic, Andy and John get Lashonda to explain that Williams and Grady had an old beef dating back to when Grady stole some of Williams' drug turf. As far as she knew, Williams had stayed clean since getting out of prison, and says that Dante Kelly was one of the guys with Todd at the time of the shooting.

Baldwin tells his story to the precinct duty captain, and says that Grady's gun looked like an automatic -- which the captain finds odd, since Greg's statement said it was a revolver. Baldwin explains that he shot through the wall by accident, instinctively following Grady's path as he ran. The captain is on Baldwin's side, but discrepancy about the gun could be a problem. Baldwin confronts Greg about it, and it becomes clear to Andy that Greg never saw the gun and was lying to back up his partner -- which may have caused greater problems.

Reverend Walker is back, and now he's hearing more troubling rumors: that Grady was robbed right before the cops chased him, that Grady never fired a shot, even that Grady didn't have a gun on him at all. Jermaine Lawson is being pressured by friends to call a press conference, hire a team of lawyers, the whole Johnnie Cochran routine, and if the Reverend is going to try to stop this, he needs Tony's word that his detectives were in the right. Tony has no proof, but he gives his word anyway.

Andy and John stake out Dante Kelly's place, and realize he's lurking on the sidewalk in a rasta wig. They give chase, and Dante gets trapped in a chained-up gate. While Andy tries to pull him out, John realizes that the door next to the gate was unlocked and begins to cackle maniacally. Dante isn't willing to give up any info about the shooting. When they bring Dante back to the precinct, Reverend Walker is conducting a press conference with Mr. Lawson, Clifton Shaw, and Eleanor Hewitt, giving a skewed version of events that includes Eleanor's bogus claim that she saw Grady unarmed right after the shooting.

While the frustrated detectives watch the press conference on the coffee room TV, Connie gets an anonymous tip suggesting that Jenny Lu saw more than she admitted. John and Andy go to her restaurant; she's not cooperative because the place was firebomed a year ago and she worries it will happen again. Andy's out of patience and tells her that even if she doesn't help them, they'll let out word that she did -- so she might as well help put Grady behind bars. Jenny says that Williams was simply walking down the street when Grady came up and shot him, completely unprovoked.

Tony calls the reverend back in and turns his people's story into swiss cheese -- especially now that the cops have a witness who, unlike Clifton Shaw, isn't a dealer with a cop's bullet in his spine. Andy lies about having already found Grady's gun, with Grady's prints on it. Walker, shaken, offers to find out where Grady's mother is staying. After he leaves, Andy and John quietly tail him to an apartment -- where he's conferencing with Todd Grady himself. Over the reverend's protests, they haul Grady into custody.

Grady's not afraid, boasting, "I got the people on my side, fellas. Y'all are gonna get bit!" He sticks to the self-defense story, but his confidence falls when Andy says he has a witness. Andy explains that judges look at a figurative scorecard when deciding sentencing, and right now all of Grady's checks are on the negative side -- if he can put some checks in the positive column, he might get off with a light sentence. Grady, not too bright, buys into this and explains that Theodore Lawson wasn't an angel, but a kid who worked for him and held onto his gun. ("Y'all got him shot in his communion suit with a bible in his hand. Kid was a thug!") He explains that he and Theodore were going to stash the gun when Greg and Baldwin showed up, and that the gun is in the freezer of the apartment where they piked him up. Watching all this through the two-way mirror are Tony, Baldwin, Greg and a shaken Rev. Walker, who apologizes to the cops.

At the end of the shift, Baldwin thanks Greg for lying about the gun. "I know you, Baldwin," Greg says. "I didn't have to see it to know he had one." Despite his partner's help and the knowledge that Theodore Lawson wasn't an innocent kid, Baldwin's still not right with this. Valerie arrives and tells him not to beat himself up, then invites him home with her to have dinner, drink wine, and try to get his mind off the day. They kiss.

CLEAN AND SOBER

Connie and Rita catch the death of Frank Malvoin, a Queens man found dead on a stoop in the lower east side. There's some light bleeding in the back of his head, but no other wounds, and no explanation for what he was doing there. They track down Malvoin's co-workers, who say they were out drinking with him when he split off to see girlfriend Helen Kolodner in Brooklyn -- an address where police responded to a domestic abuse call a few hours before Malvoin died.

Officers Carpenter and Rivas, who responded to the call, tell the detectives that no one was home when they got there, but that the Kolodner place was one of their regular stops, since Frank was an abusive drunk. They're more concerned with Jones' shooting than this case.

Helen Kolodner tells a very different story: she and Frank were most definitely home when Carpenter and Rivas arrived, and after she begged them not to arrest Frank, they took him away to "chill out." Rita breaks the bad news about Frank.

Confronted with the conflicting version, Carpenter and Rivas admit that Kolodner was telling the truth. Even though the case was a must-arrest, she begged enough that they agreed not to bust Malvoin, instead driving him into Manhattan and dropping him off in front of a bar that seemed closed, four blocks from where he later died. He was fine when they left him.

After checking at the bar, the cops bring in Pete Davida, who was there that night and had a run-in with Malvoin. He thinks Frank is alive and filing assault charges against him; he explains that he's been clean and sober since he got out of jail, was only at the bar to help out a friend, and that Frank ran into him and called him an asshole, at which point Pete shoved him back, knocking him to the ground -- causing the brain hemorrhage that killed Frank a few minutes later. Realizing he may be charged with manslaughter, Pete admits that he was at the bar with a married woman with whom he's conducting an affair, and reluctantly gives up her name so she'll corroborate his version. She does, which means the grand jury probably won't even indict Pete.

Carpenter and Rivas are back yet again, and after Connie and Rita lay it all out for them, they realize that they got Frank killed by not following procedure and locking him up for the night. They could lose their jobs over this mistake, but Connie promises that they'll stay silent -- provided Carpenter and Rivas do the same, since word of a cover-up could hurt Connie and Rita almost as much as them.

BACK AND BROKEN UP

John is back on duty less than a week after his father's funeral, to the surprise of everyone -- including Rita, who hasn't heard from him in days. He says he was going stir-crazy at home, but he seems especially quick to provoke when dealing with witnesses.

While staking out Dante Kelly, Andy suggests that John let Rita help him out more. John, angry, wonders what Rita might have helped with: His father's unpaid bills? Questions about suicide from the insurance company? The house John has to sell because he can't bear to go into it again? The blood he had to hire someone to clean? His laughing fit after Dante's arrest acts as a stress release, but only briefly.

That night, Rita comes to John's apartment and confronts him about freezing her out, both about his father and the whole heroin scandal with Fraker. He insists that he handles things himself; she says he can't do that if he wants to be with her, but doesn't think that he does. "I wish I felt the way you want me to, but I don't," he admits, and suggests they stop seeing each other. She's just relieved to get the truth out, and assures him that they'll be fine on the job. They hug, she cries, and they part ways.


REVIEW

FATAL RICOCHET

Good evening. Tonight on 'NYPD Blue', we examine the phenomenon of deja vu. That strange feeling we sometimes get that we've lived through something before, that what is happening now has already happened. Tonight on 'NYPD Blue' we examine the phenomenon of deja vu, that strange feeling we sometimes get that we've ... Anyway, tonight on 'NYPD Blue' we examine the phenomenon of deja vu, that strange...

Monty Python references aside, "Off the Wall" played like a blurry copy of season one's "Guns 'N Rosaries," which remains one of the best "Blue" episodes ever. In that one, for those with short memories, Martinez and Medavoy were stopped at a traffic light when a neighboring black driver pulled a gun on Greg; James knocked his partner down and killed the other man, whose gun disappeared when the crime scene techs showed up. The absence of a gun touched off a racial firestorm in the neighborhood, Greg lied to investigators about the gun, which he never actually saw, and John Kelly and Andy found the weapon in time to clear James' name.

Sounds familiar, no? If you're lucky enough to have the season one DVD set, I highly recommend popping it in to take a look, and you'll see all the similarities. (It also features the best-acted scene Amy Brenneman's ever been in, a wonderfully smarmy turn by Brad Whitford as a tabloid TV reporter and two exceptional scenes at the end: one with Caruso and Whitford in the locker room, one involving a raincoat and a pair of handcuffs. You'll know 'em when you see 'em.)

Now, I don't object to "Blue" recycling an old plot -- in year 10, it's a wonder there are any new stories left to tell with these characters -- but the least Nick Wootton could have done was change the melody a little instead of doing a note-for-note cover.

The original story, for instance, was told from the perspective of the main characters, with James' distress about killing a man and Greg's willingness to lie for his partner very much in the background. When I saw the plot description for this episode, I assumed (or at least hoped) that this would be something of a showcase for the badly-underused Henry Simmons and Gordon Clapp. Instead, this episode was just about Andy and John doing another routine victory lap; all the scenes about Baldwin's anguish and Greg's anxiety felt tacked-on. For all the attention paid to our two regulars, this episode could have easily been about two random uniform cops involved with the shooting of a kid. (Hey, Kevin Dillon's even available, now that he's done creeping out Kim Bauer on "24.")

Again, there are no new stories for "Blue" to tell this late in the game, just new facets of the characters to explore. Baldwin's been around for more than three years, but nothing much has written for him since David Milch left. There's the relationship with Valerie, but that's an all-around snooze. (And by ending this story with their scene together, it suggested that Baldwin's ordeal was really just another means for these two to get closer.) Here's a genuinely meaty story that Baldwin could and should have been in the middle of, one that would have told us more about the big man of mystery, and he watched most of it from the sidelines while John and Andy went through the procedural motions.

The one moment that really grabbed me came right at the start, when Baldwin and Greg discovered the kid lying in the hallway, eyes wide with terror, his hand trying to stop the flow of blood. That's an image that's going to stay with me a while.

CLEAN AND SOBER

I see the parallels between this story and the main plot -- cops screwing up, an ex-con trying to stay on the straight and narrow and getting in trouble anyway -- but this one didn't really work, hamstrung by some weak casting and a general sense that this was a distraction from what should have been a more dramatic A-story. Any or all of these scenes could have been deleted in favor of, say, a visit inside the shrink's office at Lefrak City (it's been a few years since we got one of those),

The actors who played Carpenter and Rivas weren't very convincing as cops, and they didn't even seem interested in the dialogue they had to recite. The guest stars don't all have to have thick Noo Yawk accents, but we have to believe in who they're playing to care about the stories they're in, and I didn't buy these guys at all.

Also, their actions seemed pretty sketchy, even by this show's usual tradition of making most non-regular cops bums or incompetents. So they screwed up by not arresting Frank in the first place, fine. But as soon as Connie and Rita told them that Frank was dead, it makes no sense that they would stick to their bogus story. Their explanation later that they hoped the investigation wouldn't lead back to Helen Kolodny was really lame -- Helen would be any detective's first stop -- and these two didn't seem to be that stupid. Unconvincing, yes; idiotic, no.

(For all I know, this one's based on a real story that Bill Clark heard about or was involved in, but if so, it's one of those cases where the truth required some fictional assistance to work.)

BACK AND BROKEN UP

Well, I'm glad that's over, and in a relatively painless, classy matter. No screaming, no melodrama, just a recognition from both John and Rita that this wasn't working -- something most of us recognized before the writers even officially paired them up.

This particular coupling has always been a Late In The Run special, the kind where a show's producers draw up a flowchart of the male and female castmembers to figure out who hasn't hooked up yet. There was no real history between John and Rita, no personality traits to suggest they'd be a good match, and no overwhelming chemistry. (Even if you don't like the idea Andy and Connie together, at least there are sparks between the actors.) No, they were just both available at the same time; that may happen in real life, but it's not necessarily interesting to watch.

And because I never cared about the romance, it was frustrating to see their story welded onto the aftermath of Clark Sr's suicide. The scene in the car where John unloaded on Andy was one of the best of the episode, because there was some specificity to it, notably the bit where John talked about having to hire people to clean up the blood. But like the Baldwin/Valerie scene, the episode's closing made Clark Sr's death seem like just a mechanism to end this relationship.

QUICK HITS

* More redundancy in the A-story: in two different scenes, we were given visual cues about an important piece of information, which was immediately repeated by one of the regulars. First, Tony shook his head about the kid dying, seconds before Greg said "Kid died." Second, the other cops watched through the glass as Tony told Baldwin that it was his gun, seconds before Andy said, "It was Jones' bullet." Both scenes would have been much stronger if the visuals had been allowed to tell the story.

* One nice change-of-pace about Rev. Walker and the uniform cops is that they all admitted their mistakes when confronted with the truth. No stonewalling or continued denials like we usually get -- just sheepish apologies.

* A very funny minor bit of business with the queasy witness who found Frank Malvoin's body. "That's his puke," indeed.

* I was glad to hear Connie and Rita have to field questions from other cops about Baldwin. With a case like this, everyone would be talking about it, and it was good to get some acknowledgement of that.

* Re: Andy's threat to Jenny Lu, I can't remember the last time our cops put that much pressure on a civilian witness, but it was a realistic touch. Not everyone's going to give up information out of the goodness of their hearts.

* The guest star roster (look 'em up on IMDb if you think you recognize someone): Doan Ly as Jenny Lu, Affion Crockett as Todd Grady, Andrew Meeks as Theodore Lawson, Andrew Sikking as uniform no. 1, Bruce Katzman as professor no. 15, John Cothran Jr.as Reverend Walker, Julanne Chidi Hill as Lashonda, Obi Ndefo as Officer Carpenter, Felix Pire as Officer Rivas, Vasili Bogazianos as duty captain, Laurie Taylor-Williams as Helen Kolodner, Java Benson as Dante Kelly, Fulvio Cecere as Pete Davida and Jo D. Jonz as Clifton Shaw.

LINES OF THE WEEK

Not the most quip-tastic hour, but there were some funny bits:

Dante: "I wasn't running from you! I thought you was somebody else!"
Andy: "Who? CIA, Al Qaeda, or the rasta cops?"

This one was more visual than verbal, but I laughed hard at it:

Lashonda, about to pocket Andy's cash: "I don't need your damn money... I'll take it anyway!"

NEXT WEEK

Andy and John are on the trail of an AWOL Marine (hope it's not that guy from "American Idol"), Greg looks into mail-order brides (not in the way you would think) and Valerie gets her own stalker. And, hopefully, Amanda will be back to offer her keen insight about all of it.

See ya in the funny papers,
Alan