Welcome Aboard, Det. Rick

(Originally written 6/17/98)

At the risk of losing my Big Man On Usenet status by revealing two very unpopular bits of information, I'm going to do so, anyway.

First, Rick Schroder is replacing Jimmy Smits on "NYPD Blue."

Second, I think it's a brilliant idea.

I'd been hearing rumblings about Rick (Don't Call Him Ricky) Schroder being under consideration for several weeks, well before it was officially announced. Now, when I first heard the news, my eyebrows raised, but I wasn't nearly as shocked or dismayed as some on the Net seem to be (I especially liked Mr. Showbiz's "the worst idea since New Coke" quip).

Why? Several reasons.

Though I did grow up on the then-Ricky Schroder while he was the cute-as-can-be lead of "Silver Spoons," I've seen a lot of his work in made-for-TV movies in the years since, and most of it's been surprisingly good. The movies themselves may usually be exploitative junk ("Detention: The Siege at Johnson High"), but Schroder's always very convincing in his roles, most of which are a far cry from his pretty-boy child star days. And in his one big shot at a prestige project with a prestige cast, 1989's "Lonesome Dove," he not only was very solid, but held his own in scenes with on-screen dad Tommy Lee Jones.

Also, for all of the signs of aging that have cropped up on "Blue" in the past few seasons, the one thing nobody can ever complain about is the casting. Sometimes, entire episodes work only because the producers and the casting agents are so good at finding exactly the right actor for the right part. These people know what they're doing, and if they have faith in Schroder, then so do I -- at least until I see him on screen.

Since Smits announced plans to hang up his holster, I'd been thinking about what kind of actor and character could possibly replace him. Simone was a lot like John Kelly in a many ways, but David Caruso had only been on the show for a year when he left. Jimmy's been around for four; any new character bearing even the faintest eau de Simone would be a disaster.

The way I thought about it, the three most obvious ways to give the new star partnership a completely different feel from Sipowicz/Kelly or Sipowicz/Simone would be to make the new guy either A)black or latino; B)a young guy; or C)a woman. Any one of the three would likely push Andy's hot buttons and create some legitimate conflict for at least an episode or two before the duo settled into a new, unpredictable rhythm.

I quickly dismissed option C because, with Andrea Thompson and Kim Delaney already around, why bother bringing in another female detective when you could pair one of them with Andy? That left A and B, and while I might have been tempted to call up a former Bochco regular like Blair Underwood (or Richard T. Jones from "Brooklyn South") to join the cast, I think option B has just as much merit. (Though I suppose you could argue that the best of all possible worlds would be a young, black guy like, say Omar Epps or Morris Chestnut.)

Picture, if you will, Detective Rick's first day at the One-Five. Andy takes one look at this fresh-scrubbed, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, young All-American Boy, and his reaction will likely be identical to that of many Usenetters: "Who in the hell are they kidding with this guy?" The early comic and dramatic possibilities are endless.

Even better, think about how great it could potentially be if/when Andy finally does take a liking to the kid. Nearly every fan I know loved Andy's lessons in police work to Andy Jr. in season three, and while this would obviously be a very different relationship, the idea of seeing Andy again in a mentoring role really excites me.

Publicity-wise, I think it's a masterstroke. Schroder still has enough name recognition that most people will recognize him when the news becomes official. And while I bet most fans will respond in a very similar manner to the small sampling here on the Net, I just bet you every single one of them -- plus some fresh faces -- will watch Schroder's first episode out of curiosity, even if it's morbid, "How bad can this be?" curiosity. If Schroder's all he's cracked up to be -- and if Milch writes a killer script -- this could really revive interest in what's been, for the last couple of years, a fading show, ratings-wise.

Of course, the very real possibility exists that Schroder could stink. The Bochco casting people are not infallible, especially if the part is weak -- look at how many bad replacement characters popped up in the final years of "LA Law." He might not be able to handle the sometimes peculiar rhythms of David Milch's dialogue. And even though Rick's grown up and filled out quite a lot since the "Silver Spoon" days, he may not be a convincing romantic lead, which is just as important to many fans as his credibility as a cop. (Oddly enough, Schroder now bears a very strong resemblance to a young Jon Voight; Voight played his father in "The Champ" and "Return to Lonesome Dove.")

But until I see the finished product on my television sometime in late October or early November (the season's going to start later than usual, to accommodate the stress of the cast change), I'm giving Bochco, Milch and Schroder the benefit of the doubt. Right now, I'm very optimistic. If Schroder's as good as I hope he can be, this could extend the lifespan of the series a lot. As fantastic as we all think Jimmy Smits is, most of us are also in agreement that the show has been in a rut (albeit a well-written rut) for the past couple of years; this move could be just what's needed for a major creative recharge.

So, have I convinced anyone, or just doomed myself to net.pariah status? J

Alan Sepinwall * e-mail: sepinwal@force.stwing.upenn.edu

NYPD Blue page: http://www.stwing.upenn.edu/~sepinwal/nypd.html


"Men are nothing but lazy lumps of drunken flesh. They crowd you in bed, get you all worked up, and then before you can say 'Is that all there is?' that's all there is."