NYPD BLUE:

ONE SEASON, TWO CRITICS

By Amanda Wilson & Alan Sepinwall

 

              A few years back, we tried to combine our critical brains to do one of those lengthy season-in-reviews that Alan used to do back when he was a crazy college kid hepped up on caffeine (and, quite possibly, goofballs). Our enthusiasm kinda waned after a few e-mail back and forths, and as the summer went along, we just gave up.

              Well, not this year folks! Even with the 10th season premiere less than two months away (that's on Sept. 24th, for those of you keeping score at home), we got this puppy done.

              Many of the opinions expressed below may seem familiar to the people who have been reading Amanda's reviews this year -- or to the ones who read Alan's handful of solo reviews and follow-ups to Amanda's -- but they're collected here under one handy umbrella. And there may be a new one or three, so look closely…

             

MEET JOHN CLARK

 

              AMANDA: I was not among those who had significant doubts about Mark-Paul Gosselaar joining the cast.  He, like Rick Schroder before him, didn't appear on my radar screen during his child actor days, so I had no preconceived notions. Though I suspect that I wouldn't have had any if I had seen him then.  I mean, I'm not the same person doing the same thing I was when I was 18, why should anyone else be? 

              However, since his casting I did tune in to a rerun of Saved By The Bell so I could see what all the fuss was about, and I must admit that after seeing it, I understand the reluctance of people to accept him right away.  But I can't imagine there's anyone left who has doubts.   Gosselaar has proven completely capable of holding his own against the powerhouse performances of Dennis Franz, Gordon Clapp, Joe Spano and Charlotte Ross. He's even gone the extra step of bringing up the performance level of Jacqueline Obradors who has made huge strides since her pairing with him. It's evident that he's got more going on than his experience on SBTB would let on. In fact, I think his experience there has been good for this show. They say doing comedy is much more difficult than doing drama, and I think it's clear that MPG's comedic timing is serving him well on NYPD Blue. He's completely comfortable delivering zingers; he makes it look easy.

              My concern with having a new partner for Andy was how the writers would craft John Clark and keep this old show moving in her golden years.  But they came through, too.

              In just one season, Clark already has more backstory than Simone ever did (thanks to the brilliant writing for and casting of Joe Spano as Clark, Sr.), he's more likeable than the tortured Sorenson and, IMO, much more likeable than the brooding, one-note Kelly.  Clark has instant conflict in his two police dads--Clark, Sr. and Andy--and that provides rich ground for exploring who he is and who he's going to be.

              If I have any complaint at all, it was the cheese factor in the Smoker story and how they got him hooked up with Rita. It was maybe a tad too cute, but as I've written here before, these two actors made it work.  By the time they were skin to skin, I was all for it. There seems to be a nice, natural chemistry with those two, and even if it was a little cheesy, it works.  Nothing wrong with sweet, and they've got that in spades.

              I also see a little conflict down the road for them:  maybe Dad won't really be all that impressed with her, and there is the fact that she didn't want to talk much about where she is mentally in the aftermath of her husband's murder. So there are a few things to explore there, and that's good.

              I think the addition of MPG to the cast was a homerun for all concerned.

              A word about Jacqueline Obradors:  I was so wary at first. She seemed a little too much like Early Diane when she came on the show; and, like I did with Kim Delaney, I had a major problem with her voice. It just seemed too high pitched for a cop. I remember thinking she couldn't scare a cat in a room full of rocking chairs with that voice. And my other concern for her was that her entire character was based on...well, nothing.  We never knew Rita.  All we knew was that she was married to a creep and that she did an adequate job backing up Connie.  It was as if she was just there for decoration.  But things are changing a bit now with Rita:  Since her pairing with Clark, she's coming around.  I think the  actress is probably much more comfortable on the set now; perhaps she's more comfortable playing a lover than she is a cop. Whatever it is, she's far more relaxed and that's been nothing but good. I'm not even noticing her voice anymore--or has that improved too?  And now there's a chance we'll get to know a little more about Rita and what makes her tick.

              I really wish they'd given her a few of Connie's scenes so we could develop some respect for her on the job. That would have gone a long way toward to bringing this character out more and making her more interesting to the audience. I'm hopeful next season there will be some time for that now that there's more of a foundation for her.

 

              ALAN: I was more wary of MPG than Amanda, not so much because of the kid-star thing, but because of "Hyperion Bay" and "D.C.," his other two "adult" projects, where I thought he was fine but not great. ("Silver Spoons" is about on par with "Saved by the Bell" in terms of fluff, but at least Rick Schroder had a great performance opposite Tommy Lee Jones in "Lonesome Dove" on his resume.) But I suppose it's all about the material, because he has been just terrific as John Clark Jr., completely believable as a cop, a foil for Sipowicz and a romantic leading man (even if I don't think much of the romance, but we'll get back to that).

              Bochco clearly learned a lesson from the Danny Sorenson experience; Clark was much more well-adjusted and charismatic than poor Danny, and instead of leaving viewers on the hook for years about Clark's backstory, Bochco spelled most of it out right up front.

              My only real concern is that the writing staff has gone so far in the other direction for Clark that there potentially might not be much to do with him in the coming season(s). He's a little _too_ well-adjusted, too normal.  With him, what you see is what you get, but in the long run I think that would be better to have in a real-life cop than the co-lead of a fictional drama. Kelly's vengeful messiah complex fueled lots of professional and personal stories. With Simone, there was always the sizzling chemistry with Diane, not to mention his own brooding intensity and the way his style sometimes clashed with Andy. And as irritating as Danny's emotional tics got at times, at least it helped fuel conflict on and off the job.

              Now that Clark has settled into a groove as a detective, what do you do with him? The ongoing reconciliation with his old man is interesting, but that can't be all there is to Junior. Will he and Andy continue to click so perfectly? Are there certain types of cases that get his blood boiling more than others?

              The best Clark stories last year were the ones where he screwed up -- losing his badge, mishandling the James Kilik situation -- and I think the writers need to constantly keep in mind that he's still very new at this and isn't always going to do the right thing. Maybe a story or arc where John starts getting too comfortable with the new position and then completely makes a mess of a case would be in order.

              It's also unfortunate that Clark's been saddled with such a bland romantic partner. I have issues with the Andy/Connie pairing (more on that below), but at least both characters are well-rounded and established and there's a lot of chemistry between the actors. Rita is, in my opinion, a real waste of space, a character without any real character. She has a history (the whole messy Don thing), but after nearly an entire season, I still don't know if she has a personality. More to the point, there was absolutely zero history or chemistry between John and Rita before the smoker story began, and I still don't sense any chemistry between them. Yeah, they're an attractive couple, but there's no there there. It feels like the writers realized they hadn't shown any skin in a long, long time and rushed to throw together the two most attractive and available characters, regardless of whether it worked.

              Hopefully, either Rita will get a personality transplant come fall or John will be freed from the relationship so he can find more interesting things (or women) to do.

              And speaking of love stories...

 

THE LOOOOVE SQUAAAAD…

 

              AMANDA: I know there are a lot of folks out there who are opposed to all the dating in the squad. Is it realistic?  Well, I don't know.  Bill Clark married one of his squad mates, so it happens. But the question for me is, do I really care if it's realistic?  I don't.

              I understand the creative need for it, and that's good enough for me.  It's a one-hour show about people who are cops in NYC.  One of the most interesting ways to let your audience know a lot about who these people are is to explore their personal lives. So if you're going to keep it a show about cops, you can't waste a lot of time hooking them up with bank tellers, massage therapists or photographers. There are really only a couple of places to go:  ADAs, and they do that; reporters, and they've done that (though not well), and other cops.

              Aside from the reality aspect--assuming you're hung up on that--the problem with having them hook up with other cops is that you can write yourself into a pretty tight box pretty easily.  That happened with Bobby and Diane and even with Sylvia and Andy.  When one of the actors in each of these pairs decided it was time to move on in life, the writers still had the lives of the characters left to deal with.  You can't hamstring your characters, so you end up killing off the other character. We all know that's happened more than once. More than twice!

              This is what concerns me with the current pairings, especially the Andy and Connie pairing:  what happens when there's conflict?  And I'll say again, there has to be conflict because you can't sustain interest without it.  Yes, oh yes, Dennis Franz and Charlotte Ross have chemistry to burn.  They are magic on screen together, there is no denying it.  But damn, I wish so much Steven B. would have chosen to explore that in a work setting rather than a romantic one. 

              I see the smallest signs of Connie being out there in space land from time to time (her comment about Sylvia in the finale), and that almost makes me mad.  I really like Connie: she is the single most well-crafted female character I've ever seen on television; I do not want her to turn into a simpering girly thing, and I've heard a few lines here and  there that worry me on that score.  When that happens, it reminds me that most, if not all, of her lines are written by men. Talented men, no doubt, but men who may have a difficult time now and then staying plugged in to Connie's psyche and carrying it through her actions consistently.  I sense they're paying attention to that, however, and I'm hoping  they can pull it off.  (They did in that amazing scene with Connie and Andy on the couch.)

              I don't feel this way about Rita and Clark, however. That's simply because Rita is not the well-developed character Connie is.  In fact, conflict in that relationship may well be the thing needed to define Rita (as Bobby's death defined Diane).

              What can I say about Baldwin and Valerie? Two words:  Move. On.

 

              ALAN: Squad romances are fine to a point, but only when there is a point. People responded so strongly to Kelly/Licalsi because of the tremendous plot hook attached to it when Janice committed murder for John. Bobby/Diane worked because Smits and Delaney generated sparks just standing within 10 feet of each other. Andy/Sylvia (which, technically, wasn't a squad romance) was terrific because it exposed us to a different side of Andy, a more sensitive, self-doubting side that wasn't on display in the police stories. Greg/Donna (again, not technically a squad romance) was a lot of fun because they were such an unlikely pair and because the writers weren't afraid to make a joke out of it. Even Danny/Diane had potential, simply because it seemed like such a colossally bad idea for both of them that it could have worked if Schroder and Delaney had any chemistry at all together.

              The current love stories don't seem to have a reason for being other than the fact that the show has traditionally had a strong romance component.

              Baldwin/Valerie delivered in terms of showing us a slightly uglier side of Baldwin than we were used to, but there wasn't much heat between the actors. I want to see more of Baldwin, who I think still has a lot of untapped potential as a character -- while I don't want a return to those weekly scenes where every woman swoons over this gorgeous physical specimen, I do miss the confident, slightly mellower cat he was at the beginning -- but it's time to move him away from this relationship.

              John and Rita I talked about above. As for Andy and Connie, I'm having trouble mustering the enthusiasm for it. These are two great actors who happen to work well together, but I don't think that automatically has to translate into putting them into a love affair. If, in some weird parallel universe, Andy and Bobby had been established as gay, should their smooth professional relationship have been turned into a romance? I like the idea of exploring a male/female friendship -- especially when the male is as volatile as Sipowicz -- and it feels like the writers spend more time having Andy and Connie talk about why they could be attracted to each other than actually showing it. Bochco and Co. could still pull this rabbit out of their collective hats, but I don't think it's worth the trouble.

 

CRIME STORIES

              ALAN: Arguably the best change from the David Milch days has been the tweaking of a formula that had become so familiar that even the skells seemed to be checking their watches to see when they were supposed to break down under interrogation. Cases don't always get resolved in the interview room anymore, the cops actually go outside now and then (and we don't have witnesses randomly wander into the squadroom to offer up key information on a silver platter), and it's not obvious from the first commercial break who did it.

              While the solve rate is still ridiculously high compared to a real detective squad, it seems like our heroes are allowed to lose a little more often now -- or, in a story like James Kilik's, we see that solving the crime doesn't really solve anything.

              Now, one of the reasons Milch wrote so many interrogation scenes is because he was really good at it, and there haven't been a lot of spellbinding interviews over the last two seasons. But this late in the show's run, I think I'm willing to sacrifice a little greatness for more unpredictability.

 

              AMANDA: It's hard indeed to make the old girl seem fresh, but one of the fascinating things about this show has been its ability to survive over a ten-year run (which is like 70 in TV years).  It has to be the new blood.

              All due credit to David Milch, but I think Alan is right: his exit

provided an opportunity for some fresh air.  I'll add that from the

standpoint of creative lifeblood, I think it came maybe a year later than it could have.  Danny's last year, overall, was probably the worst the show has ever had.

              Then there was new life. New characters and a new direction and style in the writing and production all provided ample opportunity to look at things in a new way, and that's just what the gang behind the scenes did. We long-time fans ended up last year with one of Blue's best. 

              The adjectives that spring to mind when I compare this year's approach to the cop stories are that they're cleaner, brighter and more compelling. But they haven't lost their edge--not at all--in fact, I think many of them gained an edge. The Kilik story is a perfect example.  The story was as complex as any Blue has ever done, but it was presented without a lot of convoluted, mysterious dialogue and that left us open to the raw emotion it evoked.  It was, to me, reminiscent of early Blue stories. 

              I agree that the interview, so heavily relied upon in the early years, is not as prominent as it was once.  I don't think it should be, either. Not because Milch isn't  there to write them, but because we've seen it all already. Ten years into the show, it may be time to see other things. Getting to see them last season is part of what made it so good. For my money, the best shows are the ones that take place largely outside the squad room, and we got a lot of those in season nine. They take more money and more energy on the part of the production folks but it always pays off in an outstanding piece.

 

BLUE & 9/11

 

              ALAN: Bochco had to change a lot of things around on the fly after 9/11 -- a year ago at this time, the production crew was in New York shooting several scenes with the World Trade Center in the background -- and after a rocky start, I think he and the rest of the writers figured out a way to make this fictional New York resemble the real one.

              The scene in the season premiere where Connie and Andy talk about "the World Trade Center attacks" (a phrase no New Yorker, cop or otherwise, has ever used) was hastily thrown together, and it showed, but later references to 9/11 were subtler and felt more appropriate. I especially liked the story in "Moms Away" about the murder victim who appeared to have died when the towers fell. That seemed like the kind of thing that could actually have been going on in Manhattan at the time (for all I know, some people did take advantage of 9/11 as a cover for their criminal pursuits), and it didn't beat us over the head with the horror of it all.

 

              AMANDA: I think the 9/11 references early on were as good as we were going to get. They were backed up against a wall by the time the show aired, and I doubt there was any other way to get it done. For example, real NYC cops had the black bands on their badges. I can't see a way for the Blue folks to have inserted that into the show without reshooting the whole thing, and I'm glad they didn't just toss them in there later on in hopes we'd forget they

weren't wearing them for the first several shows. 

              I didn't have a problem with the phrase "World Trade Center attacks" at the time it aired, but unlike Alan, I don't live real near NYC.  Out in the rest of the world, we were still calling it that for a while. Additionally, I kept thinking of the people who actually had to write, act and shoot those extra scenes:  they were as shell-shocked as the rest of us. How could they know what would feel comfortable 6 weeks after the fact? None of us knew anything in those first months but the unutterable fear we all felt.

              Later, after my skin thickened a bit, I wondered if there couldn't be some reference to that anthrax business that plagued New York.  On the whole, though, I thought it was a good effort at first.  The nicest touches all season were the shots of the memorials scattered throughout the show and the life going on around them. Hats off to whoever made the journey back to The City to get those.

 

OVERUSED/UNDERUSED CHARACTERS

(aka The Medavoy Report)

 

              ALAN: Gordon Clapp has been on this show longer than anybody but Dennis Franz. Gordon Clapp is arguably a better actor on this show than anybody but Dennis Franz. Greg Medavoy is the most unconventional, unpredictable character on this show other than Sipowicz. So why doesn't this actor (and his character) have more to do?

              I'm not asking for some huge, dramatic Medavoy uber-arc. I recognize that, in the scheme of things, he's always going to play second, third, or even fourth fiddle to Sipowicz, Sipowicz's partner and the current female lead. But I think he's too good a character, played by too strong a performer, to mostly sit on the sidelines. Other than his brief bit of jealousy about Baldwin and John's friendship and the one episode with his daughter, Greg didn't get much to do last season.

              All the other supporting players, including the usually-neglected John Irvin, got at least one multi-episode arc last year: Connie with her daughter (and then with Andy and Theo), Baldwin with Valerie, Rita with Don (and then with John), Rodriguez with that IAB weasel Fraker, John Irvin and his dad. Even if they didn't all work (Rita/Don and Rodriquez/Fraker, in particular), at least they gave the performers some needed exposure. Gordon Clapp never really got that.

              It could be something funny (though hopefully not as lowbrow and awkward as the artificial insemination story from year four), something serious, something in between. Maybe Greg and Baldwin get assigned to a task force for a few weeks and get a chance to shine (or screw up). Maybe Greg finally gets around to touching up Mike Roberts' old novel. I don't really care what. Just give the man something good to do this year. He's earned it.

 

              AMANDA: I couldn't have said it better myself although God knows I've tried!  As Alan pointed out earlier, love stories in the show work best when they have a point. So here's an opportunity to have a point:  Greg gets another girl and that has some domino effect (to be determined by a real writer) on his work. Hell, it doesn't even have to be that complex: it would just get us a little

closer to a character who's part of the family. And if that's not enough of a point, then try this: we'd get to see a fine actor in action.

              All those moments wasted on Valerie and Baldwin's other girlfriend (whose name I've not surprisingly forgotten) could have been much better spent on Greg.  All those moments wasted on the Don (Rita's husband) story could have been spent on Greg (and Rita could have had a story of two of Connie's so we could have gotten to know her as a cop rather than just a pretty face).

              I also wouldn't mind seeing a little more of Joe Spano as Clark's dad. Maybe there's more friction there to explore. Maybe we can find out that the father son conflict goes way deeper than dad being pissed at Andy.

              And I don't mind seeing more of Eddie Gibson.  He's the perfect foil, of course, and that takes that burden off Greg. Eddie annoys us, but we've also gotten to see a kind soul in there.  A follow-up on Kilik is in high demand anyway, so, there ya go.

              As for overused characters, I have to say that as much I loved the guy who buried Danny (he was truly outstanding in that show), by the third time we saw him I was pretty well done with that character.  They were skating awfully close to Huggy Bear territory with him (like they did with Danny's snitch J.B.).  I never could figure out why Andy didn't want to just kill him. After all, he rolled Andy's partner in a carpet and buried him in a landfill or something. How could you talk politely to a guy after that?

              I'll add Valerie to the overused list also.  I think Garcelle Beauvais really started to do a much better job with this character by the end of last year, but by that time, there was nothing for her to work with.  An ADA may be necessary to the show--probably is--but let's have one who adds some interesting conflict to the show. You know what was perfect about Leo Cohen, for example? He was a guy doing a noble job, just like the cops, but the job he did frequently put him at cross-purposes with the cops. Andy hated him for his job, which is just how cops are. We, on the other hand, got to know that Leo was a good guy. That was nice conflict and it worked. Every time Leo came on the screen, you just knew it was going to be interesting. Two characters you like who don't like each other--having something like that again would be fun.

 

IN CONCLUSION…

              TV shows rarely get better in their ninth season, but "Blue" managed to be the sterling exception. It helps that season eight left so much room for improvement, but it will be interesting to see whether year ten continues the upward trend. Even if it's "only" as good as this season was, that's still plenty good. Maybe the virtual Emmy snub will motivate the writers to get even more ambitious.

              There's still a chance that this could be the final season -- the show hasn't been renewed beyond this year -- but it's not likely. ABC has too many other trouble spots to risk losing one of its few reliables, even if it's an old reliable.

              And as long as Dennis Franz is around, there's still plenty of life at the 15th Precinct.

 

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