Thanks for the memories, Jimmy

(Written April 20, 1998)

Having had a few days to think about Jimmy Smits' departure, I've come to the conclusion that it's a win-win for all involved. Jimmy gets a chance to step out of Dennis Franz's shadow and the show gets a much-needed shakeup entering its sixth season.

Frankly, I'm surprised Smits stuck around as long as he did. Despite his top billing, it was never his show and likely never would have been. David Caruso once put his foot in his mouth in front of a whole lot of reporters by describing NYPD Blue as "a one-lead show," but once he left, that became more accurate than he'd thought -- only the one lead was Dennis Franz.

The synergy of writer and actor between David Milch and Dennis Franz has been one of the most amazing creative collaborations I've seen in my years of watching TV, but because Milch puts so much of himself and his experiences into Sipowicz (who is also modeled after his father), everybody else on the show has a tendency to get shortchanged -- Smits included.

When Smits joined the show, he was stepping into a difficult situation, not just because he was replacing the then-popular Caruso, but because his part was being created on the fly. In the limited amount of time Bochco and Milch had to devise a new character -- remember, Caruso wasn't definitively leaving until late in that summer -- about all they came up with was that Simone was an introspective widower. I figured that over time, more of the blanks would be filled in, but four years later, how much more do we know about the guy? While nearly every major detail in the life of Andy Sipowicz has become an open book to the viewers, Simone is still largely a mystery man, aside from the occasional nugget (the Patsy Ferrare episode, the story about Joey Salvo as a kid).

And while Franz gets one award-worthy storyline after another, Smits has often been forgotten. Yes, Simone has the higher-profile romance with Russell, but his number of non-relationship stories pale in comparison to Sipowicz's.

In that regard, Smits can probably empathize with the likes of Nick Turturro and James McDaniel. Every year, David Milch announces great plans to give Martinez and Fancy more to do, and they usually fall by the wayside. Martinez as union delegate? Good idea, but went nowhere. Fancy's mid-life crisis? Would've loved to see it, but the season's nearly over and it never happened. Similarly, Milch has started the last couple of seasons with plans to give Smits some meat, but the execution has been well short of the inspiration. Last year actually had three potentially great Simone arcs -- Henry and the building, watchdogging Russell's undercover op, and Joey Salvo -- but all but the first fizzled out in the end. And this year, he hasn't even had that much to do, while Franz is likely going to get another Emmy off of the cancer story.

But for the part he was often forced to play -- Andy Sipowicz's strong-but-silent sidekick -- Smits was nearly perfect. He never had much to say, but he said so much with silence that it often didn't matter. He and Franz always played off each other beautifully, and you got the sense in interviews and public appearances that they had become great partners off-screen as well as on it.

But Jimmy's too good an actor to be anybody's second banana, and as long as he was on this show, he probably would have been. Now he'll have time to try his hand with a couple of movies -- and the last few he did right before joining Blue were excellent (especially Mi Familia) -- and he also has that development deal with ABC, so he's obviously not getting too big a head here. And he also let everyone know well in advance (he'd apparently been dropping hints since mid-season) that the transition will likely be much smoother for his replacement than it was for him.

As for the show, the two obvious questions are: 1)How does Bobby get written out? and 2)Who replaces him?

To the first, I almost think he has to die, much as I hate to say it. He can't be forced to resign, because that would smack too much of The Other Guy. He could transfer out, but as long as Diane Russell is still hanging around -- and Kim Delaney is still very much under contract -- his non-presence would hang over the show even more than Sharon Lawrence's for much of this year. After all, Bobby would still be Diane's lover and Andy's best friend, and you would expect to see him on at least a semi-regular basis. The only other possibility short of killing him off is to have something happen that creates a big rift between him and Diane (and maybe also between him and Andy), to the point where they break up and he feels uncomfortable enough to ask for a transfer. But in a break-up that rough, somebody has to be the bad guy. You can't make it Diane's fault, since she's still around and you don't want the viewers to hate her, and you don't want to make it Bobby's fault, because you'd sully his character in his final appearance. That leaves death, likely in the line of duty, as the only way to preserve the character's memory and yet not keep fans pining for his return or keep the other characters' personal lives on hold. At least, that's my opinion.

As for Andy's third partner in six years? I've heard the calls for the likes of Andre Braugher and Chris Noth, but neither's gonna happen -- Braugher because he wants out of series TV and Noth because he's too similar in personality to Sipowicz (or at least his Law & Order character was).

You've also got to keep in mind that whoever comes after Smits will likely have to be just as convincing a romantic lead as he is a cop. While much of the show is about the job and the emotional toll it takes, since it began the romance has been a big part, and there's a fairly substantial chunk of the audience that watches just to see Jimmy and Kim generate sparks together. Put simply, the new guy's gotta be a hunk, and not an unconventional hunk like Mr. Franz. I don't know who that could be (and will leave the speculative listing for other folks), but since one of the show's greatest strengths has always been casting, I feel confident that the new guy will be a good choice.

So how will the show do without Jimmy? Not too badly, I suspect. For one thing, this will force Milch to take a long, hard look at Diane Russell not as Simone's girlfriend, but as a cop and an independent person. For another, I think we can all agree that for all its greatness, there is a certain amount of complacency these days (as much as you can say that for a show where the main character has prostate cancer), and the arrival of new blood might shake it out of that pattern. As comforting as it is to watch Smits and Franz communicate without words, the downside to that comfort factor is that it can get a little dull after a while. They weren't there yet, but now we'll likely be able to remember the two of them at their peak.

Those are all of my thoughts for now, but I'll close with the following, on the off-chance that Mr. Smits or an acquaintance is reading:

Jimmy, thank you for four wonderful years of performances. Thank you for stepping into my favorite show during an extremely rough time and making it look effortless. Thank you for never kicking a trashcan at Dennis Franz's head, and for generally behaving, by all accounts, like a consumate pro without an ego. Thank you for sending a chill down my spine when you threw poor Willie Garson into the pokey room cage. Thank you for always doing so much with so little. In short, thank you for bringing Bobby Simone to life. You'll be missed, big guy.

Alan Sepinwall * e-mail:
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"I had a small house of brokerage on Wall Street. Many days no business comes to my hut. Jimmy has fear? A thousand times no! I never doubted myself for a minute, for I knew that my monkey-strong bowels were girded with strength like the loins of a dragon ribboned with fat and the opulence of buffalo dung."