By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
As it is, Blue offers an excellent case study in variations on a theme. What else can a program do after it's memorized every verse in the cop-drama catechism? Let us not forget how dangerously edgy Blue once seemed (was it too hot for TV?): It treated us to the first use of "asshole" on prime time, offered us peeks at a wide array of buttocks, and opened its run with Andy Sipowicz (Franz) grabbing his crotch as a means of wooing Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence), who would later make an honest man, more or less, out of him. And what mattered on Blue wasn't just what we saw, but how we saw it. For years its tough-love ensemble offered up an unapologetic white man's take on urban life, with cops as the keepers of a constantly readjusted and shaky--but still imperative--moral order. Blue offered racial profiling of white as well as black characters, admitting that entrenched racism plagued large segments of the population (and less often, recognizing how thoroughly bias poisoned the power structure) but never feeling entirely guilty: an entirely appropriate symbol for a city and nation deeply riven by the tangled interplay between cultural tolerance, law and order, and middle-class fantasies of safe urbanity.
Those concerns remain at the heart of Blue even if, seven years into the series now, they are being much less consciously addressed than they might be. Unlike its artier and more integrated competitor Homicide, Blue remains timid about letting women and people of color speak their minds, much less occupy the center of the narrative. A new character introduced this season to challenge Andy's racism has yet to register much of an impact, and the complexities offered by the obviously tormented and proud Lieutenant Fancy (James McDaniel) have been grossly underserved. (Like Eriq La Salle's on ER, McDaniel's carefully composed face, dignified but ever alert for the whisper of imminent exclusion, is a case study in middle-income black oppression, what journalist Ellis Cose called "the rage of a privileged class.") As a result, given the show's white-dominated vision, African-American actors still spend most of their time here on the sidelines rather than taking center stage.
Sometimes that stubbornness has paid off. One-time kiddie laughingstock Rick-not-Ricky Schroeder, offered the highly unenviable opportunity to occupy Jimmy Smits's brogans, has been better than anyone could hope, a curmudgeon-in-the-making whose junior-tough-guy posturing makes you wonder how wonderful a goal wanting to Be Like Andy really is. Bill Brochtrup, as gay receptionist John Irvin, presses the tolerance button whether his fellow characters accept him or not. Jill Kirkendall (Andrea Thompson), whose husky voice connotes all manner of pain overcome, is finally being given a chance to break open the boys' chokehold on plotlines. There's a deep and pleasurable familiarity to these characters; they feel lived-in, worked on, publicly inhabited, in a way that only entrenched mass-media figures ever truly are.
Yet much of the time Blue now feels frustratingly insular, a series of infinite repetitions of familiar schemas. Shootings, robberies, street crime: the mechanics of urban decay, to be sure, but perhaps more minute a realism than we need. (From time to time, after all, even the most hardened cop-show viewer wants to feel special--a major conspiracy, a crazed sniper.) This show found perhaps its greatest moment by leaving its everyday orbit for a drawn-out JonBenet episode (Dad did it); the memorable final tableau, police and family frozen in attitudes of grief and guilt, achieved an almost Sophoclean resolution. But in the main its compass has been almost perversely narrow, content to approximate the cop's daily grind in hyperrealist detail.
And now a mournful aroma hangs over the whole effort, the impending desolation of an airport lounge. After all these deaths and departures (on the longer-lived 90210, almost all the main characters get packed off "to the East Coast," which at least creates fewer ghosts), what remains is less squad room than support group: Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) is probably still in her first stage of grief, whereas Andy is busy enduring denial, mourning, and acceptance all at once. Over the last six years, he's lost his first partner, his son, his second partner, and his wife. Always the most compelling character on Blue, his battles with the bottle, with corruption and loyalty, with the hate speech that sometimes erupts from his mouth, have been the linchpin of the program's racial, moral, and ethical struggles; we could probably see him as America, writ small, were we given the chance.