NYPD Blues

Law and old order: Dennis Franz

Watching NYPD Blue play out the string these days feels like standing on the beach as an antiquated ocean liner is towed out to sea and sunk: There's a certain grandeur to its slow demise, and a measure of nostalgia, but also an inarguable recognition that the days of wine and roses (or here, beer and a pack of smokes) have passed. Even Dennis Franz's annual Emmy--he won in '96, '97, and '99 and was nominated in '98--can't camouflage the decay. The network gods have taken note, first holding off the show's premiere for months; then bouncing Blue from its accustomed Tuesday time slot, subsequently returning it when Steven Bochco threw a very public hissy fit in protest; and finally promoting the show's revival with winking ads that all but admitted it had been left for dead but was still somehow tottering on. With any justice, it will die an honorable death, saving us the vision of yet more characters (Nicholas Turturro the latest to hope to beat the curse of Caruso) passing on or "falling ill" as they head for greener, or at least less windblown, pastures.

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.

But maybe we shouldn't. So much has been loaded onto Andy's shoulders that he has become a blue-collar Job, twisting at the whim of writer or producer. This season has seen him playing cute with his young son and bearing up manfully under all his loss, but it's hard to know where this character could possibly develop. He could become the male Susan Lucci, lose some body parts, I suppose, or perhaps his new child, but who could possibly be that cruel? Maybe Blue could become a kind of sentimental education for men--the adult continuation of the homosocial passion plays wrestling presents. Probably not, though; Andy takes it like a man, always will.

At times, in fact, I would very much like to see a whole lot more distance on Andy's struggles than we get. In its relentless sympathy for his old-line point of view, Blue verges on the classic urban white-guy ethnic gripery out of which big-city columnists like Mike Royko and Pete Hamill wrestled whole careers. Politically, that resentment powers police-state tactics in locations from Rudy Giuliani's New York to Richard Riordan's Los Angeles, where reports of an "organized criminal subculture" within the LAPD are just now leaking out. So in the end it may be time to retire Andy Sipowicz and all the baggage he carries. He had a great run in midcentury America, but we're trying to lift some different burdens these days.

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