Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Five Types In Search Of Character Development

There are certain things that go together naturally: Oreos and milk, soup and a sandwich, tomatoes and basil, cop shows and gimmicks. Not all cop shows have gimmicks, but it's not unexpected when you get a cop show that has a gimmick. In the past we've had cops in wheelchairs (Ironside), deaf cops (Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye), cops with OCD (Monk), robotic cops (Mann and Machine not to mention the syndicated Robocop), a psychic cop (well not really a cop, but the woman in Medium works for the local DA), vampire cops (Forever Knight) and if you count private eyes even a blind detective (Longstreet). Plus there was a real life private investigator named Jay J. Armes who didn't have hands, so why not a blind cop? The result is Blind Justice, the new ABC series from Stephen Bochco (and the whole Bochco clan if you can believe the credit list for producers and directors).

Blind Justice debuted last Tuesday, but I decided to wait to review it until this week. Pilot episodes frequently aren't exactly the way the actual series is going to be - they need tweaking and some smoothing of the rough spots. Blind Justice is no exception. There were some visual effects in use in the first episode that implied some things that weren't what the producers envisaged because they implied that the lead character, Detective Jim Dunbar, had some residual sight remaining when the producers and star Ron Eldard were clear that he was totally blind. Those sequences weren't present in Tuesday's episode.

In fact, decisions on visual effects may be the least of the problems Blind Justice is facing. I'm willing to buy the premise - a New York detective, blinded in the line of duty sues to not only get back on the police force but to go back to full time duty as a detective. I am even willing to buy the idea that he carries a gun. Hell there are plenty of people who shoot at things they can't see - they shoot intruders in the dark don't they? No, where I start to have problems is with the supporting characters. For the most part they are standard types that you can find in just about any cop show with this sort of premise. Type 1 - The Boss: not sure about the new guy, particularly with his "problem" but willing to give him a chance to prove himself. Type 2 - The New Partner: not sure about the new guy and how working with him will affect her career, but willing to give it a shot in the short term until he proves himself or falls flat on his face. Type 3 - The Enthusiastic Guy: usually the youngest person in the squad he's there to encourage the new guy because hey, he's blind and needs all the encouragement he can get. Type 4 - The Office Jerk: he's usually partnered with Enthusiastic Guy, and is constantly running down and tormenting the new guy because he's convinced that the new guy can't pull his weight and do the job. And because this is a Stephen Bochco drama, there's Type 5 - The Wife: there's been some marital difficulty in the past and she doesn't understand the changes that her spouse has gone through, but for now at least she's loyal. About the only supporting character who isn't a stereotype is the guide dog Hank. Speaking of Hank, I'm waiting for the episode where he gets shot (but not killed - the only dog ever to be killed while working with a cop was Hootch in the movie Turner and Hootch, and Tom Hanks got Mare Winningham out of the deal so it was almost a fair trade) and the squad rallies to find the crook while Jim has to cope without his dog.

The simple fact is that whether or not Blind Justice works is based entirely on whether Ron Eldard can sell us that his character, Jim Dunbar, really is blind and really is capable of doing his job despite that. So far I don't think that he's done too badly. For all the stereotypes surrounding him, this is Eldard's show. Watching his performance I haven't seen anything that screams "this is a sighted actor not a blind man." Which simply means that he hasn't slipped. Also, to be fair to the writers they haven't slipped into the "I was given a sainthood when I lost my sight" trap. Dunbar has his share of flaws, like jealousy and a temper. I wouldn't be surprised to see him edging towards an affair with his partner, but I'm betting they won't go there. Much has been made of the scene in the pilot episode where Dunbar pulls his weapon on a suspect. A lot of people disagreed with the character being armed or pulling his gun, but it is entirely in character for someone who recently lost his sight to instinctively try to do something that he would normally have done in a situation he was familiar with. A cop would pull his gun on someone who had attacked his partner, particularly when he can identify where the attacker is. What sold the scene was the subsequent reaction shot where Dunbar gains confidence in what his senses are telling him about what the attacker is telling him. He starts unsure but gains confidence as he becomes familiar with his surroundings. The subsequent scene in which his hands shake because the adrenalin is wearing off and he realizes what he has done is probably true of a lot of cops who can see, not just someone who can't. (I went to high school with a guy who later joined the local police force; at our high school reunion he told a few of us that the most scared he'd ever been in almost 20 years as a cop was the one time he'd been force to pull his side arm for real.)

All things considered while I like it well enough, I don't think that Blind Justice is anything special, but at the same time I don't think that it is terrible. The problem is that I expect more than average from Stephen Bochco after Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue. I'd like to see them get an extension into next season to see if Bochco and his creative people can improve on the characterization and make the supporting cast more multidimensional. If I had to give an opinion right now though I'd say that I prefer last year's NYPD Blue replacement, Line of Fire, to Blind Justice just for the way that Leslie Hope and David Paymer worked as characters. They were more dimensional than most of the characters in Blind Justice.


Unknown said...

I also saw the first episode and it really never broke new rules of television to me. On a lot of comic book web circles, Blind Justice has been compared to "Daredevil", with Eldard even looking like Matt Murdock. My feeling is that this show reminds me of "Longstreet" with James Franciscus as a former cop who becomes blind and continues his work. That show never lasted the season on ABC and I wonder if this new version will make it to the fall.

Brent McKee said...

I couldn't agree more with you about the comparisons. Longstreet is a lot closer to what the show is trying to do than Daredevil but of course people are more likely to make the Daredevil comparison because it's more recent and Longstreet is fairly obscure unless you go back a ways (like us dare I say it) or are a Bruce Lee completist.

I also agree that the show didn't break new ground. I'd like to see it continue into next season just to give Bochco & Co. the opportunity to make it stand out. A quick check of the ratings indicates that it's doing fairly well, albeit against repeats from CBS and NBC, so who knows.

tim gueguen said...

Yeah, you can almost be certain that if the series runs long enough something will happen to the dog. Especially if they need an excuse for a clip show, which what "character X gets shot and might die" episodes seem to end up being about half the time.