Wednesday, March 02, 2005

NYPD Blue - Goodbye, Farewell, and Thanks

On the same day that Alaska senator and chairman of the US Senate Commerce Committee, Ted Stevens, announced that he would support an extension of the FCC indecency regulations that cover broadcast TV to cable TV, the groundbreaking show that tested those regulations from the beginning has left the air. The last NYPD Blue to air was not quite as edgy as the first. There were no bare asses or almost exposed female nipples , and the famous dictionary of words that could be used has apparently shrunken somewhat. I doubt that today Andy Sipowicz would be able to grab his crotch and shout "Ipsa this you pissy little bitch."

It doesn't really matter of course. The point was never really to shock. It was much more about reflecting the realities of "the job" and the people who did it. The aim of series creator David Milch and his adviser, friend and later Executive producer of the show, former New York Police detective Bill Clark was to make a show as real as American TV would let it be. And while Law & Order which debuted three years earlier was all about the cases and never the people, on NYPD Blue was about the people. The cases they worked were part of the way we found out about them. The people were interesting because, as is rarely the case in television but is necessary in great drama, they were shown "warts and all", and there were some pretty prominent warts.

As the special that aired before the final episode showed, NYPD Blue evolved through a series of stages. The first year of the show was very much about David Caruso's character John Kelly. Sipowicz was a major figure but it was Kelly and the storylines that surrounded him that were the focus. The problem was that Caruso sincerely believed it and thought that the world was his oyster bar and being tied to a series was keeping him from enjoying it. He left acrimoniously and I think the show was better for it. I certainly think that the show wouldn't have lasted 12 years with Kelly as the focus. What Caruso leaving did do was to give Dennis Franz and his character Andy Sipowicz a more prominent role by bringing Jimmy Smits in to play Bobby Simone. The relationship between the two was far closer to being equals than it was with any of the other partners that Andy had. It was illustrated in the special with the clip of Simone and Sipowicz singing "Duke of Earl" together in the car, something that Bill Clark and David Milch did on at least one occasion. It was an intimacy that wasn't shared with any subsequent partners. When Jimmy Smits left the show in 1998 and was replaced by Rick Schroeder, the chemistry changed. Schroeder's Danny Sorenson was never an equal to Sipowicz; rather he was a cipher that Andy was never able to crack which made the character's departure wrenching. Finally there was Mark-Paul Gosselaar. His character, John Clark Jr., was a pupil. He was also a Sipowicz in the making buffeted by personal problems that drove him towards despair and addiction, but this time Sipowicz was able to see the problem and catch it. This evolution in the show was also an evolution of Sipowicz. He went from Andy the drunken screw-up with Kelly, to Andy the guy who tries hard but sometime slips with Simone, to Andy the guy who has all this stuff to teach but doesn't know how with Sorenson, to Saint Sipowicz with Clark.

NYPD Blue is a show that is a sparkling example of the theory that a movie or TV show rises and falls on three things: good actors, good writing and good direction. NYPD Blue all three elements. The acting has been strong throughout most of the series' run, with the supporting players delivering solid work and storylines that at time rose above simple support of the leads. They all had effective backstories and the ways the parts were played made the backstories believable. Actors brought elements that the writers didn't think of to their roles - Gordon Clapp decided that Greg Medavoy stammered when he was nervous (in an early episode, a director went to producer Steven Bochco and complained that he couldn't work around Clapp's stammer and the actor had to be replaced; Bochco told him that the stammer was part of Medavoy's character). The series went through a lot of actors but by and large the actors they used were able to deliver.

Writing and Direction were major areas of controversy. Like Andy Sipowicz, David Milch is an alcoholic and as he put it Andy got sober before he did. This caused problems in the writing, which Jimmy Smits pointed out in the special. By the time Smits left, the cast were getting blank call sheets and lines delivered hours or minutes before scenes were to be shot. It was chaotic but many of the cast consider this sort of working without a net to be some of the best episodes they did. What the writers did impressively week after week was to chart the progression of the characters in a manner that didn't seem staged. Andy's relationship with John Irvin, the civilian administrative assistant, progressed over the years from antagonism to acceptance to friendship in a way that was totally believable. As for direction, the use of the "shaky cam" helped to create the show's feel as well, giving it an almost documentary feel. Although appearing random the quick movements of the camera were deliberately planned to recreate the way the human eye moves when something suddenly attracts our attention. It helped to define the show's look and feel.

The final year of NYPD Blue wasn't as strong as many of the earlier seasons. The departure of Charlotte Ross, who played Andy's third wife Connie MacDowell, last season pretty much ended storylines that dealt with his home life. The fear of a crackdown on obscenity, which began with Janet Jackson's nipple, restricted both the language and the number of nude scenes in the show - the latter affected relationship stories for other characters in the show. It was starting to become more about the work not the people. Then too there was the feeling that, with ABC announcing that the show was in its final season, the show was sliding towards its end. Sliding but not entirely slumping. Some of the stories this season have been quite strong. It was fitting that it went out when it did, and fitting that last scene, featuring the guy who was the screw-up from the first season who knew he would never make it beyond Detective Third Grade, had made Sergeant and was running the detective squad. The Progress Of Andy Sipowicz was complete.

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