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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Milch Studies: NYPD Blue, Season Six -- Guest Stars & Stray Thoughts



In the years that follow, Deadwood will become famous amongst its fans for David Milch’s ability to turn its bit players into genuine stars of the series.  Season Six of NYPD Blue shows Milch’s early inclination to do this, as characters who have previously spoken only a few lines of dialogue begin to force their way into the stories and shape the direction of the series.  If you were one of the NYPD Blue regulars who witnessed your role diminished so that these bit players can move into the spotlight, this probably didn’t make you very happy.  For the viewers, however, it adds an element of unpredictability and realism to the series.

Debra Monk as Katie Sipowicz
Sipowicz’s ex-wife made a brief appearance in Andy, Jr.’s final episode, and was referenced once in the first season (when Sipowicz casually admitted to smacking her during his drinking days), and that’s all we know of her.  This year, Katie re-enters Andy’s life when she comes to the precinct, asking for his help with a DUI arrest.  Sipowicz, with his amazing ability to discern any drunk in his immediate vicinity, quickly realizes that this wasn’t a one-time mistake and that Katie’s become an alcoholic since the last time he’s seen her. 

This plot has Milch revisiting some heavily-treaded ground, and I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes when yet another character showed up as an addict, but the scene where Sipowicz takes Katie back to her home saves the story.  Debra Monk is fantastic as a mother in mourning, a woman at the end of middle-age who built her entire life around her son and now has nothing to live for.  The scene where Andy discovers the mold of the handprints their son made as a baby, now broken and left on the floor because Katie accidentally dropped it and can’t bring herself to look at it anymore, is just devastating to watch. 

Revealing Katie as an alcoholic also opens the door to examine Andy’s recovery, which has been largely glossed over since the start of Season Four.  Andy tells Katie that Alcoholics Anonymous will help, even though he acknowledges that he hasn’t been going to the meetings.  (This is tossed out there without any fanfare, but it’s an important revelation about Sipowicz.  It also introduces the question of who Diane’s sponsor is supposed to be now, assuming she hasn’t dropped out, as well.)  Katie embraces AA, and a new connection with God, in a manner that even Sipowicz finds a little unnerving.  That’s where the season leaves Katie, although she will return in the future as her relationship with her ex-husband develops.


Lola Glaudini as Delores Mayo
Delores was introduced last season as another secretary in the comedic relief role, the joke being that she’s lazy and not that nice to her co-workers.  This year, Delores goes from goofy side character to the nexus of the final half of the season.  And I can pretty much guarantee you that this was never the plan.

Delores’ arc begins in the seventh episode of the year, when Jill and Diane are investigating a strip club, and discover that Delores has been skipping work in order to dance at the seedy joint.  Delores’ explanation is that she can’t stand going to work every day in a place where people actually respect one another, a line I initially perceived as sarcasm, but turns out to be genuine.  Apparently, people telling Delores “thank you” and “good job” all day triggers emotions she doesn’t want to acknowledge, so she’d rather spend her days stripping, where people at least view her for what she’s really worth.

It’s an odd speech, but it tied into that episode’s theme of self-loathing and the refusal to accept forgiveness, so I didn’t think that much about it.  In the next episode, Delores is still missing work, and Jill and Diane discover that she’s been caught shoplifting.  The manager at the store claims that Delores propositioned him in exchange for dropping the charges, which she denies.  Jill and Diane help to make the charges disappear, but Delores is still reluctant to return to work. Episode Nine (“Grime Scene”) has a brief -- and I mean brief-- scene between John Irvin and Delores that establishes that they’ve become friends in-between seasons.  John pleads with Delores to talk to Lt. Fancy about getting her job back, but she refuses.

Delores then disappears for several episodes, with no acknowledgement that she’s gone.  John Irvin is filling in for her one day when he reveals to Sipowicz and Sorenson his suspicion that Delores is in trouble.  It’s then revealed that not only has Delores become a prostitute since we saw her last, but also a heroin addict.  And it’s at this point that Milch steers the show towards an extended sequel to the very first episode, for reasons I still don’t fully understand.  I also question the arc that takes Delores from silly side character, to troubled young woman, to ultimately, victim.  Partially because Delores was clearly intended as a comedic relief when introduced, but also because her storyline this year seems to start and stop at random intervals.  I do like the way the character unexpectedly begins to change the direction of the season, but buying into her story is initially difficult because it feels like it’s been assembled arbitrarily.

Delores’ appearances over the past two seasons have actually been pretty enjoyable, especially before her breakdown began.  Whereas most of the PAA characters are just so chipper and happy to be at work, I think Delores more accurately represented the average twenty-something’s attitude towards sitting at a desk all day.


Todd Waring as Malcolm Cullinan
This is another character who seems to be a one-off guest star who later becomes significant.  Malcolm Cullinan is a wealthy man with sick desires…how sick, we don’t discover until later.  (And, I suspect, because David Milch hadn’t thought of them yet.)  He’s the john who takes Delores to Atlantic City for a rendezvous, and due to his predilection for filming his encounters, allows the viewer to witness Delores’ final moments.  He panics when Delores dies with a needle in her arm and, after disposing of her body, contacts his attorney.  His lawyer arranges for Cullinan to avoid jail time by copping to the plea of unlawful disposal of a body.  The audience clearly isn’t meant to feel any sympathy toward Cullinan, a feeling expressed when John Irvin punches him in the face after he witnesses the footage of Delores’ death.

Anyone would think that this is the character’s final appearance on the show, until we discover that, in addition to wanting revenge on John Irvin, he genuinely enjoyed what happened to Delores and is eager to find another victim.

Daniel Benzali as James Sinclair
James Sinclair was a major figure in the first season, going all the way back to the first scene in the first episode.  He’s the lawyer defending Alfonse Giardella in the pilot, and as we later learn, the attorney overlooking the affairs of the Marino crime family.  He’s viewed by the cops as slime, but also as a dangerously competent attorney.  So competent, John Kelly put up his life savings at the end of Season One to hire Sinclair to represent his girlfriend, Janice Licalsi.

The character of James Sinclair disappeared after the opening episodes of Season Two, although actor Daniel Benzali went on to essentially play the same character in the Steven Bochco production Murder One (David Milch wrote the pilot.)  Murder One, produced during the height of OJ mania, was dedicated to following one case throughout the course of one season, as opposed to the usual TV tactic of one case per week.  It was a critic’s favorite, but never much of a hit.  I’m surprised the producers didn’t attempt to connect the show with NYPD Blue…would it really hurt to name Benzali’s character “James Sinclair” and maybe twist Dennis Franz’s arm to do a guest shot? 

James Sinclair reenters the lives of the 15th detective squad when he arrives as Malcolm Cullinan’s attorney.  I’m not sure what the genesis of this guest spot was, but I wonder if it inspired David Milch’s desire to close out Season Six by paying homage to Season One.  Perhaps Milch just wanted more scenes between Dennis Franz and Daniel Benzali? 

After the detectives learns that Malcolm Cullinan is even more depraved than they initially thought (he’s looking for another girl to recreate Delores’ on-camera death), Cullinan is charged with attempted murder.  Sipowicz, even though he’s unwilling to admit this to himself, is terrified at the thought of being questioned on the stand by James Sinclair.  Sinclair embarrassed him on the stand during his drinking days, and the incident has taken on a peculiar significance in Sipowicz’s mind.  He wants to prove to himself that he isn’t the drunken screw-up James Sinclair humiliated that day, but is afraid that Sinclair might honestly be smarter than him.  Being disgraced on the witness stand again, in Sipowicz’s mind, will undermine every step of self-recovery he’s made over the past six years.

Robert Glaudini as James Mayo
Delores’ father just awkwardly pops into the closing of an episode this year, during a stretch of episodes that lead you to believe that her death isn’t going to carry any great significance.  He reveals that he’d received a Christmas card from Delores months back and viewed it as a sign that she’s willing to reconcile.  This is in March, so Jill and Diane are already skeptical, before they discover that the Christmas card was mailed two Christmases ago.  He demands that the detectives not judge his parenting, shortly before they inform him that Delores died weeks earlier.  As he leaves the squad, almost as an afterthought, he tells the detectives that he hopes Delores didn’t run into someone who did to her what he used to do to Delores.  And with that small line of dialogue, Milch gives us the final insight into the life of Delores Mayo.  Even the silly supporting cast members aren’t immune to abuse, addiction, and self-loathing in Milch’s world.

Mr. Mayo makes a surprising return a few episodes later, and as the season approaches its climax, it’s clear that his story isn’t going to have a happy ending.  Just how badly it would finish, though, was a shock to the audience.  Mayo (somehow) sneaks a gun into the courthouse during Malcolm Cullinan’s trial, and convinced that the system won’t grant him justice, opens fire.

And only now looking this actor’s name up on IMDB did I learn that he actually IS Lola Glaudini’s father, in addition to being a respected painter and playwright.  And, geez, there have been instances where real-life parents play their kid’s TV parents...but to play that kind of father to your actual daughter is just insane.

Michael Harney as Mike Roberts
Disgraced former detective Mike Roberts makes his final appearances this season, as the audience discovers his own unlikely connection to Delores Mayo.  Mike Roberts has been working security for Malcolm Cullinan for an unrevealed amount of time, and is eventually revealed as the source of the drugs Cullinan supplies to his prostitutes.  Roberts is already consumed with guilt over what he’s now doing for a paycheck, but his conscience won’t allow him to take Cullinan’s next job -- killing John Irvin as payback for that punch.

Roberts’ dealings with Malcolm Cullinan eventually lead to his death, and perhaps the strangest episode of NYPD Blue’s entire run.  In Roberts’ possession is an amateur novel, starring his thinly-disguised alter ego, Mike Robertini.  Over the course of the episode, Det. Medavoy reads the excerpts of Roberts’ laughable writing aloud to the squad, and the reality of the show morphs into Mike Roberts’ deluded fantasies.  Not only is horrid dialogue like “What are you, Donna, moonlightin’ as a bill collector besides being the PAA in the detective squad of the police station house where I formerly worked?” acted out in the style of a 1940s noir film, but all of Roberts’ former co-workers are also recast as his adoring sycophants.  The episode closes with the surprising return of an unbilled guest star, a character who hasn’t been seen in years.

Parts of this episode are amusing, but overall, it’s just so weird and such a violation of the reality the series has always presented that I can’t bring myself to truly enjoy it.  If it aired today, it’d be prime fodder for accusations of the “jumped the shark” cliché.

Richard Gant as Sgt. Bill Dornan
The character of Sgt. Dornan goes all the way back to Season One’s “Serge the Concierge.”  You might remember him as the surly desk sergeant who nonchalantly allows Sipowicz’s son to be processed for a bogus drug arrest.  We’re told in that episode that Sgt. Dornan had a personal grudge against the young cop who asked him not to send Sipowicz’s son to booking, but this season reveals that he likely had a different motive.

You might also remember actor Richard Gant as a bus driver named Leroy Glover in the Season Two episode, “Travels With Andy.”  That’s before he popped up as Sgt. Dornan again in Season Three’s “Head Case.”  (Gant is clearly a Milch favorite.  He shows up years later on Deadwood.)

Sgt. Dornan, before his promotion, was the detective who arrested Suarez, the man Sylvia reluctantly prosecuted.  Now that Sylvia is convinced that Suarez is innocent, she asks her husband to broach the subject with Sgt. Dornan.  Within a few weeks, Sgt. Dornan is demoted, and both he and Sipowicz are half-convinced that having one of his old cases reopened is the reason, even if it isn’t the official explanation given by Internal Affairs.  (They claim he wasn’t keeping an eye on the uniform officers under his command as desk sergeant.  Having an old case reopened is so embarrassing for the department, however, that Dornan assumes that this is the true reason.)  Sipowicz tries to make amends with Dornan, but would you be shocked to learn that Dornan is also an alcoholic?  (“Are you an oiler, Dornan?” Sipowicz asks him.)  There’s no clear ending to Dornan’s story this year, but he evolves into a parallel image of Sipowicz, and is essentially treated as a series regular for much of this season.  Martinez and Medavoy have nothing to do the entire year, but Dornan is at the center of the story numerous times during the season.

Austin Majors as Theo Sipowicz
Child actor Austin Majors debuts as Theo Sipowicz in the season finale, and he sticks around until the very last episode.  Andy and Sylvia’s son is now three years old, and after being played by random babies and (I’m assuming) dolls in previous episodes, the show has finally cast an actor to play this part.  Austin Majors appeared in other kids’ roles over the years, and is today close to finishing college.

The Season of the Retcon
Retroactive continuity, which I don’t think the show has ever waded into, introduced this year includes the following…
  • It’s revealed that Mike Roberts, all the way back in Season One, was getting his informant/girlfriend drugs from the evidence locker, information that’s never been mentioned before (and surely would’ve come up when various characters discussed what a scumbag Roberts can be.) 
  • There’s no indication that rich perv Malcolm Cullinan actually wanted his call girls to die in his first appearance.  In fact, he’s so freaked out by what happened to Delores that he called his attorney and immediately arranged a plea bargain to avoid jail time.  A few episodes later, we learn that Cullinan is actively looking for another girl to die just like Delores, and that Mike Roberts has been providing Cullinan with drugs for some length of time.  The dialogue isn’t clear whether or not Cullinan always wanted his girls to die, or if he just recently picked up the fetish.
  • Two of the racially motivated incidents from previous episodes are recast.  In “Raging Bulls,” Officer Syzmanski, the white patrolman that Lt. Fancy is convinced is racist, uses an incident from his past to justify to Fancy his behavior when he pulled Fancy over back in Season Four.  Later, “I Have a Dream” reveals that Sipowicz’s father wasn’t exactly innocent in the confrontation with a black man that cost him his eye.
  • Sipowicz explains to Sylvia that he was willing to reopen a case back in Season Four’s “Yes, We Have No Cannolis” because he’d recently gotten sober and was abnormally sentimental at the time.
  • There’s also the revelation that Sipowicz’s encounter with James Sinclair in the pilot was psychologically devastating for him, information that’s only revealed this year.  Sipowicz hasn’t mentioned Sinclair since the beginning of Season One.
  • Finally, there’s Sgt. Dornan, who we discover was once a detective that handed Sylvia a weak case to prosecute.  This one is a minor retcon that doesn’t cause any timeline problems, so I won’t gripe.  Later, it’s implied that Sgt. Dornan actually wanted Sipowicz’s son to be booked on charges, which is clearly not the implication in “Serge the Concierge.”  Sgt. Dornan reveals that he already hated Sipowicz, after overhearing him tell a racist joke to a black panhandler when outside of court one day.

Miscellaneous Notes:
  • For what it’s worth, 1999 has been reported as the year David Milch became sober.  These episodes aired from October 1998 to May 1999.
  • The show is at peak Milch Speak during these days.  Danny Sorenson speaks almost exclusively in it (unfortunately for poor Rick Schroder), while Sipowicz has lines like, “This type thing reassures peoples’ qualms,” which is his way of complimenting Danny.
  • I’m not sure why, but the early episodes this year seem to be placing some importance on Bobby’s dentist accidentally nicking Bobby’s mouth during his check-up.  How this plays into his heart condition, I’m not sure.
  • Even though Dennis Franz appeared in every episode of this series, there is one episode this year that barely features him.  That would be “Grime Scene,” which has Sipowicz acting as a backup for Sylvia as she reopens the Suarez case.  Everyone else in the squad is left on their own that day.  This may or may not be a coincidence, but “Grime Scene” also features some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen on this show.  The scene between Upstairs John and Delores is like something out of an old-timey screwball comedy.
  • Speaking of bad acting, even the great Dennis Franz isn’t immune from overplaying a scene or two this year.  There’s also the questionable choice to have Franz play himself as a child in his dreams, leading to the odd image of a grown man on the floor, covering his eyes like the see-no-evil monkey.
  • As a testament to the haphazard method of the show’s production, you’ll notice numerous looped lines throughout the season.  Sometimes a line is dubbed in to add an extra joke, but usually it’s done to make a storytelling point more clear.  For example, Sipowicz having a conniption in the bar after Sgt. Dornan leaves a drink on the table just came across as him acting crazy, so lines like “don’t touch it…can’t drink” were added in later to clarify why he’s acting that way.
  • After witnessing her awkward behavior at the bar, Danny asks Martinez if Diane drinks alcohol.  Martinez responds that he couldn’t say for sure.  So, did Diane not tell her coworkers that she’s an alcoholic, or was Martinez just protecting his friend’s privacy from the new kid, Danny?
  • “Show and Tell” is only the second episode of the series to feature the detectives working the night tour -- although, for some reason, two scenes from two separate dates this episode both show the city growing dark at 4:00 PM.
  • Jill mentions her ex-husband and refers to him by name for the first time.  He’s called Ken in this episode, but next year when he appears as a recurring character, his name is Don.
  • How’s this for obscure trivia -- Sipowicz’s ex-wife Katie worked at the phone company for most of her life, until she took pension after Andy, Jr. died.
  • Neither Amazon nor Directv has the full 90-minute version of Jimmy Smits’ final episode, “Hearts and Souls.”  Streaming audiences today miss more fantasy scenes with Bobby Simone’s mentor Patsy, talk of Bobby’s previously unrevealed Catholic school days, more of Bobby’s fight to hold on, and Diane breaking down in tears as she appreciates the irony that Bobby’s heart isn’t strong enough to live.  We also have a few cut scenes set at the precinct, their description archived by Amanda Wilson at the old Alan Sepinwall fan page: “We see Up Stairs John arriving at the House with an armload of Christmas presents. He asks Martinez for news, but doesn't get much. He tells James he's getting an early start on Christmas because it's better than staying up all night obsessing over Bobby. James has this encounter fresh of one with Shannon, who was also asking after Bobby. James was rough with Shannon, but later apologized for ‘putting on his prick suit.’…The usually mild-mannered Greg Medavoy nearly cracks under the stress of losing Bobby when a wimpy character arrives to file a complaint about a little punch he took from a guy he was harassing. When the man returns to file a second complaint, Greg gets in his face about how ridiculous the case is, and the man says he's going to file a complaint on Greg. Greg steps up to that challenge, adding a few more choice insults. (‘Snotty little pisspot,’ I believe) The man tells Dolores she's a witness, and Our New Girl tells him, ‘Yeah, just gimme plenty of notice so I'll know when to show up.’”
Next time…I finally wrap up Season Six, which has turned out to be the plot-intensive season yet.  If you’re one of Rick Schroeder’s loved ones, maybe you should skip this post.

5 comments:

  1. "I’m not sure why, but the early episodes this year seem to be placing some importance on Bobby’s dentist accidentally nicking Bobby’s mouth during his check-up. How this plays into his heart condition, I’m not sure."

    I actually had heart surgery as an infant and still have to take antibiotics before I have any dental procedures, so this is accurate. Oral infections can travel to your heart pretty quickly and cause major damage if you have a preexisting condition, so the show was pretty medically sound with that one.

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  2. The VHS bootleg I watched had the extended version. I could see cutting stuff for syndication, but not having it for streaming?

    So are Sipowicz and Katie going to get back together? (Don't answer.) I honestly don't know how I feel about that.

    Is there any record of why they suddenly flipped things with Delores? I mean, I love these over-arching plots they do on the show, but it was kind of random for the snarky PAA to turn into... yeah.

    LOL at being one of Rick Schroeder's loved ones. I actually feel sorry for the guy in hindsight. Even if he could get the lines out, he still had to "replace" Simone, which was impossible.

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  3. Jeff,
    That makes sense. The rest of the medical jargon presented this season is certainly played as real, so I'm not surprised that there was a specific reason for the dentist scene.

    Eric,
    I believe there were four 90 minute episodes of NYPD Blue, and Amazon only has 2 of them. Directv has none of them.

    Rick Schroeder was put in a bad position, and I don't think the producers helped him out by establishing him as so emotionally damaged, AND by having him chase Simone's widow. As for Delores, I've never come across any information on why Milch suddenly veered in such a dark direction. He did acknowledge that he makes his stories up as he goes along when writing DEADWOOD, so I'm assuming he was following a similar approach on BLUE.

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  4. These reviews are nice. I stopped watching the show a few episodes after Smits' character died, so reading your posts is interesting.

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  5. I really enjoyed Murder One — albeit more in concept at times (or for certain pieces of the whole) than execution. Daniel Benzali’s defense attorney Ted Hoffman there was, I think, more noble and principled than James Sinclair on Blue. Anyway, I still wish to heck that he’d been cast as either Wilson Fisk or the Byrne incarnation of Lex Luthor.

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