Does anyone remember the Sela Ward drama Once and Again? I don’t, but I do know that it’s responsible for the seventh season of NYPD Blue debuting in January 2000 instead of its normal Fall premiere date. The deal Steven Bochco struck with the network, which wanted to permanently grant the struggling drama Blue’s time slot, was for Blue to stay on Tuesdays at 10:00, but to debut months later in the midseason.
Another drama signified more of an existential threat to the series -- by the end of 1999, The Sopranos had debuted on HBO, soaking up all of the critical accolades that used to belong to Blue. Even though NYPD Blue did manage to defeat the Sopranos pilot for an Emmy this year, the writing was already on the wall. Prestige programs had moved on to pay cable, and the shows critics and TV snobs wanted to dissect and discuss weren’t going to be on network TV anymore.
The unintended consequence of ABC’s meddling was for Blue to air twenty-two straight episodes without reruns, which seemed to be a source of a ratings bump. Just think…seven seasons in and the show was actually bringing in new viewers. Unintentionally, ABC stumbled across the fact that viewers don’t like having the flow of new episodes interrupted with reruns. Everyone takes this for granted now, but it was almost unheard of in 2000 for a network to debut twenty-two straight episodes of a series. The only downside, aside from forcing the fans to wait those extra months, is the fact that the early episodes clearly weren’t intended to be aired in January. The extras are plainly dressed as if it’s summer, and Sipowicz even references his irritation with “the hot sun” in the second episode of the year. It certainly seems as if the producers assumed the show would be back even earlier than the announced November premiere; most likely September, when the show had always debuted in the past.
Following the unremittingly dramatic sixth season of the show, David Milch was promising a lighter tone for Season Seven. For the most part, he delivered, thankfully managing to walk the line between “light” and “camp.” It’s a strong season of detective work, interpersonal conflict, and just enough moments of levity. The season also features the exit of Andrea Thompson, and the debut of Henry Simmons as Baldwin Jones, a character who sticks around until the final episode.
The cast this year consists of…
Dennis Franz as Det. Andy Sipowicz
Officially the star of the show, Franz actually has less to do this year than possibly any year prior. He’s still in every episode, and is clearly intended as the sharpest detective in the squad, but his character’s personal conflicts rarely dominate the entire series this season. The question of how he’s dealing with the death of Sylvia, and whether or not he’ll even consider the thought of dating again, is broached but it doesn’t define the character. Sipowicz is firmly now in the role of mentor to the squad, so he offers his two cents on the various dramas occurring with his coworkers, even if the show doesn’t feel the need to make him the hero in each storyline. Dennis Franz does receive plenty of material for his Emmy reel during the last two episodes, however, when Andy discovers that his son possibly has leukemia.
Rick Schroder as Det. Danny Sorenson
I’ll say this -- Rick Schroder is much better this year. In fact, there are moments when I genuinely feel for this character, and truly buy Schroder’s performance of a confused young man so damaged by his past that he doesn’t have a clue how to live as an adult. This is the year I can actually understand why Schroder was cast in this role; Danny, on the outside, seems like a straight-laced kid with a bright future, but he’s harboring secrets that he’s not prepared to face. Eventually the darkness he’s trying to keep in the closet is going to surface, and the results are going to be nasty. Schroder does have an all-American look about him, so he suits the idea of Danny putting on a front for the world, suppressing whatever it is that he can’t face. (The public’s perception of Schroder from his child star days also plays into this aspect of the character.) Schroder can still be a little wooden, and sometimes doesn’t seem to know how to handle Milch’s idiosyncratic dialogue, but he’s growing more comfortable in each episode. By the end of the season, I started to buy him as Sipowicz’s new partner, and genuinely wanted to know the revelation of those mysteries that have been teased since his second appearance.
James McDaniel as Lt. Arthur Fancy
Although Lt. Fancy’s personal life isn’t addressed in any manner, Fancy has some decent “boss” storylines this year. If one of the detectives in his squad is involved in a serious dilemma, Fancy rides in, attempting to help his subordinate out of a jam, and occasionally offering a friendly word of advice. Fancy’s character has rarely intersected with Jill Kirkendall in the past, but they have a few memorable moments this year. We even see Fancy attempt to lecture Diane in the season finale, while she’s in the middle of Jill’s mess, which leads to three separate scenes of the cast trying to discern Fancy’s true motives for the conversation.
Fancy’s major storyline this year involves a former friend he’s known since his days as a uniform cop who resents Fancy’s continued support of Sipowicz. Lt. Abner maintains that Sipowicz is a bigot, and Fancy is either too career-minded or too cowardly to do anything about him. The Lt. Abner plot only runs a few episodes, and ends the way far too many Blue stories end, but it provides James McDaniel with some great material.
Kim Delaney as Det. Diane Russell
Diane Russell has an impressive showing this year…not only is she involved with stories that allow her to become more than Bobby Simone’s widow, but she’s consistently portrayed as a sharp, competent detective. Diane’s friendship with Jill, and her budding...well, mother/son relationship with Danny, keep her in the spotlight for much of the season. (Diane’s willingness to reach out and help the other characters on the show almost turns her into a female Bobby Simone.) Surprisingly, she doesn’t have much to do with Sipowicz this year, outside of a few disagreements over how to treat the emotionally fragile Danny.
Gordon Clapp as Det. Greg Medavoy
Medavoy is the butt of the joke a few times, but the producers seem to realize during the year that this has gone too far. Medavoy even seems to grasp, after he embarrasses himself in front of Lt. Fancy one time too many, that he’s becoming a clown. For the rest of the year, Det. Greg Medavoy is played fairly straight. In the season finale, he articulates his frustration that he’s not a part of the squad’s main clique, a scene that was likely created to voice fan complaints regarding later-day Medavoy. We have no real peek into his home life this season (he goes on a date with a much younger woman, quickly realizes he looks ridiculous, and then never speaks of her again), but Medavoy does have to adjust to a certain change in the squad room.
Nicholas Turturro as Det. James Martinez
Nick Turturro is still around for the first six episodes…technically the first five, because no one bothered to include him in the season premiere. Oh, and he’s only around for a brief crowd scene in Episode Two. Is it any surprise Nick Turturro left this year? (Supposedly to star in a FOX sitcom that never aired…the same trap Gail O’Grady fell for.) Det. James Martinez passes the sergeant’s exam and, with prompting from his (off-screen) wife, takes the promotion. His final episode heavily implies that he doesn’t want to leave, leading you to believe that maybe the producers aren’t finished with James Martinez yet…except that they are. Nick Turturro never returns, and we never hear Dennis Franz’s unique pronunciation of “Martinez” again.
Andrea Thompson as Det. Jill Kirkendall
Around halfway through the season, Andrea Thompson announced she was leaving the series. She didn’t think a sitcom or movie career was in her future, however. Thompson decided to pursue her first love of broadcast journalism, and departed the series to anchor the local news in Albuquerque, NM. Within a few years, she was a CNN anchor, although this didn’t last long. She returned to acting in 2003.
Season Seven brings us the most intensive look at Jill Kirkendall yet, as her ex-husband reenters her life with promises that he’s no longer the screw-up she knew when they were young. It turns out that Don is actually even deeper in the grime than ever before, working as a drug mule for a mysterious South American cartel. Don Kirkendall’s association with the drug trade creates a thorny situation for Jill, and for any of her coworkers who are attempting to shield Jill from the bosses and give her time to make the right decision. Jill can’t bring herself to fully cast the father of her children out of their lives, however, which leads to a fairly divisive storyline. Jill was introduced as a strong, independent female cop, but this season has her on the brink of career suicide, thanks to the idiotic actions of her scummy ex-husband. I personally think that her storyline is consistent with the show’s desire to present all of its recurring characters as a flawed yet ultimately noble person, and the arc feels true enough.
The Don Kirkendall storyline also has Blue pulling a stunt it’s never pulled before -- revealing that a previously believed-dead character is actually alive.
Bill Brochtrup as PAA John Irvin
David Milch confirmed in an interview during this year the role John Irvin was intended to play on the series -- John’s there to have reaction shots that supposedly reflect the audience’s response to the various events of the show. So, here’s here to hold your hand and tell you how to feel about things, and/or tell you it’s okay to have those specific feelings. I personally don’t think the series needs anyone to fill that role, but I suppose John Irvin does it with a certain amount of personality. There are a few scenes this year that indicate just how quick-witted John is, so he does occasionally have more to do than pass along notes.
Henry Simmons as Det. Baldwin Jones
The character of Baldwin Jones is introduced in Episode Seven, as we discover that the squad’s new detective is being transferred from the Bias Investigations Unit (the unit that investigates crimes suspected of having racial motives.) His previous boss, Lt. Abner, often butted heads with Baldwin, who seemed reluctant to attach racial motivations to cases. Lt. Abner has transferred Baldwin to Lt. Fancy’s squad because…actually, the reason is never quite clear. Initially, Fancy believes that Abner’s done this as punishment for Fancy’s previous support of Sipowicz. How exactly having Baldwin around is a “punishment” isn’t obvious, though, since he’s portrayed as a competent investigator from his first appearance on. Later, the story seems to be suggesting that Lt. Abner, deep down, actually respected Lt. Fancy and thought that Fancy could serve as a credible role model for Baldwin. Sipowicz, for his part, assumes that Baldwin is a plant from the Bias Unit sent to take him down. There’s a healthy tension between the characters in Baldwin’s early appearances, but this angle is soon dropped.
The character of Baldwin Jones has a steady presence in the final half of the show’s run, and even though I sometimes think actor Henry Simmons is mumbling his lines, I’ve always liked the character of Baldwin. He’s partially here in the rookie role, but the stories never portray him as naïve or reckless. Baldwin declares that he’s here to learn squad work, and even though certain aspects of that work occasionally make him uncomfortable, he’s never portrayed as a whiner or self-righteous egotist. Baldwin is principled but not dogmatic, and his early appearances walk that line very well.
Replacing the very average-looking Nick Turturro with an actor who resembles a Greek god does indicate the future course of the show, however. You rarely see an actor in a major role after this point who doesn’t look like a traditional TV star…get ready for an abundance of chiseled faces and perfect bodies in the last half of this run. Baldwin’s attractiveness is treated as a novelty in his initial appearances, but within a few years, people rarely seem to notice just how pretty the detectives in the Fifteenth Squad have become.
As for the guest stars…
John F. O’Donohue as Det. Eddie Gibson
The character of Eddie Gibson debuts in Episode Nine, a cop caught in the middle of an investigation involving a gold watch and ring that are missing from a crime scene. Actor John F. O’Donohue has previously appeared on NYPD Blue and Brooklyn South in small roles, so I assume the producers liked the guy. Eddie Gibson unexpectedly pops up again a few episodes later, pressuring Sipowicz to take his “plain” thirty-something niece out on a date after another cop stood her up. I don’t think any concrete plans existed for the Eddie Gibson character at this point, but the producers will look for ways to keep bringing him back, up until the final days of the show.
Debra Monk as Katie Sipowicz
Katie makes a few appearances this year, usually when she’s babysitting Sipowicz’s son, Theo. When she discovers that Andy went out on a date without telling her, she breaks down and confesses that she thinks they should be together again. Amazingly, the subject isn’t broached again this season, but Katie does become something of a platonic spouse for Sipowicz this year. Actress Debra Monk does have a nice chemistry with Dennis Franz; perhaps not a romantic chemistry, but there is a warmth between the characters that’s nice to see.
Sheeri Rappaport as Mary Franco
A uniform cop dating one of the lead detectives on the show? Didn’t they do that in Season One? Well, I guess this one is forgivable, given that six years have passed. Mary Franco is a uniform cop that Danny meets in the season premiere. Danny went out with one of her friends the year prior, and (understandably) left her with the impression that he’s slightly nuts. Mary finds herself drawn to Danny after they meet in person, however, and the two begin an awkward romance. The show leads us to believe that the Danny/Mary relationship is going to become a big deal, but after they decide to slow things down, Mary’s not mentioned for the rest of the season. Actress Sheeri Rappaport has her own past as a child actor, having made her acting debut on Clarissa Explains It All. She was later a regular on CSI... in addition to playing Lois Lane in something called Losing Lois Lane.
Elizabeth Berkley as Nicole Graf
An overly ambitious reporter with questionable ethics dating a detective? Didn’t they do that back in Season Two? Yes, they did, and I’m less forgiving of this one. Elizabeth Berkley plays reporter Nicole Graf, who deduces a low-level mobster’s possible connection to a recently discovered body stuffed inside a barrel. While staking out the home of the mobster, Nicole meets Baldwin Jones, and supposedly, sparks fly.
The casting of Elizabeth Berkley was controversial amongst fans, although I think ABC’s dogged promotion of her debut episode was possibly more irritating than her actual character. In her first episode, Berkley is at least tolerable, I thought. The plot mechanics that have Baldwin forced to ride in a car with her while tailing the mobster are silly, but the rest of the episode was a diverting break from the routine Blue episode. When Nicole Graf returns a few episodes later to seduce Baldwin, however, and Elizabeth Berkley tries to play “tough yet sexy”…yeesh. I was ready for Nicole to disappear at that point.
Next time…which guest star’s agent prevented his client from going nude? And what’s the most shocking production mistake in the show’s history?