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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Milch Studies - NYPD Blue Season Seven, The Wrap-Up



The only season of the show that truly has a season-long arc is the first, although Season Seven comes pretty close with the extended drama of the Kirkendall family.  I sincerely doubt this was a plan; it seems as if David Milch had wrapped up Jill’s story with the death of her ex-husband, and was content to then move on with other ideas for the rest of the year.

Then, Andrea Thompson announced she was leaving the show.

Now faced with the challenge of writing off a long-running character, one with a sizeable fan following, Milch returned to the Jill storyline that opened the year: Jill’s ex-husband has reentered her life, she thinks things will work out this time, but because this is NYPD Blue, that isn’t going to happen.  Yes, Don Kirkendall had been killed off a few episodes before Andrea Thompson announced that she wasn’t coming back, but it was kind of a Dr. Octopus death in the sense that we didn’t see his body.  We saw a body, decapitated and burned, left in a Dumpster, but the only proof this was Don was the ring in his possession.  (Bobby Simone’s wedding ring, which he stole from Diane’s apartment during the secret meeting Diane allowed Jill and Don to have while Don was a fugitive.)

Revealing that a character we were told is dead is actually alive, still plotting out criminal schemes…that is a lame cliché by any definition, but the show executes the idea without causing any real damage to its credibility.  Perhaps because the episodes aired week to week, and are now aired daily in syndication or streamed at your convenience, it doesn’t feel as if Don’s been “dead” for months and months.  Having only a few weeks pass before the revelation gives you the impression that perhaps this wasn’t a retcon after all.  And, honestly, I’m not entirely certain that this was a retcon.  The circumstances of Don’s death did seem to go out of their way to be ambiguous, so there was enough room to revive the character without shattering the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  Looking back, I wonder if some lines were looped into that Dumpster scene to make the identity of the body more ambiguous, or if the entire scene was reshot and shoved into that episode as soon as Andrea Thompson revealed that she wasn’t coming back.

Reviving Don Kirkendall does grant the season three tense episodes to go out on, as the detectives in the squad tie themselves into knots, unsure if Jill should know that her cancerous ex-husband is actually still alive…only to discover that she already knows, and is helping him avoid arrest because he’s kidnapped one of their children.  The closing of the Jill storyline has echoes of the final John Kelly episodes -- through circumstances beyond her control, with a dash of bad judgment on her part, Jill knows that her career is finished.  And while Kelly was still able to cash in on his pension and walk out of the front door, Jill has to literally disappear.  It is a harsh note for her to go out on -- and I wish that the other cast members would’ve expressed some remorse over Jill’s situation in the later episodes -- but this isn’t a show that promises happy endings, and I think Jill regains her integrity at the arc’s conclusion. 

It’s interesting that as the Kirkendall story reaches the climax, Andy Sipowicz barely interacts with the plot.  He’s busy dealing with Theo’s condition, forcing Danny to step up and act as the show’s hero.  Danny’s placed in the position of knowing that if he murders Don Kirkendall, he’ll solve almost all of squad’s problems, but he’s not certain if he can handle the emotional toll of the action.  Danny ultimately decides to spare Don’s life, even though it means that Don, in custody, is now free to reveal Jill’s earlier complicity in his escape.  And, Don being scum, everyone seems to acknowledge that he’s going to be lying about Jill in order to cut a better deal for himself.  (Dang, Jill really did get screwed in all of this.)

One dangling thread from this storyline bugs me -- how did Don know to place Bobby Simone’s wedding ring in the pocket of the burned body that doubled for his own?  He took it earlier that afternoon with the hopes of selling it for “get out of town” cash.  Absolutely no one knew that he had it, and it’s not as if he knew for certain that Bobby Simone’s widow would be the first detective investigating “his” body, discovering the ring and putting two and two together.  I guess it’s possible that Don dressed the dead body in his clothes and simply forgot about the ring in his pocket, but that falls under the category of “No-Prize” explanation, doesn’t it?

Season Highlights
The interaction between the cast members, and the reaction of the remaining cast that isn’t fully in the loop, during the extended Don Kirkendall arc is impressive.  Everyone has something to do, the tension is able to build organically over the course of the episodes, and one of the co-leads is given a thorny dilemma in the middle of it all, yet it doesn’t feel tacked on.  The show is seven years old, but the interactions of the cast and the structure of the stories doesn’t feel tired.

“Everybody Plays the Mule” provides another surprise seven seasons in, with its shockingly frank discussion of Miranda rights and the attitudes exhibited by the detectives on the show.  The issue has been skirted over maybe three times in the previous seven years, but the introduction of Baldwin Jones opens the door for someone to directly question why the cops on this show don’t do what cops on every other American cop show do -- read a suspect his rights.  As Medavoy and Sipowicz explain to Baldwin, you’re working for the victims and not the skels, so you don’t owe a suspect anything.  Having another cop lie about being the second witness to your suspect’s confession, or lying in your report about reading the suspect Miranda as soon as you arrested him…the detectives view the moral gray area as a part of their job.  In a discussion with Lt. Fancy, Sipowicz jokes that he used to shove the Miranda rights card into a suspect’s forehead, so in case he was ever asked, he could say, “yeah, I gave him his rights.”  The Hill Street Blues crew would all need fainting couches.

There was an interview with David Milch in the late ‘90s that had him asserting that his own views relating to these issues are mercurial, and that the series isn’t about his perspective so much as it is about the people actually doing this job.  Also interesting -- this episode is the first time we see some of the paperwork that follows a suspect’s confession, such as the form the suspect has to fill out with the detective.  That might sound tedious as sin, but it’s actually a memorable scene, and one of the better Baldwin moments of his entire stint on the show.

One of my favorite uses of past continuity occurs this season in “Lucky Luciano.”  Out of all of the past storylines, the one that’s dredged up is Lt. Fancy’s embarrassing attempt to help his wife sell vitamins to the squad.  One of the family members of a victim works for the same company, Sipowicz makes the connection, and his irrational belief that Fancy specifically refused to sell him vitamins is revived.  This one just made me laugh; not only was it the last plot I would’ve ever expected to be revived mentioned again, but it works as a humorous example of how ridiculous Sipowicz can be.

Regarding the Theo storyline, there is an obvious hurdle that it must overcome before it even starts -- any fan of the show has already seen Sipowicz face terrible losses, so how is this story going to turn out any different?  One way Milch grants the story more integrity is when he has Sipowicz himself acknowledge that he’s simply lost too much.  In one of the strangest scenes in the show’s run, Sipowicz goes to the hospital’s chapel to pray, shortly after learning that his young son very possibly has leukemia.  Sitting in front of Sipowicz is a deaf man, signing out and mouthing a prayer, irritating the already tetchy Sipowicz.  Sipowicz’s attempt at a prayer quickly devolves into him shouting at God, repeatedly referring to Him as “you prick” and questioning His manhood for going after his kid instead of Sipowicz himself.  (Sipowicz assumes God is punishing him for giving Danny guidance on how to kill Don Kirkendall and get away with it.)  If you just happened to be flipping channels and came across this scene, it’s so bizarre it might even be funny. 

In the proper context, though, the moment feels true.  A similar idea is revisited by Milch years later on Deadwood, when Civil War vet Doc Cochran lashes out at God as the camp's reverend lingers near death.  In Milch’s mind, yelling at God still counts as a prayer.  Milch’s work sometimes has God granting comfort and redemption, and other times God is a force that is not only unknowable, but also contemptible.  The episode doesn’t end on such a hopeless note (the idea all along is that Sipowicz is more deaf than the mute man he dismisses as “this idiot”), but the raw emotion of these moments make this iteration of “Sipowicz as Job” more forgivable.

By the way, David Milch instructed the deaf actor in the chapel to sign in the same idiosyncratic style of dialogue normally used by the show, which confused many deaf viewers and caused a small controversy. 

Season Lowlights
I won’t say that the series is showing its age, but there are a few plots this year that feel more like “TV writer plots” than actual cases a detective might work.  One of the weakest cases this year has a teenage psychopath enter the police station with his new girlfriend and report his parents’ murder.  Sipowicz, with no real investigation, just automatically knows that the kid did it, and the psycho’s planning on killing his girlfriend next.  Of course this kind of crazy does exist, but the series usually puts some effort into allowing the perpetrator to have a motive that he can articulate…this kid is just there to be eeeeviiiil.  There’s also the case that has two detectives from England travel all the way to America to apprehend a serial killer, who turns out to be just as one-note as the teenage psychopath seen earlier this year.  And while it’s not impossible that two detectives (one of them retired, still obsessed with the case) would cross the Atlantic to pursue a killer on their own time, it just feels very “TV” to me. 

Also, perhaps the weakest scene of the series so far occurs this year.  As the drama surrounding Jill’s ex unfolds, Diane is close to tears, not sure how to help her friend.  John Irvin picks up on the tension, and even though he isn’t aware of any of the specifics, just can’t help himself from crying at the water fountain.  And after he composes himself, he breaks down into tears again.  Was this supposed to be…funny?  Or another cue to the audience that we should be all torn up over what’s going on?  If ever there was a scene that needed to be cut, this was it. 

Miscellaneous Notes
  • Elizabeth Berkley’s agent nixed her planned nude scene, wanting her to be taken more seriously as an actress following Showgirls.  Good luck with that.
  • Baldwin informs us in his early appearances that he prefers to go by his nickname “Dee.”  The nickname isn’t explained this season, and I don’t recall one ever being given.  Also, by the final season, absolutely no one is calling him “Dee.”
  • More of Danny’s mysterious past is revealed.  In “The Man with Two Right Shoes,” we discover that Danny was born in Norway, his father died when Danny was six, Danny’s mother couldn't take care of the kids, so she sent them to America.  Later, “Who Murders Sleep” opens with Danny recovering from a recurring nightmare, one that has his sisters burning up in a fire.  “Who Murders Sleep” also establishes that Danny’s two sisters were two and three-and-a-half years old when they arrived from Norway.  If Danny’s only two- and-a-half years older than the sister we’ve already seen, the college student, (and I believe it was established that the youngest sister is still in high school) there’s no way he’s old enough to be working homicides in the NYPD.
  • “The Man with Two Right Shoes” establishes Sipowicz’s antipathy towards the FDNY (officially “the Fire Department of the City of New York,” per Wiki.)  This idea pops up again in the final season, when a new detective is introduced with ties to the FDNY.
  • The episode “Lucky Luciano” introduces Mario Bosco as a twenty-seven-year old who resembles a small child, befuddling the detectives (especially Medavoy).  Actor Mario Bosco does in fact suffer from a medical condition that affects his aging, and he was twenty-seven when this episode aired.  The crew first met Mario the previous year, when he actually worked as Theo’s stand-in!  (The bit about Mario’s character selling candy in the street, and shouting profanities at the people who turn him down, also came from Mario’s real life.)  Mario is now in his forties and has written a book about his Hollywood experiences.
  • Real-life detective turned script consultant turned writer Bill Clark has a writing credit on every episode this year.  It’s also the first year Clark has an executive producer credit, during the first act.  The closing credits now have longtime Bochco/Milch collaborator Mark Tinker listed as another executive producer, along with Bochco and Milch.  Both Clark and Tinker stick around until the end of the show’s run.  This year’s season finale goes down as the last episode to give Milch an EP credit.
  • Bill Clark also pops up as a detective, for I believe the fifth time in the show’s run.  In “The Irvin Files,” he plays Wally, an NYPD detective that specializes in art theft.  It’s his largest role to date, allowing him around two full minutes to speak.
  • The season finale “The Last Round Up” was reported at the time as an episode that Milch invented on the set.  Milch also has the teleplay credit for this episode, so I guess he had no one else’s script to toss out at the last minute. 
  • Gina, the PAA who married Martinez and then promptly disappeared, did return this year…for a one-second cameo.  Even calling this “one-second” would be generous, I think.  Actress Lourdes Benedicto is in the congregation during the first communion of Jill’s son, and the camera quickly passes her by.  She came back for that?  (They even gave her a guest star credit!)  Gina doesn’t even appear in the final Martinez episode, but she was there for a totally unrelated character’s communion?
  • Martinez did make one final cameo after his departure, even though no one at the time seemed to notice.  “This Old Spouse” recycles footage of Medavoy and the others inside a surveillance van, and apparently, none of the producers noticed that there’s a clear shot James Martinez in the van with the rest of the characters.  Martinez has been gone for around fifteen episodes at this point!  I’ve never seen the show screw up so badly.
  • Someone might prove me wrong on this, but I’m fairly confident that there are zero scenes with district attorneys this year.  In one scene, Sorenson suggests calling an ADA for advice on how to help someone write a statement, but we never see an actual ADA this year.  That’s a first for the series.

Hey, Isn’t That…?
John DiMaggio (Bender!) guest stars in “This Old Spouse” as a Scottish con artist, scamming an elderly man on home repairs.  In the same episode, Hayley Mills (!) appears as the wife of a clueless garage owner who doesn’t realize that she’s cheating on him (and smoking crack) with a recent parolee who lives with the couple.  This means that both of Kevin Arnold’s parents have now appeared on the show…and years later, even Winnie Cooper shows up in the series finale.

(Theo) Sipowicz Says
“They got bald kids here.” - Theo’s initial response to the hospital’s cancer ward.

What Was The Point of THAT?

The Baldwin/Nicole pairing was just as pointless as most of the romantic subplots given to the secondary characters, in addition to being actively irritating.  Overlooking Elizabeth Berkley’s shaky performance, she was also given terrible dialogue that has her boasting that she’ll sleep with anyone who brings her a scoop.  Uh, good to know?  Also, Baldwin bluntly tells Nicole that he thinks she’s high on drugs when she comes visiting him one morning…yet he still decides to pursue a relationship with her?  Is he shocked that this didn’t work out?

Next time…Hill Street Blues says goodbye, paving the way for the American TV classic, Beverly Hills Buntz.


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