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Monday, December 19, 2016

The Milch Studies: NYPD Blue, Season Eight - The Cast & Guest Stars


Before the launch of the seventh season of NYPD Blue, David Milch announced he’d be stepping back from the show.  Few believed him, and with good reason.  Even though Mark Tinker was added as an executive producer to help with the burden, Milch stuck around for the entire year as showrunner and has a writing credit on most of the episodes.  Milch was intrinsically linked to the show, and the idea of him casually walking away seemed unlikely.

Milch made the same announcement before the start of Season Eight.  And he meant it this time.  (This makes the Season Seven finale more poignant, especially in regards to Sipowicz and the crisis of faith displayed in the episode.)  With the nebulous credit of “Executive Consultant,” Milch still had an official title on the show, but the majority of his time was spent developing his new CBS series Big Apple.  What exactly Milch contributed to this year remains unclear.  The dialogue clearly isn’t his -- as Steven Bochco declared when he returned to daily duties on the show this season, “That's Milch-speak… We don't know how to do Milch-speak, so we have to do some other kind of speak. There's no question the tone of the show is altered because of that.”


Hypothetically, Milch was still free to contribute ideas and argue against a direction he disagreed with.  However, Steven Bochco always had the final say on every aspect of the show, so if he was overruling Milch even when Milch was the daily showrunner (like when Milch refused to cast David Caruso, and later lobbied to kill Caruso’s character off), he wasn’t likely to bow down to Milch’s opinion with Milch halfway gone from the series anyway.

In front of the camera, the show also has no shortage of turnover.  In fact, I feel confident in saying that this year has more cast changes than any other season in the show’s entire run.  (It also leaves Dennis Franz as the only remaining original cast member.)  The opening credits are altered three times this year, and even if no one wanted to make it official, the season finale marked the exit of the series’ co-lead.

The cast this year…

Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz
Sipowicz almost made it through a season without a horrific life-altering event.  The year opens with Sipowicz discovering that his young son Theo does not, in fact, have cancer.  And he even finds a new (not quite “official”) girlfriend in the form of Cynthia Gibson.  This doesn’t work out, largely because Cynthia hasn’t dated a man in ages and foolishly inserts her goofball uncle into their relationship.  Sipowicz isn’t alone long, though, because he reconnects with his ex-wife over their love of Theo and is soon engaged.  The show, with zero subtlety, makes it obvious that Sipowicz has no romantic feelings for her and there’s no way a wedding is in their future.  Katie Sipowicz is the one devastated by the broken engagement, though.  Andy doesn’t have his big, dramatic crisis until the season finale, when his partner goes missing and a dead stripper is found in his apartment.

Rick Schroder as Danny Sorenson
A few weeks into the season, rumors persisted that Rick Schroder was leaving the show.  All involved denied it, although more than one source claimed Schroder was anxious to take his growing family out of Hollywood.  The season finale doesn’t even feature Schroder at all, which means his final moment on the show is from the episode preceding it -- Danny’s heart-to-heart with Sipowicz, following a drunken fight at a strip club.  Actually not a bad way for Danny to go out -- we learn more about why he’s been behaving so erratically this year, and his apology to Sipowicz does feel sincere.  If they are going to gel as a partnership, something that’s yet to happen for the past three seasons, this is a believable starting point.

The finale was allegedly written when no one was sure if Rick Schroder would be released from his contract, and the script does seem to reflect this.  Maybe Danny’s fled the country to be with his mother, or perhaps the mob has gotten to him, or this could all be linked to the undercover assignment he was given in the penultimate episode.  He’s either going to shape up and become a reliable partner for Sipowicz, or he’s going to die.

What’s frustrating is that Rick Schroder is genuinely good this year.  After flailing through his opening season, and finding his footing in the second year, he should’ve been given the material of a lifetime this season.  Instead, he’s often saddled with the weakest Danny season yet.  Danny is clingy with Diane, obtuse with his girlfriend Mary, and irrationally violent with more than one suspect.  Then he fades into the background for several episodes, before the writers realize that they’ll probably have to write him out soon.  Schroder sells everything he’s given -- the stiff deliveries and unconvincing accent are gone -- but his character arc doesn’t add up.  Most of the mysteries that have been teased for the past three seasons are revealed in an info dump in the finale (again, an episode that doesn’t even feature Schroder), so much of the satisfaction is sucked away.  There’s no real payoff for Danny, which is a shame, because Schroder was actually good enough to pull it off this year.

James McDaniel as Arthur Fancy
After years of having not much to do, James McDaniel left to pursue a film career.  The character of Lt. Fancy exits thirteen episodes into the year, giving the writers enough time to give him a memorable sendoff.  Instead, Fancy’s promoted to Captain, makes his peace with Sipowicz (in three different scenes, I believe), and does one last “solid” for the detectives of the Fifteenth.  Fancy’s treated just as dispassionately as most cast members after he exits -- he’s rarely if ever mentioned, and the actor doesn’t return for any guest spots.  It’s a disappointment, because he’s always been a valuable addition to the show, even if it was an often thankless role.

Kim Delaney as Diane Russell
Kim Delaney remains for the first eighteen episodes of the season, giving the actress that’s taking her slot more than enough time to establish herself, and allowing the character of Diane a few opportunities to finish her story.  I think the writers botched her exit, however.  (That’s three for three in the Disappointing Exits category.)  The alleged character arc that’s supposed to end with her taking an extended leave of absence doesn’t feel as if it’s something that the writers had eighteen episodes to develop.  Diane foolishly begins a romantic relationship with Danny, realizes quickly that she’s made a mistake, starts to develop feelings for one of the doctors who treated her late husband, conclusively silences a recurring character that’s been pestering her for two seasons, has a conversation with a reluctant witness that causes her to reevaluate her life, and finally decides to use the bereavement leave she never took when her husband died.  None of this comes across as a particularly coherent story.  Also, it’s a shame that Diane as a consistent source of support for the squad (Milch’s final take on the character, allowing her to assume her husband’s place in the ensemble) is mostly ignored this year.  We’re back to the emotionally raw Diane who doesn’t know how to face life without Bobby.

If you’re wondering why the show seems reluctant to definitively write Kim Delaney out (just how long her leave will last is left intentionally vague), that’s because Delaney had a deal to star in a new show, but to return to Blue if the new series didn’t last a full season.  If the show died after a few episodes, Diane Russell could’ve returned from her bereavement leave anytime the producers wanted her to.

It was reported at the time that Kim Delaney was extremely reluctant to leave NYPD Blue, and I’ll mention that she’s one of the few cast members to exit but later make guest appearances.  Diane Russell never officially rejoins the squad, but she does guest star in five episodes during Seasons Ten and Eleven.

Gordon Clapp as Greg Medavoy
Does Medavoy have a storyline this year?  I don’t think we’re even given hints regarding his love life this season, which is actually a rarity.  Outside of solving the B-cases, Medavoy’s only real contribution this year is when he helps set Baldwin Jones up with a new cast member.  He’s less clownish this season, thankfully, continuing the direction Milch set him upon last year.

Bill Brochtrup as John Irvin
Previously the last slot in the opening credits, Bill Brochtrup is moved up to the fourth position after Kim Delaney exits (they actually debuted in the same episode back in Season Two.)  The only real storyline given to John this year is when Sipowicz, out of pure desperation, allows him to babysit Theo.  The bond between John and Theo remains a constant throughout the rest of the series’ run, and we’ll continue to see him grow closer to the Sipowicz family.  The child drawings you see around John’s desk this year were actually created by the young actor who played Theo.

Henry Simmons as Baldwin Jones
Henry Simmons stated in an interview that Baldwin would become more confident as a detective this season, which I suppose is one way to interpret his treatment this year.  He’s Medavoy’s partner, he occasionally helps with the lead case in an episode, but often he’s stuck with the B-plot.  There’s a recurring idea this year that he’s still not entirely comfortable with some of the things The Job requires of him, but he usually suffers in silence.  Also, he begins dating the new Assistant District Attorney character, because Steven Bochco seems to think that’s an essential dynamic in the show, for some reason.

Garcelle Beauvais as Valerie Haywood
The clearest example of Steven Bochco taking a firmer hand in the show?  The persistent casting of traditionally TV-pretty actors to fill any recurring role.  Garcelle Beauvais, especially this season, is the most galling example of someone cast merely because she’s abnormally attractive.  After appearing as a guest star in most of the early episodes of the season, she’s added as a regular in the eleventh episode…even though many fans wanted her gone after her first appearance.

The character of ADA Valerie Haywood is not as friendly to the detectives as Sylvia Costas, but also not as antagonistic as former ADA Leo Cohen (who makes a surprise return in the season premiere.)  This leaves her as a lukewarm character, portrayed by a rather bland actress who can’t bring any personality to the role.  I can see why the writers didn’t want to make her overly hostile to the regular characters (and sometimes she has a defensible position, like when she calls Sipowicz out for illegally encouraging a witness to make an ID), but most of her scenes just drag.  Anything that could have added some character would’ve been appreciated.  Also, even though Baldwin appears irritated that Medavoy assumes he should date Valerie because they’re both black, that’s exactly where the storyline goes.

Charlotte Ross as Connie McDowell
With the exception of the new co-lead introduced next year, Connie McDowell is the most significant character to appear during the later half of the series.  Actress Charlotte Ross initially appeared as a totally different character (the abused wife of a uniform cop that Sipowicz suspected of murder) back in Season Five, and while she might initially seem to be another case of someone being cast for her looks, Ross more than holds her own.  Introduced as a fill-in detective while Danny Sorenson is on suspension, Det. McDowell is treated as an outsider (and possibly an Internal Affairs plant) during her initial appearances.  She proves herself quickly, however, and becomes a regular cast member, taking the place of Jill Kirkendall as Diane’s partner.  Even though Kim Delaney only has a few episodes left, her partnership with Charlotte Ross feels like an actual friendship; the scenes between them really do feel like two people getting to know one another and genuinely caring.  And depending on your willingness to accept the idea of two physically stunning female cops being paired together, they do work well as a detective team.

Ross’ main feat as an actress is her ability to invert what you’d expect from a petite blonde -- she’s believably tough, and has some of the best lines this season.  Connie is cold in a way, but it’s not treated as a character deficit this year.  She’s there to do a job, and has no tolerance for anyone’s crap.  The final two episodes of the year, out of necessity, pair her with Sipowicz, and the unexpected chemistry inspired the producers to make a controversial move in the next season.

Esai Morales as Tony Rodriguez
Lt. Fancy’s replacement is a transfer from Narcotics who’s allegedly a “cop hero” (as we’re told numerous times).  Lt. Tony Rodriguez is young, new to command, and more willing to insert himself into cases than his predecessor.  (Esai Morales was a little too young when cast; 38 just seems too green to be portraying a police lieutenant.)  This serves two purposes -- Tony’s demeanor is automatically different from Lt. Fancy’s, and the actor was given more lines each episode, which was the producers’ way of circumventing any “I don’t have enough to do!” complaints.  It didn’t work, however, since Esai Morales left before the end of Season 11, with the same complaints as James McDaniel.  I like the character of Tony Rodriguez, though, and think the writers did a nice job of establishing him as a more hands-on boss, without making him a nuisance for the detectives.

And the Guest Stars…

John F. O'Donohue as Eddie Gibson
Det. Eddie Gibson shows up a few times during the year, usually there to pass along messages from his niece Cynthia to Sipowicz.  (Eddie set Andy and Cynthia up in an episode during the last season.)  The idea that he’s so involved with his niece’s life is absurd, although this is acknowledged during the later episodes of the season.  As I’ve mentioned before, the producers really liked John F. O'Donohue, and his character will continue to have reasons to reappear on the show.

Scott Cohen as Harry Denby
Denby was the detective investigating Jill Kirkendall’s ex-husband in the previous season, a very Milchian character (a self-destructive, self-loathing drunk) who irritated Diane Russell throughout the year.  He returns this year, now fired from The Job and running drugs through his new employer, a faux-Fed Ex delivery service.  He’s still obsessed with Diane, still a relentless a-hole, and through a series of plot contrivances, Diane eventually puts several bullets into him. (A quick Google search turned up this page, featuring more on Denby than I ever thought I would read online.  It also offers some insight into how many fans, negatively, view the post-Milch years.)

Denise Crosby as Lt. Susan Dalto
The episodes that establish Fancy is leaving tease the idea of him being replaced with a “ball-busting” new lieutenant who’s being transferred from Internal Affairs.  This season isn’t adept with subtlety, and every scene with Dalto is the worst evidence of this.  We’re clearly supposed to just hate the character, and cheer when Fancy pulls strings to have her removed…but she’s so absurd, the story doesn’t feel genuine.  The idea of the detectives dealing with an inflexible, antagonistic boss from Internal Affairs is revisited in the final season, however.

Next time -- A final look at The Schroder Years.

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