I can remember actually being relieved when I discovered David Milch wasn’t going to be running Blue for its eighth season. At the time, the archly constructed, idiosyncratic dialogue was getting on my nerves, and I figured giving the characters more realistic speech patterns would be a welcome relief. (I didn’t know at this point that the dialogue was at least partially inspired by retired detective Bill Clark.)
Now, re-watching the episodes, I find myself missing Milch’s scripts. I appreciate the poetry in those uniquely crafted sentences a lot more today, and recognize the amount of work Milch was putting into those words. A character couldn’t just say, “Are you nuts?”, he had to respond “You think I been occupied by some strange spirit?” (Sipowicz’s answer when Diane asked him once if he’d like a carton of yogurt.) This year, the characters do speak as real people, but many of their lines are simply bland. Milch dialogue, as cumbersome as it might’ve been at times, brought an identity to the show and a demand of the audience to pay attention to each riddle of a sentence.
I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t a drop in quality following Milch’s departure, but the show remains an entertaining character-based cop drama. The only cast member you could single out as a weak performer is Garcelle Beauvais as ADA Valerie Hayworth, and she’s barely in most episodes. Some longtime Milch collaborators are still writing on the show, such as Jody Worth (who’s been working with Milch since Hill Street Blues), and if someone is going to take over for Milch, it’s fitting that the show’s co-creator would be the one. Steven Bochco was always fiercely protective of the series, to the point that he would wage publicity campaigns against the network if they even considered changing its timeslot, so there’s no denying that the people behind-the-scenes are still passionate about Blue.
This season saw the introduction of Det. Connie McDowell, who’s one of my favorite cast members from the second half of the series’ run. As many fans noticed at the time, she’s an attractive blonde version of Sipowicz, but I always thought Charlotte Ross made her a believable character and more than just a novelty retread of the series’ star. And Esai Morales has great presence in every scene that he’s in, so the two long running cast members being replaced this year aren’t leaving behind large vacuums. Also, none of the episodes this year fall into the trap of having the detectives work three simultaneous cases. In fact, because there are only five detectives instead of six for most of this year, you see the pairing of detectives mixed up in various ways. Firmly establishing three teams of detectives and giving each team one case each week leads to stale episodes, while mixing the pairings up offers some variety to the stories.
The show does suffer from some mediocre scripts during the middle of the season, but the plots grow sharper during the final run of episodes. “Love Hurts” is one of the better episodes, evoking the feel of classic Blue. It hits all of the right notes of a solid Blue episode -- an unstated thematic link exists between the two cases (the consequences of a lie, and the detectives not being able to help someone who perhaps didn’t deserve the break in the first place), the cast interacts well, every character is given something to do, and none of the storylines feel like filler. Perhaps it feels like classic Blue because it was co-written by someone who was there -- Harold Sylvester, who is the actor/writer who played Det. Mike Conklin back in Season One. He’s the middle-aged black detective who occasionally popped up, along with Mike Roberts, during the first year…back when the other detectives in the squad were treated as bit players and not series regulars. You might also remember Sylvester as Griff, Al Bundy’s best friend and fellow shoe salesman on Married...with Children.
I’ve mentioned the lack of subtlety before (like when Andy Sipowicz spends an entire episode perky and jovial after he learns the good news about Theo), which can be annoying. There are also some relationships between the characters that just feel perfunctory -- for the life of me, I can’t imagine what basis of a relationship Cynthia and Andy allegedly possessed. And a few storylines are outright recycled from older episodes, like when Danny begins dating Diane and is immediately overprotective of her and paranoid about her going out in the street, just like Bobby Simone.
Speaking of Danny…
Rick Schroeder really has grown into this role over the past two years. During the final Milch episodes, I thought they were finally on to something. Danny was a young man with issues, and every time he opened up, the audience grew closer to whatever truth he was repressing. (The image of him waking up from a nightmare, crouching on the floor, and begging God to forgive him for whatever he did to deserve those thoughts…I honestly felt for the guy.) He’s straight-laced, baby-faced, and good at presenting a front to the world, but under the surface, he’s being consumed by something from his past. After rejecting Sipowicz’s help for months, they bonded during Theo’s cancer scare, and with Sipowicz distracted from his work obligations, Danny was forced to grow up and deal with the thorny ethical dilemmas that normally fall to Sipowicz.
This season, Theo’s okay, Andy’s back to work, and Danny…is hopping into bed with Diane? This was never intended by the producers to be a real relationship, just a way to screw with Danny and add some tension to the show, but the consequence is that neither Danny nor Diane come out of the relationship looking good, and Danny’s character arc has been derailed. We don’t see him working to improve himself and face his issues; instead he’s a jealous ex and short-tempered cop for much of the season. It adds drama to the episodes, admittedly, but the concept of Sipowicz seeing Danny as a younger version of himself, or even as a surrogate for his late son, is abandoned. Now, Danny’s a screw-up and Andy is there to bail him out, thanks to a vaguely defined sense of duty, and there’s not much else to the story.
We rarely see the two characters bond as actual partners, which is exactly where Milch had them positioned in the previous season finale. And if there’s a reason why Sipowicz’s mourning of Sylvia and adjustment to life as a single father has felt shallow during the past few years, the lack of a bond between Andy and Danny is the main culprit. Andy has no one to speak to about his personal problems, and Danny’s already been established as so pigheaded he won’t turn to anyone for help, so we’re left with two leads who have a work relationship and that’s it. Heck, John Irving ends up with a deeper connection to Andy’s life this year than Danny does.
The lack of a bond between the characters is, I believe, a major reason why Rick Schroeder is the forgotten lead of the show. David Caruso was there during the provocative first year, another source of controversy for that first season. Jimmy Smits was the steady lead, the true friend and partner to Sipowicz, and a representative of the basic Blue status quo that so many loved. Mark-Paul Gosselaar was there as the show reached the end, and is an easy reference for the post-Milch years. But Rick Schroeder’s character never has a true connection to the rest of his cast, and due to the nature of his departure, doesn’t even have a real goodbye scene. Sipowicz expresses his regret that he doesn’t truly know Danny in the season finale (when Danny’s missing and Sipowicz has no idea where to even begin a search), and while it’s a great scene, it’s also a reminder of what the audience has been missing for almost three years at this point. And there’s a final indignity thrown Danny’s way in the very last season, which I guess I’ll get to later...
As for Danny’s life, it feels almost empty this season. We never see the sister who visited in previous years (she’s only mentioned once, and that’s as an excuse for why Danny can’t babysit one episode), we still haven’t met his youngest sister, his girlfriend Mary drops out early in the season, and we have no real glimpse into Danny’s personal life (from previous years we know that he likes to fix old cars, and spends his weekends in the National Guard). Danny’s world this year is all about Diane, and that’s when he’s given any real attention in an episode. I know what the producers intended -- the subtext is outright stated during the final Andy/Danny scene -- but there’s only so much mileage you can get out of Danny dumping his mommy issues on to Diane. Danny’s evolution as a character was thrown off-track by the relationship, and all of the scenes squandered with him pining after her could’ve been devoted to him truly bonding with Andy and Theo. Or working out his family issues. Or developing an actual adult relationship with Mary. Or, heaven forbid, getting some therapy and finally learning what happened to him and his sisters after they arrived in America. This stays a mystery…we learn why Danny resented his aunt and uncle, but all of these nightmares about watching his sisters burn alive, and Danny’s emotional reactions to abuse cases, remain dangling plotlines.
Getting to Know…Detective Connie McDowell
I’m mainly getting this down because I know that Connie’s past is revisited in later seasons, and I don’t remember if the continuity was kept straight. We learn this about Connie this year, through her conversations with Diane in the episode “Dying to Testify”:
- Connie's father was a chief of police in Saratoga Springs, New York.
- She took six months Hardship Leave of Absence leave when he died, five years ago.
- Connie has a 15-year-old daughter, who she’s never met, that Connie gave up for adoption when she was 16. Connie still has regrets over her decision.
- Her father didn’t approve of her pregnancy, and their relationship was strained until they reconnected shortly before his death.
Hey, Isn't That...?
Surprise guest stars this year include an unrecognizable Kerry Washington, who plays a teenage store clerk who witnesses a murder. Phil LaMarr plays Sidney, the Subway Slasher, a mentally unstable addict that Danny abuses in the Interview Room. (John DiMaggio last year and now Phil LaMarr? Which Futurama actor will guest star next year?) John Finn is cast in his third role in the series, this time an alcoholic ex-cop whose daughter is murdered. (He previously appeared as Sipowicz’s childhood friend who accidentally killed someone during a robbery, and as Lt. Shannon of IAB, who was revealed as one of the villains behind Bobby Simone’s suspension in Season Five. John Finn also played Officer Ray MacElwaine in Blue’s sister series Brooklyn South.) In “Everyone into the Poole,” Nick Offerman plays a criminal who kidnaps an IRS attorney; Offerman doesn’t use the affected speech he developed on Parks & Rec as Ron Swanson, though. And a young Greg Grunberg plays the co-owner of a mobbed up strip club in the final episodes. He’s waterboarded by Sipowicz in the season finale.
I was afraid there wouldn’t be any memorable Sipowicz lines this year, but the scripts sharpened up during the final episodes. “Love Hurts” brings us Sipowicz’s term for the kind of copulation a man enjoys after he’s been released from prison (“front door lovin’”). And there’s Andy’s conversation with Medavoy, who denies dyeing his hair:
“You think you look younger than me ‘cause of that carrot top you dip in paint twice a month?”
“What are you talking about? I don’t dye my hair.”
“Yeah, OK, Medavoy, whatever you want, only do me a favor, huh? You gonna keep your hair that red, you gotta talk with an Irish brogue like that leprechaun with the marshmallow cereal on TV.” (Transcript via Amanda Wilson and her review from the original airing.)
- Danny’s aunt reveals this info in the season finale -- Danny’s mother sent him and his little sisters to live with their aunt and uncle in America when he was six. She demanded Danny’s aunt tell them that she was dead. The aunt reluctantly agreed. When Danny later learned his mother was alive, he cut off contact with his aunt and uncle (resolving a mystery from Season Six.) His mother returned to America a few weeks earlier and reached out to Danny, but he refused to see her. During this time, Danny and Diane were breaking up. Sipowicz blames Danny’s erratic behavior on misplaced feelings for his mother. Before he disappeared, Danny contacted his aunt, asking how to get in touch with his mother. The idea is that Danny is either dead, or on his way to Norway to see his mother.
- When Jill Kirkendall’s ex-husband is killed in prison early in the season, Internal Affairs drops its investigation into her co-workers. If that’s all that was needed to get the detectives out of trouble, what’s stopping Jill from coming out of hiding?
- Andy states more than once this year that Andy, Jr. was 24 when he died, yet Andy, Jr.’s age was given as 18 back in the early Season One episode “NYPD Lou” (1993). Since Andy, Jr. died at the end of Season Three (1996), that would've made him 21 or 22 at the time. I'm assuming that the writers mistakenly remembered Andy, Jr. as 20 when introduced.
- Writer/Producer Buzz Bissinger is probably best known as the writer of the novel Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, which inspired the movie and TV show.
- Bill Clark once again has a writing credit on each episode this year.
- In the episode “Peeping Tommy,” it’s stated that Sipowicz has been a cop for 22 years. Sipowicz, later this year, also says he’s been at this for 22 years. This doesn’t quite work with the backstory established in Season Five, which had Sipowicz joining the force right after leaving Vietnam. In 2001, 22 years would’ve had Sipowicz joining in 1979. Also, the promo materials for Season One have Sipowicz already as a twenty-year veteran of the force.
- Eddie Gibson has a mustache in one of his appearances. He later says his wife made him shave it. We learn more about Eddie’s family in later episodes.
- Unless I missed one, “Peeping Tommy” brings us the first car chase scene since Season One, which featured numerous chases.
- Lt. Fancy’s final episode states that he’s been the boss at the Fifteenth Detective Squad for nine years. That means he had only been the lieutenant for a year when Season One began. I do believe there’s a David Mills episode in Season Four that established he’d been boss for five years at that point, so this continuity seems to have been consistent over the years.
- There was a news article in the late ‘90s that asked real detectives their thoughts on various cop dramas. Female detectives mocked the heels worn by the cast members on Blue. Lt. Dalto, during her dressing down of the squad, derides the inappropriate footwear worn by Detectives Russell and McDowell. I’ll admit, this one made me laugh.
- Sipowicz is intensely bothered by the facial hair worn by Lt. Rodriguez, even though it was pointed out to him by Lt. Dalto a few episodes earlier that his mustache is also against regulations.
- Danny’s habit of anxiously stuffing paperclips into his pocket, or rearranging them on his desk, is totally ignored this year. This irritated me, because it was a specific character trait that Milch went out of his way to establish over the previous two years.
- If Steven Bochco was adamant that Kim Delaney should be the lead on her own show, and if Rick Schroder was asking to be let out of his contract…why not promote Kim Delaney as the second lead of this series? I realize there are other factors at play (like the chemistry between Franz and Delaney, two actors who’ve barely appeared together in the past few years), but it could’ve been a way to keep Kim Delaney on the show and give her the focus Bochco thought she deserved. It would seem to be a safer choice than casting yet another new Sipowicz partner, something Bochco previously stated he never wanted to do.
- These are the final episodes to feature the World Trade Center in the background shots before 9-11. Another wrinkle to the story of Rick Schroder leaving is his recent revelation that he tried to join the military after 9-11, but wasn’t accepted due to childhood asthma.
Next Time…Another failed Milch project for CBS -- Big Apple.