This year, the cast consists of...
Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz
There are two major Sipowicz arcs this year -- his adjustment to yet another young, new partner, and the unexpected inclusion of Connie McDowell into his life with Theo. Most of the year is spent trying to justify Bochco's decision to pair Sipowicz and McDowell as a couple, with virtually every audience complaint checked off over the course of nine months. He's too old. She's too pretty. He's already lost so much. We've simply had enough office romance stories (okay, that one is never addressed...)
Some fans absolutely hated the thought of these two becoming romantic partners. It would be hard to deny that the actors shared a chemistry together (and the impact Charlotte Ross made on the aging series after only a few episodes), but many fans just wanted to see them work cases together. Sipowicz paired with a female partner had rarely been explored before, and just because Connie has shown that she can stand toe-to-toe with Andy doesn't mean that their relationship has to turn into something sexual.
I understand those complaints, but truthfully...the fact that the producers were so careful about putting the pair together did make me less resistant to the idea. And watching the proud, intensely private Sipowicz deal with becoming the subject of stationhouse gossip (even receiving a literal trophy from the uniform cops for the relationship) is genuinely entertaining. Also, the previous season did establish that Sipowicz would be willing to marry someone he didn't truly love, just to make Theo happy and provide his son with a family. Given the relationship that develops between Connie and Theo, is it truly that unreasonable that Sipowicz would fall for Connie?
Was it the best decision for the show overall? I'm not entirely certain, especially given the way Ross left the series, but I do appreciate the honest approach that's taken towards the romance this year.
Regarding his new partner, there is a clever backstory attached to the John Clark, Jr. character. Sipowicz used to work with Clark's father, who is still a detective in a different precinct, and the two have a grudge that goes back twenty years. Clark, Sr. only knows Sipowicz as a belligerent drunk, and he's adamant that Andy won't go anywhere near his son. A recurring theme of NYPD Blue is Sipowicz facing up to the mistakes of his past, and I'll give the producers credit for coming up with a novel approach to that idea, nine years into the show's run.
The final Sipowicz drama is the loss of his previous partner, whose body is discovered in the season premiere. That one is skirted over, outside of a powerful funeral scene for Danny early in the season. Sipowicz resists being paired with another kid, but that drama's forgotten a few episodes into the year.
Mark-Paul Gosselaar as John Clark, Jr.
Gosselaar didn't receive as much backlash as Rick Schroeder suffered when he was first announced as the co-star. One reason is that Gosselaar wasn't replacing the immensely popular Jimmy Smits. Another is that NYPD Blue just wasn't on the media's radar by its ninth season. (Although the goodwill generated for the NYPD after 9-11 did give the show outrageously high ratings for its season debut.) That's not really a knock on the quality of the show, it's just a reality of television -- you're only hot for so long.
This doesn't mean that Gosselaar's casting wasn't controversial. Several fans griped about yet another child star being brought in as a major figure on the show. And, yes, it is absurd to think of the Zack Morris we know from Saved by the Bell working homicides in Manhattan. It's also unfair to judge an adult by acting jobs he took as a kid, and I'll give Gosselaar credit as a solid addition to the show. When his casting was announced, Steven Bochco revealed that there were already plans for Gosselaar to join the series even before Rick Schroeder asked out of his contract. How he would've fit into the dynamic of the show wasn't revealed, but it seems as if the only open slot would've been as Charlotte Ross' partner, although I question if Bochco would've ever broken up the dynamic of an all-female detective team working the B-plots. It would've been an interesting pairing, however.
It's not hard to see why Gosselaar was cast. He has chemistry with the rest of the actors, he delivers one-liners very well, and he's actually quite believable as a cop. We're introduced to John Clark, Jr. as a young narcotics cop who's desperate to learn the ropes of detective work from Sipowicz, even going as far as defying his authoritarian father and creating a rift in their relationship. A few episodes into the year, we see the other side of Clark -- he's the first Sipowicz partner we've met who's willing to make fun of the guy. Kelly and Simone occasionally got their jabs in, and Sipowicz took the jokes with some good humor. But Clark is the one who consistently picks on Sipowicz, and doesn't back down after he's told to stop. Which is another element of their relationship -- Clark's jabs honestly get on Sipowicz's nerves. So was Clark snowballing Sipowicz when he begged to become his partner? Is he a BS artist, or is needling someone his way of showing affection? Most likely, the writers were still trying to figure out the character when these episodes were written, but I like seeing both sides of Clark.
As unusual as his casting might've seemed in 2001, Gosselaar is a positive addition to the show. I remember thinking at the time these episodes originally aired that he was a vast improvement over Schroeder, and while today I actually have a greater appreciation for Schroeder's work on the series, I do think Mark-Paul Gosselaar worked better with Dennis Franz, and the sense of an actual partnership is finally restored this season.
My only real complaint about the Clark character is just how fast he learns the ropes of detective work in his rookie year. The best Clark episodes are the ones that have him screwing up and getting into trouble, or facing some harsh reality of doing The Job. Those are pretty rare, however. Most of the episodes portray Clark as just as competent as Sipowicz, which is a disappointment if you wanted to see Sipowicz school a young detective, the way we were told Sipowicz once "raised" Kelly back in Season One.
If you're curious as to why yet another character on the show is called "John," that's because he's been named in honor of executive producer/retired NYPD detective Bill Clark's late brother. The story of the real John Clark's passing inspired the tale of the death of James Martinez's brother back in Season One.
Charlotte Ross as Connie McDowell
Charlotte Ross doesn't have third billing on the series, but she is effectively the third lead. (Kim Delaney was the true third lead for most of her run, but I don't think she received third billing until James McDaniel left.) This season picks up on some of the backstory established about Connie last year, as the audience learns that the infant she gave up for adoption is now a fifteen-year-old living in the city. And as an incredible coincidence would have it, living in the same precinct where Connie is a detective. Connie narrowly avoids serious trouble by stalking the girl, bringing her in on a pot bust, and interrogating her about her adoptive parents. Andy Sipowicz tries to offer Connie some guidance away from the ledge, just as Connie helped Sipowicz avoid a relapse following Danny's death.
From there, a bond forms between Connie and Andy, and the series begins to look for reasons for Connie to drop by the Sipowicz home and babysit Theo. Connie reveals that she can't have children, thanks to complications from her first pregnancy, and within a few months Theo is asking for permission to call Connie "mommy." (Andy's reaction to this is great, and a nice reminder that the Sylvia character hasn't been totally forgotten.)
The rest of the year, as I mentioned earlier, is spent devising ways to pair Connie and Andy up as a believable romantic couple. My major objection to this was, I confess, a superficial one -- they just don't look like a real life couple. Someone who looks like Charlotte Ross has a million options that are absolutely not Dennis Franz, and blessing the Sipowicz character with a wife who resembles a Maxim model does feel fundamentally wrong. But, again, the show did spend several episodes addressing these complaints. This did give Ross more to do on the show, and she remained excellent on the cop stories, so as a Connie fan, I did enjoy this year.
Jacqueline Obradors as Rita Ortiz
I'll mention Jacqueline Obradors here, even though she's the last name in the credits. Obradors joins the cast this year as Detective Rita Ortiz, a figure who sticks around until the final episode. Fans initially griped that she looked too much like Kim Delaney, and they had a point. The stylists on the show seemed to be going out of their way to style Obradors like Delaney, right down to the exact number of curls in her hair. A few episodes in, her hair is straightened and they give her bangs (which become increasingly ridiculous over the next season), lessening her resemblance to Delaney.
But do the stories do as much as her hair to distinguish Rita Ortiz? Nope. Every Ortiz plot this year is a letdown. She's not horrible, she just fills up space. She's there to be Connie's partner and a possible love interest for one of the male cast members, and...that's it. Even though she's introduced as someone at the end of her marriage to an ADA in a different precinct, and we see him later meet the typical fate of all peripheral Blue characters, Rita barely makes an impression.
I'll also note that Jacqueline Obradors was doing voice-over work right before she landed this gig. Her voice has a quiet tenor that makes it difficult to buy her as a tough New York cop. Kim Delaney was always soft-spoken, but Jacqueline Obradors is extremely quiet in her delivery. This could've been played to the character's advantage -- either she really is intimidated by this job, or it's an act she puts on for suspects during interviews -- but it's never acknowledged in the episodes.
Now, for the established characters who don't have as much to do, I'll try to sum up their year in two sentences or less.
Gordon Clapp as Greg Medavoy
Medavoy has one spotlight episode, when we learn that his daughter is engaged, and his ex-wife has banned him from the wedding. And there's a weak attempt to establish Medavoy as envious of his partner's friendship with John Clark, Jr., which is best forgotten.
Henry Simmons as Baldwin Jones
Baldwin has a pregnancy scare with Valerie, they break up, and he also becomes friends with the new kid, Clark.
Bill Brochtrup as John Irvin
John learns from his sister that their father is near death and attempts to make peace with him. And because Connie needs to be babysitting Theo for plot reasons, John is given a new love interest as a distraction.
Garcelle Beauvais as Valerie Haywood
See the aforementioned pregnancy scare, and...nothing else. Beauvais is slightly more believable as an Assistant District Attorney this year, but remains a void as a character.
Esai Morales as Tony Rodriguez
Rodriguez is distinguished from the previous boss by acting, well, bossier than Lt. Fancy. We also learn that a higher-up in Internal Affairs has a personal grudge against Rodriguez that's not entirely justified.
And the guest stars...
John F. O'Donohue as Eddie Gibson
The show tries to convince us this year that Eddie Gibson, the guest star who never quite leaves, is going to become one of the series regulars. I wouldn't have been opposed -- he would've been a welcome break from the series of physically perfect cast additions, and it's entertaining to see the other detectives deal with a co-worker who's outright lazy and just there for a paycheck. Of course, this is a temporary move that's only there for a specific storyline, but the producers will continue to find ways to revive Eddie. Gibson is fleshed out as a character admirably this year; not only do we learn that he's secretly fighting cancer, but we also discover that his adult children were adopted, and that he's taken in several disadvantaged kids over the years. Showing that there's more to Gibson than we initially assumed is very Milchian, even if Milch has left the series.
Vanessa Marcil as Det. Carmen Olivera
Marcil was intended to be a regular cast member, even though she was reportedly "erased off the payroll in a hurry" following a disappointing debut. (This is why she's listed as a "Special Guest Star" in the episode's first act, as opposed to just a regular one -- the plans were in place to give her a contract when the producers abruptly pulled the plug.) Whatever happened behind the scenes, Carmen's gone after one appearance, and a few episodes later, Rita Otiz is introduced as the squad's new Hispanic female. Marcil's character did make a surprise return in a Season 11 episode, however.
Joe Spano as Det. John Clark, Sr.
I didn't appreciate at the time the significance of Joe Spano joining NYPD Blue. I had a vague knowledge that he was on Hill Street Blues, but didn't realize that he was a major character on the series who was around for the show's entire run. Clark, Sr. is portrayed as a strictly by-the-book cop, one so bound by the rules that Sipowicz can't find any respect for him.
There was, possibly, some meta-commentary behind this casting. The cops of Hill Street were essentially a liberal academic's ideal of how a police force should operate, and Spano's character was very much the progressive heart of that show. NYPD Blue is much closer to the perspective of Bill Clark, someone who actually worked the job for decades, and it's fairly divorced from idealism (especially during the Milch years.) Casting Clark, Sr. as perhaps a decent person, but a sub par cop, does feel as if someone from Hill Street has suddenly been transported to a different world. I like the scenes between Joe Spano and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, but his moments with Dennis Franz are fantastic. I love the scene when Clark, Sr. finds out that Sipowicz has been calling his son "Junior." We've never seen a parental relationship with any of the major characters before, so the character does bring something different to the show, nine years into its run.
Hey, Isn't That...
Domenick Lombardozzi, Herc from The Wire, is revealed as the mobster who killed Danny Sorenson (offscreen, because that's how much respect that character was given by the end.) Dan Gilvezan plays the adoptive father of Connie's biological child. You might not recognize his face, but you'll remember his voice as the original Bumblebee in Transformers and as Spider-Man back in the '80s. Mark Pellegrino appears as a major suspect in a child murder case in "Better Laid Than Never." He gets punched by Sipowicz and punches back. Pellegrino you'll know as Lucifer on Supernatural, Paul Bennett (Rita's drug addict ex) on Dexter, and Jacob on Lost. An oddly earnest Kal Penn plays the youngest member of a Muslim family targeted after 9-11. And Aaron Paul plays a teenager involved with a robbery of his classmate's Nintendo 64 games that goes horribly wrong.
Finally, there is another bit player who was later nominated for an Oscar (and she actually won!) Octavia Spencer, credited as Octavia L. Spencer, guest stars in "Gypsy Woe's Me" as a travel agent who witnesses a murder...and has a crush on Clark.
Next time...the show struggles to address 9-11, and Bochco continues to make his presence felt.