One hallmark of the David Milch era is the extended suspect interview, which had the detectives searching for whatever angle that could convince a criminal to put down on paper two things -- I was there, and I did it. All of the "get your side of the story out there" or "we'll get you a good deal with the DA" talk is merely a ploy to get those two facts down on paper. This is largely inspired by Bill Clark's true tales of The Job, and Milch certainly seemed to enjoy writing these extended dialogue sequences. The fact that they only required one set was also, I'm going to assume, a benefit for a man who liked to write the scripts on the day they were actually filmed.
Steven Bochco revealed in an interview that he felt as if the show had grown too reliant on those scenes, and wanted to see the detectives explore other avenues of investigations. This means more scenes on various sets, more time chasing down red herrings, and the occasional nod towards other divisions of the NYPD that aid in the apprehension of criminals.
There's a benefit to this -- the episodes do go by faster, and you get a sense that the detectives are having to put in more work to catch the perpetrator. (It's also an excuse to sneak in the occasional car chase.) However, once you've outright stated that the detectives aren't going to be arresting the criminal so early in the episodes, that just creates its own formula. Numerous times this year, the detectives will interview someone who is very obviously being played as innocent, only for later revelations to expose him or her as the actual culprit.
Doing this once or twice a year would be forgivable, but it feels like this happens in half of the episodes now. It also takes away some of the realism; the show had been criticized going back to Season Five for the lack of actual mystery in the plots. It's not a coincidence that this was when Bill Clark began co-writing every script...if you are assaulted or murdered, the perpetrator is almost always someone you already know. Police work is less about finding a needle in a haystack, and more about building a case around the most likely suspect. I can understand why TV writing requires old standbys like the red herring, but it's irritating to see so many people who are just experts at lying to police 10 minutes into an episode break down and confess 40 minutes into the same episode because of one more bit of evidence that's come in.
There are other bits of formula that Bochco seems married to. The fact that the female lead has to be romantically tied to one of the male leads is a strange rule, but Bochco seems to love it so much that both male leads are now dating the two female detectives in the squad. Bochco also seemed oddly dogmatic about making the female detective team a blonde and a brunette. Charlotte Ross ends up being replaced by two different blondes before the show's run is over!
The stories that have John Clark, Jr. learning the ropes and occasionally making a major mistake are all stand-outs. "Oh Mama" has Clark coming across an abused kid who needs help. Once the kid is placed in the state's care, however, Clark realizes that he's only set the boy up for another form of abuse. Sipowicz is sympathetic to Clark's concerns, but is so jaded at this point in his career that he tells Clark that there's no other option, outside of adopting the kid himself, and it's not as if Clark is looking to open up a foster home. It's a dour ending, and one of the best concluding moments of the series' entire run.
Another solid episode about Clark learning the ropes is "Cops and Robber," which is just as good as last year's episode co-written by Harold Sylvester (a former recurring guest star on Blue). The story involves Clark, recently evicted by his father, losing all of his possessions when his car is broken into. This includes his real NYPD shield, the one he was planning on placing in a safety deposit box. The fact that many NYPD cops carry duplicate shields and badges, due to the potential punishment for losing one, is the kind of detail that you're only going to get from someone like Bill Clark. Years after this episode aired, the New York Times ran an article on the phenomenon of cops carrying "dupes"...Bill Clark even accurately reflected the specific punishment for losing the shield (ten days pay). The article is worth a read, and that's before you even get to the quotes from a pre-scandal Anthony Weiner.
"Better Laid Than Never" is the two-part season finale, and one of the greatest cases I've ever seen on the series. Bochco's tactic of having the detectives investigate more than one suspect and run into several dead ends plays to the story's advantage this time, giving us a plot that takes place over several days and presents a true challenge for the detectives. The two-parter also presents a strong argument that the series could've benefited from cases that bled into more than one episode, provided all of the distractions were this entertaining.
As horrible as this might sound...this season has far too many happy endings. Episodes like "Humpty Dumped," which has neighborhood witnesses to a drug-related shooting (who earlier in the same episode refused to even speak to police) magically appear to offer statements when they learn that a fifteen-year-old girl will have to testify against the dealer. Uh-huh, sure. We also have Sipowicz giving up a $400 a night job "guarding" a rich old lady (really just keeping her company) after he gives her the confidence to live life again. C'mon...does that sound like Andy? And there's "Guns & Hoses," which ends with the entire squad deciding to all leave together to spend time with Rita on the day her husband dies. That scene would've worked just as well with only her partner joining her, and there's just a basic credibility issue here -- everyone can simply stop what they're doing right that second for dinner? No one has to stick around to cover things until the night tour arrives?
We also have some of the worst editing I've ever seen in this series. Witness the paper towel roll that appears and reappears in various shots during Sipowicz's dramatic confrontation with Eddie Gibson in the locker room. Or when the unstable cab driver that Rita was interviewing suddenly appears in the same shot with her...seconds after he'd already left the room. And that's not to mention the numerous times we have looped lines appearing from characters standing in profile shots whose lips aren't even moving.
Finally, I'll mention one of the least convincing, and least interesting, romantic pairs in the show's run. Outside of the fact that they're both young and attractive, why are John Clark and Rita Ortiz a couple? I realize that's enough for two people in real life to begin a casual relationship, but it's not nearly enough for an ongoing drama series. Compare this dud of a pairing with Andy and Sylvia, or Bobby and Diane. Both of those relationships revealed aspects of the characters that we wouldn't have seen otherwise, and had a solid dramatic base at their core. Sylvia allowed Andy to show a more thoughtful side of himself, and she provided the steady influence he needed while getting sober. Bobby represented to Diane a very different view of what a family could be, following her upbringing, and Bobby's deep feelings for Diane allowed the audience a chance to see past his cool facade.
The John and Rita romance has nothing that approaches this, and it symbolizes one of the shortcomings of the show in the post-Milch years -- as entertaining as most of the episodes remain, there is a shallowness that's creeping in. The Milch years were largely about damaged people who needed one another, while these episodes are about characters who like and respect one another, but rarely exhibit the same bonds we saw in the earlier years.
And speaking of dud romances, this season features what I consider to be one of the three worst scenes in the history of the show. We've already had one of them (Upstairs John breaking down in tears at the water fountain in Season Seven), and now we have the excruciating dialogue between Baldwin and Valerie, as she tries to seduce him by discussing her childhood obsession with Grease. For the love of all that's holy, please make this pain end.
Sorry, He Doesn't Work Here Anymore
For the sake of completism, I'll document that the first two episodes reveal some (but not all) of the details surrounding Danny Sorenson's death. As the season opens, five months have passed since his disappearance, and the implication is that Sipowicz has been partnered with Connie for this entire time, driving her and everyone else insane. An interview by Medavoy and Jones brings up information about a body being dragged out of the Tailfeathers strip club months earlier, and the ensuing investigation reveals that Danny was murdered by Max Lagazi.
Who? He's revealed as the mobster who runs the club, even though this is the first time the audience has heard his name or seen his face. As for why he would've killed Danny, when all the mob knew at this time was that he was a potentially "friendly" cop dating one of their dancers...who knows? The producers don't care enough to tell us. And in a scene that plays as a weak retread of Simone killing Andy Jr.'s murderers in the streets, Max Lagazi is killed in a shootout by Sipowicz. No real answers, but enjoy this shootout scene and forget that Danny kid, okay?
Schroder was asked about his abrupt departure on the show, and if he had any hard feelings for Bochco and Milch, in this AV Club interview. He's very civil, but does indicate that Bochco cast another child star to replace him to make a point that he was always replaceable.
Danny does have a beautiful funeral sequence, which was shot in New York and certainly appears to be an authentic NYPD funeral. Distracting from the scene, however, are the actors chosen to appear at the service. The regular cast is there, because they were all flown to New York for the shoot, but do we really think Valerie Haywood would have a prominent position at this funeral? I doubt these characters ever had more than two lines together. Because the scene was shot in New York, and the production wasn't going to pay for everyone to fly over, we don't see any of the previous characters who logically should be at this funeral, such as the members of Danny's family that we've met over the past three years. Or departed characters who should really be there, such as his ex-girlfriend Mary, or Lt. Fancy, or Diane Russell. This symbolizes what Danny will become for the rest of the show's run -- an afterthought.
Looking back over these episodes, I'm becoming convinced that Danny had more potential as a character than John, but in practice, John stood out as a more credible co-star. Mark-Paul Gosselaar is believable as the friendly new kid who socializes after work with not just his partner, but all of his co-workers. Rick Schroder never had that chemistry with his co-stars, which was at least partially a conscious decision. Danny was supposed to be the intense loner with secrets, so it wouldn't make sense for him to become chummy with everyone at work so quickly. The problem is, Danny was portrayed as so tortured, and with no real plan in sight for a clear character arc (post-Milch), he ended up making a negligible impact on the squad. He was the weird kid that no one got close to, and now that he's dead, what's the point of bringing him up again?
I don't think this footage exists anywhere today, but the season opened with the cast dedicating the season of the show to the victims of 9-11 and the first responders who risked their lives that day. 9-11 occurred a little over a month into the filming of this season, right during the weeks when the show filmed its exterior shots in New York. New scenes had to be cut into episodes to address the attacks, like the often-derided lecture that Connie delivers to Andy in the season premiere. Since the episodes were re-written as all of this tragedy was still new, we also have some facts presented that were less than accurate. For example, the World Trade Center death toll, as horrible as it was, didn't reach 6,000 casualties.
The first full episode written after 9-11, "Baby Love" (reportedly written and produced over the course of two weeks) deals with the issue of hate crimes against Muslims, and it actually stands on its own, up until the ending. I understand why creators wanted to write "Let's all get along" stories following the attacks, but the ending with Kal Penn pleading to the squad for ethnic tolerance just comes across as something out of an after-school special. Other attempts to address 9-11 are far more subtle, with one murderer using the confusion around the attacks to his advantage (after killing his mistress on the evening of 9-10-01), and a firefighter being accused of rape casually mentioning to the detectives that his house was hit hard by the attacks.
"Loused Up" Continuity
I've mentioned that continuity isn't a strong suit of the series in its later years. In the season premiere, we're told Sipowicz has been "On The Job" 24 years, as opposed to last season, which claimed more than once that it was 22. (Which didn't work, given that we know that Sipowicz immediately went from Vietnam to the NYPD.) We also have conflicting information presented about Baldwin's past. In his early appearances, we're told that Baldwin's parents named him after the author James Baldwin. Baldwin references his parents as a unit numerous times over the years, and as recently as the previous season, during his first date with Valerie, says he used to watch them doo-wop dance together. This year, Baldwin declares that won't allow his child to grow up without a father like he did, which is a very obvious screw-up. It also gives Baldwin a more stereotypical "angry black man" past, when it's clear that Milch intended for Baldwin to be the son of married intellectuals.
And Upstairs John has some confusing continuity, as well. We learn that his family is from Boston, and that his father is now in New York to receive treatment for a terminal illness. His mother, John reveals, died an undetermined time ago, and was always the bridge between the two of them. This doesn't directly contradict what we know, but it's worth remembering that the Season Three finale established that John and his mother lived in NYC together. We even meet her at his going away party, back when his character was being moved over to the Public Morals sitcom. It's possible his parents were divorced, and his mother died in-between episodes in the previous five seasons, but I have a feeling that John's existing history was merely forgotten.
- This is the year Sipowicz earns his first grade promotion, following the Max Lagazi incident. The difference in grades is never truly explained on the show, but the implication is that it's a nice pay bump. And the incompetent Eddie Gibson keeps failing upwards, as Sipowicz allows him to take credit for a bust that allows Eddie to jump from a third to first grade status.
- We have our first David Caruso/John Kelly reference in years (possibly the last in the show's run), when Sipowicz cites the fact that he's already had a partner named John as a reason not to pair with Clark, Jr. He also repeats that they were partners for six years, which is a continuity point that I think has always stayed consistent.
- "Low Blow" is the first time we see the precinct's Captain, I believe. Interestingly, the Captain was always at the center of Hill Street Blues, but never this series.
- We're told that Katie Sipowicz, who we never see again, "works now" and can no longer spend time with Theo.
- Sipowicz reveals that he worked a few cases with John Clark, Sr. twenty years ago in the 27th precinct. They've held a grudge against one another ever since Clark's strict adherence to the law allowed a criminal to go free at trial, and the man later killed an elderly woman. Sipowicz, still a drunk, made it a point to embarrass Clark in public and remind him of this every time he saw him.
"This is great. We got one guy in diapers, the other one in Depends." - Sipowicz's response to having both John Clark, Jr. and Eddie Gibson in the squad.
What Was the Point of THAT?
Upstairs John, we learn in the season finale, inherits $800,000 from his late father. There's an implication that this might be used as a way to write him out of the show, but the revelation doesn't amount to anything.
- This is the year when suspects begin to write confessions on little pocket notepads, as opposed to large legal pads. I've never understood the change, and it does lead to one continuity screw-up. A woman who recants a previous statement is given one of those tiny pads to write a new statement, and when Lt. Rodriguez later pulls out the statement to show an Internal Affairs cop, it's now on a giant legal pad.
- Even though I seriously doubt David Milch was involved with the casting of Mark-Paul Gosselaar, he did later use him in a recurring role in his HBO series, John from Cincinnati. Mark Tinker worked on both shows, and the occasional post-Milch actor from Blue would appear on the show.
- For all the talk of Kim Delaney being too old to date Rick Schroder's character (not just by fans, but by characters on the show), it's never acknowledged that Jacqueline Obradors is nearly nine years older than Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Garcelle Beauvais is also a few years older than Henry Simmons.
Next time: Since there's a gap in Milch's work in this era, I'll probably continue to review NYPD Blue, which in spite of the above complaints, I still enjoy watching. Will I come across this third scene that I hate so much?