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Monday, August 28, 2017

The Milch Studies: NYPD Blue Season 12, The Final Wrap-Up


As recently as Season Ten, I was remarking on the show’s continued ability to create strong hooks for episodes, and consistently discover some new angle to make the aging show interesting in some way.  Then, Season Eleven happened.  That year did have some solid episodes, but overall, it’s hard to deny a sense of exhaustion.  Looking back on the later days of NYPD Blue, I can pinpoint two moments the series never recovered from. 


The first would be the suicide of John Clark, Sr.  Unfortunately, many of the episodes written after the departure of David Milch made the mistake of covering themes that Milch had already mined expertly, given his own tortured past and years spent acquiring stories of fellow addicts in support groups.  So, when Clark, Sr. gave in to despair and put a gun to his head, the writers probably thought that they were just continuing in the daring tradition of the show, not realizing that a) the subject matter doesn’t match the tone of the series following Milch’s exit, and b) they weren’t exactly skilled at writing pathos.  This meant that the co-lead of the series suffered the most horrifying loss of his life, without a writing staff equipped to deal with the ramifications.  Fans complained about Clark’s deficient response to his father’s death for months, which brought us to the storyline seen this year.  The idea of Clark taking out his anger at his dad on his surrogate father, Sipowicz, is a smart one, but the writing just feels shallow.




The other moment that nearly broke Blue was the abrupt departure of actress Charlotte Ross.  Her character quickly became a viewer favorite, given Ross’ ability to deliver derisive one-liners, and her surprisingly harsh portrayal of a no-nonsense, yet gorgeous, New York cop.  When it turned out that Ross and Franz also had a surprising chemistry, Steven Bochco made the decision to have Ross’ Connie McDowell become the lead character’s new love interest.

Many fans despised the idea, and it was a hard sell, but at least the character of Connie was still an entertaining cop to watch during the investigation scenes, regardless of her new domestic situation.  (Unfortunately for everyone, the Franz/Ross chemistry didn’t extend to romantic chemistry -- really, it’s just fun to watch them exchange sarcastic barbs while pursuing criminals.)  Leaving amongst rumors of a feud with producers (or, if you take everyone at face value, a simple decision to take extended time off after having a baby), Ross disappeared in Season Eleven with absolutely no fanfare, leaving the role of Mrs. Sipowicz as an unheard voice on the other end of occasional phone conversations for the rest of the series’ run.




Regardless of Season Eleven’s flaws, it did open with three leads who could discharge one-liners as good as any sitcom actor, and irrespective of what might’ve been happening behind-the-scenes, they seemed to enjoy a healthy workplace chemistry.  Maybe the depth wasn’t there, but the show was still fun to watch in those early episodes.  By the end of the year, the series clearly needed to be retooled.

Season Twelve saw Matt Olmstead and Nicholas Wootton, the head writers of the previous year, switching titles from Co-Executive Producers to “Consulting Producers” a few weeks in.  The writer/producer who took their place was William Finkelstein, a man with barely any history with Blue, but a long background with Steven Bochco.  Not only was Finkelstein one of the many men credited with co-creating the short-lived Bochco production Brooklyn South, but he also developed the notorious Cop Rock with Bochco a year before the debut of Blue.  Before the start of this year, Finkelstein only had one Blue writing credit to his name, an unremarkable episode from the previous season.  (Remember when Medavoy was fascinated at the thought of not paying income taxes?)

Sadly, “unremarkable” would be the best term to describe Finkelstein’s approach to Blue.  I can’t truly state that his scripts are awful, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of heart or wit in them, either.  Looking over the entire year, Sipowicz only has one line that just barely ranks with his string of clever quips from years past.  I’m referring to his line about “Penis hookers or vagina hookers?” -- a question he asks when John Irvin provides him information on certain activities at an underground nightclub.

And the heart?  They try, but rarely connect.  One problem is the erratic plotting that undermines most of the major storylines.  Here’s Season Twelve in a nutshell:  Lt. Bale is assigned command of the 15thPrecinct, given the task of bringing this “rogue operation” under control.  Although he butts heads with Sipowicz, Bale realizes that his antagonist possesses rare integrity when Sipowicz learns a deeply personal secret about Bale but refuses to exploit it to his advantage.  Seeing the caustic detective in a new light, Bale gains a new respect for how things work in the 15th, and becomes an ally to the cops in his command.  With the moral support of Bale, Sipowicz decides to step out of his comfort zone and advance his career within the NYPD.  Meanwhile, John Clark is spinning out of control after facing two heartbreaking losses, but after nearly tanking his career, and realizing how his behavior is harming the people he cares about, Clark straightens up and accepts the guidance, and friendship, of his older partner.

As an outline, it seems a respectable way to go into the final year.  In practice, the stories flail around in capricious directions, never adding up to a coherent character arc for any of the major players.  Bale, for example, was actually warming to Sipowicz before he discovered Bale’s secret, which is left a dangling thread, anyway.  Given that they weren’t fierce rivals at this point, the impact of Sipowicz respecting Bale’s privacy is blunted.  (Although, to be fair, Sipowicz’s discovery of Bale’s double life was a legitimate, and well-executed, surprise.)  And since the producers can never seem to keep Bale’s character consistent from one episode (sometimes one scene) to the next, his evolution as a sympathetic boss feels hollow.

Clark’s story arc is also needlessly messy.  For one thing, you’d think that Clark showing up to work hung over, irritating his coworkers, falling asleep in his car, and botching a major case by sleeping with a witness would make him a prime target for Lt. Bale.  Instead, the two only have a brief exchange, where Bale firmly but politely lets Clark know that he needs to get his act together.  This is such a blown opportunity, it’s shocking.  These were two plot threads that needed to intersect, but they remained virtual strangers during the season.  If the goal was to sell Bale as a stern, no-nonsense boss, and to emphasize just how reckless Clark has become, then Clark should’ve faced severe career jeopardy at the hands of Bale.




And when Clark does come around, the reformation is shoddily executed.  In one episode, Sipowicz is shot in the arm by someone who’s aiming at Clark outside of a bar, in retaliation for Clark taking home a girl the shooter was pursuing.  Clark’s drunken antics are responsible for his partner, and supposed mentor, getting shot.  And does this sober him up?  Nope…the final straw seems to be when Baldwin refuses to go out for dinner with Clark, having decided that he’d rather not be seen with Clark while he’s behaving like a frat boy.  This leads to its own series of questions: Why is Baldwin coming down so hard on Clark after defending him earlier to Medavoy?  And if Baldwin is concerned about Clark’s behavior, wouldn’t a friendly chat over dinner be one way to talk some sense into him?  And shouldn’t Clark’s ex Rita care about any of this?

But the main question remains -- what kind of a story arc is this?  It’s supposedly about Sipowicz and Clark finding peace with one another, and Sipowicz helping his junior partner avoid the pitfalls that plagued him earlier in life.  With their new boss, Clark’s actions easily could’ve gotten him suspended or fired, yet this doesn’t factor into the story.  And, bizarrely, getting his partner shot still isn’t enough for Clark to change his ways.  So, it takes a ten-second conversation, and a rejected dinner offer, from a totally unrelated character to set Clark straight?  This is ridiculous.




No, Seriously.  Danny Who?
One of the most frustrating aspects of this year is seeing John Clark go from reliable partner to screw-up, just as Danny did before him, yet not once is this ever acknowledged.  I can understand the logic behind no longer mentioning characters who aren’t around anymore, but up until Season Ten, we were still getting the occasional nod in John Kelly’s direction.  Danny Sorenson would still be on the characters’ minds at this point, and considering that his drunken antics at the end of his life contributed to him getting killed, you’d think Sipowicz would bring this up at least once during the year.

What’s frustrating is that John Clark, Jr. was conceived as the anti-Danny.  Both were young, but Clark was supposed to be the guy with his head on straight, with no real trauma in his past and an easy sense of humor, eager to learn from his older partner.  Danny was the disturbed rookie detective putting up a front for the world, too proud and simply too damaged to ever listen to Sipowicz’s advice.  If you’re going to turn Clark into an angry young screw-up, it’s dishonest not to acknowledge what Sipowicz went through with Danny.

The final insult thrown Danny’s way is when Sipowicz is having a conversation with a Very Special Guest Star Indeed in the episode "The Vision Thing," rattling off a list of everyone he’s lost during the run of the show.  Danny isn’t even mentioned.  That’s an egregious error, and I would argue an insult to longtime fans of the series.




Officially Irrelevant Continuity
So, in the last season, Connie gives Andy a lecture about putting his life in danger, giving Andy’s age as 57.  Logically, that makes him 58 this year.  When Andy is reconsidering his decision to become a boss, he claims to have been a detective since he was 31.  Doing the math, that means he got his shield in 1978 -- even though a major arc last season told us repeatedly that Andy was a new detective back in 1986!  For what it’s worth, Milch always seemed to have the year 1982 set as the year Andy became a detective at the 15th, and I would place that as canon over any other writer’s work.

We also have Andy claiming that he’s been "on this job" for 32 years at the start of the season, which would include his years in uniform.  That would place him starting out in the NYPD at around 1972 -- earlier episodes put that date anywhere from 1973 to 1975.  

Another continuity blunder this year involves Medavoy’s age.  We saw his fortieth birthday party in an episode airing in the 1993-1994 season, yet in the 2004-2005 season, his age is given as 55.  Greg should be closer to 52, if that.  Medavoy also makes a comment in "Great Balls of Ire" that he’s never partnered up with Andy, which ignores the strip club bust they worked in Season One, and their time undercover as Hasidic Jews in a Season Three episode.

Missed Opportunities
For a final season, Blue doesn’t seem willing to invest in much of a goodbye.  The show does acknowledge the closing of the series, by attempting to make events go full-circle, with Sipowicz now the one with a damaged, drunken partner (and John Clark, Jr. later following in John Kelly’s steps, by becoming involved with a young, pretty prosecutor with a similar name.)  Yet, with one notable exception, the production did not engage in the indulgence of calling in former cast members for guest spots.

This is frustrating, because it’s not as if any of the Blue alumni went on to have George Clooney careers.  It’s a safe assumption that virtually any series regular from the past wouldn’t have turned down the offer of a brief guest spot.  And there are numerous opportunities to naturally work in former cast members this year.  Are we to believe that no one would agree to a cameo in "Old Man Quiver" -- when Sipowicz walks down the steps as a sergeant for the first time and everyone quietly salutes?

I spotted three episodes where James Martinez, introduced to us all the way back in the pilot, could’ve made a welcome return for a cameo.  Martinez could’ve served as Medavoy's union advocate when he’s in trouble for working a bar...or he could’ve been the sergeant overseeing the test when Sipowicz takes the sergeant's exam (imagine an already anxious Sipowicz’s reaction to seeing the “kid” he helped train as a detective now in this position)...and, of course, Martinez should’ve attended Medavoy’s retirement racket, after serving as his partner for years.

Another lost opportunity this year involves the detectives working the case of a serial killer stalking Alcoholics Anonymous members.  Sipowicz is viewed as the point man on the case, and presumably this was intended as another way for Sipowicz and Bale to bond, but any real exploration of Andy’s addiction or connection to the program is merely superficial.  In the Milch years, Andy seemed to have a fairly complex relationship with AA, but this season, any ambivalence is gone.  (Remember when Andy encouraged his ex-wife Katie to attend AA, even as he acknowledged that he didn’t go to meetings like he should?)

I Love the Early 2000s
In "The Vision Thing" a robbery victim uses his cell phone to take picture of his attacker.  The detectives view this as inordinately clever.  Sipowicz even refers to a cell phone that can take pictures as a "Dick Tracy phone."



Miscellaneous Notes

  • This is the only season to avoid any nude scenes, aside from one brief flash of partial buttocks early on in the year.  Steven Bochco blamed the FCC, which began handing out larger fines for alleged indecency, following the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Super Bowl fiasco.  The language also seems to be softened, with no more uses of “bulls---,” and “a--hole” only appearing sporadically.  Bochco’s public comments indicated he found Blue nearly impossible to produce in the climate.
  • Viewers familiar with the internal policies of the NYPD have remarked that Sipowicz leaving his position as a first-grade detective to become a desk sergeant would actually be a pay cut, undermining the idea that he's doing this to provide for his family.  (Perhaps the idea is that Sipowicz recognizes this as the first step he must make to rise in the NYPD ranks?)
  • The show’s extremely lucky it’s already established that we don’t see both sides of a phone conversation in the past, so it doesn’t seem too ridiculous that Dennis Franz is speaking to himself whenever Andy calls Connie.
  • John Irvin is referred to as "Gay John" for the last time in the season premiere, by Medavoy.
  • Sipowicz’s irritation when he discovers Det. Murphy comes from a family of firefighters is consistent with Sipowicz’s previous FDNY beef. (Apparently, there’s a real-life NYPD/FDNY rivalry.)
  • The show never outright states this, even as Bale is consistently threatening the squad, but a "rip" is a day without pay.
  • Lt. Bale indicates in one scene that he doesn’t fully believe Rita’s side of the story on the Fraker shooting from the Season Ten finale.  This could’ve led to some interesting material for Rita, but nothing came of it.  (With both coming from IAB, were Bale and Fraker friends?)
  • When Sipowicz accuses Clark of sleeping with whores, he replies: "Whores was you!  I'm plucking off secretaries!"  I have no idea if this line was intended as funny, but it’s always cracked me up.
  • The producers seemed to be making a conscious decision to have ADA Lori Munson styled in a way to evoke memories of Sylvia Costas.  And her name is likely a callback to the other ADA character from Season One, Det. Kelly's wife, Laurie.
  • More evidence that Stan Hatcher was conceived as a David Caruso parody.  He’s forced to move to Miami in disgrace this year, and guess who was starring on CSI: Miami at the time?
  • At Medavoy’s retirement racket (party), Baldwin says, "Most of what I learned about being a detective, I learned from you."  Surely no one believes this, right?
  • I’ve criticized the show for abandoning subtlety in the later seasons, but there is one understated plot point this year I didn’t notice the first time around.  In "The Vision Thing" the kid who was shot trying to stop a robbery is named Andy, and though it’s never spelled out, the idea is that he reminds Sipowicz of Andy, Jr., who was killed in the same situation years earlier.  And that emotional state explains the appearance of a certain figure from the past in the closing of the episode.  (Speaking of which, another ghost appearance from Andy, Jr. would’ve been welcome in the final episode, but that’s just another lost opportunity.)
  • The final episode, "Moving Day" is the only time the series uses the old cop show cliché of the suspected criminal who has "diplomatic immunity."  
  • "Moving Day" also presents the final nod to the past, as new detectives Ray Quinn & Joe Slovak join the squad.  The Irish and Polish last names mirror Kelly and Sipowicz, the series’ original detective team.

And that’s twelve years, two hundred sixty-one episodes of television, people.  Next time, we’ll attempt to decipher the increasingly opaque dialogue of Deadwood.

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