A few notes at the start:
- If you’d like to watch the series today, the full run is on DVD, DirecTV is rerunning the show uncensored on weekdays, and Amazon has it as a part of its Prime streaming service.
- David Milch’s writing is all over the show. Even if he isn’t the credited writer on an episode, Milch was known for tossing out scripts and making up new dialogue on the set. Sipowicz was apparently his favorite character to write for. When Milch finally left the show, around nine seasons in, the other writers questioned how they were going to write Sipowicz dialogue (a mixture of crude-yet-clever insults and threats), since this was always his responsibility.
- NYPD Blue has its own language, and as the series goes on, the Cop Talk becomes increasingly dense. The term that’s always stuck with me is the way cops refer to their work as “The Job.” It’s not just some place you go every day for a paycheck, it’s “The Job.”
- There is no such thing as the 15th precinct. It’s like a 555 area code. The building exterior you see on the show is an actual precinct house with the numbers on the outside changed. Blue stayed on the air for so long that this building was actually demolished by the city years before the series was cancelled. You’ll notice that the Netflix Marvel shows have characters interacting with a 15th precinct, which I’m guessing was an NYPD Blue homage.
- The music is cheesy. Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Often, the music is just fine. But NYPD Blue isn’t scored the way most “serious” dramas are scored today, with music that only makes an occasional, unobtrusive entrance in the show. The music in Blue often wants to sell everything, and it can be annoying. Almost every lighthearted moment of the show is accompanied by “wacky” notes that don’t match the overall tone of the series. There’s also the dreadful “funky” button one of the composers had on his synthesizer, which was overused during many of the street montage scenes. The worst use of music on the show, however, has to be the female voice singing over the warmed-over ‘80s saxophone music during the pilot’s first sex scene.
- Blue has a ridiculous amount of cast turnover, which could make these reviews a bit confusing. I’ll try to keep discussions of characters that don’t impact any major plots separate from the discussion of the overall season.
- The first season of the series is the only one to feature a season-long story arc. In fact, the events of the first episode go on to influence the early episodes of the second season -- a decision made by Detective Kelly’s girlfriend in the pilot later leads to Kelly being forced off The Job at the beginning of the second season.
The regular cast of the first season (i.e., those who receive a credit in the opening sequence) include…
David Caruso as Detective John Kelly
Where to begin on this one? Caruso, in a nutshell, had an acrimonious relationship with the producers and famously announced he’d be leaving the show after the first season to pursue his movie career. After starring in two flops, and becoming a regular punching bag for comedians, Caruso attempted a TV comeback in 1997. Nothing really stuck until he landed the lead on CSI: Miami, where he became another pop culture punchline for his earnest delivery of a series of wretched puns during the show’s openings. (CSI: Miami was a monster hit for years, however.)
The casting of Caruso was always controversial, behind-the-scenes. Series co-creator David Milch auditioned Caruso early on to play John Kelly, the thirtyish partner of Andy Sipowicz, his one-time mentor who’s become a self-destructive addict. Milch reports in his True Blue book that he didn’t care for Caruso’s audition -- he felt Caruso lacked the empathy that’s an inherit part of Det. Kelly’s character. While auditioning with someone reading Sipowicz’s part, Caruso kept talking over the end of Sipowicz’s lines, indicating that he knew what Sipowicz was going to say and had already discounted it. Milch thought it was an interesting way to go, but it didn’t ring true for the character.
Steven Bochco, more recently, gave a different side of the story. He indicates that casting Caruso was his call; after someone mentioned Caruso’s name to him, Bocho knew he had to play Kelly. (Caruso played an Irish gang leader years earlier on Hill Street Blues and impressed Bocho even back then.) Milch begged Bocho not to cast Caruso, indicating that as a crazy person, he knew crazy when he saw it and could tell Caruso was nuts.
(Rob Zombie was also not a fan.)
David Caruso did seem fated to play the part. (Bocho originally wanted Jimmy Smits, who was unavailable. How Smits would’ve played the very Irish Detective Kelly isn’t clear to me.) Various casting agents kept mentioning Caruso for the part, and even NYPD Blue’s police consultant suggested Caruso play the role after seeing him portray a cop in the film Mad Dog and Glory. (Watch that clip to see an R-rated interpretation of John Kelly.) From Bill Clark’s perspective, David Caruso was pure cop. Clark apparently wasn’t much of a Caruso fan after meeting him, though -- he caught Caruso in a lie during their very first conversation, as detailed in True Blue.
John Kelly Character Notes:
- Caruso’s bit about talking over another actor before he can finish his lines…you can see it on display throughout the season. (Although he never does it to Sipowicz, a rule I’m sure Milch enforced.) It works as a legitimate character trait -- John Kelly is a bit cocky. He’s been a cop for a while, and from his perspective, he knows whatever story you’re going to give him before you’re even finished with it.
- John Kelly’s father was a cop who was murdered when he was a boy (the exact age is a little unclear, the show gives one age but Milch remembers a different one in True Blue.) The sense of loss stays with Kelly into adulthood, leading him to become overprotective and possessive towards those closest to him. This is a major factor in his divorce, and influences the jealous way he monitors his new girlfriend after he suspects she’s lying to him.
- The father/son dynamic between Kelly and Sipowicz didn’t feel natural for Caruso, and Milch speculates it’s because Caruso had a strained relationship with his own father. Caruso couldn’t grasp why Det. Kelly would be so patient with his hotheaded, self-destructive partner.
Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz
Franz is the only actor to appear in every episode of the show over the course of the twelve seasons, and is inarguably the star of the series. Much of the friction in the first year of the show revolved around Caruso’s feeling that Franz was receiving better material from the writers. I can’t totally disagree -- Franz is playing a middle-aged detective who’s descended so deeply into alcoholism, he’s destroyed not only his career, but every meaningful relationship in his life. (When Sipowicz’s eighteen-year-old son appears a few episodes into the season, he asks his father “Where are you hiding your bottles now, Dad?”)
Detective Kelly, meanwhile, is more of the rock of the precinct. He’s the guy everyone brings their problems to, and he quickly becomes the mentor to the squad’s youngest detective. (Every cast member of the show stopping Kelly in the hall and asking him to help out with a problem was parodied by Mad magazine during the first season. There’s one episode this year that has Kelly being pulled aside twice by two separate people before he can even walk up the stairs to his desk.) Kelly does have some inner turmoil -- he’s reluctantly going along with a divorce even though he still loves his wife, and his new girlfriend has secret mob ties -- but it doesn’t have the impact of watching Sipowicz piece his life back together over the course of the first season.
Caruso made his displeasure known, vocally, throughout the first year of the show. His tantrums became labeled by Bocho as “The Caruso Hour,” meaning the crew lost an hour of shooting a day because Caruso would find something in the script to pick a fight over. Dennis Franz apparently decided to deal with Caruso by simply ignoring him, which is likely an explanation for why the duo actually don’t share that many scenes. We’re told that these guys have been partners for six years, that Sipowicz “raised” Kelly and taught him what he knows, and their scenes together do convincingly portray a genuine friendship. Yet, many of the cases they work this year are worked separately, and any time the viewer is led to believe the two detectives are about to go out for dinner together, another character will pop in and introduce a new situation that derails their plans. Even Sipowicz’s attempts at sobriety, the heart of this season, are barely addressed in his scenes with Det. Kelly. Kelly asks him once “how you doin’” with the sobriety thing, and that’s the end of it as far as Kelly seems to be concerned.
Franz’s portrayal of Sipowicz was so beloved by critics that it became something of a cliché in the ‘90s. (Not Franz’s portrayal; the adulation he received in the press.) I remember Jay Leno once joking that giving out Emmy nominations was pointless since everyone knew Franz was going to win anyway. Franz really is that good, though. He was reluctant to star in the show, not wanting to be typecast as a cop, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else ever playing this role. Sipowicz’s various flaws, coupled with his devotion to the few people left in his life and his compassion towards those he views as unfairly victimized, are fully realized by Franz. Franz turned out to be correct about being typecast; it seems as if he retired from acting after the show finished its run, and to be honest it would be difficult for me to look at Franz and not see Sipowicz.
NYPD Blue is, at its best, a show about flawed people trying to do good within a flawed system. Franz’s portrayal of Sipowicz dramatizes that idea in every episode; all of Sipowicz’s virtues and failings become real for the audience, and he pulls it off for twelve seasons.
Andy Sipowicz Character Notes:
- Sipowicz is established in Season One as a Vietnam vet, mirroring Dennis Franz in real life. The empathy Sipowicz exhibits towards a paralyzed vet who’s been set up to be robbed by a prostitute is an early indication of the range we’ll see in this character. Police consultant Bill Clark also served in Vietnam before becoming a police officer. Aspects of Clark’s career will be assigned to Sipowicz as the show develops his backstory.
- Sipowicz always wears short-sleeves. The significance of this I don’t quite understand, unless it’s a simple indication that Sipowicz has no interest in fashion and is determined to wear the same thing each day. Even episodes set during winter feature Sipowicz in short-sleeves. Sipowicz’s short-sleeve shirts were a subject of a joke on The Simpsons (Marge informs Homer that she doesn’t care how Sipowicz dresses, he’s going to wear long-sleeves). A few months after that episode aired, Dan Castellaneta guest-starred on the show as an annoying doorman.
- The idea of Sipowicz as a dinosaur appears throughout the series; it’s verbalized for the first time by a younger detective in Season Three, but the implication goes back to the first season. All of Sipowicz’s cop friends are chubby, older white guys who don’t seem to fit in with an increasingly diverse police force. A shorthand for Sipowicz as an old-school cop is his gun, a .38 Caliber Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver which wasn’t police issue in the early ‘90s, but had been grandfathered in for a few cops.
- Sipowicz’s years on the job are a bit of a continuity foul-up. He indicates in Season Three that he’s been a detective for fourteen years, and was a uniform officer for another nine years. The next to last season of the show establishes that his first murder case put the wrong man in jail, and the date given is 1986. For the show’s continuity to work, it’d have to be closer to 1982.
James McDaniel as Lieutenant Arthur Fancy
Fancy is the boss of the show, the Lieutenant who assigns cases to the detectives and answers to “the brass” if a case isn’t cleared, or a detective screws up. Many cop shows will have lieutenants actively participating in investigations, but Blue tends to portray the Lieutenant as a position somewhere in-between detective and bureaucrat. Fancy as a minority boss within a mostly white department isn’t glossed over -- in fact, it becomes the starting point for many of his storylines, as his white bosses continually look for ways to get him out of his job.
James McDaniel, by the way, is a fantastic actor. You might not realize how good he is if you’ve only seen a few episodes of the show, but whenever McDaniel is given material that takes him out from behind his desk, you get a sense of a multilayered character hiding behind the dispassionate boss’s façade.
McDaniel had a complaint about the series that you’ll hear numerous times when discussing the cast of the show -- he didn’t have enough to do. The producers would occasionally indulge him and do at least one Fancy-centric episode a season, but eventually McDaniel grew tired of his somewhat thankless role and quit the show.
Arthur Fancy Character Notes:
- Watching early episodes of the series, I was confused by characters referring to Lt. Fancy as "Lou" -- an odd nickname for someone named "Arthur." Eventually, I realized they were calling him "Lieu" as in "Lieutenant;" it's an affectionate nickname for their boss.
- At some point in the early seasons, it was decided that Arthur Fancy harbors a considerable amount of buried rage. It expresses itself at the end of Season Two when Detective Martinez asks Fancy to coach him as an amateur boxer, only to discover that Fancy becomes a totally different person in the ring. It’s an interesting note to keep in mind when watching McDaniel’s performance.
- The first episode of the show, perhaps unintentionally, establishes Fancy as an extremely lenient boss. Sipowicz is clearly a drunken mess, yet Fancy is reluctant to take him off the street. A few episodes later, Fancy actually gives in to Sipowicz’s pressure and allows him back on a case after he sobers up during a hospital stay. As the years progress, you’ll see Fancy turn the other way numerous times when his detectives don’t strictly obey the rules (usually by dating their coworkers, a subplot that the show overuses after the first few seasons.)
- James McDaniel once appeared on E!’s Talk Soup, where host John Henson ridiculed his character’s last name relentlessly.
Sherry Stringfield as Assistant District Attorney Laura Michaels
Laura is Det. Kelly’s ex-wife, although the show continues to hint during the first half of the season that maybe they’ll get back together. The romantic subplots on the show are very clearly invented on the fly; every few episodes characters hook up, break up, get back together, and occasionally act as if they were never couples. Sherry Stringfield was intended to be the original ADA on the series, the prosecutor who deals with detectives on a daily basis, but found her stories continually taken by another actress, Sharon Lawrence, who was given an increasing role as Sipowicz’s love interest. According to Milch, Stringfield politely asked to be let go before the first season was over. A few months later, she was cast on the next big network drama of the era, E.R.
Laura Michaels Character Notes:
- Not a whole lot to say about Laura. She was intended to be a major character but the situation didn’t work out. It is amusing to see scenes with Laura on her own, dealing with legal issues and internal struggles within the DA’s office in the early episodes. It’s more L. A. Law than NYPD Blue.
- Laura has no goodbye on the show. In one episode, Laura asks for Det. Kelly’s help when she thinks someone is stalking her, but is then irritated by his overprotective manner. Kelly angrily declares that he’s “done with her” and it turns out he’s right -- that’s her last appearance on the series!
Amy Brenneman as Officer Janice Licalsi
Brenneman goes on to become a TV star in her own right, but here, she’s mainly in the role of girlfriend. Or, as Brenneman later described it, a “mob chick” the writers didn’t know what to do with. Officer Janice Licalsi is a second-generation cop who discovers her father has been on the mob payroll for years, doing minor work like tipping off the right people before a raid. In order to prevent his name going public, she agrees to “get close” to Det. Kelly, who’s irritating mobster Angelo Marino, and kill him. Instead, she falls in love with Kelly and kills Marino and his driver.
Janice Licalsi Character Notes: Uh…I got nothin’. Brenneman is actually quite good in this role, she just doesn’t stick around long enough to become a fully-realized character.
Nicholas Turturro as Officer James Martinez
James Martinez is a young cop from the Anti-Crime division that’s assigned to work with Det. Kelly after Sipowicz is shot in the pilot episode. What exactly Anti-Crime actually is isn’t quite spelled out in the show (much of the specifics of police work are left to the audience to infer). He isn’t a uniform cop, yet he’s not officially a detective, either. Much of the first season is devoted to Martinez learning the ropes and proving himself as a cop. He’s given his gold shield and promoted to detective during the Christmas episode, signaling the steady role he’ll play on the show during the first half of its run.
James Martinez Character Notes:
- Martinez is the ultimate nice guy on the show. I’m trying to think of any negative character traits ever applied to Martinez, and all I can think of would be his overly aggressive attempts to date another detective in Season Two (and the mess that storyline turned out to be is worthy of its own post…)
- The story of Martinez’s younger brother dying of a drug overdose was inspired by the death of Bill Clark’s brother.
- Nicholas Turturro was apparently something of a sex symbol during the early seasons of the show. This makes me laugh, because he seems like the most average-looking actor on the planet to me. By the end of the run, the show has Henry Simmons as the beefcake.
Those are the major players. In my next post, I’ll detail the recurring guest stars of the first season (some of these characters go on to impact the entire run of the series), and compile a list of all of the elements from Season One that are dropped as the series evolves.