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Friday, January 29, 2016

The Milch Studies: NYPD BLUE Season One - The Guest Stars

Gordon Clapp as Detective Greg Medavoy
Gordon Clapp first appeared as a guest star in episode three, became a recurring character during the first season, and was added to the opening credits in Season Two.  He stuck with the show to the very end, appearing in almost as many episodes as Dennis Franz.  While practically every other actor with a role his size complained about not having enough to do and eventually left, Clapp seemed to have the good sense to stick around on a hit show and not trip over his own ego.  Just based on comments by people who worked on the series, Clapp is a decent, likable guy who was popular around the set.

Det. Greg Medavoy Character Facts:
  • Medavoy is neurotic, to the point that it’s almost hard to buy him as New York detective in a few scenes.  His main anxieties in the early episodes tend to be traffic and his allergies.  In later seasons, he becomes obsessed with his weight.
  • In the Season Four premiere, Medavoy describes himself as being five-seven and a half.  In an early Season Two episode, Det. Martinez lists his height as five-eight.  Years earlier, the real-life NYPD had a height requirement that prevented anyone under five-ten from joining the force.  It’s certainly plausible that the younger Det. Martinez could’ve joined, but I’m not sure about Medavoy.
  • Medavoy’s age becomes a continuity blunder over the years.  We see his fortieth birthday party in a Season One episode, yet the NYPD Blue prequel novel, Max Allan Collins’ Blue Beginning, lists his age as forty, which obviously doesn’t work for a story set before the first episode.  Years later, in Season Twelve, Medavoy’s age is given as fifty-five, even though fifteen years haven’t passed since Season One.
  • According to Milch's True Blue book, Medavoy’s stutter was an invention of Gordon Clapp’s during his audition.  It’s his defining feature, in a way, but it becomes less prevalent as the years go on.  No continuity error there, though -- Medavoy mentions in his second appearance that he’s seeing a shrink to deal with his stutter.

Sharon Lawrence as Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas
Sylvia Costas is a character who appears in the very first scene of the show -- she’s the ADA trying to prosecute a weak case handed over to her by a drunken Andy Sipowicz.  The case is thrown out, and after a brief exchange with Sipowicz, he proceeds to grab his crotch and swear at her.  In the next season finale, they marry.  Sylvia Costas wasn’t intended as a major character, but she became essential to Sipowicz’s character arc, and after showing herself as a credible love interest for Sipowicz, she became a series regular.  Actress Sharon Lawrence had the predictable “You’re not giving me enough to do!” complaints, however, leading her to leave the show on three separate occasions.  The third time turned out to be her last.

Sylvia Costas Character Facts:
  • The ADA part in the series premiere was actually written for a man.  Casting Sharon Lawrence came at the last minute.  The show could’ve evolved into something very different had the producers not cast Lawrence in this part.
  • While Sylvia is the New York-bred daughter of Greek immigrants, actress Sharon Lawrence is from North Carolina.  Her Southern accent occasionally comes out during her crying scenes.
  • Between Seasons One and Three, Sharon Lawrence becomes almost unrecognizable.  I’m not implying she had plastic surgery, but at the very least, the hair and makeup people made a conscious choice to glam her up.

Gail O'Grady as Personal Administrative Aide Donna Abandano
Donna Abandano is introduced midway through Season One as the squad’s PAA (Wiki says that’s a “Personal Administrative Aide.” The show never spells out the term, from what I can recall.)  It’s a secretarial role, basically.  This is probably the most thankless job on the show.  You have to sit there and pretend to do paperwork while all of the other actors around either solve crimes or undergo juicy character dramas.  (You don’t even get to do actual paperwork; you’re pretending to do fake paperwork!)  Keeping a stable presence in this role turned out to be difficult for the producers.  Honestly, I think this position should’ve just been eliminated after O'Grady's exit.  Do you really need a character to help out with clerical duties?  Especially when it’s almost impossible to keep an actor satisfied in this role?

Donna Abandano Character Facts:  She loves the New York Rangers, once had an affair with one of the players, and becomes the “other woman” of sorts with Detective Medavoy this year.  The Greg/Donna romance actually doesn’t last that long, but it impacts the character of Medavoy for the first four seasons of the show.

David Schwimmer as Josh '4B' Goldstein
A pre-Friends David Schwimmer, playing a small town boy from the Midwest (yet with a New York accent) trying to make it in the big city.  He’s the neighbor of Det. Kelly’s ex-wife, and Kelly quickly discerns that he has a crush on her.  Josh is assaulted in the building while doing his laundry one night, leading to a crisis of confidence that ultimately gets him killed.  He’s the first of many peripheral characters on this show to die.

Schwimmer is also the first surprise guest star you’ll see when watching old episodes.  You’ll also catch actors like Leah Remini, Adam Scott, Paul Giamatti, Jonah Hill, and Michael Jai White in bit parts in older episodes.  My favorite oddball casting is Jewish comedian Michael Ian Black as a gay Puerto Rican prostitute in the season finale.

Schwimmer’s scenes with Caruso are actually fascinating to watch.  Det. Kelly has every reason not to like this guy -- he’s interested in Kelly’s ex-wife, he’s dismissive of the job the police are doing in his neighborhood, and he stubbornly refuses to ever take Kelly’s advice -- yet Caruso pals around with Schwimmer in an unusually warm way.  It’s hard to tell if it’s meant to be condescending, or just brotherly, but their scenes together are fun to watch and are often highlights of the early episodes.

Josh '4B' Goldstein Character Facts:  4B is the nickname Det. Kelly bestows upon him, based upon his apartment number.  It’s not a great or imaginative nickname for him, but somehow it’s always stuck with fans of the show.

Robert Costanzo as mafia soldier Alphonse Giardella
Costanzo  would be recognizable to any comics fan -- he’s the voice of Harvey Bullock on Batman: The Animated Series!  He also had a great agent in 1993, since he’s always credited on the show as “Special Guest Star” Robert Costanzo instead of just a regular ol’ guest star.  Alphonse Giardella is a low-level mobster that Sipowicz has an irrational hatred for, one that’s never revealed on the show.  In the True Blue memoir, David Milch says that Sipowicz views Giardella as a cartoonish caricature of himself, while Max Allan Collins attempts to address the question in his prequel novel, Blue Beginning.

Alphonse Giardella Character Facts:  Giardella is the third character on the show to carry a torch for Laura Michaels.  He offers to buy her a car while wooing her.

Michael Harney as Detective Mike Roberts
You might recognize Michael Harney from Orange is the New Black as Corrections Officer Sam Healy.  He’s one of the recurring detectives we see in Season One, from the days before there’s a set cast of detectives to surround the two stars.  Detective Mike Roberts reveals what it will take for Lt. Fancy to finally get rid of you -- sleep with a drug-addicted informant and try to cover up her death after she ODs.  Mike Roberts is a great example of one of the show’s strengths -- characters are rarely purely good or bad.  Roberts is certainly a screw-up, and not a flattering portrayal of a cop, but the show’s hero John Kelly remains friends with him after he’s forced into early retirement, hinting to the audience that maybe Mike’s not all bad.  In one of the later Season One episodes, Roberts and Kelly have coffee together, and Roberts pressures Kelly into acknowledging that in spite of his flaws, Kelly always respected him as a cop.  The way Caruso plays the response, part pity, part annoyance, is wonderful.

Roberts go on to run a small security firm and occasionally appears in future seasons as a guest star.  There’s a fantastic character moment in Season Three, when he learns that an old case of his is being reopened, and a fact he didn’t pick up on years earlier would have cleared the case.  “Well, shame on me,” he says with no irony.  Being a cop, The Job, means the world to Mike Roberts and being faced with one of his failures shames him more than his inappropriate affair.

Detective Mike Roberts Character Facts:  Det. Roberts also left a dog in a locked room with his dead informant’s body.  When the dog is later found, eaten up with parasites, Sipowicz takes her in and cares for the dog during the rest of the season.  Sipowicz isn’t nearly as forgiving of Roberts as Kelly is, and it’s implied that the dog is the reason why.

That dog is never seen after the first season, by the way.

This leads us to…

NYPD Blue Season One - Things that Didn’t Stick Around
  • If you’ll notice, only two of the characters in the first season’s opening credits are detectives (two more become detectives as the season goes on, but as of Episode One, only John Kelly and Andy Sipowicz are detectives.)  Initially, the show focuses on detectives, prosecutors, and uniform cops, with the other detectives in the squad serving as bit players that may or may not appear in more than one episode.  By the time the show’s reached Season Three, the series has a set crew of detectives that you see every episode, and with only a few exceptions, the audience doesn’t see any detectives outside of those featured in the opening credits.  The focus of the show evolves clearly into a detective show, and not a look at every aspect of police work or the legal system. 
  • The first season has more car chase scenes than the rest of the series combined.  Car chases are a carry-over from cop shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it takes the first year for Blue to finally shake them off.
  • The location of the 15th Precinct changes in-between Season One and Two.  In the early episodes, the detectives usually investigate crimes in midtown, in classy neighborhoods like Central Park West.  In Season Two, when a new detective is interviewed, she asked if she’s up for working in the tough Lower East Side.  From that point on, most of the crimes occur in bodegas and tenements and working class neighborhoods.  Someone must’ve decided this fit the tone of the show better, and they were right, but it makes the first season stick out a bit in retrospect.
  • The Zorro sign!  The first few weeks I watched the show, I kept seeing what I thought was Zorro on a banner in the background.  I told myself I must be nuts, because there was no reason a police station would have Zorro posters up, right?  Actually, it’s a real poster circulated by the New York Police Department's Crime Stoppers Unit in the early ‘90s.  (Another poster featured the Lone Ranger; it’s seen in one episode downstairs in the stationhouse in Season One.  The Zorro sign is written in Spanish, which is a nice touch.)  The NYPD chose Zorro and the Lone Ranger to emphasize to the public that you can report a crime anonymously.  Ironically, one of the episodes this year makes it quite clear that if the police want you to testify, they’ll do anything they can to force you.  The Zorro poster never goes away, but it is featured less prominently beginning in Season Two, after it’s moved from the top of the assignment board and over to the wall next to the bathroom.
  • Wacky street people don’t stick around for more than a few episodes.  Season One recycles two Hill Street Blues characters -- Lou the Wolf (he thinks he’s a werewolf) and Buck Naked (an enthusiastic streaker) -- but zaniness doesn’t exactly match the mood of the show, so they don’t return.  Dwayne McDuffie used the appearances by Lou and Buck as evidence that NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues exist in the same universe when working on his massive TV cross-continuity project.
  • You’ll see far more cops smoking in the first season than you’ll see in the rest of the run.  Sipowicz is even shown putting a cigarette in his mouth in the opening credits, even though he stops smoking by the second episode.  (Sipowicz  going back to smoking whenever he’s drinking again remains consistent throughout the series, however.)  I also noticed that squeaky clean James Martinez is shown with a cigarette in the background of one scene in the pilot.  The Martinez  we see in the regular series is very much not a smoker.
  • The detectives’ coffee room is referred to as “Interview (Room) Two” in the first season, and with no explanation, becomes “Interview One” after the second season.  A shorthand quickly develops on the show -- if the detectives bring someone into the coffee room to interview, that person isn’t considered a suspect.  If they’re taken into the more formal rooms, the ones with cages, that guy’s a suspect.
  • Videotaped confessions appear in one memorable Season One episode, but only sporadically make appearances during the rest of the run.  Why the detectives would sometimes want a confession on tape isn’t clear.  In over 95% of the episodes, the perps write out their confessions on legal pads.  (In later episodes of the show, criminals are given small pocket notebooks to write out their confessions, another change I don’t understand.)
  • Crooks and their lawyers, or that pesky “Miranda Rights” thing.  You’ll notice that the detectives in Season One rarely read out Miranda Rights to perps, but they will often remind them that they can have a lawyer if they want one.  In one episode, after a suspect blurts out that he killed his wife, Sipowicz actually stops him and says, essentially, “Woah, sir! I’m required to inform you that you’re entitled to a lawyer!”  After Season Two, this would never happen.  Fan speculation is that after Bill Clark retired from the force and began working on the show full-time, he was more open about Miranda Rights and the way police actually use them during investigations.  In one of the later seasons of the show, Sipowicz has a conversation with his young partner John Clark, Jr. that makes it clear that cops will always avoid Mirandizing a suspect if they can get away with it.  As Clark, Jr. puts it, why tell someone you suspect of murder that he doesn’t have to talk to you if he doesn’t want to?

Doesn't care about your rights.

That’s all of the background.  Next time, I’ll examine the actual story content of the first season, and try to resist noting every time David Caruso chose to throw a tantrum on the set.

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  1. You gotta give Gail O'Grady credit, she did at least score some Emmy nominations for the role. Whether it was her rising above the material or her being caught up in the Emmy nomination waves big shows in the 90s were, at least she has that. Granted, pretty much all of the cast was nominated at some point during the first half of the show, but still, for the part she was playing, not bad.

  2. Her character was cartoonish in a way, but I thought O'Grady made it work. It's obvious after the first season that the writers really have no idea what to do with her, so I don't blame O'Grady for moving on to TV movies, and what she thought was a promising sitcom career.

  3. "Sylvia Costas is a character who appears in the very first scene of the show -- she’s the ADA trying to prosecute a weak case handed over to her by a drunken Andy Sipowicz. The case is thrown out, and after a brief exchange with Sipowicz, he proceeds to grab his crotch and swear at her."

    Cue to Bob Saget narration: Kid, this is HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.


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