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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Milch Studies - NYPD Blue Season One, The Highs and Lows

Season Highlights:
There’s no way this is going to be a comprehensive list.  Listing every memorable moment of Season One would turn into me writing a recap of every single episode.  I’ll likely leave something out that would’ve made someone else’s list, so please forgive me.

John Kelly and Andy Sipowicz already have fully developed lives when we first meet them.  The pilot episode could’ve easily been a Season Six episode of a hypothetical Kelly/Sipowicz cop drama that began when Kelly was promoted to detective.  The show assumes you’re smart enough to pick up on the various aspects of their lives without spelling out every tiny detail.  It’s one of the elements that makes the series feel so real in the first season.

Sipowicz’s relationship with ADA Sylvia Costas, which not only humanizes his character early on, but works as a believable vehicle for Sipowicz’s lengthy redemption arc.  Sipowicz’s offer to take Sylvia out to dinner as a way for apologizing for his behavior in the pilot speaks to his true character; and while Sylvia wouldn’t seem to have an obvious reason for taking him up on the offer, she agrees because she falsely accused him of receiving favors from a stripper during a mob bust earlier that episode.  This was tricky for the writers to pull off without making Sylvia look like an idiot, but Sylvia’s decision seems believable within the context of the story.

David Caruso, in spite of the jokes and behind-the-scenes drama, is totally believable as John Kelly.  You do see early hints of Caruso’s scene-chewing towards the end of the season, but for the vast majority of his scenes, he’s one-hundred percent credible as a newly divorced New York cop in his thirties, who plays basketball with his friends in the morning before work, visits his mother with Alzheimer’s every holiday, and has a little too much attitude for his own good.

The James Martinez/John Kelly scenes are a clever way to have a character outright explain aspects of detective work without the stopping the momentum of the show, or worse, making the audience feel as if they’re in the middle of a lecture.  If you watch the show, you might wonder why the detectives are so determined to get confessions from suspects.  (Many cop shows at this point merely had the police hand a suspect off to his lawyer, and that’s the end of the story.)  Kelly spells out why to Martinez in one episode, providing a detailed list of reasons; ones we later learn came directly from Bill Clark during his early days consulting on the show.  This same episode also has Kelly give Martinez a blunt justification on when he’s willing to beat a suspect; David Milch’s efforts to broach this topic with Clark are discussed in True Blue in one of the better chapters of the book.

Bill Clark’s contribution is another aspect that makes Season One (and the entire run of the show) stand out amongst any other police procedural.  Not only does he provide technical guidance on how a case is worked, but the specific mentality of “The Job” is what makes the show different from any of its predecessors.  After providing real-life cases to serve as the inspirations for stories for much of the first year, Bill Clark received his first writing credit for Episode 19, “Serge the Concierge.”  Clark wrote this while still working as an NYPD detective and traveling to the set during his vacation days.  I don’t know of any other crime drama that had someone actually doing the job and writing about it simultaneously.

The other side of this coin is David Milch, who drew upon his own experiences with addiction to create the most believable world of scumbags and degenerates ever seen on network television -- perps who could turn on a dime and actually make you care about their pathetic lives with only a few lines of dialogue.  One of the real-life Bill Clark cases used in the first year involved two heroin-addicted brothers who robbed their neighbor for drug money and accidentally killed her while subduing her.  Clark clinically described working the case in the book, explaining how canvassing the neighborhood revealed that the victim’s neighbor had an adult son who lived with her.  In Clark’s mind, this automatically made the son a suspect (how times have changed), and after running his name, he knew the young man and his brother had several possession busts in the past.  From there, it was a matter of picking them up, sizing them up, and convincing them to confess.

From Clark’s perspective, these were two more skells taken off the street.  He acknowledges that most addicts actually don’t want to kill anyone during a robbery, but he certainly has no sympathy for them while writing out the details of the case.  To Clark, they’re scumbags; to Milch, they’re fellow addicts.  Milch never strangled someone for drug money, but he knows the depths of addiction.

Another scene that owes its existence to Milch’s struggles is Sipowicz’s first AA meeting.  After watching several of Milch’s presentations on Youtube, it’s not hard to guess that this scene is him directly speaking through the man leading the AA meeting (some of this language appears almost verbatim in his presentations).

That episode, “Guns ‘N Rosaries,” is one of the series’ finest.  Not only does it feature more scenes with Kelly interacting with his close friend, who also happens to be his priest, but it also has a frank exploration of cops using lethal force on The Job, and the psychological toll it carries.

Introduced early in the season is Sipowicz’s son, Andy, Jr., who appears intermittently as a reminder of Sipowicz’s failures.  Sipowicz’s strained relationship with his son, and his often futile efforts to prove that he’s changed, is the most poignant reminder of just how far Sipowicz has fallen as a human being.  The season ends with Andy, Jr. slowly rebuilding his relationship with his father; Sipowicz offers to help Andy, Jr. purchase a used car in the season finale, which ties into another ongoing storyline, the Boochi case.

Cop dramas are often criticized for implying that detectives always clear cases, which certainly isn’t realistic, but would seem to be a necessity when writing a TV drama.  (It’s not very satisfying if you invest in a case for an hour and are never given an actual resolution.)  NYPD Blue danced around this by establishing that many of the detectives had unsolved cases from their pasts that still eat at them.  The Boochi case is Sipowicz’s case that he couldn’t clear.  In Episode 17, Sipowicz comes back into contact with the Boochis, whose daughter disappeared years earlier.  A private investigator (played by Donna’s father from That ‘70s Show) is conning the Boochis out of thousands of dollars by investigating leads that he knows are false.  The episode ends with Sipowicz arresting the P.I. and unsuccessfully attempting to convince the Boochis that their daughter likely isn’t coming back.

The writers didn’t intend to return to this story, but in the season finale, Milch decided that Sipowicz needed some kind of reward.  Their first appearance established that Sipowicz was friendly with Mr. Boochi, a used car dealer, which organically leads to Mr. Boochi helping Andy, Jr. purchase a car.  While on the used car lot, Sipowicz encounters a part-time employee of Mr. Boochi that he didn’t interview the first time around.  Sipowicz is immediately suspicious of the man, and by the end of the episode, the Boochi’s daughter is found, alive and well. 

This kind of thing happens regularly in police dramas, but Blue does at least have the characters acknowledge just how implausible this actually is.  As Sipowicz tells his son, you could work the job a hundred years and never get that lucky.  The Boochi case is referenced again, years later in Season Three, when Sipowicz is listing the reasons why he should’ve received a First Grade promotion.  That’s a great bit of continuity -- three years into the show, Sipowicz is still talking about that incredible break he got in the unsolvable case.

Season Lowlights:
Pobody’s nerfect, so here’s a list of the less-than-great elements of Season One…

Working stiff Detective John Kelly, somehow, has numerous rich friends.  And by “rich,” I mean high society, gala openings, vacation in Europe for a year kind of rich.  This ties into the more glamorous aspects of Season One I’ve mentioned earlier, but within the context of the show, it’s hard to believe that Det. Kelly is surrounded by so much wealth.  (To be fair, it could be inferred that Kelly knows these people through his part-time security work, or through his ex-wife, who was once an attorney for a firm that’s implied to be fairly prestigious…the idea that he hangs out with the elites socially, however, is hard for me to swallow.)  It sometimes comes across as if the producers are just writing their eccentric, wealthy friends into the plot.  One episode features Charlie Lear, a member of the idle rich with a drinking problem who isn’t sure if he murdered one of his mistresses during a blackout -- having watched Milch’s speeches on Youtube, Charlie sounds like one of Milch’s friends.  Det. Kelly isn’t an Ivy-league educated racehorse enthusiast, however. 

Kelly is also friends with an elderly rich man who fears his much younger wife, Robin, is cheating on him.  Kelly discovers that she is, gives her a stern talking-to, the friend dies, and in the season finale, Kelly and Robin are now a couple.  Perhaps the most random romantic pairing in the show’s history, it seems to exist only to work in a final sex scene during the season finale.  Season Two opens with the two of them breaking up, confirming the relationship as utterly pointless.

Another romantic story arc that doesn’t work, but isn’t nearly as irritating, is Janice Licalsi’s infatuation with John Kelly.  If you go back and examine the timeline, Licalsi has to fall madly in love with Det. Kelly over the course of a day or so…and love him so much she’s willing to kill two people over it.  I could buy her being interested immediately, but she’s a borderline stalker in these early episodes.  Licalsi’s arc, overall, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because so much of it had to be rethought when the producers decided she shouldn’t be Kelly’s love interest.  While watching the individual episodes this fact isn’t obvious, a testament to Amy Brenneman’s performance, but looking back on the season, Licalsi’s a bit of a mess.

The behind-the-scenes drama involving David Caruso usually isn’t evident when watching the episodes, but occasionally little moments occur that take me out of the show.  These usually involve elements of Kelly playing the tough guy.  David Caruso apparently wanted to play a more macho character than the quietly conflicted, cop’s cop created by David Milch.  Towards the end of the season, you see more efforts to keep Caruso happy, which usually involve him gut-punching someone (like a steroid-addicted Anti-Crime cop), or growling out threats to two drug kingpins who ordered a hit on his ex-wife from prison.  Caruso the Tough Guy just isn’t as convincing as Caruso, the Second-Generation Cop Just Trying to do The Job.  I wish he would’ve realized that.

Another fallout of Caruso’s ego is the lack of Kelly/Sipowicz scenes as the season develops.  The show is still great without them, but it could’ve been that much better if we actually witnessed the two old friends working cases together and genuinely interacting during the later episodes of the season.

Miscellaneous Note:
I’ve yet to mention that Ted Mann is a writer this season (he works on all of Milch’s shows).  Mann was a comedy writer before he switched to drama.  The only issue of National Lampoon I’ve ever seen had a pornographic Bewitched parody written by Mann, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, and lettered by Tom Orzechowski.

What Was the Point of THAT?
Episode Thirteen, “Abandando Abandoned” introduces the first female detective on the series, Detective Sharon LaSalle.  The actress isn’t included in the opening credits and only has a guest star credit, indicating that the producers were likely trying her out, just as Gordon Clapp guest starred for a full season before Det. Medavoy was named a series regular.  LaSalle and her husband are introduced as old friends of both Kelly and Sipowicz; her husband is now retired from the force and working for a security firm, but he’s well-respected by everyone working on The Job.  He’s also clearly a character that’s going to die.  It’s obvious during the “this is how my retirement is all mapped out” conversation he has with his wife that he’s going to stick around for as long as Thomas and Martha Wayne do in a Batman origin story.

The husband is killed, leaving the 15th detective squad’s lone female detective a widow.  There’s obviously meant to be some parallel between her husband’s murder and the death of John Kelly’s father, a point driven home when Kelly gives a speech to her kids, telling them the same thing happened to him when he was their age.  Det. Kelly then hands out his card to the boys and tells them that they’re going to be “buddies” from now on.  It would seem that the single John Kelly is being set up as a father figure for the young kids, and the widow as a potential love interest -- or at the very least, a confidant for David Caruso’s character that won’t threaten his insecurities about being the true star of the show.

Det. LaSalle leaves the show after only three episodes or so, and those kids are never seen again.  So…what was the point?

This wraps up our look back at Season One.  Given that Caruo’s departure is firmly rooted in the events of this season, I’ll move on to Season Two before I take a look at Milch’s first TV job, Hill Street Blues.  If you have your own picks for highlight and lowlights, or have any suggestions on how to move forward with the series, let me know in the comments.

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  1. I just finished season 1 over the weekend. Going into the show blind, I didn't know what to expect. Within 3 episodes Sipowicz made me into a fan. I can see why the character had such an impact on TV just from watching one season.

    Right as I got invested in LaSalle, she left the show. What the hell? At least it looks like they eventually add more female detectives. Licalsi just seemed desperate and creepy. Had she killed her boss in say episode 6 I could have bought into her character. I just cringed when she tried to chase down ladies' man Kelly as he bird-dogs his ex-wife.

    Also, Abandando is such a caricature, it's like having Betty Boop as the gatekeeper. (Medavoy's comic relief isn't as jarring as her playing straight in a given scene.)

  2. The LaSalle situation makes absolutely no sense. I have to assume that the actress got another job on a different show, or maybe one of the producers or the leads intensely disliked her, because there's no reason within the context of the show to give a character and her kids an intro like that and just drop them.

    More female detectives are added as the years go on. In the last half of the show, they decide that a third of the detectives should be female, and paired together as a team. The next female detective, though, receives even worst treatment than LaSalle.


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