Brooklyn South, to its credit, did run for a full season. That’s actually a decent run, when compared to other Milch programs (NYPD Blue’s twelve-year run was very much an outlier.) The show, however, is pretty weak tea when compared to what most viewers expected from another Milch/Bochco cop drama. The first season of NYPD Blue brought us a young lead in the midst of a divorce, an older lead crawling his way out of alcoholism, and various supporting players that ranged from a nice guy with a stutter to unrepentant adulterous scum. Brooklyn South doesn’t give us a Sipowicz. We don’t even get a Mike Roberts.
Which isn’t to say that the cast of Brooklyn South is without charm. I like many of these characters, especially Dylan Walsh’s Officer Jimmy Doyle. Walsh went on to co-star in shows like Nip/Tuck and Unforgettable, but Brooklyn South shows that Walsh could’ve worked as a series lead even back in 1997. The problem is that Jimmy Doyle isn’t the lead on the show. And neither is patrol sergeant Francis Donovan. And desk sergeant Richard Santoro doesn’t exactly qualify for the role, either, even though he tends to be in the middle of most of the storylines. Brooklyn South has no center; whereas Blue evolved into an ensemble program, South attempts to open as one. The result is a show with far too many characters and too many story arcs, with no one character given a real chance to make a connection with the audience. The show was often compared to Hill Street Blues in its early promotion, but even Hill Street had Captain Frank Furillo and public defender Joyce Davenport to serve as anchors for the series. Brooklyn South desperately needed such an anchor, and the show even has a few regular cast members who could’ve filled that role. Unfortunately, no single actor is given much of a chance to stand out, so you never get to know any of these characters the way you came to know John Kelly or Andy Sipowicz.
Another problem facing the series is that NYPD Blue had spent the previous four years giving viewers the impression that uniform cops just aren’t as interesting as detectives. Uniforms are the guys with notepads already at the scene when the detectives arrive, but they rarely contribute anything to the investigations. And I think every individual uniform given more than three lines on Blue at this point was painted as incompetent at best or corrupt at worst. (The only exception would be the Officer Shannon character, who inexplicably kept showing up for a long string of episodes.) Brooklyn South comes from the opposing view -- we’re supposed to follow uniforms during the course of their day, and detectives are merely plot nuisances that must be dealt with.
Another conflict exists between Milch’s storytelling instincts and CBS’s expectations of what a drama should be. In 1995, CBS began an effort to revamp its image and aim for a much younger demographic. (Remember MTV’s sketch comedy program The State? In '95, new episodes were going to air on CBS opposite Saturday Night Live. Plans fell through after only one Halloween special, but it’s an indication of just how “young” CBS was reaching.) By 1997, CBS was still under the delusion that they could pull this shift off, so having their own NYPD Blue by the actual creators of that series made sense. In practice, CBS couldn’t seem to commit, so after a pilot that strongly evoked NYPD Blue, the show quickly descended into relatively safe family entertainment. Conflicts are resolved by the end of episodes, bickering ethnic groups always seem to find peace with one another, and dark secrets revealed by the cops are forgiven almost instantly and never turn out to be all that dark in the first place.
I doubt this is the show Milch set out to make, and when Blue’s audience didn’t follow over from ABC, the network began to panic. The biggest shift occurs in the later episodes, when the character of Terry Doyle, Jimmy’s younger brother who’s reluctantly gone straight from the police academy to undercover work, disappears from the show. He’s replaced by Officer Ray MacElwaine, described by Wiki as “a middle-aged widower and 24-year veteran of the force.” MacElwaine is Jimmy Doyle’s new partner, and even though it’s implied that he’s half-crazy in his initial appearance, he evolves into a fantastic supporting player. You might remember the actor portraying MacElwaine from the two separate roles he’s already had on NYPD Blue -- John Finn played both Jimmy 'Socks' Matloe, Sipowicz’s childhood friend who commits a murder, and Internal Affairs villain Lt. John Shannon. Later, in Milch’s final season, he plays another character named Jimmy McElroy. He’s clearly someone Milch respects as an actor. (Finn also played Sheriff John Witter on Dawson's Creek, in addition to various cop roles on shows like The Practice.)
Just to drive the point home, this actor was replaced…
…by this actor…
…in an effort to bring in new viewers. Is this the moment CBS fully embraced its reputation as a grandma network?
I would nominate the pilot and “Skell in a Cell” as the two best episodes of the series. “Skell in a Cell” is the penultimate episode of the series, featuring the saintly Jimmy Doyle in the uncomfortable position of lying to his superiors in order to protect a fellow cop. It’s much closer to what I’d expect from a David Milch cop show than most of the episodes that preceded it. I’m assuming that either CBS relented and allowed Milch to follow his instincts as their final effort to save the series, or Milch just decided to do what he felt like anyway since the show was likely doomed.
“Clown without Pity,” along with any of the other episodes that push the angle of humor or absurdity, just don’t click. Humor often doesn’t work out so great on NYPD Blue either, but at least Blue already had a solid cast that the audience cared about before it attempted the sillier stories.
Hey, Isn't That...?
Almost every episode of this series features an actor you’ll recognize…Ray McKinnon, who later appears on Deadwood as the camp’s minister, is an abusive husband in “A Reverend Runs Through It”…Danny Trejo appears as a hired thug towards the end of the season…a teenage Jessica Alba is featured in one episode, as the victim of a flasher…AJ Langer, in one of her first roles following My So-Called Life, is a frequent guest star, playing Jimmy Doyle’s younger sister…Christopher Meloni portrays an overconfident thug, very similar to the Jimmy Liery character he played a year earlier on NYPD Blue… Mos Def appears as a street informant (or is he an undercover cop?)…and Bryan Cranston is in a few episodes, as an Internal Affairs Lieutenant with a bizarre obsession with outing closeted police officers.
- Edward Allen Bernero, who goes on to co-create the series Third Watch and to executive produce Criminal Minds, broke into television as a writer on Brooklyn South. Before he pursued a career as a writer, Bernero was a police officer in Chicago.
- Deranged gunman Dawshawn Hopkins is played by Cyrus Farmer, who appeared a few times in different roles on NYPD Blue. You might also recognize the actor as Toni Braxton’s eventual love interest in the “You’re Makin’ Me High” video.
- If you’ve read True Blue, then you understand the influence Bill Clark’s views on female police officers had on the Ann-Marie Kersey storyline, which has her promoted to detective for political reasons after she’s forced to kill an attacker.
- There’s a cardinal rule of Milch cop dramas that’s broken once by this show -- we occasionally see the actual crime being committed. Since these shows are always told from the cops’ point of view, we only see the criminal events after they’ve transpired. South sticks to this rule, but I noticed it being broken on at least one occasion (when a handicapped man’s stamp collection is stolen during a violent robbery.) I can’t imagine this is something Milch was eager to do...it does sound exactly like a CBS network note that was arbitrarily enforced one day, though.
- If you’re keeping track at home, the following NYPD Blue characters appear on Brooklyn South -- Smalltime con artist Steve Richards (played by character actor Paul Ben-Victor, not to be confused with Elias Koteas, the similar-looking character actor who was Casey Jones in Teenage Ninja Turtles...it was Paul Ben-Victor who played the Greek’s flunky Vondas on The Wire, though)… Det. Stuart Morrissey, the gray-haired detective from seasons Three and Four who can’t seem to clear a case….FBI agent Kriegel from the “Simone Gets Screwed” storyline at the end of Season Four…and Internal Affairs sergeant Martens, the rare IA investigator who isn’t portrayed as a strict antagonist in Milch/Bochco land. The first episode also informs us that a “retired detective from the 15th precinct” has been shot by a spree killer, but he’s no one we’ve seen before.
Next Time: I examine the final Jimmy Smits episodes of NYPD Blue, try to remember anything about Rick Schroder’s character, and reveal which cast member of this show should’ve been brought over to NYPD Blue.