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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Milch Studies - Brooklyn South

Brooklyn South debuted in the Fall of 1997, just as NYPD Blue was entering its fifth season and Total Security was dying a fast death on ABC.  Even though it aired on competing network CBS, Brooklyn South was intended in many respects as an NYPD Blue spinoff.  And, in many ways, it wasn’t.  This is confusing.

Brooklyn South wasn’t officially promoted as an NYPD Blue spinoff, although hardcore fans knew that it was intended to be in the same world, and we even see a few minor characters from NYPD Blue make appearances during its run.  And yet, there’s no way Brooklyn South could work as a Blue spinoff, since so many of the actors on the series have already appeared in different roles on NYPD Blue.  Now, it was nothing unusual for NYPD Blue to recycle actors in different roles, but Brooklyn South takes this to new heights.  Not only does Titus Welliver appear on NYPD Blue as Dr. Mondzac  while also starring as Officer Jake Lowery on Brooklyn South (literally during the same week, towards the end of this season), but South also features Michael DeLuise as Officer Phil Roussakoff…an actor you might recall as Sipowicz’s son.  Sipowicz’s dead son.  How do you ever cross NYPD Blue and Brooklyn South over without acknowledging this? 

The answer is, you don’t.  While Brooklyn South might throw the occasional nod towards NYPD Blue’s way, Blue is perfectly content to ignore South.  (Much like, say, Marvel TV shows can toss in references to the movies all they like, but the movies are seemingly ignorant of their existence.) 

Aside from sharing a few bit players, Brooklyn South and NYPD Blue also have a similar desire to drive the censors mad.  While South is much lighter in tone, it features the occasional bare buttock and never-before-uttered-in-prime-time profanity -- in fact, South gets away with using a few terms that Blue never touched, and to this day, I’ve never heard on network TV.  And yet, I recall absolutely zero controversy surrounding Brooklyn South before its debut.  The only publicity I remember regarding the show occurred midseason, when Bochco and Milch were openly searching for ways to save the series.

Did public mores change that much from 1993 to 1997?  Remember that NYPD Blue faced nearly a year of controversy before its debut, with around a fourth of ABC’s affiliates refusing to air the program.  Since the world failed to collapse after Blue’s premiere, did people just decide to lighten up and not care about these issues?  Not likely.  At some point after its cancellation, South aired on cable channel A&E, apparently with different “racier” edits.  And the eventual DVD release of the show in 2003 bragged on the box that you’re getting the too hot for prime time version of the show.  Since the concept of full-season box set releases on DVD was a pipe dream in 1997, there’s no way the producers could’ve known that two versions of the show would be released.  So why were they made?  I can only guess that Brooklyn South was conceived as a bold, controversial drama for CBS, with the producers following the template set by NYPD Blue.  At some point during the production, the network balked at the idea of courting controversy, so a more TV-friendly edit of the episodes was produced.  Yet, that doesn’t explain why the racier aspects keep appearing as the season goes on.  By the time the show is past the fourth episode, the producers would’ve already been well aware of how the show was being promoted and which rules had to be obeyed.

And what is Brooklyn South, by the way?  It’s a cop drama created by Steven Bocho, David Milch, Bill Clark, and William Finkelstein.  Steven Bocho, David Milch, Bill Clark are all familiar names, but I don’t know that much about Finkelstein.  He was brought in to run NYPD Blue during its final season, so you have to assume he’s someone trusted by Bochco and Milch.  (I’m surprised that a new Bochco/Milch cop show didn’t utilize either Ted Mann or David Mills as a co-creator, though.)

You can watch the opening credits here.  Prepare yourself for some network television-ready mawkishness.

The opening credits periodically change the kid seen at the end, holding the cop’s hand.  Why they bothered to do this, I have no idea.

While NYPD Blue examines the lives of a detective squad, Brooklyn South is focused on the uniform officers working out of the fictional 74th precinct.  In 1997, CBS was still desperate to shed its image as the “grandma network” so it turned to Bochco and Milch, creators of the most popular “edgy” program on television, for a hit.  What it got was…a decent, mostly non-offensive cop show that no one’s ever going to confuse with NYPD Blue.  The pilot (which opens with a cop’s head literally being blown off) might lead you to believe that you’re in for a beat cop version of Blue, but by the time you reach the fifth episode (the one with the clown orgy), you know that South is something different. 

The cast of Brooklyn South consists of…

Jon Tenney as Patrol Sergeant Francis X. Donovan
Francis Donovan is hypothetically the lead character of the show, given that he’s the sergeant who oversees the cops out on patrol and has a direct connection to most of the cast members.  He also has a dark secret -- he’s been an informant for Internal Affairs ever since he graduated from the academy.  Donovan was, possibly, conceived as the series’ lead, but it’s difficult to say for sure.  Dylan Walsh might also lay claim to that title.

Yancy Butler as Officer Ann-Marie Kersey
She hasn’t discovered the Witchblade yet!  Yancey Butler, who previously appeared on NYPD Blue as the smack-addicted acquaintance of Det. Kirkendal, is now portraying conflicted cop Ann-Marie Kersey.  I think every storyline she receives on the show has Ann-Marie second-guessing herself or working through her insecurities that she isn’t ready for the job.  (She’s the lone uniform cop promoted to detective during the show’s run, and it happens solely for political reasons.)

Michael DeLuise as Officer Phil Roussakoff
Phil Roussakoff is the new transfer who arrives at the 74th precinct in the pilot episode.  Don’t confuse him with Officer Hector Villaneuva, who’s also new to the squad.  Villaneuva is the rookie still learning the ropes, a direction for the character the producers soon abandon.  Roussakoff, meanwhile, is usually the good-natured victim of bad luck.  Also, don’t confuse Phil Roussakoff with some guy called Andy Sipowicz, Jr.

Gary Basaraba as Sgt. Richard Santoro
Another character who could’ve acted as the lead, if the producers so wished.  Sgt. Santoro is the desk sergeant, the guy who’s in the middle of pretty much all events on the show, it seems.  He’s also affable, kind of goofy, married with kids, exasperated by his gambling addict brother-in-law and "punk" nephew (who just looks like any kid in a late ’90s boy band), and is the kind of police sergeant you might expect to see in a David E. Kelly dramedy.

Titus Welliver as Officer Jake Lowery
Titus Welliver has proven his ability to serve as the lead on a drama today, but I think even in 1997 he had the skills to fulfill that role.  His character Jake Lowery is clearly a writers’ favorite (unlike many of the other cast members, he seems to have a storyline in each episode), but I think Welliver is squandered as a dull-witted beat cop who’s eager to solve any problem with his fists.  Perhaps David Milch just thought it was funny to have Welliver simultaneously play a sharp, canny doctor on Blue while also portraying this lunkhead, but Welliver just isn’t well-served by the material.  Officer Jake Lowery is also saddled with a shrewish nag of a wife that’s sadly reminiscent of Det. Medavoy’s one-note burden of a spouse.

Dylan Walsh as Officer Jimmy Doyle
I think Dylan Walsh was perhaps intended as the true lead on the show, given that he seems to have a special position in the opening credits.  (Then again, maybe he’s just last on the credits due to his name.  I’m not sure how well known Walsh was known at this point.)  Officer Jimmy Doyle is essentially the glue of the 74th precinct -- he’s the beat cop who’s been in this neighborhood forever, he knows literally everyone, and he steadfastly refuses any promotion because he doesn’t want to leave the streets.  He’s also the son of a deceased cop, and he’s fiercely protective of his younger brother and sister, who still live with him.  Jimmy Doyle is also so painfully shy around women, he’s bullied by his priest into attending a singles mixer in an early episode.

If you’re familiar with Milch’s work, you’ll recognize elements of Jimmy Doyle in the John Kelly, Bobby Simone, and Greg Medavoy characters from Blue.  That’s not to say that he’s a tired retread of those characters (Walsh brings his unique charm to role), but it is clear that Milch really wants us to like this guy, so he ends up with some of the more affable traits of Blue’s heroes.  Yet, the show’s never quite certain if he’s the star.  Or if the show even has a lead.  There are several more cast members I could mention here, but honestly, most of these guys contribute very little to any of the stories.  Brooklyn South is a show packed with characters, and while the producers (and the network) try to figure out what this series is going to be, many of them are left to languish in the background.

Brooklyn South never escaped that awkward first year.  I’ll try to examine why in my next entry...

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