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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Milch Studies: NYPD Blue, Season Six -- The (Remaining) Cast

Season Five received some criticism for going through the motions and coasting on the show’s established reputation.  Season Six is…certainly not Season Five.  It brings us around six dream/fantasy sequences (in the past five seasons combined, the show has only presented one), shakes up the cast in an irrevocable fashion, has more crying scenes and emotional breakdowns than ever before, and kills off four established characters.  Two of them, major stars of the series that leave a noticeable hole.

Honestly, I’m not sure where to begin with Season Six.  I’m not even entirely certain how I feel about these episodes, because there’s so much to digest.  The obvious place to start is the exit of Jimmy Smits, and his extremely unlikely replacement in the form of Rick Schroder.  Smits departed the show, as he would reveal years after leaving, because he didn’t feel that he could deliver his best work under David Milch’s unique producing style.  “Unique” means that Milch ignores whatever the script is supposed to be and essentially invents the episode when he arrives on set.  In 1998, this meant that the cast members had to carry beepers so that they could be contacted at whatever time Milch was ready to tell them what their scene was supposed to be.  Their lines were allegedly thrown at them (it’s my understanding that ad-libbing was not encouraged in any way), and the actors were expected to just roll with it.  Smits, understandably, grew tired of this arrangement and chose not to renew his contract.

Where did that leave the show?  In 1998, Blue was still a solid hit, even if it wasn’t the hottest thing on television anymore.  Cable had yet to truly compete with networks in the prestige drama department, so on television, drama at this time meant ER, Law & Order, The X-Files, and NYPD Blue.  ABC also had a burgeoning hit in the form of The Practice, but NYPD Blue remained its star drama.

It’s easy to compile a list of working actors from the late ‘90s who would’ve been credible replacements for Jimmy Smits.  It is also easy to call out names of actors who have gone on to have great success in television who would’ve taken the job at a reasonable price and accepted Franz’s role as the real star.  Maybe the producers could’ve tested out the American accent of that talented British fellow, Hugh Laurie, for example.  Personally, I think that Dylan Walsh’s character from Brooklyn South, Jimmy Doyle, could’ve easily slid over into the co-star role.  Or perhaps a new character could’ve been crafted for not-yet-a-sitcom-dad Bryan Cranston (he did guest star a few times on Brooklyn South.)  The rumor at the time was that Canadian actor Nick Lea, known as Agent Krycek on The X-Files, was a shoo-in for the part.

Nick Lea must’ve had a fantastic publicist in 1998, because he’s certainly not who we got.

We got Ricky Schroder.

All right, in fairness, we didn’t get Rick-y Schroder.  We got the adult Rick Schroder, who doesn’t look that much older.

Now, why exactly?  The rumor at the time was that this was co-creator Steven Bochco’s call -- Bochco allegedly believed that hiring a former child actor would bring more attention to series, with the audience tuning in for the novelty of the former Silver Spoons star living in the very adult world of NYPD Blue.  I think the 2016 equivalent of this might be casting Frankie Muniz as the co-lead on a serious drama (which could be in the works for all I know).  I’m not sure how Milch felt about the choice (we do know that Bochco had the final say on all casting), because I’ve never come across an interview where the subject of Schroder was even broached.  I am fairly confident that the two of them never worked together after Blue, although that doesn’t necessarily betray Milch’s feelings toward Schroder.

The introduction of Rick Schroder is one reason why Season Six just feels different; another is the sudden emotional shift of the series.  The previous year had maybe two or three examples of the cast becoming more touchy-feely than ever before, but this year is practically an Oprah interview.  There’s more crying and fighting in Season Six than the previous five seasons combined; it reaches a point where you can expect at least one emotional breakdown from an established cast member per episode (unless you’re one of the two regulars who Milch no longer has any time for.)  Previously, we didn’t even see Sipowicz cry when his son was murdered.  He clearly wanted to -- and watching Dennis Franz’s portrayal of a proud man foolishly attempting to keep those feelings inside is one of the greatest feats the actor ever accomplished -- but he didn’t give in.  This year, he breaks down in tears twice at work as he realizes that his partner likely isn’t going to make it.  Sipowicz isn’t only crying, he’s crying at work, where other people might see him…when did this guy get so in touch with his emotions?

The cast this year, in all their emotional glory...
Jimmy Smits as Det. Bobby Simone
Smits agreed to star in the opening five episodes of this year, even though his contract expired at the end of the previous season.  It’s the only time the series has given Bobby such an intense focus, and it only took a debilitating heart condition to bring us to this point.  Through a series of dream sequences, we learn details about Bobby’s life that have previously been unrevealed.  The audience only learns now, as Bobby faces death, that both of his parents have already died.  Compare this to David Caruso’s John Kelly, whose entire life story was pretty much laid out in the first half of Season One.

Smits’ range as an actor is on display as the normally cool, slightly aloof Bobby Simone is laid low by what initially seems to be a chest cold, but is gradually revealed as a fatal heart condition.  Over the course of five episodes, the audience watches Simone deteriorate into a sad reflection of the virile cop hero of the previous years.  There is something heartbreaking about watching the guy you’ve gotten to know over the past four years (as much as he’d allow you to know him) just wither into a brittle shell that clearly can’t stay together for long.  We’ve seen Smits play the heartthrob for years, but his willingness to become completely vulnerable onscreen unveils a previously unseen depth in his acting.  You honestly do root for Bobby Simone to make it during these episodes, even as you know that letting go will probably be a blessing.

Bobby Simone’s Deep Emotional Crisis of the Year:  Well, he’s dying.  That one’s understandable.

Dennis Franz as Det. Andy Sipowicz 
Following the departure of Jimmy Smits, Dennis Franz is bumped in the credits to the position that was always truly his -- the lead.  This year, Sipowicz is recast in the role of mentor, as he attempts to teach his stubborn, younger partner the ropes, while also reaching out to his ex-wife and an acquaintance on the job who needs help, even if he can’t admit it.  Sipowicz also seems to be growing just a bit as a person, facing some truths about his past and realizing that he has some obligation to pass on the lessons he’s learned since becoming sober.

Andy Sipowicz’s Deep Emotional Crisis of the Year:  Where to start?  His partner has a fatal heart condition, his new, younger partner often doesn’t listen to him, his ex-wife has become an alcoholic following the death of their son, and he’s having nightmares about his abusive father.  Then, the show enters the season’s final two episodes, and it’s time for Sharon Lawrence to finally say goodbye…

Rick Schroder as Det. Danny Sorenson 
Rick Schroder debuts in Episode Six, immediately after the exit of Jimmy Smits.  His casting was always divisive amongst fans, and I’ll admit my bias up front and say that the Danny Sorenson character is my least favorite of Franz’s four co-stars on the series.  I don’t feel comfortable just trashing this guy (I don’t want to break into any hyperbolic “hope you die in a fire!” internet speak) because I realize that he probably was putting out a real effort, and I’ve never heard any stories of people on the show disliking him.  He’s just not nearly as compelling as his two predecessors.  I knew who John Kelly was after the first episode, and Bobby Simone only needed a few episodes to feel like a legitimate character in my eyes.  But Rick Schroder always seems to be consciously acting and not embodying the part.  Danny Sorenson is a collection of character traits, but they rarely feel as if they add up to a convincing principal for the series.

A major issue with Schroder’s performance is his line delivery.  He can’t get those unwieldy Milch expressions out of his mouth easily, and you almost get a sense that he’s running out of breath when trying to reel this stuff off.  The accent is also a problem; Schroder is the only major character on the series to speak in a thick New York accent.  When he was first cast, Schroder was asked by an interviewer if he was ready to take on a New York brogue.  Schroder responded that he was originally from New York, so he didn’t see this as a problem.  His line deliveries, however, are hampered by an unconvincing accent that just doesn’t sound natural, coupled with a persistent monotone that makes the dialogue sound wooden.  And if you think you can’t mix a Noo Yawk accent with a flat delivery, Schroder will prove you wrong just five minutes into his first episode.

By the way, I saw an interview with Schroder a few weeks ago, and the guy had absolutely no trace of a New York accent.

Danny Sorenson’s Deep Emotional Crisis of the Year:  Danny is a guy with issues; that much is made clear by his second episode.  He plainly underwent some form of childhood trauma, although his first season on the show refuses to spell it out for the audience.  Danny tends to go from normal to irrationally angry or inexplicably weepy in a heartbeat.

James McDaniel as Lt. Arthur Fancy 
Season Five was a terrible showing for this character, only giving him one spotlight episode that managed to not only make him look bad, but also contradict how we’ve seen the Lieutenant portrayed since the pilot.  Season Six is a much improved Fancy season, allowing him to remain the character that we’ve grown to respect while also placing him at the epicenter of the various conflicts surrounding the squad, and revealing new details about his past.  We also see James McDaniel’s versatility as an actor when another side of Fancy’s personality is exposed during his scenes with recurring character Sgt. Dornan.

Arthur Fancy’s Deep Emotional Crisis of the Year:  Fancy has two emotional breakdowns this year.  The first has him getting into a fistfight with Sipowicz (!), and the second centers on his relationship with his alcoholic father, who apparently drank himself to death.  Danny walks in on him crying in their “crib” (the room upstairs with a few bunk beds), and has no idea how to respond.  (Danny’s clumsy attempts to emotionally connect with others is a recurring theme during this year.)  I should also mention that Lt. Fancy is shot this year during one of his rare excursions out on the street, although his response to this turns out to be surprisingly unemotional.

Kim Delaney as Det. Diane Russell 
Wiki lists Delaney’s character’s name as Diane Simone this year, but I don’t recall her ever being called that.  Honestly, I can’t think of a single female character on Blue who changes her last name after getting married.  (And there’s no way Diane could change her last name, since she’s supposed to be keeping her marriage to her coworker a secret…a secret that Lt. Fancy clearly knows about, but chooses to ignore.)

This should’ve been a major season for Diane, and while she does receive a noticeable amount of attention during the first half of the year, she tends to fade into the background as the season progresses.  Surprisingly, we don’t see her mother or brother during this year, nor does her former AA sponsor Andy reach out to her, in spite of what she’s going through.  The later episodes also hint at a romance with the new Danny Sorenson character, which is a remarkably bad idea.

Diane Russell’s Deep Emotional Crisis of the Year:  This one is understandable…less than six months after their marriage, her husband is dying.  Diane comes close to drinking again, before realizing that it’s okay to ask for help and to confront ugly feelings.  We also see Diane revert to an almost childlike mentality during Bobby’s final days, which is based on the way many victims of abuse behave when faced with trying times as an adult.  This is the year Kim Delaney won an Emmy for her portrayal of Diane, and her hospital scenes with Jimmy Smits provide her with the strongest material she’s had on the show.

Gordon Clapp as Det. Greg Medavoy and Nicholas Turturro as Det. James Martinez 
There’s a recurring guest star this year who has more lines than either Gordon Clapp or Nick Turturro receive this year.  He might even have more than both of them combined.  These detectives receive no storylines of their own, unless you count a few lines of dialogue that establish that Medavoy has a new girlfriend, and Martinez’s wife makes him sleep on the couch whenever he comes home plastered.  There is one standout moment for Martinez this year, however, when he discusses the loss of his brother (back in Season One) while comforting Upstairs John, who’s also lost a loved one to substance abuse.  No one knows what to say to John in this scene until Martinez humbly speaks up and does his best to make John feel better.  That’s exactly what Martinez would do in that moment, and I’m glad his position as one of the moral anchors of the series was remembered for at least one scene.

Det. Medavoy & Martinez’s Deep Emotional Crisis of the Year:  Absolutely nothing.  Greg’s not even worried about his weight this year.

Andrea Thompson as Det. Jill Kirkendall
The producers remember at the end of the season that Jill Kirkendall and ADA Leo Cohen are supposed to be a couple, so this plot is addressed briefly before they break up for good.  Outside of that, Jill’s rarely the focus of the events.  She tends to be a sounding board for other characters, particularly Diane.

Jill Kirkendall’s Deep Emotional Crisis of the Year:  Aside from her boyfriend embarrassing her at work when she goes undercover as a prostitute, Jill’s son witnesses a murder at a convenience store and she’s faced with the prospect of him testifying in court and seeing the murderer once again.

Sharon Lawrence as Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas 
Sharon Lawrence is a season regular for the first ten episodes, is given one storyline that has her actually pursuing a case again, and then disappears.  This makes the third time she vanishes from the series.  After working out the details of her return with the producers, she pops up again as a Special Guest Star for the final few episodes of the year, in a storyline that’s clearly designed to evoke memories of the pilot.  And after that, Sylvia is definitively written out of the show.

Sylvia Costas’ Deep Emotional Crisis of the Year:  Sylvia is convinced that a man she reluctantly prosecuted years earlier is actually innocent, and doesn’t receive the response she expected when she asks her husband to speak to the detective who handled the case.  When the innocent man dies in prison, and Sylvia is unable to coax a confession out of the true killer, she’s convinced that God will judge her for her role in his death.

Bill Brochtrup as PAA John Irvin 
John Irvin, or Upstairs John, appears sporadically during the first half of the season, then takes Sharon Lawrence’s spot in the opening credits during the last half of the year.  It’s the first time since Season Three that the secretary role is given a “featured player” slot, as opposed to being labeled a recurring guest star.  Bill Brochtrup’s portrayal of John had a loyal fan following, and clearly a fan in Steven Bochco, who brought the character over to his short-lived Public Morals sitcom, and then looked for ways for John to keep popping in at the 15th precinct even after John left his job upstairs.  (Upstairs John even had an unusually lengthy goodbye party before being sent off at the end of Season Four.)  He’s never given much to do on the series, and to be honest I’ve never quite understood why so many people were in love with the character, but I will say that actor Bill Brochtrup was extremely loyal to the series.  He officially becomes a regular this year and never leaves.

John Irvin’s Deep Emotional Crisis of the Year:  We discover that John and his replacement Delores Mayo have become good friends in-between episodes, which means he’s been dragged into Delores’ personal crisis.  He’s also shot in the penultimate episode, and he later blames himself for what happens to Sylvia Costas on the same day.  Delores Mayo, previously a minor character, is at the center of several shocking events this year.

Next time…The guest stars, who are more important than some of the “stars” this year.


  1. I wonder what's your take on Rick's similarly-credentialed-successor...

  2. I guess we'll get there in a few months. I will say that Rick's successor didn't even try to make you think he was a bred New Yorker, which was probably for the best, given Rick's accent during the first season.

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  4. This season was ROUGH to watch. I wish they had just dropped an air conditioner on Simone or something, just rip the band-aid off quickly instead of taking 5 episodes to kill him. Likewise, I know putting Sipowicz through the wringer is basically the point of the character, but I wish they had just gone back to before and pretended like Sylvia was in another room or something (like they treated her character previously) instead of doing what they did. How much can one guy endure? (Also, the kid they have playing Theo LOOKS like a miniature Dennis Franz, and he's perfect.)

    Sorensen going after Diane made me groan, and I could see them telegraphing it for miles. They reeeealy want us to like this guy, but Bobby's not even cold in the ground and the new kid is bird-dogging the office widow. Honestly, I think Diane has more chemistry with Jill. I bet that pairing would have exploded heads in 1998.

    Add me to the list of people who inexplicably adore Upstairs John. When he and Andy hugged it out I was all verklempt.

  5. That scene with Upstairs John and Andy was a nice way to close out a brutal season.

    Unless Sharon Lawrence was just adamant about not doing any more guest spots, I'm not sure why they felt the need to definitively get rid of Sylvia. While watching these episodes, I had an idea for how Sylvia could've been used more effectively, and I'll address it in a future post.

    (I also noticed that in her final episode, Sharon Lawrence didn't even try to cover her Southern accent.)

    The final Jimmy Smits episodes are just painful to watch; the goal was to present a very honest look at what it's like to witness someone die, and the producers certainly committed to it.


  6. I agree on Rick Schroder. He was an ill fit, the accent was too put-on, we never really got a sense of Sorenson… And yet I’m not about to dump on the guy for taking his shot.

    While Simone’s demise looked assured from those hospital scenes — realistic, brutal stuff — I remember press leading up to the season with quotes from Jimmy Smits on how the door was open for him to return and he’d be happy to do so if the right situation arose. He did, too, eventually, just not on the mortal plane, so I guess that was his out.

    On the other hand, even though Sharon Lawrence hadn’t been onscreen much, I vividly remember my shock at her abrupt exit as Sylvia.

  7. Good catch on Diane's immaturity when dealing with doctors, particularly ones not handsome enough for her. More than once she says of the hottie "he doesn't talk down to us." I would yell at the TV "what the hell are you talking about?! The other guy is just saying what you don't want to hear." Really poor writing. As for John Irvin, people like him because the character develops, he is smart and is an asset to the squad and its caretaker while also knowing his place.


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