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Monday, August 21, 2017

The Milch Studies: NYPD Blue Season 12, Stars & Guest Stars

Once it was obvious that NYPD Blue would be on the air for a very long time, Dennis Franz made it known that he’d like the series to end with Season Twelve, thinking it a nice, even number.  The show was nearly clipped in Season Eleven, given the incredible cost of keeping such a long-running drama in the air.  (Typically, a series becomes more expensive to produce each year it’s on, if only due to the yearly raises that are expected.)

ABC wasn’t in a position to give up the show that remained its highest-rated drama, however, suffering from anemic ratings in the days before the debut of Lost.  A deal was stuck with Steven Bochco to keep the show on for one more year, with the understanding that the cost of the overall production had to be brought down.  This was accomplished by shooting twenty episodes instead of twenty-two, trimming the cast a bit, and no longer making the annual journey to New York to film exterior scenes on location.  Every second of film this year was shot in Los Angeles on the Fox lot, something a few eagle-eyed fans noticed whenever the cops stepped outside of the stationhouse.  (The parking lot in front of the 15th precinct doesn’t exactly match what we’ve seen in the past.)

Knowing that Season Twelve would be the final season of the show, the writers made a conscious effort to spend much of the year saying goodbye to the two characters who’d stuck around since the earliest days -- Andy Sipowicz and Greg Medavoy.  Medavoy wasn’t in the pilot, but he showed up early in Season One, with actor Gordon Clapp remaining stubbornly committed to the series, even when he had nothing to do for long runs of episodes.  Heck, there are entire seasons of NYPD Blue that barely feature Gordon Clapp, but he was always there.

As for the rest of the characters…well, they’re around, at least.  This year, the cast consists of…

Dennis Franz as Det. Andy Sipowicz         
Two major arcs for Sipowicz this year -- one has him the target of an unknown stalker, who’s leaving threatening messages, slashing his tires, and briefly kidnapping his son on the way to school.  It feels very much like a “TV plot,” instead of the standard Blue plot, but I will say that the writers didn’t take the storyline too far beyond the realm of possibility, and it did add some mystery to the early episodes of the season.  The resolution was too tidy, however, and ultimately I doubt anyone remembers this arc as a classic.

The other major Sipowicz story has the aging detective shoved far out of his comfort zone by the arrival of his most hated boss ever, forcing Sipowicz to question how long he wants to stay at the 15th.  He also realizes that he now has three young kids, (presumably) a wife who isn’t working, and limited prospects to provide for their future.  This motivates Sipowicz to do what he never thought he’d do, take the sergeant’s test and explore his future on The Job as a boss.

Some of the best scenes with Dennis Franz in the later days of the show have him mentoring the younger detectives on the squad, which might’ve motivated the producers’ decision to explore the concept further.  Sipowicz does pass the sergeant’s exam, to his shock, and briefly finds himself the desk sergeant at the 15th Precinct, offering sage advice to undeveloped uniforms and discreetly working to keep a few of them out of trouble, for at least a few episodes.  The show then begins its final arc, a series of contrivances that land Sipowicz in the position of Commanding Officer of the 15th Precinct’s detective squad.  The last episode is Andy’s first day in that position, as Steven Bochco opted to conclude with a sense of life going on, instead of a final, dramatic farewell.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Det. John Clark, Jr.       
Not a great year for John Clark, unfortunately.  The year opens with Clark in the middle of a meltdown, literally sleeping on the job as he parties the nights away, trying to take his mind off the two recent suicides of his father and girlfriend.  Mark-Paul Gosselaar is still able to bring humor to the role, with an increasingly caustic sense of wit (including tasteless 9-11, and even racially-tinged, jokes), but the rest of the “Clark’s a bad boy now” arc is a dud.  The best Clark material was between him and his father, and when the show foolishly killed that character off, the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with Clark.

Remember when Clark was supposed to be eager to learn from Sipowicz, and we assumed we were going to see Sipowicz bring up a young detective the way we were always told he reared John Kelly?  Why did all of this training occur off-camera?  This year, Clark actually needs mentoring, but in a pale retread of the Danny Sorenson years, he refuses to listen to any advice.  Having the older detective be the drunken screw-up and his younger partner be the one looking over him was, as Bochco cites, one of the elements that made Season One so different.  Closing the show with a screw-up younger partner and his stern older partner lecturing him is kind of an old cop drama cliché.

Clark predictably cleans up his act and resumes his partnership with Sipowicz, but for the rest of the year, he has little to do.  He gets a new girlfriend, one who’s seemingly there more to be a metatextual nod towards longtime fans than to be an actual character, and really, that’s it.

Gordon Clapp as Det. Greg Medavoy       
It’s Medavoy’s big year!  If you follow the archive of Blue reviews on Alan Sepinwall’s page, you’ll learn that Executive Producer Mark Tinker became friends with the show’s official-unofficial reviewer Amanda Wilson during the later days of the show.  It’s impossible to state with certainty just how much of an influence Amanda’s opinions had on Tinker, but it certainly seems as if Tinker was allowing her view of the long underserved Medavoy to guide the final season’s storylines.

Amanda’s complaints that Medavoy 1) didn’t have enough to do, 2) had been portrayed too much as a clown, and 3) needed a woman, are all addressed this year.  Like Sipowicz, Medavoy no longer feels welcome at the 15th, thanks to their new Lieutenant, and begins to question if he wants to be a detective for the rest of his life.  This leads to Medavoy meeting an attractive, somewhat age-appropriate real estate agent while investigating a case, forming a romance with her, and pursuing a new life as a high-end Manhattan real estate agent.  It’s a little too much of a happy ending for my tastes -- and I always felt as if Medavoy was at least partially defined by his love for Donna, the woman he couldn’t have -- but it is nice to see Medavoy treated with dignity during the final year.  And to have more than two lines an episode.

Henry Simmons as Det. Baldwin Jones
As mediocre as the last season was, it did turn out to be the best year for this character.  The finale season really couldn’t care less about the supporting players, so Baldwin is left with barely anything to do.  The boy Baldwin’s taken in is acknowledged one last time, with Baldwin seemingly in place as Michael’s official foster parent, and outside of that, Baldwin has little impact on any of the stories.

Jacqueline Obradors as Rita Ortiz
Unfortunately, the writers never found a hook for Rita’s character, and this season shows them as apathetic about her as ever.  There’s one Rita-centric subplot this year, when she learns her cousin is dating a heavy drug dealer, so Rita conspires to have her picked up on a minor drug charge in order to avoid being busted on a major charge later.  It’s a decent idea, but the resolution is played so sappy it doesn’t feel like Blue.  I’m going to assume that David Milch would’ve had Rita’s plan work out, only to have something terrible happen to the cousin during her one night in jail, leaving Rita with something meaty to play with for a few episodes.

Even though the writers never served Jacqueline Obradors well, she is likable in the role.  Rita doesn’t have any larger-than-life personality traits; she’s soft-spoken and pretty introverted, which can be a hard character to write in drama.  As a bit player, she’s fine, but the writers should’ve found more for her than occasional romantic subplots.

Bill Brochtrup as PAA John Irvin
The reruns that air today don’t have a credit for Bill Brochtrup in the opening, even though there’s a prolonged shot of his face that’s clearly where his ID was supposed to go. (And checking Dailymotion clips of original airings from the season, it's clear his name was included when these episodes aired initially.  Odd.)  As usual, the secretary role on the show has little focus, but there is some acknowledgment towards the end of the season that he’s been a steady presence for several years now.  It’s nice to see John make it to the end, along with the Sipowicz and Medavoy characters.

Currie Graham as Lt. Thomas Bale
The final lieutenant character on the series, Lt. Bale is the only boss who fits the old cop show cliché of the man who wants things done by the books, and strictly by the books.  The writers likely realized that there wasn’t enough conflict internally at the 15th, so it did make sense for dramatic reasons to saddle the characters with a boss that everyone hates.  And the initial Bale episodes do work well -- the stories actually go out of their way to give Bale legitimate points to make against his detectives when they try to resist his orders.  There’s also some personality attached to Bale; underneath his rigid exterior, there’s a hint that he actually does want people to like him, even if he is the boss.

This doesn’t last, however, with Bale becoming implausibly strict just a few episodes in, targeting Medavoy for a minor infraction and putting him in a position to be demoted or even lose a month’s pay.  If this was just another way to show Bale as a nuisance, getting a rise out of the characters -- fine; but the same episodes have Bale taking an almost fatherly interest in Sipowicz’s upcoming sergeant’s exam, doing what he can to guide Andy in furthering his career.  In the past, the show has been able to craft complex characters with differing aspects of their personality that don’t make obvious sense, but in this case, it just feels like inconsistent writing. 

Making this worse is the final turn in the closing episodes, when all of the drama surrounding Bale is dropped, and he basically turns into a teddy bear overnight.  After he faces a serious injury, Bale even suggests Sipowicz be given the commanding position in the squad.  This moment just doesn’t feel earned, and you’ve got to wonder why the later writers of the show were always so adamant about characters making peace with one another.  For a show that was initially a brutal look at the ugliness of life, things sure get Kum ba yah in the later seasons.

Bonnie Somerville as Det. Laura Murphy
Given that the show had to trim its cast in order to meet its budget, it’s odd that this character even exists.  Rita’s new partner, Laura’s here to work the B-plot stories and do nothing else.  I actually don’t mind the character -- Bonnie Somerville is able to give Laura a lot of personality with only a few lines, and the idea of Rita having a flirtatious, extroverted partner is nice -- but why were the producers so obstinate about having six detectives in the squad?  Couldn’t Rita just float between the two other teams, or be given brief stories on her own?  (This is how Medavoy was treated until Season Four.)  And why was Steven Bochco so hung up on skinny brunette/blonde detective teams?

Continuing the theme of characters having to always make peace, even if it kills the drama, Rita and Laura start off hating each other, but quickly get over their differences and learn how to co-exist.  Irritatingly, Rita gives Laura the same speech about this two episodes in a row, leaving the impression no one was even paying attention to the subplot.

As for the guest stars…
Austin Majors as Theo Sipowicz
I think Theo appears in two episodes this year, if that.  He receives no storylines, since Sipowicz’s home life is something that’s mentioned occasionally, but is clearly no longer a facet of the show.  Those scenes were always necessary for fleshing out Sipowicz, though, and without them, there is a sense that something is missing this year.

Lisa Lackey as Assistant D.A. Lori Munson
Clark’s new love interest, even though she has every reason to hate him after they’re introduced this year.  (Clark sleeping with one of her witnesses before a trail causes her case to be thrown out.)  I think the idea was for the audience to see Clark’s redemption through her eyes, and for the viewer to root for the two of them to get together.  This doesn’t exactly work, because Clark never really does that much to win her over, and she seems to just fall for him as soon as the plot requires it.  The real reason ADA Munson exists is as a callback to the early seasons of the show.  Just as Sipowicz was once a drunken screw-up who straightened up and became involved with a classy, educated prosecutor, Clark goes through the same arc this year.  See?  Everything’s full circle.  Not very interesting, but full circle.

Hey, Isn’t That…?
Surprise guest stars this year include…the late, great James Avery (Uncle Phil!) as the boss of a potential killer in "Great Balls of Ire"… Jonah Hill as an electronics store clerk in "You're Bugging Me" (a role so small he doesn't even have a guest star credit)… John de Lancie, Q from various Star Trek shows, in "Divorce, Detective Style" as a wealthy father whose estranged son has been kidnapped…comedian  Ken Marino as a guest detective in "The 3H Club" (another The State alumni, Michael Ian Black, also had a dramatic role all the way back in Season One)…Octavia Spencer as a nurse suspected of killing an elderly patient in "Old Man Quiver"…and Winnie Cooper herself, Danica McKellar as the sister of a murder victim in Moving Day.  That makes three of the major Wonder Years actors in bit roles over the years, but never an appearance by Fred Savage.

Next Time -- A final look back at Blue. (Or is it?)  Also…where did the nudity go?

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