Before winning armloads of Emmys for NYPD Blue, Dennis Franz starred in an ill-begotten 1987-88 series called Beverly Hills Buntz, in which his sleazeball cop character from Hill Street Blues, Norman Buntz, became a goofball PI. The show wasn’t an outright embarrassment, but it was belabored, which usually happens when you take an essentially dramatic character and try to make him a figure of fun: There’s not much upside to aiming for the tone of seriocomic.
There’s a creeping Buntzism in Franz’s performance on NYPD Blue this week, when his detective Andy Sipowicz recieves some good news about his leukemia-threatened son, Theo (the adorable Austin Majors). A happy Andy is not a pleasant sight to behold — his grin is wobbly, his attempts at collegial japery are cornball — and his fellow officers wince and wait, wondering when Sipowicz is going to recommence his usual snarling. Franz plays Andy exactly as he should, according to the script, but chances are, you may feel as uncomfortable with this change of pace as the Blue characters do; it’s as if the new, stop-and-smell-the-roses Sipowicz had just wandered in from the set of the show Blue is time-period-displacing: Once and Again. (That fine series, by the way, has moved to Wednesdays at 10 — ABC’s sadistic way of killing off O and A by placing it in the path of NBC’s unstoppable steamroller Law & Order.)
It’s always a bad sign when a series starts building a plot on a main character’s atypical mood; it frequently implies that there aren’t enough new stories to tell. (Call it The Fonzie Factor: After Happy Days ran out of ways to disguise the fact that the adolescents played by Henry Winkler and Ron Howard had become old enough to have sired twerpy teens themselves, entire episodes would be constructed around the notion that hoody Fonzie was a big softy.) I’m not suggesting NYPD Blue has fallen prey to The Fonzie Factor (so far, Sipowicz has not given his partner, Rick Schroder’s Danny Sorenson, the double-thumbs-up and a guttural ”Heeyyyyy!”), but the first two episodes of the eighth season suggest cause to worry about the loss of cocreator David Milch, who’s gone off to helm his own, CBS cop show called Big Apple.
People — all right, critics — used to carp that Milch’s dialogue had, over the last few seasons, become as mannered as David Mamet crossed with Raymond Chandler, with officers getting ”jammed up” or ”reaching out” in awkward conversational contortions. The show’s signature scene — the naked-butt shot as an episode ender in every sense of the phrase, as well as the use of a naughty term like ”a–hole” — came to seem quaint, especially at the dawn of the Sopranos era. (I’ve daydreamed about a crossover episode in which Sipowicz motors over to Jersey to ”jam up Big Pussy.” No, wait — maybe I’m confusing that with my Oz daydream.)
Anyway, what Milch brought to Blue was more than just a hard-boiled argot; he gave the show moral weight by suggesting that every character’s flaws could, at different times, be harmful and beneficial. In the early days of Blue, for example, we were shown how Andy’s alcoholism was killing him, but Milch was also careful to emphasize that Sipowicz’s addictive behavior helped him be a relentless, resourceful cop — that sometimes addictions heighten what’s great in a person. This is not a PC notion, and therefore all the more effective as a dramatic device.
But now Blue is less about moral ambivalence, and more about workplace relationships. Last week, Danny hooked up with Kim Delaney’s Det. Diane Russell, and her line ”I’m old enough to be your mother” didn’t defuse the creepy sensation that … she seemed old enough to be his mother. Just as Schroder replaced Jimmy Smits, so Danny now replaces Smits’ Bobby Simone in Diane’s love life — a too neat coincidence that feels like an easy way out for the writers. (It’s even easier when you know that Delaney will ankle Blue after this season to star in her own Bochco-created show — in other words, we know nothing long-lasting is going to occur, which lessens our investment in the show.)
There’s still enjoyment to be gleaned from Blue — the crime-scene segments are still top-notch, and Schroder just keeps getting better. (May I make a freakin’ obvious suggestion? More interrogation scenes and fewer bedroom ones, please.) But taking two episodes to wrap up last season’s boring plot about long-gone Jill Kirkendall suggests that the pace is way too slow. Speed it up, you mopes. B