Let’s give Jimmy Smits his due: As a cop Camille, he made the most of what must have been the longest death scene in television history, aided by the most striking dream sequences (glowing reveries insidiously lulling him toward the light) ever seen on TV.

So: Bobby Simone, R.I.P., but Danny Sorenson, welcome to NYPD Blue! Rick Schroder has made a spectacular debut as the series’ newest character, a wised-up-beyond-his-years former narcotics-squad detective who can already match Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz for withering deadpan cracks. Schroder, whose baby-faced good looks had fated him for a career of callow-youth roles, grabs the opportunity to become a tough guy and runs with it. He’s already worked out Danny’s police-procedural style: Get right in a suspect’s face, look the luckless soul right in the eyes, and dare him or her to lie. Rick Schroder, intimidator: I dig the paradox.

Then, too, Schroder’s Sorenson possesses a quality this series has desperately needed for a while now: confidence. NYPD had slowly but steadily become home to a gaggle of rattled law enforcers. Gordon Clapp’s halting, self-deprecating Greg Medavoy and Nicholas Turturro’s hesitant James Martinez are only the most obvious examples; more crucially, the Bobby’s-dying story line moved the writers to emphasize the most annoying aspect of Sipowicz’s character — the way he expresses fear and worry by becoming viciously sarcastic and hostile to everyone around him. The problem with that is, the audience feels pummeled by Andy too.

Fortunately, Sorenson radiates calm decisiveness; the kid knows who he is — he has a sense of himself. Sipowicz is already responding to this, and it’s helped settle the character down. There’s been a lot of talk in the press about how Andy is going to come to think of Danny as a surrogate for his dead son, Andy Jr. (played so charmingly by Michael DeLuise). Personally, I hope this theme doesn’t surface too blatantly; the less sentimentality that creeps into this police partnership, the stronger and more dramatically sound the series will be.

NYPD has already taken a big step up in quality this season — right now, the show is probably as good as it’s ever been. (In retrospect, it is all too apparent what the series lost when cocreators Steven Bochco and David Milch turned their attention to the launch of CBS’ Brooklyn South. That show felt like Milch’s attempt to revive the spirit of Bochco’s breakthrough, Hill Street Blues, but it was an ensemble piece that never jelled.) If you doubt what I’m saying about NYPD‘s turnaround, though, don’t miss this week’s episode, a rip-roarer entitled ”Raging Bulls,” from core Blue men Bochco, Milch, Bill Clark, and Leonard Gardner.

The titular bulls prove to be Sipowicz and his boss, Lieutenant Fancy (James McDaniel), who square off once again over what Fancy perceives as Sipowicz’s racism. We’ve seen the show explore this theme before, but it doesn’t feel stale for a second here, because Milch and company invariably find new ways to approach the subject. The episode uses an aspect unique to the television medium, all too rarely deployed: the ability to call upon our shared history in the life of a series, to bring back characters we assumed had been dropped and use them in fresh situations.

In this week’s case, that means reintroducing us to the white cop, Szymanski (Christopher Stanley), who gave the black Fancy a rough time over a broken taillight on Fancy’s car two seasons ago. This time around, Szymanski is involved in the shooting of an undercover police officer — a black man. ”If this is racial, it’s a disaster,” an internal-affairs cop remarks.

The episode has everything going for it: a powerful central conflict, strong subplots for both Sipowicz’s ADA wife, Sylvia (Sharon Lawrence), and the increasingly troubled office secretary, Dolores, played by Lola Glaudini (finally, women on this show are being given something to do besides mimic the tough guys or have sexist-stereotypical breakdowns). Plus, there’s Schroder’s Danny, caught in the middle of it all, wondering what kind of nuthouse he’s gotten himself transferred to. Chaos, belligerence, remorse…Ah, life is good again at the 15th Precinct. A

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