Tough new cast member Mark-Paul Gosselaar may bring a much-needed dramatic spark, says Ken Tucker
Dennis Franz, NYPD Blue, ...
Credit: NYPD Blues: Randy Holmes/ABC

Will ”NYPD Blue” matter this year?

You know something’s wonky in ”NYPD Blue” land when former ”Saved by the Bell” cast member Mark-Paul Gosselaar fares better in the two-hour season premiere than longtime star Dennis Franz. The new season (debuting Nov. 6, ABC, 10 p.m.) gets off to a rocky start, with Franz’s Det. Andy Sipowicz being even more of a gloomy grumpus than usual.

We assume it’s because when we last saw Andy, he was upset over the disappearance of his partner, played by Rick Schroder (who’s left the series). But then Charlotte Ross’ character, fed up with Andy’s look-at-me moroseness, goes into a precredit-sequence rant about how ”we lost” so many firefighters and police officers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and that Andy ”doesn’t have a corner on grief” and should snap out of it.

Co-opting that horrible tragedy to use as a plot point for Sipowicz’s already annoying surliness is breathtakingly arrogant on the part of the ”NYPD” producers. They’re going to have to come up with some solid murder-mystery plots to get Andy’s character back on track as a sympathetic hero, and pairing him with Gosselaar proves to be a dandy idea.

Like Schroder, another former kid star, Gosselaar brings an eagerness to his role — in this case as former narcotics cop John Clark, transferred to Andy’s precinct and paired with him over the course of the two-hour opener. Unlike Schroder’s character, however, Gosselaar’s John isn’t a soft-spoken wounded doe; he’s an aggressive, muscular guy, the son of a cop (played by Joe Spano, an alumni of another Steven Bochco show, ”Hill Street Blues”). In other words, young John Clark knows what’s up. As such, he may avoid the trap of becoming Sipowicz’s grateful disciple and be more of an equal, something ”NYPD Blue” really needs.

Another soft spot in the show is already being strengthened: Esai Morales’ squad leader is showing a more human side in a subplot involving a robbery in his mother’s apartment. Morales has shaved last season’s goatee and looks ready to emote in a sensibly restrained manner. In fact, this should be the preferred mode of performance for the upcoming season by everyone: If ”NYPD Blue” wants to remain a hardboiled police show instead of a soap copera, it had better regain the gravity and flashes of humor it had in its first few seasons.

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