Jimmy Smits, having completed his rookie season on NYPD Blue, has pulled off one of the acting coups of the season. When he joined NYPD as a replacement for David Caruso, there were many — yours truly among them — who thought that Smits was a problematic, if not misconceived, choice for the costarring role in this knottiest of all current cop dramas. Caruso’s fair hair, translucent skin, and whispery rumble of a voice conveyed a marvelous paradox: He was a sensitive tough guy. When Caruso’s John Kelly pummeled a suspect to extract information, you felt more pity for Kelly than for the victim of his punishment. The jittery complexity of Kelly’s emotions beneath his scrappy Irish exterior perfectly matched NYPD’s tone of camera-wobbling moral ambivalence.
Smits, by contrast, has always been more like the handsomest oak tree you’ve ever seen. As Victor Sifuentes on L.A. Law, Smits was imposing yet likable, but also a little stiff. Granted, this may have been intentional — Smits’ way of communicating the awkwardness and tension a streetwise Latino lawyer might feel working for a white-shoe outfit like McKenzie Brackman.
Still, that stiffness carried over into Smits’ first few episodes as NYPD’s Bobby Simone. We were given Bobby’s history — a recently deceased wife, a depression that one sensed was more like a breakdown — but Smits didn’t seem to be acting it; he was stolid, distant. Where Caruso’s eyes allowed you to see worlds of pain, Smits’ were opaque.
As the season proceeded, however, it became clear that Smits had a plan. He was gradually permitting Bobby to loosen up, to relax a little, especially with his new partner, Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz). In the best of this year’s NYPD scripts, the writers placed us in the same position as Andy — we were sizing up this guy Simone, looking to see how tough and how smart he was. Turns out he’s a stand-up guy. In the last third of the season, NYPD Blue was as good as it’s ever been: more action to go with the already terrific dialogue; more unexpected twists from a show that could have easily let up on its twisting in its second season.
In addition to James McDaniel’s ongoing steeliness as Lieut. Arthur Fancy, the show has introduced strong new characters. The gay receptionist played by Bill Brochtrup was both witty and subtle; Joe Pantoliano’s turn as a cheeseball rat fink was gratifyingly clever and broad. Ever since Amy Brenneman’s character was sent up the river, NYPD has lacked for a Medusa-tressed heartbreaker. The series has more than made up for this with the introduction late in the season of Kim Delaney as a wild-haired detective whose drinking problem is so obvious even the self-absorbed Andy noticed it. An alcoholic love interest is a dandy conceit for this show; it brings to the fore all the themes of loyalty and dependency — between partners as well as lovers — that the show has long implied.
The NYPD subplot I’d come to be most suspicious of was the romance between Andy and assistant DA Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence) — as far as I could see, it was coming dangerously close to turning into the big, squishy center of the show. But the May 23 season finale was enormously reassuring, since it pared away the sentimentality that had begun to seep into these lovebirds’ romantic byplay. With Bobby as Andy’s best man right beside him at the altar, and most of the rest of the cast solemn in pews behind them, the wedding became a ceremony of blessing for all of NYPD Blue. If you tuned away from NYPD when Caruso left, now’s the time to catch up. A