Michael Hayes | EW.com

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I know lots of people have written off David Caruso’s Michael Hayes as a well-intentioned but ultimately botched job at recapturing the unique intensity Caruso brought to the crime genre in his 1993-94 season of NYPD Blue. Speaking of which, many of those same folks keep telling me they’re feeling let down by NYPD Blue this season — that the show, as sturdy and hard-boiled as its acting continues to be, is becoming redundant: Each episode finds the latest skell-of-the-week getting their chops busted and fades out with Bobby (Jimmy Smits) and Diane (Kim Delaney) groping for each other’s nether regions. What was once stark ‘n’ steamy now seems — well, not botched, but Bochco’d: redolent of executive producer Steven Bochco’s trademark realism and fine attention to detail, but lacking the unpredictability and soulfulness that marked Blue during every season until now.

I would pretty much agree with the rap on Blue, but I must counter the general lack of interest in Michael Hayes by saying, you should have been giving it another shot for the past month or so. This series is doing some good, quirky things, and Caruso has found a fresh groove in his acting. As an ex-cop-turned-federal prosecutor, Caruso — along with a small slew of producers including cocreator John Romano — has lately been trying to at once darken and lighten the show, with intriguing results.

Hayes has gone on hiatus since its April 8 episode, and CBS is unsure of its status for May sweeps. It would be a shame if it didn’t return. The March 4 and 11 Hayes episodes attempted to set up an X-Files-y conspiracy plot involving the government and the Mob, with the always-welcome Larry Miller doing a cameo as a weaselly Deep Throat type; these were involving, if confusingly complicated, editions. Even better was March 25’s show, a stand-alone corker that found Hayes putting the screws to a European citizen (Levani Outchaneichuili) running guns to New York street thugs while protected under diplomatic immunity. It was a gas to see Caruso go after the bad guys; when the Euro-creep demanded a formal apology after his arrest, Caruso lowered his molten-lava voice and offered this one: ”Leave now, or I’m gonna throw you out the window.”

Hayes is also doing a better job of integrating its main subplot — Hayes’ relationship with his young nephew, Danny (the fresh-faced Jimmy Galeota) — with the rest of the show. These paternalistic scenes (Michael counsels the kid in place of his absentee jerk of a brother) are becoming more relaxed and natural. Caruso used to seem tense doing them, making it impossible to feel the underlying emotional sustenance we do now.

Hayes still has problems, chiefly that no one in the cast — except for Ruben Santiago-Hudson, as federal investigator Eddie Diaz — has popped out of the ensemble as an authoritative player opposite Caruso, and Caruso is one actor who benefits from butting heads with a strong colleague, as he did with Dennis Franz in Blue. But the show is trying — stretching, growing, mutating into something interesting.

Blue, by contrast, is in danger of falling into a rut. The cop lingo’s gotten tired — surely not everyone ”squeezes” Sipowicz’s ”shoes,” just as surely not everything needs to be phrased in a code that requires figurative (or, as above, literal) quotation marks to denote angry irony. (I’m glad, however, to see Sharon Lawrence back from the undead of her NBC sitcom Fired Up, even if it’s to give her grumpy lug of a husband big hugs over his ”prostrate” cancer — hey, guys, didn’t Archie Bunker do that malapropism first?)

Equally annoying: The increased presence of the mannered, maundering Medavoy (Gordon Clapp), picking up the slack while Nicholas Turturro’s off starring in a Sammy ”The Bull” Gravano two-parter for NBC. And can anyone tell me what’s the point of the revolving cast of precinct-house secretaries, each of whom gets an initial showcase episode only to fade immediately into the background?

There’s still good writing in Blue, but the show needs to shake up its structure and rethink its supporting cast. Similarly, Hayes should be about more than just Michael Hayes, and when the show returns from its current hiatus, the improvements already in place deserve a bigger audience. Note: Grades here are relative. Blue is an A show that’s slipped to a B while Hayes is a C show whose continued effort rates a B-.