There comes a time in the life of any long-running series when the show becomes more about its characters than its plots. The stories, which initially motivate us to learn about the personalities enacting them, become repetitive, and what the writers begin doing is building episodes around the now-beloved characters, at the expense of fresh narrative. In other words, it’s easier to develop a new quirk or life passage for a TV hero (she quits smoking; he gets married; someone discovers he or she has an evil twin) than it is to come up with the umpteenth variation on a hospital emergency, a courtroom case, or, in the case of NYPD Blue, a police investigation. Now entering its seventh season, after waiting patiently for the fall premiere of Once and Again to run its course, Blue’s first episodes will feature cases that are variations on ones we’ve seen before—if not on this show, then on some other cop series. In the season opener, there’s the crooked-cop scenario; in week 2, there’s (sorry to be callous about this, but so are Blue’s writers) the dead-baby-in-the-Dumpster plot.
Both of these story lines play out pretty much the way you’d expect. What’s different is character context—the personal dilemmas facing our favorite TV fuzz. Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz, for example, left a widowed single parent at the end of last season, is now overcooking the meatloaf and making minimal dinner-table conversation with his suddenly older, quite chatty little son, Theo (played by sweet, sturdy Austin Majors). Andrea Thompson’s Det. Jill Kirkendall is hoping to reconcile with her ex-husband (Erich Anderson, who, confusingly, also plays Felicity’s dad, but then what are the chances of NYPD Blue/Felicity audience crossovers except in my house?). Jill, however, discovers he may be doing something illegal, and, well, all I can say is that anguish ensues.
In both instances, whatever entertainment value that is gleaned from these subplots is derived from our long-standing knowledge of the characters involved. We know that gruff, insecure Andy is, beneath his poker-faced exterior, terrified of raising his son alone — he doesn’t want to mess up this relationship the way he did with his son from his first marriage (played memorably by Michael DeLuise), himself a cop who was killed shortly after reconciling with Andy a couple of seasons ago. And the bad-husband story line is a way for us to learn more about Kirkendall — explaining why she looks perennially exhausted. Now we get it: She’s still in mourning for her dead marriage and hopes to resurrect it.
Unfortunately, neither of these subplots is very nourishing, which is too bad. Having waited so long to begin its season, the show has the rare luxury of a nice, long run of first-run episodes, and it does build nicely on this momentum—in a few weeks, there’s a crackerjack story involving seven nude corpses, and departing cast member Nicholas Turturro gets a mercifully graceful send-off. (New cast member Henry Simmons doesn’t arrive until episode 7, which was unavailable for review.) But right now Andy’s scenes with Theo verge on the eye-avertingly awful. On the one hand, they are shameless tearjerkers—sad man and motherless child straight out of Charlie Chaplin and little Jackie Coogan in 1921’s The Kid. On the other, these are strangely cold scenes as well: Andy talks to his son as if he’s interrogating a perp; coming at a time when the boy needs a warm, friendly daddy, it’s an alienating acting choice for Franz to play Andy as a mumbling zombie.
As for Blue’s other star, Rick Schroder, his Danny Sorenson is developing a love life with officer Mary Franco (Sheeri Rappaport, whose part calls for her to start out stiff but who warms up in the weeks ahead). The relationship proves a welcome contrast to this show’s notorious weakness for portraying women as either testicle busters or nervous Nellies. Finally, someone in the 15th Precinct ends up with a healthy, friskily passionate sex life.
Other characters are underserved, though. Kim Delaney’s Diane gets caught up in Jill’s marital woes, but reduced to hapless middle-woman in the mess. And except for a good, hard-boiled scene with Jill’s ex, James McDaniel’s Lieutenant Fancy has so little to do, I found myself concentrating mostly on the fact that he’s shaved off his mustache. Hmmm, why? His wife told him it tickled?
The best performance in the shows I’ve seen hasn’t come from one of the regulars. In the second episode there is a standout turn by Erik Todd Dellums as a transsexual prostitute, a portrayal made all the more enjoyable because Dellums used to play the baddest villain Homicide: Life on the Street ever had—drug lord Luther Mahoney. Watching Dellums shrieking in a blond wig is a lot more fun than sitting at the dinner table with Theo while Daddy Andy tells him not to spill his mashed potatoes. B-