Bruce Fretts
February 24, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

The new cast member debuts on ”NYPD Blue”

”NYPD Blue” used to be the most daring show on network TV, but over the past six-and-a-half years, it’s turned into the prime-time equivalent of comfort food. We know exactly what’s going to happen: The cops will drive up to a crime scene, Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) will blow his stack in the interrogation room, the perp will spill his guts, and the squad will call it a day. Cut to the preclosing credits seminude love scene, as Sipowicz’s younger male partner seeks solace in the ample bosom of a policewoman.

Some of the faces may have changed — Franz and James McDaniel (Lieut. Arthur Fancy) are the only regulars left from the original cast — but the formula remains the same. And it still works, thanks to top-rank acting from Franz, McDaniel, Rick Schroder, Kim Delaney, and Andrea Thompson, and evocative dialogue by executive producer David Milch and his writers.

Now the ”NYPD” creative team seems to be trying to shake up the show with the addition of Henry Simmons as Baldwin Jones (love that name). A transfer to the 15th precinct from the department’s bias-crimes unit, the hulky, hunky African-American detective promises to jack up the racial and sexual tension in the squad room.

His coworkers’ reaction has been all too predictable, however. He’s already butted heads with the butt-headed Sipowicz and caught the eye of gay administrative assistant John Irvin (Bill Brochtrup). Poor Brochtrup has the most thankless job on television; mostly he sits silently behind his desk and displays an array of facial expressions, from sympathy to suspicion. This isn’t a role — it’s an acting-class exercise.

If only Simmons showed such emotional range. So far, the ex-soap stud (he played Tyrone Montgomery on ”Another World”) seems a bit stiff. At least he fills the strapping sex-symbol void left after the death of Jimmy Smits’ Bobby Simone. (Sorry, Rick, but it still feels creepy to see the kid from ”Silver Spoons” butt nekkid). ”NYPD” wasted no time in getting Simmons to strip off his shirt and reveal his buff upper physique. Maybe they’re saving the obligatory rear view for May sweeps.

Towering over his costars, Simmons is certainly a step up from the actor he replaced, Nicholas Turturro, whose character, James Martinez, was promoted to sergeant. Martinez had a nice student-mentor rapport with David Caruso’s John Kelly in the first season, yet in recent years, he was largely reduced to Keystone Kops comic relief with Gordon Clapp’s maudlin Greg Medavoy (who overstayed his dramatic welcome long ago).

If cocreators Milch and Steven Bochco really wanted to shake up the show, they’d bring back Caruso. Sure, he may have caused static on the set, but he’s pure electricity on the screen. When he was around, ”NYPD Blue” was great TV. Now it’s just a great TV dinner.

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