Monday, February 27, 2012

Close Enough To A Perfect First Season: NYPD Blue Season 1

The Good: Great acting, Wonderful character arcs, Nice stories, Effects
The Bad: Minor sense of repetition
The Basics: The 15th Precinct of New York City deals day in and day out with criminals while the detectives work on relating to one another in the complete first season of NYPD Blue.

Note: This was originally written when the show actually made its debut on DVD. I liked the tone and my snarky comments on ABC, so I have kept most of the original text unchanged. Enjoy!

NYPD Blue has finally started trickling onto DVD. It's about time. Actually, it's the perfect time for the series to be put into this medium: it's the ten year anniversary of the show's start and the current season is doing amazing work when it isn't being pre-empted for whatever current idiotic "reality" show ABC decides to put on. In the rush to get series' out on DVD, studios and networks are putting a premium on current popularity, as opposed to genuine quality. With the advent of NYPD Blue on DVD, Fox is reminding the patrons of this fantastic medium that the real treasure of DVD is capturing forever truly great works.

NYPD Blue tells the story of the 15th Precinct's detective squad. Opening with a drunk officer's vendetta against a notorious gangster, the series becomes more and more complicated in the first season. Detective John Kelly works at bringing down the Mob while his ex-wife finishes divorce proceedings against him. Andy Sipowicz, shot in the pilot, must overcome his hatreds as well as work on staying sober, a task made more difficult by a burgeoning relationship between himself and an ADA. The lieutenant at the 15th Squad is plagued by Sipowicz and his racism as well as the vague threats of other cops looking to bring him down. There is a uniform cop named Licalsi whose ties to organized crime put her in direct conflict with her love for John Kelly. The crew is rounded out by a junior detective named Martinez who is paired with an exceptionally nervous detective named Medavoy. Their pairing keeps life interesting for both of them and through all of their myriad personal problems, the officers of the 15th Squad catch a successive file of rapes, murders, and robberies.

With 22 episodes, the NYPD Blue Complete First Season DVD set is a value at the $55 you're likely to spend on it (It’s cheaper now!). It's worth it, though. The six disc set has commentaries on six episodes, an hour long behind-the-scenes featurette and other exclusives like one on relationships in the first season of NYPD Blue. Between the quality of the episodes and the bonus features, this is a must for any fan of NYPD Blue.

But more than that, it is an opportunity to get into something that is truly extraordinary. NYPD Blue tells stories of the basic human need for justice through the results of that going too far. For example, David Schwimmer plays a resident of Kelly's former apartment building who was mugged in the building and as a result, he buys a gun and becomes a vigilante. The obsession he exhibits seems very realistic. This is a series known for nudity, strong language and radical camera movements, but it is truly, on the most important levels, all about people.

The people in the first season of NYPD Blue are:

Detective John Kelly, a brooding professional with a knack for interrogation, he has an instinct toward protecting women and a sincere desire to help other people. Kelly's marriage fell apart because of his vigilance toward the job and his new relationship with Licalsi is complicated by his personal need to see right and wrong set apart. He's a tortured soul mentored by Sipowicz. A typical problem Kelly faces in the first season is like "Personal Foul" where a friend of his inadvertently kills another friend in a fight on the basketball court.

Andy Sipowicz is a drunk whose life turns around when he is nearly killed by gangster Alphonse Giadello and then finds himself pursued by ADA Sylvia Costas. Sipowicz is a boss-hating racist who finds being dry a challenge and his need to do his work is complicated by a mean streak he has in his soul.

Lt. Fancy runs the squad and in the first season, he finds himself forced to defend his role as a minority in a position of power. He is tough and fair and ultimately wants nothing more than to have every crime committed solved by his detectives.

James Martinez, a young officer whose joining the 15th Squad is a huge learning experience. He's fast and agile and close with his family, a condition which is complicated by his brother, who is a drug user in a lot of trouble.

Laura Michaels, the estranged wife of John Kelly is on a quest to find direction in her life. She leaves working for the city, quits the subsequent law firm and ends up in the DAs office. As John and Licalsi get closer and closer, she has more complications in her dealings with the 15th.

Officer Licalsi is a uniform cop whose ties to organized crime put her in an awkward position when she makes a worse decision, killing an important mobster. Licalsi spends the season searching for redemption from Kelly and trying to escape the ties to the mob. She's a deeply conflicted character who knows what she wants, but not how to get it.

NYPD Blue undergoes a reasonable transition in the first season, progressing from a cop show very focused on procedure and the methods of detective work into a series focused on the individuals and their struggles. It is a sensible development as the characters do detective work all the way through, but it would quickly get tiring to see the entire process that follows each crime every time.

The hallmark of this series, what separates it from all of the other television shows out there is that NYPD Blue is exceptionally well-written and well acted. The writing is tight and every episode has a freshness to it, despite the fact that it is a repetition of crime and discovery. Each episode has a sense of newness to it and the threads of other stories going throughout the entire season lends a nice serialized sense to the series. It's an adult series and adults can commit to watching episode after episode to see how things develop and NYPD Blue does that exceptionally well.

The acting, then, caps off an already amazing show and the casting department and the various directors of the first season episodes have a strong sense of how to use each of the actors to their best ability. While James McDaniel does a fantastic job as Lt. Fancy, he is relegated to more of a supporting role in the first season and thus does not have the opportunity to dominate the way some of the other actors do. Sheri Stringfield is in the same position as Kelly's ex-wife. Because she is around mostly to reflect off Kelly, she never gets the chance to present her character as terribly vital or necessary. The three actors who steal their thunder are Amy Brenneman, David Caruso and Dennis Franz.

Brenneman leaps onto the screen as Licalsi, a fairly young cop who has connections. Brenneman, as seen in the first season of NYPD Blue, has a versatile look that is ultimately very practical and makes it easy for the viewer to believe that she is an officer. She doesn't have a Hollywood beauty to her and it goes a long way to making her intense expressive eyes more of an asset. Brenneman says much throughout the season using undertones in her voice and subtle body language and she creates quite vividly a conflicted character.

David Caruso makes his presence instantly felt on the screen as John Kelly. Caruso has wonderful facial expressions and a voice that modulates with an exceptional amount of expression. As a result, his performances are consistently great. Caruso makes the series very easy to watch at the beginning and for those who are fans of the show, it is somewhat surprising to go back to see how much Caruso dominated the episodes.

But the thunder of the acting in NYPD Blue is in Dennis Franz. His portrayal of the drunk, racist and angry Sipowicz is outstanding. The way we know Franz is such a great actor is that he is completely different from his character. Unlike Sipowicz, in every interview, every public performance, Franz is seen smiling and he has great charisma. He is generous to his fans and gracious at every award ceremony he's been filmed at. In short, he's nothing like Sipowicz, but he makes Sipowicz utterly believable. That's great acting.

If you've never seen NYPD Blue, this is a great chance to get into it at the beginning. There are minor flaws in the first season, a line or two here or there that just doesn't come off, but the truth is, it's a 22 episode single story and it is pulled off as near to perfect as any series has ever done for the first season.

For other reviews of police-related programs, please be sure to visit:
Homicide: Life On The Street
In The Heat Of The Night


For other television reviews, please be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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