In My Write Mind
I used to love Wednesdays.
I worked as a payroll clerk for the NYPD Highway District. My officemate was Officer John DiSiena, a kindhearted older man in his late 40s who knew how to tell bad jokes, carried the oldest gun known to mankind and, for a side hustle, detailed cars. He was the best. It was during the fall of 1993, a year before I moved to Los Angeles and soon after graduating, that the two of us were put together--as if by fate--to experience a phenomenon.
That's right--the broadcast premiere of NYPD Blue.
Television stations banned it. Decency groups condemned it. For months leading up to its ABC premiere date, September 21st, there was one article after another saying how this show would change the face of television forever. How it would show nudity and allow the characters to use "adult language." How it was too risque. Well, that's all John & I needed to hear. We were sold! They had us at the word "nude."
You have to remember, this was premiering at the time when the TV drama was on life support. Sitcoms ruled the airwaves in '93, with dramas like Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law all long gone.
And then came Blue.
From the pilot episode, we were hooked. In the show's opening sequence, when Detective Andy Sipowicz yelled at ADA Sylvia Costas, "Ipsa this, you prissy little bitch!"...and ABC ACTUALLY AIRED IT!!!!!, that was it. This was now appointment television. The new Must-See TV. Blue...was gonna be gold.
Of course John liked it because he could relate, being a New York City police officer and all. I liked it because it was riveting television. And each Wednesday, we would dissect each episode from the night before, reciting lines that made us laugh and must've made censors cringe. We followed the trials and tribulations of the members of New York's 15th Detective Squad very closely. With a fine toothed comb. Hell, we were CSI before its time!
Each week, we couldn't wait for the next episode. Detectives Kelly (David Caruso) and Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) were the leads. Sure they would solve cases in a tidy 47 minutes (without commercials). But it was the personal turmoil that made the show sizzle. Kelly was divorced but was still very close emotionally with his ex-wife. He started having an affair with an officer in his command, an officer so in love with him that she murdered a man who intended to kill him.
Sipowicz was a recovering drunk, shot and left for dead in the pilot, only to survive and be forced to salvage what was left of his career. He was uncomfortable around blacks and had a black boss. He was divorced, had a son he hardly knew and a general distaste for life in general.
Now THAT'S a drama.
See Kelly's naked ass! See Sipowicz and his boss trade blows!
Suddenly, it wasn't a cop show anymore, but a show about the lives of cops. The visionary style used by the directors was new. Yes, they used a two camera setup, but one of the cameras would have a somewhat lazy eye, sometimes trailing the characters and showing background shots or zooming in on hand movements and tics that each character perfected. The show was second to none. And the writing was top-notch. Helmed by producer Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law) and consultants/writers David Milch and Bill Clark, the dialogue was true to form. Gritty. Raw. In your face. It was NEW YAWK!!!
It's a shame Caruso's character didn't hang around long enough to be acknowledged for his work, leaving after just 26 episodes. Sipowicz' next partner, Detective Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits), hit the ground running and there was no visible slippage in the show's product. A female detective was brought on board and sparks flew between the two characters. And Sipowicz was still Sipowicz--brash, uncomfortable, complex. He eventually married the ADA he "ipsa'd" in the pilot episode, but not before months of struggling with himself to stay sober and employed.
I could go on and on about the show. Lawd knows John and I did...every Wednesday. I left that job about a year later, when Season 2 was about to premiere. Off to LA I went. But I still watched every week. A few seasons later, when Simone died (which was another watershed moment for the show, with critics calling it the best television episode IN THE HISTORY of TV), it seemed like the end of an era. How could the show survive? What could possibly happen next? Well, Detective Danny Sorenson (Rick Shroder) came aboard and the show kept right on rolling.
Detectives James Martinez, Greg Medavoy, Diane Russell, Adrienne Lesniak, Jill Kirkendall, Connie McDowell, Baldwin Jones, Rita Ortiz. Lieutenants Arthur Fancy, Tony Rodriguez and Thomas Bale. ADAs Sylvia Costas and Valerie Heywood. PAAs Donna Abandando and John Irvin.
Over the past twelve years, you got to know all of them...and care about them. None of them were perfect. In fact, that's probably what made me appreciate them even more. They weren't your regularly written cookie-cutter supporting players. When Martinez' brother was shot and killed, you saw him hurt. When Medavoy was going through marital problems, you empathized with him. When Russell had a miscarriage, or had to deal with her brother killing her overbearing father, you took on the struggle with her. Every time Fancy had to take on Sipowicz' ignorance and did it JUST the way I would (sure they had a fist fight, but there was also an episode when Fancy took Sipowicz to the 'hood for a rib dinner...CLASSIC!!!), yeah, it was THAT deep for me.
A few of my favorite episodes include the entire Simone sickness and imminent death episodes; the earlier episodes where Kelly tutored a young Martinez and brought him along through the job; the episode where Andy's son is killed--his performance during those scenes were phenomenal!; the two-parter titled, "Lost Israel"; the first few episodes featuring the troubled Sorenson; and every episode this final season, which has been very satisfying.
And think about all the actors who guest-starred on the show, getting to chew up scenery early in their careers. Actors like David Schwimmer (Friends), Mos Def, Richard T. Jones (Judging Amy), EVERY episode featuring Daniel Benzali, Michael Jai White, Terrence Howard, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Imperioli (Sopranos), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Melina Kanakaredes (Providence), Guy Torry, Christopher Meloni (Law and Order), Lucy Liu (Ally McBeal), Tia Texada (Third Watch), Melinda Williams (Soul Food)...the list could go on and on. Back in the mid-90s, Blue was THE SHOW to be on.
I haven't seen John since I moved and we really didn't keep in contact for too long. But I know he continued to watch the show. It was too good not to watch. Yes, the show declined in ratings after Simone died. Yes, it got knocked off its perch as the most cutting-edge show on television when The Sopranos premiered on HBO in 1999. And it definitely lost some steam when Milch left after the seventh season. But it won 20 Emmys. TWENTY!!! And to tell you the truth, besides Franz' four, I couldn't even begin to remember who else won.
And that's my point. To me, NYPD Blue wasn't about the accolades or the controversy or the nudity. It wasn't about the "adult language" or the police work. Sure, all of that stuff is what got me to watch in the beginning. But what got me to stay was the characters. And I will miss them all dearly when the final episode is aired. I know that sounds crazy coming from a black man who lives in NYC, who lived through the Guiliani administration and has every right to despise the police. And even after working in Highway for a year...I do.
But that disgust for men in uniform never stopped me from checking out the detectives in the 15th Squad every Tuesday night for the past 12 years; never stopped me from following all their cases and personal dilemmas; never stopped me from having a love-hate relationship with Sipowicz and feeling his pain when something ELSE in his life went wrong (his oldest son and second wife were murdered, his youngest son was fatally ill but recovered, two of his partners died).
Twelve seasons. 261 episodes. 24 different cast members. And memories that will live on and continue to play out in syndication. I'll be watching as BLUE fades to black tonight. I hope John watches, too.
It is truly the end of an era.
Wednesdays will never be the same again.
scribbled by Will at 3/01/2005 08:04:00 PM
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I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. (Joan Didion)
The Write One
Will. Lefty. Since Summer 1971. Over the next six months, I'll be saying some hellos, some goodbyes. Living, laughing, growing. Don't.miss.a.word.
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