car·riage re·turn

n. the lever or mechanism on a typewriter that would cause the cylinder on which the paper was held (the carriage) to return to the left margin of the page

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ABC. NYPD. On DVD.

NYPD Blue logoI’ve always been more of a movie enthusiast than a television fan,but occasionally I’ll find a show that strikes me just right.

When I started watching NYPD Blue three months ago,I wasn’t sure how much I’d like it. I’ve generally like police dramas,and Steven Bochco was the producer of Hill Street Blues,a show I haven’t exactly been shy about fawning over to anyone who will listen.

Still,as a native Midwesterner (with certain sensibilities uncorrupted from living on the West Coast,I might add),I’m immediately suspicious of anything with “New York”emblazoned on it –the New York Stock Exchange,the New York Times,or especially the New York Yankees.

For whatever reason that may someday make itself apparent to my great-grandchildren,New York has managed to project it’s self-importance across the entire continent to Southern California. I see people walking around in Yankees caps and New York tourist attire,people who obviously have spent less than a month in that city. Next to Los Angeles,New York seems to be the destination of choice for individuals who are looking to make it big,be that individual an aspiring dancer,musician,or Garrison Keillor. I don’t begrudge New York the influx in population,but I do take issue with New York being portrayed as some sort of Land of the Gods that the rest of the country should be forced to daily genuflect in homage of.

Thankfully,NYPD Blue has been exactly the opposite of the show I thought it might be.

It has many of the features of a Bochco show,features I have come to enjoy. Chief among these is a large and diverse regular cast of characters,all written with an exacting eye for detail and developed in miniature story arcs that wax and wane throughout the seasons. Bit characters are never throwaways;not only do the actors who play them do so with conviction,but one never knows if a bit character will be elevated into a minor character as the storyline progresses.

Terrific TrioSomething else I appreciate is that NYPD Blue is an extremely serious drama. Two of the main characters from Season Two are recovering alcoholics,one is a widower,and another has a marriage barely clinging to existence. Each personal problem is examined in context,not glossed over,giving the characters humanity and depth. The show avoids being preachy by presenting the characters’actions factually,allowing the viewer to make a judgment instead of the producer or director forcing one into the story.

The first television drama I can remember latching onto was Gunsmoke,obviously one I experienced via syndicated reruns. I can remember watching them on a tiny 10-inch black and white television set with my dad,catching them over the nighttime air in Trempealeau from WKBT in La Crosse,Wisconsin. Considering that my other favorite TV show at the time likely was 60 Minutes,Gunsmoke provided a great deal of entertainment while watching and loads of playtime fodder for an overactive imagination.

I loved all the characters equally except one,Marshall Matt Dillon. Marshall Dillon was Gunsmoke in my eyes,especially since most of the episodes we saw in syndication during the mid to late Eighties were from the earlier seasons. Chester was replaced by Festus,and Doc Adams was a great doctor (but only a doctor!),but Marshall Dillon was the large looming figure who shot the bad guy in the opening credits,protected the town throughout the course of the show,and was looked up to by everyone,from Sam the Bartender to Newly,the town gunsmith. When I made Lincoln Log towns and set up my plastic cowboys inside them,Marshall Dillon was always the one I gave the place of honor to.

Shortly after I got my feet wet with Gunsmoke I came upon a show that would last me through junior high,the original Star Trek,which eventually formed a perfect storm of nerdery for me,along with the then-new spin-off,Star Trek:The Next Generation. Star Trek paved the way to nerddom for me,something that has taken me the better part of ten years to accept.

The jump from Western to Space Western was easy enough. Instead of the brave and just Marshall Matt Dillon,I had the spontaneous and forceful Captain James T. Kirk;instead of crusty Doc Adams,I had even crustier Doctor McCoy;instead of goofy and countrified Festus,I had patently ungoofy and scientific Spock. It was as clean a cut as one could ask for,and over the next ten years the epicenter of my television watching was science fiction of the Star Trek type.

As I got older,I had dalliances with other shows. CBS had a great little show starring Danny Aiello,called Dellaventura,which lasted all of one season. I hated Star Trek:Voyager and picked up watching The X-Files instead. Once the X-Files movie came out and spoiled things I quit watching that show in favor of ER,the first true ensemble drama I ever watched.

ER never fascinated me the way Gunsmoke or Star Trek did,but it did pave the way for me to pick up watching a show called Hill Street Blues. I don’t remember how I came across the show at first,but the first impression it made on me came from the opening credits with that great quasi-mournful Mike Post theme played against the images of a gritty industrial city. Between work and school I didn’t have much down time,but I made room for a show that was rapidly captivating me.

Costas and SipowiczOf course,we know where my love of Hill Street Blues has lead me. After finishing off Season Two,which exhausted all the episodes currently released on DVD,I started looking for something else to fill the occasional hour that doesn’t see me reading or surfing baseball news. I dithered in a choice between The X-Files and NYPD Blue,finally choosing the latter because I knew both Steven Bochco and Mike Post were involved in the show.

At first,I wasn’t impressed. The theme didn’t impress me (and has yet to grow on me),but the casting was good and the stories were even better. Season One hooked me easily enough,but oddly,I didn’t like quite a few of the characters. I wasn’t sad to see the end of Amy Brenneman’s character (I’ve detested her since I first laid eyes on Judging Amy years ago),David Caruso only barely raised my pulse as Dennis Franz’s partner,and Shelly Stringfield wasn’t particularly impressive,either. Instead of mourning the early losses to the show,I’ve fallen in love with the pairing of Kim Delaney and Jimmy Smits,and have been absolutely swept off my feet by the relationship between Franz’tough,abrasive street cop and the smart and beautiful in equal measures Greek Assistant District Attorney,played by Sharon Lawrence.

What makes this all the more delicious is that I never intended to like NYPD Blue this much. I only required a diversion from Hill Street,something that would fill the space until this fall (when the Season Three of HSB is released). Instead,I’ve wound up with a show I like as much or better than two of my previous favorites,M*A*S*H and Six Feet Under.

I might be a little strange for getting so excited about early seasons of a show that has been off the air for over a year,a show I never watched while it was originally being aired,but I feel like I’m learning something about ensemble drama by watching the show in order,something that might serve me well if I ever tackle Lost or the original Law and Order.

Best of all,and in a complete 180 from my feelings on movie spoilers,I don’t feel guilty about looking ahead to see what’s going to happen in the show. I know that big changes will eventually take place,and it’s interesting to watch the writers piece them together,sort of like playing Tetris in reverse. I know Sharon Lawrence’s character is going to die,perhaps even this season,and I know Jimmy Smits and Kim Delaney will eventually leave the show,but that makes every episode all the more valuable and interesting.

Plus,like James Arness as Matt Dillon or William Shatner as James T. Kirk,Dennis Franz/Andy Sipowicz will always be there.

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