Judge Daniel MacDonald isn't scared of cops with high-waisted pants.
"You don't often encounter this form of suicide."—Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), remarking on the discovery of a decapitated body.
NYPD Blue is one of the defining television series of the 1990s, and Season 3 exhibits all the reasons why: every episode is solid, each character has an engaging story arc, and the tales told aren't afraid to go where they need to for the sake of authenticity. It's sometimes a dark trip, but it's worth reachin' out for.
Facts of the Case
Things start off with a bang, as Detective James Martinez (Nicholas Turturro) gets shot before the opening credits of the first episode. The drama extends to the rest of the detective squad, as Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits, The West Wing) rekindles his relationship with recovering alcoholic Diane Russell (Kim Delaney), Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) starts living at the station house when his wife kicks him out, and Adrienne Lesniak (Justine Miceli) struggles with her sexuality.
The anchor of the show has always been Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz, Body Double), and he gets the most to do here. He fumbles his way through his wife's pregnancy, having been in the throes of alcoholism during his first son's gestation. He sponsors Diane in AA. He proudly gives lessons to his grown son, now a new recruit, on being a good cop. And he suffers a devastating personal tragedy that drives him so close to the edge of self-destruction that two wheels are off the ground.
Here's what we get:
Dennis Franz must have done something pretty great in a previous life, because the role of Andy Sipowicz is about as meaty a prime rib roast of a part an actor could ever hope for. A walking personality conflict, Sipowicz can make you laugh, make you cry, and make you angry. He's come a long way from the barely-off-the-booze, abrasive, foul-mouthed bear he was at the beginning of Season 1, but the roots are still there, just below the surface. In Episode 10, "The Blackboard Jungle," Sipowicz throws a racial slur back at a black suspect, in front of a reporter, then is stunned that his boss and partner take offense—his showdown with Lieutenant Fancy (James McDaniel) is uncomfortable and raw, returning to the edgy territory the show traversed so controversially in Season 1. And when Andy loses someone close to him in "A Death in the Family," it's the most intensely sad, heartbreaking hour of television I've ever seen—it's so heavy you could throw it into the back of your truck for traction.
All the acting is straight-up great, and every character gets at least a couple of episodes with some time in the spotlight. It's interesting to spot a few future stars who show up as suspects and witnesses: Magnolia's Melora Walters, Boomtown's Neal McDonough, Daniel von Bargen (Lord of Illusions), Jenna Elfman (Keeping the Faith), and perpetually-hyperventilating Leland Orser (Se7en) all make appearances.
By this season, the show had really gotten into a groove, and it shows. The camera work, always kinetic and voyeuristic, has calmed down a bit, and there's a lot less gratuitous nudity thrown in for the sake of keeping the censors on their toes. The writers had attracted their audience, now they could just provide solid entertainment week after week, without worrying about being sensational. Not to say it's become sanitized for your protection; storylines remain as gritty as sandpaper, language pushes the boundary of what you can say on television, and yes, occasionally the saxophone plays over taut bodies romping around in bed. But the show had nothing to prove, and the confidence shows.
It's a melodrama, and very tied to it's "one episode = one day" format, but within that structure it manages to provide lots of surprises—and some genuine emotion that might just have you breaking out the hanky.
Fox changed horses mid-stream with regards to the packaging this season, abandoning the cardboard fold-out style of the first two seasons for a cardboard sleeve with two ultra-thin cases inside, each housing two double-sided discs; the whole season is barely wider than a standard DVD case. Admittedly I was disappointed to see the new design, since its predecessor was so substantial, but it quickly grew on me—with the increasing popularity of TV on DVD, collectors' shelf space would be well served if more shows decided to go this route.
Picture quality is top notch; the discs have been transferred at an impressively high bit rate, really showing off the naturalistic lighting schemes. Sound, too, is well represented, with the standard 2-channel Dolby Surround mix delivering clear dialogue and a nice bit of ambiance around the room. It's hard to believe this is eleven years old.
Special Features are sparse, but of reasonable quality. The two audio commentaries, one from director Michael Robin, and another featuring actor Gordon Clapp and director Randall Zisk, are mostly comprised of describing the action on scene, but there are a number of interesting tidbits in each. Three featurettes are also included: "Life in the 15th Precinct" (10 minutes), "Father and Son" (17 minutes), and "Women of NYPD Blue" (14 minutes) are all well made, and provide valuable context.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although she's well acted, the character of Lesniak is all over the place—a fact conceded by series creator Steven Bochco in one of the featurettes. The writers weren't sure where she was going, so she's a lesbian in one episode, and Martinez' jealous girlfriend two episodes later.
And as good as the picture looks, there is some artificial edge enhancement, resulting in shimmering on some shots of fences, dress shirts with thin stripes, and the like.
There's a reason NYPD Blue was an Emmy magnet during its time on the air (Dennis Franz won for Outstanding Lead Actor for this season): it's the benchmark for cop drama, hands down. A recommended purchase.
I've got nothin' to hold this skell on; I've gotta give 'em a walk.
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