Smoke up

NYPD Blue, the first cop show to really up the ante since co-creator Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues, was going strong early in season one.  Bochco, along with David Milch, had brought to the small screen a procedural that also focused on character, and a spate of writers and character actors that gave the show its home-grown feel.  Round five of our episode-by-episode recap is no practical joke.

Season 1, Episode 5

Emission Accomplished

Original Air Date: October 19th, 1993

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times now, we’re still not quite into what will become the normal groove for the show.  Part of that entails three teams of detectives, working as partners, who catch cases as they come in, usually focusing on two cases per episode.  Since we’re not quite there, there have been a lot of detectives just kinda wandering around the squad room, some with file folders, almost none of them with names or faces we’ll ever see again.

But then there’s Detective Art Stillwell.

One of the recurring themes in this show is that cops are people too.  And while the main cast carries the bulk of this task, it’s easy to get caught up in the soap opera-y aspects and start to regard them as merely melodramatic characters.  This is why, I think, Milch and co. choose and utilize their character actors so well, so as to heighten the impact of a role that might only be in one episode, like Stillwell, or Hanlan, who also shows up only the once.

Hanlan, unless I’m much mistaken, is the first character to drop the N-word on the show (for the record, I hate that euphemism, but still can’t get up the balls to type up the actual slur).  His character pretty much follows suit: old, bigoted, Irish cop who’s doing dirty, moonlighting as the superintendent in a rent-controlled building.  As apparently happens a lot in these types of buildings, the owner wants the tenants to get the bum’s rush, so Hanlan has been carrying on a litany of harassment, even going so far as to loosen a banister so that an old man falls to his death.  Grim stuff, but this New York that’s been set up for us almost requires scumbags like Hanlan.

Martinez’s little brother, who’s also a junkie, lives in the building, and Martinez sees Hanlan for what he is almost immediately.  Martinez is about to throw his career into Internal Affairs by wearing a wire on Hanlan, but Kelly does it instead, confident his reputation can take this stink a lot better than Martinez’s.  To highlight this, we meet Sullivan who used to be an old buddy of Kelly’s before he ended up in the rat squad.  This episode is also our foray into this ugly side of life on the job, where the guys who are supposed to be protecting us are supposed to protect each other first, even if they’re murderers.  Nobody likes a rat, of course, but Jesus.  Who watches the watchmen and all that.

Anyways, this little Hanlan story also brings up some more daddy issues, which is NYPD Blue’s bread and butter.  Martinez’s dad (played by the great Luis Guzmán, who’s only a couple years older than Nicholas Turturro in real life) holds Martinez responsible for his brother being a junkie.  Martinez can’t come to his own father for support, so he has to go Kelly, his mentor.  This particular plot thread probably would have been really nice if Caruso hadn’t fucked it all up by bailing within the year.  Kelly, on the other hand, has an in with Hanlan since Kelly’s own father was so well regarded on the job back in Hanlan’s day.  And when Kelly turns him in, Hanlan throws that back in his face: “You’ve pissed all over your father’s grave.”  Which of course is not true, but we can see from here on in, the relationship between fathers and sons is going to come up a lot, not just because it’s easy to fall back on familial distress, but because it’s just so damn common to the human experience.

But enough of that shit, let’s get to the jokes.  This episode was written by Ted Mann, who recently made quite a splash by writing the big-deal mini-series for the History Channel, Hatfields & McCoys.  But what I knew him as, even before I realized he wrote/produced on my second favorite show of all time, is as one of the second generation of writers for that American institution, National Lampoon.  Along with Tod Carroll, he created and wrote my favorite feature for that late, great periodical, the adolescent misadventures of O.C. and Stiggs.  Mann proved himself to be quite the serious dramatic writer as well in the years since, but I’d be very surprised if the twisted character of Art Stillwell didn’t come from him.

Stillwell is played by the rotund John Capodice, probably best known as the titular character’s departmental rival in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.  We meet Stillwell at the beginning of the episode playing one of his impish pranks, taking lunch orders for the prisoners in holding (one of which is played by Mann himself), which really pisses off the desk sergeant since he’s got to deal with these guys once they realize their brisket and potatoes ain’t coming.  Kelly and Sipowicz try to talk Stillwell out of these incessant pranks, and find that Stillwell has lost the entirety of his pension on a bad real estate deal.  The cracks are beginning to show in Stillwell as he tries to laugh it all off, and Capodice does a superb job laughing while he clearly should be crying.

It all comes to a head when a little old man comes in to file a complaint that he was sexually assaulted by two young co-eds, who forced him to perform cunnilingus on them and to orgasm himself not once, but twice.  Stillwell has a near complete breakdown right there, screaming at the guy that any one of them should be so lucky.  It’s a very creepy, very intense scene, which Stillwell tries to laugh off, but Lieutenant Fancy sends him to the rubber-gun squad anyway.

Cops are people, too, as much as smart-asses like me hate to admit it at times.  They have fathers whose shadows they live in, they have wives whose happiness they fail to deliver, they have reputations they crumble under, they have any number of unhealthy ways of dealing with all of this emotional fall-out.  While NYPD Blue will often veer into the melodramatic, there are enough instances where these issues are handled delicately yet with enough vigor to make them realistic and all that much more effective.

Tune in next time for life in the fast lane and death on the basketball court.  And until then, keep ‘em laughing.