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NYPD Blog – Personal Foul (1.06)
NYPD Blue, the heir apparent to Hill Street Blues as the thinking man’s cop show, was going strong early in season one. David Milch and Stephen Bochco had brought to the small screen a procedural that focused on character, but also sought to deliver to audiences the thrills and chills so well regarded in genre fiction . Round six of our episode-by-episode recap is quite the horrorshow indeed.
Season 1, Episode 6
Original Air Date: October 26th, 1993
The genres of horror and crime are almost conjoined twins at times, so interlaced in their motives and applications as to be inseparable. The slasher films of the ‘70s and ‘80s and their progeny are, when you get right down to it, simple murder-mysteries, the less-gory cousins of the crimes Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley solved on primetime to the delight of your grandparents. Films like Se7en and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia are at heart basic police procedurals, but the tone of the crimes and the killers elevates those films into something more horrific than Dragnet.
So where does this gray area occur exactly? When does something go from crime to horror and back again? After watching this episode of NYPD Blue for the umpteenth time, I’m prepared to submit that chaos is key. I seriously doubt that I’m the first to proffer this hypothesis, but the fact remains that a crime story begins to sneak over into horror’s realm once the victim is rendered helpless, once he or she can no longer maintain order.
The main plot in this episode concerns Detective Kelly’s bi-weekly 3-on-3 basketball game, clearly a trope of the horror genre. I’m kidding, of course, but I’ve always felt (again, unoriginally, I’d say) that the finest horror arises out of just these sorts of innocuous settings. Kelly and his five buddies are out on the court, when Larry the spoil-sport starts mouthing off to Nathan, barely skirting some really racist comments. Nathan (played by James Pickens, Junior, who is probably best known as Dr. Webber on Grey’s Anatomy, but who I always think of as the quasi-token, semi-regular Chuck from Roseanne) tries to laugh it off at first, but Larry won’t let it go. So Nathan socks him one, and Larry dies right there on the spot.
Jesus, think about that, huh? I can’t think of a more horrible situation, especially with the loudmouth assholes I’m friends with. I haven’t come close to throwing blows with any friends of mine since I was in my early 20s, but the very thought of a buddy of mine, even one I don’t like very much, dropping dead right after I pop him in the kisser…ugh, I get the chills.
And that’s right where this episode wants us. Even though this plotline doesn’t concern killers in the dark or have a musical score written by John Carpenter, its main thrust is to scare the shit out of you. The police-procedural aspect works against its usual purpose to maintain this level of fear, this notion that one the wheels of justice begin turning, there is nothing you can do to stop them until they’ve crushed your skull.
Okay, so, Nathan punches Larry out and he’s dead. Kelly tells Nathan that they’re gonna have to go downtown, make out a statement. Rather than come along quietly, Nathan starts pleading his case to Kelly, his friend who has now become an instrument of the justice system and can’t just let Nathan go home and restore order to his life. So Nathan insists that John arrest him right there. He’s obviously needlessly complicating things, but Nathan needs to feel grounded here, needs to feel that there is some system in working order in a world where a friend has just unexpectedly died by his hand, even if that system is not his best friend at the moment.
You know how in horror movies, people in the audience yell at the characters on-screen, warning them not to go into that room? That’s analogous here: “Nathan, just go downtown and explain! It’ll all work out!” Because, like those in the audience of a horror film, we are not in the same position as the characters; we can still think rationally because our world is not crumbling about our ears.
As the episode wears on, it looks like Nathan will be okay. We find that to compound Nathan’s feelings of dread at having possibly killed his friend, he’s also frightened to go back to jail, a place he was not unfamiliar with in his youth. But the coroner’s report comes back that it was Larry’s heart that blew out and it could have happened at any time. Nathan is not at fault at all. But the guy panics. As he’s being transferred to his arraignment, he takes a swing at a C.O. and attempts to escape. And again, it’s like, “Dude, you’re just making things worse! No, don’t go downstairs in that darkened, isolated cabin in the woods to ‘check things out’! You’ll never come back!”
Kelly does his best to keep things in order. As a cop and as our hero, this is his job. But the writers keep throwing us off-balance, like I said; usually, with stories of the American justice system, the point is to show that things will work out on the side of the innocent. But in this case, the system is working against Nathan. First, an unsympathetic ADA gets Kelly to admit that Nathan had not acted in self-defense, thereby complicating the manslaughter charge. Then, Kelly reaches out to Hardwick, the prison guard Nathan punched out. He explains that Nathan is just a regular guy who found himself in a highly irregular situation and, basically, he freaked out. But Hardwick’s having none of it, and though the manslaughter charge has by now been dropped, Nathan is facing time for assault on a peace officer.
I don’t know about you, but this scares the shit out of me. It’s like whenever I’m pulled over by the highway patrol or something, I get nervous. And then I get nervous that the cop’s gonna be able to tell I’m nervous and wanna know what I’m so nervous about. Next thing you know, I’ve stolen his gun and am running down the middle of the I-8 in my underpants. It’s a needlessly paranoid thought process, I know, but this is how the average dope thinks—when you have very little first-hand knowledge of something (in this case, the inner workings of the justice system), you can very easily jump to the worst-case scenario. Hence why these sorts of horror stories remain so popular.
And that’s fine, I like horror just about as much as any other genre of story-telling. But frankly, I want it kept out of my cop shows. At the end of the episode, Nathan makes a big, sincere courtroom speech, and Hardwick drops the charge, and everybody’s happy. Order has been restored. But personally, when I want a cops-and-robbers story, that’s exactly what I want. Where horror plays to the unexpected, crime—especially police-procedurals—works off of the completely expected: evidence, witnesses, procedure. When a show like NYPD Blue roams away from this set-up, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does begin to feel as though my emotions are being manipulated. Which, y’know, they are.
But take the sub-plot, where a man’s wife is shot and killed while riding with her husband on the FDR. Sipowicz takes lead on this one, and with the help of Kelly and Martinez, they canvas the area, they interview the victim’s family and friends, they dig into the background of Mr. Zimmer, the victim’s husband (played by John Rothman, possibly best known as the head librarian who, in the opening minutes of Ghostbusters, is entreated to back off, man, Venkman’s a scientist). No progress is made until Sipowicz, using his skills as a detective and interviewer, gets Zimmer to admit that there is more to the story, that Zimmer’s wife was shot because Zimmer and another motorist were engaging in an extended fit of road-rage at each other. A horrific situation for Zimmer, certainly, but rather than allow it to get even worse, Sipowicz uses police procedure to bring about a satisfying conclusion, or at least the most satisfying one possible.
So yes, horror has its place (oh, and speaking of horror, Saw’s Tobin Bell has a small part in this episode, though he gets a much meatier role a few seasons later). But I am a crime-fiend all the way, so when I want cops-and-robbers, I want naught but cops-and-robbers. This certainly won’t be the last time this show engages in some cross-genre story-telling devices, and like I say, it’s not always bad. But in comparison to some of the later, more traditional, more hard-boiled episodes, this episode relies too heavily on the emotional manipulation of the horror genre, and as such, it doesn’t really do it for me.
But hey, that’s just me.
Speaking of horror, tune in next time when we’ll have Dan Hedaya as a werewolf. Yes, I’m serious.