Franz powers tonight's 'Blue' Preview: Rarely has TV drama so gripped the very heart of our humanity, squeezing it in paroxysms of emotion. Quite simply, it'll make you gasp for breath.

November 24, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Sadness and rage. They've been running red-hot the last two weeks on "NYPD Blue" as Detective Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) lay deathly ill with a failing heart.

The story line resolves itself tonight in a 90-minute episode that will take you to emotional places television rarely goes. I didn't think "NYPD Blue" could get any more intense than it was last week, but it does. Boy, does it ever. If Greek tragedy wrung out its original audiences any more than this, I don't know how anyone showed up for work the next day in Athens.

The genius of the story line from Steven Bochco, David Milch and Bill Clark is that our attention is focused not on Simone, but on his partner, Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), and Simone's wife, Detective Diane Russell (Kim Delaney). There's not all that much you can do dramatically with a semi-conscious character in a hospital bed -- and that's pretty much the state of Simone most of the night as complications quickly set in after his heart transplant.

But, as we connect with Sipowicz and Russell, we find ourselves aboard the awful and, yet, ennobling roller-coaster ride of hope, anger, terror, sadness and either relief or grief that carries all passengers who come to the possible deathbed of someone they love.

If you thought Sipowicz was out of control the last two weeks -- and even the criminals he encountered on the job were scared to death of his rage -- wait until you see him tonight. His ex-wife, Katie (Debra Monk), shows up in the squad room just as you think the pressure couldn't get any higher in the cooker of his chest.

Katie has a surprise: She's facing a drunken-driving charge, and she's due in court in a few hours. The incident happened three months ago, but she was afraid to tell Sipowicz. Now she's asking for his help.

You expect an explosion. But the script by Nicholas Wootton is full of surprises. One of its richest threads is the way it explores the heart-breaking sadness and melancholy that wracks Sipowicz's soul over all the mistakes and pain he and Katie have caused each other and the agony they endure from the death of their only child, Andy Jr., last year.

With the departure of Andre Braugher this year from "Homicide: Life on the Street," there simply is no other dramatic actor the equal of Franz on television. Just the physical aspect of his performance is enough to warrant another Emmy. He looks like a man whose chest and head are about to explode with the furious overload of emotion he bears.

The range of Franz tonight is stunning. In one scene, his body is clenched into an angry fist about to strike. In the next, he collapses in chest-rasping sobs. The last scene between him and Smits is brilliantly underplayed.

And, then, there's Delaney. I never thought much of her or her character: just another Bochco woman, and Bochco does women about as well as Ernest Hemingway. But she, too, is something to behold tonight. Delaney risks going over the top and, in her dare, makes you believe.

What a curious thing is this connection we forge with some television characters. We are aware of the artifice -- we know this three-week story line was created to account for the real-life departure of Smits from the series -- yet we still care deeply about that character fighting for his life on the hospital bed.

In the end, I guess that is the triumph of tonight's "NYPD Blue." As we sit with Russell and help her try to will her husband to go on, we forget about all the real-life television business behind the scenes -- Smits replacing David Caruso, who thought he was a movie star, and yada, yada, yada.

The on-screen television moment is made so real and compelling that it makes us believe. We live in that television moment and, in this case, come out the other side more fully human.

Hot TV

What: "NYPD Blue"

When: 9: 30 to 11 tonight

Where: ABC (WMAR, Channel 2)

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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