New face may rescue `Blue' from its slump

Preview: Soap star Henry Simmons provides a much-needed change.

February 22, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The conventional wisdom is that "NYPD Blue" is on the skids. The ratings are supposed to be down, and the quality, too.

The problem with conventional wisdom is that is often wrong when it comes to TV.

In fact, the ratings are up this year for "NYPD," by 13 percent, from about 15 million viewers a night last year at this time to 17 million. That is significant considering the weak lead-in the series gets from "Sports Night," a series that is struggling in the ratings.

The show has been in a bit of a slump creatively, playing at times almost like self-parody thanks to dialogue over-burdened by cop jargon, which can have everybody sounding alike. But the series has been in slumps before and always bounced back with a hot story arc or new character. Remember the death of Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) and the arrival of Rick Schroder as Danny Sorenson?

"NYPD Blue" introduces a new character tonight and tomorrow night in back-to-back episodes. He replaces James Martinez (Nicolas Turturro), who left last week. The arrival of soap opera star Henry Simmons ("Another World") as Detective Baldwin Jones, a hate-crimes cop transferred to the 15th precinct, in no way has the emotional firepower of the Simone-Sorenson turnover, but it does make for a couple of compelling and provocative episodes -- especially in terms of race and political correctness. Fans will remember the hate-crimes unit investigated Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) in regard to his attitudes and behavior toward African-Americans.

The African-American commander of the squad (James Pickens Jr.) wanted to run Sipowicz off the force only to be blocked by Sipowicz's boss, Lt. Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel). That old wound between the two African-American supervisors is reopened tonight. Does Sipowicz have an attitude? Oh, yeah, the minute he's introduced to Baldwin.

"Baldwin over there," he says in a low voice to Sorenson, nodding toward the new man across the squad room, "he worked in the -bias unit. You know what that means? Every word from now on you gotta dry clean first. Fruit, wink, wop, get 'em all out while you can."

"I'm done; I said 'em all over my morning cereal," Sorenson deadpans.

"He's standoffish, too. Did you get that impression?" Sipowicz continues.

Meanwhile, Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp), Baldwin's new partner, is trying to bond.

"You know, I got two cousins live in Baldwin, Long Island, which is probably a long shot where your name was derived," Medavoy says.

"My mom named me after the writer, James Baldwin," Baldwin replies.

"Hey, `The Invisible Man.' " Medavoy says.

"No, actually, Ralph Ellison was the black writer that wrote `Invisible Man.' "

"Ah," Medavoy says, looking toward the ceiling. "James Baldwin? Oh, `Go Tell It On The Mountain.' "

"There you go, Greg."

Tonight, the men and women of the 15th precinct investigate the shooting of a police officer. Tomorrow night, they go after a Russian immigrant building manager who hears voices and might have killed his wife and two kids.

The immigrant thinks Baldwin, whom he calls a "black devil," is responsible for one of the voices inside his head. Baldwin's response to the man's racism is surprising. It's one of several smart moments in a strong script by producer Meredith Stiehm.

It is way too early to say I care about Baldwin. But I am interested in seeing where Simmons and executive producer David Milch are going to take the character. Simmons is a large hunk of a guy, and I hope they don't mistakenly make him into a stereotype: the supermasculine black man.

As an actor, Simmons wisely used his size to help him establish Baldwin as a forceful on-screen presence. That's a good start.

Tonight's TV

What: "NYPD Blue."

When: Tonight and tomorrow night 10 to 11.

Where: WMAR (Channel 2). In brief: An interesting new face.

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