NYPD Blue - Season 1
Watching Fox Video's release of NYPD Blue: Season One, one is struck by how similar the earliest episodes are, in tone and boldness, to the new shows of a decade later. Most series pilots show little signs of what look like clunkiness and bugs being worked out, but this Steven Bochco-produced cop drama really hit the ground running. It takes a little longer developing character than later shows would, and the most violent scene in the pilot is done in a slow-motion, stop-frame style that was already a little old from its use on the previous Bochco series Hill Street Blues, but the show was already stylistically 90 percent of what it would become as a series. In the bargain, it also captured little bits of New York City history -- in David Caruso's first scene, his character headed for his ex-wife's apartment in Queens, we see the No. 7 Flushing line as it looked during the extraordinary four years in which its elevated line was rebuilt while it kept operating full-time; we also see David Schwimmer, one year before Friends went on the air, playing a tragically naïve divorce attorney in a short-lived story arc. But the amazing thing when watching the pilot and the early episodes is the sheer number of actors on this series who had star quality from the get-go -- not just Caruso and Dennis Franz, but Nick Turturro, Amy Brenneman, and James McDaniel. The look of the series took its familiar form with the second episode, in which the precinct and squad room take on their proper look, and the editing and writing acquire the tightness that would drive the series for over a decade. The major bonus feature on this DVD set consists of commentary tracks on individual episodes: by co-creator David Milch on the fourth show; director Bradley Silberling on episodes six and ten; actress Sharon Lawrence on episode 15; technical advisor and future executive producer Bill Clark on episode 17; and director (and future producer) Michael Robin on episode 21. Milch's commentary is very slow-moving but interesting, in that he treats the characters that he created with a great deal of pride and affection, distinguishing them from the actors in their parts. (He is amazingly honest in admitting that a letter from a viewer put him on to the fact that, as a Jewish writer/producer, he was engaging in a subtle brand of anti-Semitism when it came to the series' tendency to portray most lawyers as despicable and Jewish.) Silberling is livelier and wittier, recalling his career being rescued from a film project that had gone belly-up; he's funny and very self-effacing in his recounting of the problems and joys of shooting a television series on two coasts simultaneously. Lawrence has a lot of fun talking about the script, the development of the characters, and the show's virtues as a vehicle for actors. She believes that the mobile camera enhanced the ability of both regular and guest actors to give especially convincing performances; Lawrence is also generally astonishingly well-informed about multiple aspects of the series and this specific episode. The real treat, however, is the commentary by Bill Clark, who is as fascinating as the episode itself. An ex-New York City police officer who never thought to leave the force, he gradually moved into ever-deeper involvement and was finally persuaded to join the series full-time, especially as he continued to see errors that needed fixing for credibility's sake (which sneaked in on days when he was away). He brings an honesty and immediacy to the commentary that fits in perfectly with the intent of the series itself, and watching the show with the commentary is rather like seeing a kind of "mega"-episode. Clark gives the best account yet of why police officers and prosecutors often see their jobs in such completely different lights, and the reason that cops hold attorneys (even prosecutors) in such contempt. Robin's commentary is lively and his continued, deepening involvement with the show allows him to speak authoritatively about multiple seasons, so that he can describe a specific shot in front of us, but also the development of the sets and choice of locations; he's also honest enough to admit that one of his seeming screw-ups in shooting at the outset of the series was salvaged into the opening credits. The other major bonus feature is a 58-minute documentary in which Bochco, Milch, Clark, et al. discuss the improbable series of events that brought the show to the air, which, in some respects, paralleled the origins of Law & Order. In 1991, hour-long drama was considered a dying programming category on network television. Law & Order's solution was to offer an hour-long show that was essentially two distinct half-hours; Bochco's and Milch's idea, by contrast, was to offer an hour-long show that took network television where it had never gone before, in terms of raw language, subjects, and stories. ABC liked the idea, but their standards-and-practices division rejected the proposed pilot script precisely for its language and subject matter, and Bochco and Milch called their bluff by walking away. That made the network want the show even more, eventually giving what would previously have seemed an unthinkable amount of ground where language and subjects were concerned -- it also delayed the show from filming for a full season, giving the makers time to improve the show even more, giving it greater realism, which was how the series was able to hit the ground running. As Milch points out, no one ever gets 18 months to tinker with a finished pilot script or a series evolved from it before getting it shot and on the air, but they did. In this and accompanying segments on the sixth disc, the makers also address issues of plot, casting, love scenes, and most everything else that made the series special, with ex-cop Bill Clark making the best contribution in terms of seeing to the realism of the show. (His commentary also reveals a detail in his personal tastes that was to manifest itself onscreen comically in the 2004 season, coincident with the addition of ex-cop John F. O'Donohue to the cast. Regular viewers will recognize it, but for others, it involves birds in his office.) As for the discs themselves, the full-screen transfers (1.33:1) are so clean and sharp that they'll challenge the upper limit of viewers' monitors, the very faint patterning in one character's white shirt causing a shimmer in one shot. There are four episodes on each disc except for the last, which contains only two, plus the bonus documentary features. Each episode gets 15 chapter breaks and each show must be accessed separately (there is no "play all" function on the discs). The menu for each episode allows the viewer to skip the "previously on NYPD Blue" recap and go right to the new action. The audio is mastered good and loud, with lots of detail, in 4.0 Dolby Surround. One episode on each disc has a bonus commentary track featuring one of the participants from behind or, in Lawrence's case, in front of the cameras, which has to be accessed through the "language" setup. It's a little awkward advancing between episodes, as one must get out of the menu for the one just viewed and select and enter the next selection, but generally this is a well designed and often spellbinding total-immersion experience in the series.