TV from 1996: NYPD Blue

I recently re-discovered NYPD Blue, the show that got me started on my unhealthy interest in crime procedurals, thanks to finding it on Hulu (and also, according to the internet, Amazon Prime). I haven’t actually seen that much of the show in its totality, considering how long it ran for—the first episode I ever saw was the season 3 premiere, and I dropped out sometime in the sixth season after the character Bobby Simone died and I didn’t like the detective who replaced him (Danny Sorenson, played by Rick Schraeder). But when I did watch it, I would record episodes off TV on a VHS tape and watch them over and over, and as I’ve come back to these episodes over the past month, it turns out that a lot of this show’s dialogue that still lives in my brain. And I’m re-discovering a lot of cool characters that I’d basically forgotten, like Donna Abandando and John the PA. If anything, the show is better than I remember, or than I was able to appreciate when I was 13.

To be clear, there is a lot of NYPD Blue—which debuted in 1993 and ran for 12 seasons—that is dated. For instance, LGBTQ stuff: there are good moments, but there’s also a lot that is objectifying and not flattering. Even the tolerant detectives seem painfully aware that they’re interviewing one of “those people” whenever they deal with a crime that requires them to talk to queer folks. There’s tolerance, but precious little genuine acceptance, and less celebration. I wouldn’t recommend this show to another queer person without that disclaimer, even though (for me) there’s enough other awesome stuff that I focus on instead. And even though I think the show does a pretty good job with non-white characters (at least within the boundaries of its genre as a crime show, and the fact that everyone the detectives come in contact with is intersecting with the criminal justice system), it’s definitely a show written by a white guy who was writing (perhaps unconsciously) with a white audience in mind. Detective Sipowicz is racist, he’s surrounded by other cops who are racists, and even the presence of the (phenomenal) black Lieutenant Arthur Fancy or the always solid Detective Martinez, does not make up for the snide remarks and sighs and grunts that pepper the show whenever a white cop has to deal with a character with a background different than his.

I started writing this to discuss the season 3 episode “Backboard Jungle,” which directly addresses Sipowicz’s racism and its effects on those around him (and how they navigate it), because I think handles racism in a way that’s nuanced and complicated and still speaks to America today, in 2022 (though by the time I post this, it might be 2023) (update: yep, it’s 2023, happy new year). The way it slowly hems in Sipowicz, traps him in a cage of his own making, is masterful. And I was all set to laud David Milch (who I think is one of the finest writers to ever work in television) for it, and then I learned: he didn’t write it. A black man did, David Mills, who’s also written for Treme, The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Street, ER, and others. Intellectually, I know that network television shows employ many writers (they have a whole room!), and that producers, showrunners, or head writers rarely if ever write an entire season’s worth of episodes, even if they’re credited in every episode. But also, duh. I really should have intuited that this episode is more nuanced than most white writers could manage. But memories are imperfect and credits are easy to misunderstand.

“Backboard Jungle” reminded me of a small-scale Do the Right Thing. Not in plot or in stance, necessarily, but because both pieces have the courage to raise questions about racism in America and then not answer them. At the end of Do The Right Thing, characters circle and snipe and attack each other, and it feels simultaneously futile and inevitable, because the real evil in that movie is something that none of the characters can ever directly address, much less defeat. The racism at evidence in that movie destroys so much, by the end. It also still exists. It hasn’t gone away, even though every character (I think) wishes that it had.

“Backboard Jungle” does a variation of the same thing: It wrestles with these problems, but does not solve them. At the end of the episode, Sipowicz is still a racist. He’s still a cop. Fancy still has to work with him, the people of color who live in his precinct still have to encounter him and tolerate his presence and power in their neighborhood. He has opened wounds with his coworker Bobby Simone and his wife Sylvia that do not close. A murderer is off the street, but the drug dealers who contributed to the initial violence in the story are all still out there. There are no winners.

How do we deal with racists in our immediate vicinity? How do we challenge them, how do we change their views, how do we move forward in spite of them? This episode poses some options, but it doesn’t present any of them as fun, or magical, or even all that helpful at all.

As the episode opens, a local black community organization has organized a basketball game to honor the memory of a young black man who died in police custody (we never know much about this man, but it’s stated several times that the cause of his death is ambiguous: the medical examiner and the police department said he had a seizure; members of the black community suspect he was murdered by police). The community organization—represented by the character Kwasi Olushola, played by Tom Wright—has convinced the police to stay away from the game. Sensing opportunity, drug dealers in the area take it over, forming their own teams. With a high gang presence and no cops, violence breaks out, at least two people are killed, and numerous other innocent bystanders injured.

Sipowicz starts out bad, frustrated at “the brass” for going along with the community org’s request for no police, and with no respect for the people who organized the basketball game, and particularly none for Kwasi, who he sees as little more than a drug dealer. He resents that the black community doesn’t just believe the police when they say that the boy in their custody died of a seizure (gee, Sipowicz, wonder why they don’t believe you or your bosses). Sipowicz is both terrible at expressing himself and terrible at hiding how he feels, so the initial interview with Kwasi, well, it devolves.

Kwasi: You people wanted this to happen. The cops resented this game from the outset because it was in memory of a young black man murdered by police.
Simone: All right, Kwasi, calm down.
Sipowicz: That kid died from some kind of seizure.
Kwasi: He was murdered, and the racist NYPD covered it up.
Simone (reaching out to take Kwasi’s arm): Let’s tell it at the station house.
Kwasi (pulling away): Am I charged with a crime?
Sipowicz: Hey. Don’t be flailing your arms.
Kwasi: I don’t have to go anywhere with you. You dealing with that one [n-word redacted] in a thousand who knows what you can and cannot do.
Sipowicz: I’m dealing with a [n-word] whose big mouth is responsible for this massacre.
Simone: Shut up, Andy.
Kwasi: (pushing) Back off!

The conversation ends with both men losing their tempers, Simone needing to separate them, and Kwasi getting arrested for “putting his hands on an officer.” The whole interaction is witnessed by a local reporter and couldn’t be swept away or denied even if Sipowicz wanted it to (spoiler alert: he doesn’t).

Note that this interaction is precisely framed for Sipowicz to give himself an out. It’s not his fault, he didn’t say the n-word first, he only said it after the other guy did. The old “It’s not a slur if I’m just quoting someone else saying it” line.

“I did not call him that. He called himself that, and I threw it back at him,” he says to his boss when recounting the incident later. “You don’t get to ‘throw that back,'” Fancy retorts. Sipowicz knows that he won’t find any sympathy from Fancy, but he doesn’t want or need that; if anything, Fancy’s reaction cements Sipowicz’s feelings that nobody is assessing the situation—or his role in it—fairly or objectively.

Bobby Simone walks a fine line in this episode, having his partner’s back in front of Kwasi and the Lieutenant, while also making clear to Sipowicz that he doesn’t support how Sipowicz is behaving. Simone has the conversation with Sipowicz that we all hope non-racist cops are having with their racist coworkers: “Partner. I was not comfortable with those words. I am not comfortable with the feelings behind them.” They don’t have time to talk about it very in-depth because Simone has to solve the case without help from his partner. The conversation doesn’t do anything to change how Sipowicz is thinking, but it does let him know that the receptive audience for his feelings on this issue is shrinking, has shrunk.

Fancy benches Sipowicz and lets him stew at his desk for most of the day. It is not until they both have their coats on to go home, and the day is done, that they have it out and Sipowicz’s cracks begin to show, that his self-justification begins to wilt. He’s always argued that even if he is racist, he has never let that get in the way of doing his job. He thinks that Fancy is keeping him back because he’s acting as a black man, and not as a lieutenant in a police force who wants to solve crime (“acting his color,” I suppose, another thing that Sipowicz said to Kwasi). Fancy points out that racism did keep Sipowicz from getting his job done, today. That even before Fancy took him off the case—even before he got into it with Kwasi—Sipowicz had not been able to conceal his contempt for the people he was interviewing, or his impatience with the whole situation. (And just, man, look at all the emotional labor Fancy has to do here, putting aside his own feelings about the n-word or the whole situation, and finding a way to approach it that Sipowicz will actually see and accept.)

Sipowicz: I’ve said that word. I’ve thought it plenty. But I never used it on the job till your hump pal put us on that road.
Fancy: This isn’t about a word, Andy. Or your impure thoughts. It’s about you making this case harder to work.
Sipowicz: Not about you being black? Not about giving some back to me?
Fancy: It’s about what I say it’s about.
Sipowicz: Then say it. Part of what it’s about is watching me sweat.
Fancy: Well, a hell of a lot went down today, so I’d have to check my notes, but I thought I spent some of that time trying to save your sorry ass.
Sipowicz: Give me a break.
Fancy: I’m not gonna take you out, Andy. I move you out, my white bosses—they send me a little message. They send me another [racist detective] just like you, but maybe that one can’t do the job like you can.
Sipowicz: Gee, thanks a lot, boss.
Fancy: …I’ve been dealing with white cops like you since the academy. I can manage you with my eyes closed. Now, maybe you can’t handle a black man being your boss.

So we’ve got two strategies going: Simone appealing to his feelings, Fancy appealing to his pragmatic side. In the final scene, Sipowicz goes home and tells his wife about his day. He repeats the same justifications to Sylvia (who is pregnant)—that it wasn’t his fault because he didn’t say the word first, that he’s never used that word on the job before, and surely all that previous good behavior counts for something. The problem is the word, surely, not the attitudes and beliefs and subsequent actions of white people using the word.

Sylvia: I haven’t heard you use the word, but I have seen you do this. (She gestures with her hand so it crosses her face, like she’s casting a shadow over it.)
Sipowicz: That’s not the same thing. That’s something cops do so you don’t have to mention race. ‘Hey, did you hear about the shooting at this barber shop?’ (gesture) ‘Yeah.’ So it doesn’t have to be said and nobody gets offended.
Sylvia: Andy, it’s code for the word.
Sipowicz: It’s code so you don’t have to say it.
Sylvia (after a pause): Don’t ever show that to our child.
Sipowicz: Yeah. All right.
Sylvia: Don’t teach him that. Don’t teach him to think that way.
Sipowicz: Yeah.

And Sipowicz has no response to that. And because he loves his wife, because she is one of the only people on this earth that he wants to create happiness for, he says, “Yeah, okay.”

The episode closes with Andy sitting in a chair, looking as small as it’s possible for a burly man to look. Looking angry, and trapped, and like he suspects he’s in the wrong but doesn’t know how. This has gotten through to him. Do not teach our child to think that way. (The question of whether that’s possible, of whether Sylvia is asking for something that Andy is capable of doing, is a whole other question.)

It is rare, even today, that we see racism portrayed with complexity on network television (or anywhere else in mainstream arts/entertainment). Andy Sipowicz is the protagonist, he’s the center of the show’s narrative, we’re definitely supposed to see him as a good guy, and yet he is incredibly flawed. The conversations in this episode carry forward into at least two other episodes in later on in the show—once when Kwasi’s character recurs, and once when Sipowicz is up for promotion. It feels weird to say that I wish there was more of this? (More racist characters, yay! –No wait.) If we’re going to deal with racism in our art and culture, it needs to be dealt with in a way that’s thorny, and hard, and unresolved—the same way that racism itself is thorny and hard and unresolved. I want television to reflect the society that created it. I want it acknowledged that white people are not just racist by accident or innocent participants in a larger, racist system. I want a world in which racists are not only evil, even while racism itself is acknowledged to be evil. Sometimes white people are racists, and they’re also good dads and good husbands. And usually they don’t suffer consequences for being racist in the way that we want them to.

Am I making too many excuses and justifications for a show that I like? Probably! And there’s a lot here that’s not perfect, and dynamics that (as far as I know) go unexplored in the series—Fancy and Sipowicz talk about race, true, and their relationship is explicitly colored along a racial axis. But other characters—like Detective James Martinez, and the PAA Gina Colón, both portrayed by actors of color—don’t ever talk about Sipowicz’s racism at all. The PAA present in this episode, Donna Abandando (who’s a white woman), hears basically everything that happens in the office (especially between Simone and Sipowicz, because her desk is right next to theirs), but we don’t hear what she thinks about any of it. The dynamic between Sipowicz and Fancy is defined by their power dynamic of subordinate/boss, and Fancy’s character has more power and agency to deal with Sipowicz than his coworker or the office receptionist. Do Gina and James like working with him? Is Gina afraid that if she makes a complaint about him, that she’ll be the one to lose her job, not him? The effect of the characters’ silence is to imply that since they’re not direct targets of Sipowicz’s racism, its existence doesn’t bother them; I think most POC would probably say that this is not an accurate reflection of how racism affects them in the workplace. But the show is silent about this, at least from what I can remember.

And yes. There is an argument to be made that the sympathy that we as an audience are expected to feel toward Sipowicz would be better spent at the altar of, say, Lieutenant Fancy. And that we need shows that show black joy and jobs for black actors that aren’t just as murder suspects (I think we do have more of those now, in 2023, but in 1996 when this aired, the pickings were comparatively slim). Agreed! All agreed. We need all those things in our culture too. We also need more shows about white people honestly, actively, *consciously* wrestling with their own racism. Sipowicz “wins” in this episode. He caught the murderer, Kwasi’s not going to sue him, he gets to keep his job. But the last shot of the episode shows just how much he does not feel like a winner.

It is important that this episode was written by a black man, David Mills. I think it took a white man to write Sipowicz’s racism (Milch has said that he used his own experiences when delving into this side of the character), but it takes a person of color to truly play out the consequences and especially the effects of that racism. I also think it’s important that Mills was sixteen years younger than Milch. I truly don’t remember how much Sipowicz examines and re-assesses his own racism over the course of the show and changes thanks to self-examination and personal hard work. I do think it’s crucial that in this episode, we don’t see Sipowicz changing, but we see signs that the world is changing around him. His boss is black, his partner vehemently disagrees with him, his wife will not tolerate it in their household or around their child. He can’t count on the reporter who hears the exchange with Kwasi to be pro-cop and sweep the story under the rug. Kwasi himself has access to resources and a megaphone that he can deploy against this cop if he wants to. Sipowicz hasn’t changed, but he’s realizing that the world around him has, and he can learn to navigate that world, or he can choose not to. And sometimes that’s the best you can expect.

Sources:

“The Backboard Jungle.” NYPD Blue. Written by David Mills and William L. Morris. Directed by Mark Tinker. 20th Century Fox Television, 1996.

Britt, Donna. “Giving Voice on TV to Things Unsaid.” The Washington Post, 6 September, 1996. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 22 April 2022.

Elber, Lynn. “Irked Black Writer Breaks ‘Blue’ Line.” Sun Sentinel, 16 January 1996. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 22 April 2022.

Millman, Joyce. “Racist — or realistic?” Salon, 27 September 1997. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20070703061913/http://www.salon.com/sept97/media/media970922.html. Accessed 6 October 2022.

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