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Earl Doherty

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"NYPD Blue" Finds God (November 10, 2004)
    At the end of a harrowing day, in which Detective Andy Sipowicz (played by Dennis Franz) has had to investigate the stabbing death of a man on a public bus in front of his now-widowed wife and two kids, a messenger from heaven appears to him in the squad's washroom. This messenger is in the form of his late partner (played by Jimmy Smits) who died of heart disease several seasons ago. He has come to bolster Sipowicz's spirits which have sunk to a low ebb. The murder of the man on the bus, leaving his family bereft and with little support, has brought home to Sipowicz the litany of his own misfortunes over the years: the murder of his son Andy Jr. who had tried to come to the aid of a robbery victim; the accidental shooting of his previous wife at a courthouse by a disgruntled plaintiff in a lawsuit; and the death of the former partner that has now appeared before him. In addition, he is currently coping with the downward spiral of his present partner John Clark (played by Mark-Paul Gosselar), who himself has suffered a similar litany: the recent suicides of his father and mentally ill girlfriend. Sipowicz, of course, has to deal with countless horrors and low-lifes in his job as a New York City detective, along with a personal history as a recovering alcoholic, and given his pragmatic and cynical personality and generally gloomy outlook on life, he is not one disposed toward fantasy or the idea that God is in His heaven and all's right with the world.
    Enter Jimmy Smit's "angel" when Sipowicz's defences are decidedly down. Is he an hallucination? Perhaps so, but Sipowicz insists on placing his hand on the apparition's chest to verify that he is really there. (Is this a not-so-subtle echoing of certain Gospel post-resurrection scenes?) This angel seems solid, and the impression is that we should be taking the scene at face value. Smits (I can't recall the name of his character) encourages Sipowicz to find the courage to keep going, as his work is important. True enough, but Smits then makes it clear that he comes from heaven at the behest of the Deity, and when Sipowicz, somewhat taken aback, asks "You mean there's a God?" his former partner assures him that this is indeed so. The detective asks about his dead son and wife, and is told that they are "fine" and send him their encouragement as well. Sipowicz voices his fear of having to endure any further personal loss, referring to the potential self-destruction of his current partner Clark, and Smits points out that what the younger Clark needs in his own time of trial is a kind of surrogate father figure, something Sipowicz could supply if he is patient and understanding, and can find it in himself to draw on the reservoir of his own strength. The episode ends with the detective approaching his partner at the end of the day with that strength and patience summoned.
     While the scene was not played in an overly preachy manner and was reasonably well written and acted, it could not help but strike some people, myself included, as simplistic. The blows that have struck both Sipowicz and Clark, not to mention the ongoing misery the detectives witness on a daily basis in their interaction with the seamier side of life, are not dealt with by the angel, no attempt at any explanation for why things are the way they are in a world watched over by a heavenly father figure. Smits at one point reveals something to the effect that "what we do down here" is important to "up there," setting up the standard religious dichotomy of this world and next world. With the implication that it is the latter which is most significant in our personal fate, with the former only a prelude to it, perhaps this is meant to explain why heaven takes so little active role in improving the lot of those on earth or preventing tragedies such as Sipowicz and Clark have both witnessed and suffered. It is a mark of Sipowicz's depression and vulnerability that he doesn't display his usual feisty manner and demand an explanation for such a dispassionate attitude on heaven's part; indeed he fails to express any of his characteristic skepticism. One fears where the writers may be intending to carry this particular story line or character development.
     Unlike the usual tone of this series, which often leaves one with anything but a 'feel-good' atmosphere at the end of the day, this scene seemed to be conveying that all was indeed "well with the world" as long as we acknowledge God in his heaven and act accordingly. The world won't be changed, of course, but we can accept it and presumably function better. This is a highly simplistic view of things, and essentially unproductive. The core result of the scene in the here-and-now is Sipowicz's renewed spirit and changed attitude toward his partner's behavior, and his strengthened ability to help him. But this could have been achieved by other, more realistic means, by Sipowicz's own insight into the need for human understanding and self-reliance, to find wisdom and vigor to cope with the world's, and one's own, failings and try to correct them. Relegating ultimate significance and responsibility to a divine overseer in an imagined heaven is hardly the most efficient means to that end. Yet this was the message left with us by this episode of "NYPD Blue".
     Is this where television is heading? Will it be catering (or perhaps one should say, pandering) to the increasingly naive and pious immersion of our society in things spiritual, perhaps to the new political reality which promises to exercise its moralistic muscle? It has been rare in drama shows (except those specifically designed to center on a supernatural context, such as "Touched by an Angel" or "Joan of Arcadia") to introduce religious beliefs into their plot lines. I suppose we can thank the nominal religious plurality of the country for the writers' avoidance of specifically Christian terms (no mention of Jesus, for example), but breaking the religious barrier like this seems to augur ill for the future and promises to subject the entire TV audience to the superstitions that still govern so many lives.

Earl Doherty



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