Seven and a half years have elapsed between the release of the fourth and fifth seasons of one of TV's foremost cop dramas on Region 1 DVD. Shout! Factory, doing what they do best, has picked up David Milch and Steven Bochco's neglected NYPD Blue series and is finishing the job Fox never bothered to attempt. (You can see DVD Talk's original reviews of the first four seasons here: Season 1 Season 2 Season 3 Season 4. Season 6 is already slated for release from Shout! Factory on June 24.) Granted, this release lacks any of the bonus features or commentaries which had popped up on prior seasons, but collectors are sure to be thankful not to have to spring for PAL import versions or an Amazon Prime membership just to see these later seasons.
Season four ended on a cliffhanger, with detective Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) suspended from the police force and his hot-headed partner Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) looking like a potential murderer. The season five opener swiftly wraps up these loose ends, with Sipowicz getting exonerated and Simone returning to the force by the second episode. The rest of the season delivers another solid batch of episodic interrogation-focused procedurals, with only a few multi-episode plotlines.
The main season-long arcs for our main characters deal with Sipowicz's reluctance to see a doctor about his increasing health problems and Simone's developing relationship with Detective Diane Russell (Kim Delaney), including Simone's uncertainty about getting married again. Both of these arcs play out gradually throughout this twenty-two episode run, eventually putting Sipowicz and Simone in satisfying new emotional places by the season finale, giving this season a far less gimmicky closer than the year before. This falls in line with the approach the producers took with the rest of the show this season, relying less on the attention-grabbing sex and cursing that made the show's name and putting the focus on consistently compelling cases that sometimes dovetail with interesting character moments from the detective squad.
In fact, this season seems to constantly return to the universal theme of parenthood, looking at what it means to be a good or bad parent and the paradigm shift that comes with being a new parent. There are three new pregnancies within the detective squad alone. Detective Russell realizes she is pregnant with Simone's baby, which seems to force Simone's hand toward tying the knot and allows Russell to have an additional connection with the squad's other female detective Jill Kirkendall (Andrea Thompson), who is a mother of two. Detective James Martinez (Nicholas Turturro) impregnates the squad's Principal Administrative Assistant (PAA) Gina Colon (Lourdes Benedicto) but he wants to do right by Gina so he marries her, which both sets an example for Simone and Russell to emulate and allows the producers to write Gina's character out of the series. (Martinez's character also disappears for a stretch in the middle of this season, possibly because Turturro was off starring in the mini-series Witness to the Mob for Robert De Niro.) Detective Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp), the competent doofus who is often the show's comic relief, provides sperm to a lesbian couple and becomes caught up in the day-to-day of the pregnancy after the mother-to-be's life partner is murdered.
Parent-child relationships are also prevalent throughout the cases that the squad solves, with mothers ratting out criminal children, fathers covering up for conspiring daughters, and parents getting killed or injured while protecting their children from harm. Harm done to children by their parents is also a big topic for the show, with the Emmy Award-winning two-parter "Lost Israel" being a key example. "Lost Israel" is an emotionally wrenching story in which Sipowicz and Simone try to get a father to admit to sexually abusing and murdering his own son, after the father pins it on a mute homeless man named Israel. Sprawling out over nearly two full hours (without commercials), "Lost Israel" is arduous but rewarding viewing that stands out for going beyond the typical formula of 2 cases wrapped by the end of every hour. NYPD Blue's showrunner David Milch has said that "Lost Israel" was a very personal story that helped him confront some issues surrounding his own abuse as a kid. The two-parter also seems to have been a feat that re-energized the writing staff, because the second half of the season has much more consistency than some of the episodes in the early going.
Apart from the top-notch writing, this fifth season benefits from the continued excellence of the acting ensemble. Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits are perfect as Sipowicz and Simone. Whether they're strong-arming suspects, joking around in the squad room, or revealing their vulnerability in private moments, the co-leads never hit a false note. It's also nice to see Kim Delaney and Andrea Thompson's characters get a chance to grow their camaraderie, as these are some of the nicest moments these actresses have during the season. James McDaniel is solid as always as the squad leader, Lieutenant Fancy. Gordon Clapp and Nicholas Turturro end up looking the worst this year, with their characters, Medavoy and Martinez, often stuck in stilted conversations or offbeat B-stories that are meant to add levity but don't give their characters much room to grow. It's a little puzzling that Clapp won his only Best Supporting Actor Emmy for playing Medavoy this season, since apart from a surprisingly effective interrogation by Medavoy in the late-season episode "Seminal Thinking," his character seems unfocused. Without the ability to play Medavoy off of his love interest from prior seasons, PAA Donna Abandando (Gail O'Grady), the writers don't seem to know what to do with him. It's unsurprising that near the end of the season, they give him a Donna look-alike to pursue romantically.
The writers also seem a little uncertain about what to do with Donna's PAA desk either. After writing out Gina Colon, they bring in Southern-girl-with-a-secret Naomi Reynolds (Gabrielle Fitzpatrick). After a little stretch, Naomi ends up getting ditched in favor of would-be ballerina Dolores Mayo (Lola Glaudini). I stopped watching the show's initial run before season 6, but the internet tells me that Dolores does not stick with the squad through the rest of that next season.
In addition to the regular cast, Sharon Lawrence, who plays Sipowicz's wife Sylvia, takes on a reduced recurring role. There are also a handful of noteworthy guest appearances this season by Anthony Anderson, rapper Mos Def, Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito, Terrence Howard, Justified's Walton Goggins, and Titus Welliver from Lost and The Good Wife.
A rundown of episode titles and synopses can be found here on Wikipedia.
The 22 episodes of season 5 of NYPD Blue are presented on 6 DVDs enclosed in a standard sized keepcase.
I haven't been able to find the technical information on the shooting of NYPD Blue, but considering the grainy quality of the images I am tempted to guess that the show was shot on 16mm film. The standard 1.33:1 image is presumably taken from the original broadcast video masters without going back to the film elements. The look is a bit washed-out and lacking in fine detail. I watched a few episodes from older seasons on Amazon Prime to refresh myself with the show, and the look here is comparable. Shout! Factory's DVDs do seem to have a noticeable level of compression resulting in some noise, but nothing that significantly detracts from the original already less-than-crisp look of the show.
The Dolby 2.0 audio is a little bit more satisfying. Buoyed by the signature percussive music of Mike Post and Ian Dye, the audio track offers a nice sonic range that creates a good atmosphere, in addition to presenting the copious amounts of dialogue cleanly. No subtitles, but every episode has Closed Captioning.
It's nice to see Shout! Factory finishing the run on NYPD Blue. This was probably the last season of the show I watched during its original airing, so I'm a little curious to see what's in store. On its own terms, Season 5 demonstrates that the show could transcend its signature gimmicks and still hold TV viewers' rapt attention. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. Check out his band's new Nick Lowe tribute album.