Saturday, March 16, 2013

TV Watch: I keep hoping I'll figure out what I should say about "Blue Bloods"


It's the crime-fighting Reagans of Blue Bloods: Jamie (Will Estes), Henry (Len Cariou), Frank (Tom Selleck), Erin (Bridget Moynihan), and Danny (Donnie Wahlberg).

by Ken

It doesn't often work out this way, but my favorite way to make the acquaintance of a TV series is, shall we say, "unmediated" -- to happen upon the thing with not much more to go on than whatever relationship I may have with important participants (producers, writers, actors, directors), and then let it make its case itself. I've found, as I've said here before, that I'm usually not great at sizing a show up on one pass. Usually what I'm hoping for is enough to draw me back. I've found that, by and large, a show that feels like a comfortable fit on first encounter feels that way because it's piggybacking on some other show's (or shows') modus operandi; if there's something really original going on, it's likely to take me a few outings at least to tune into the correct frequency.

The most extreme case I recall was Soap, whose debut episode simply appalled me. By the time the Tate butler, Benson (the glorious Robert Guillaume), was vowing to put sugar in the food or drink of the admittedly egregious as well as diabetic Chester Tate (Robert Mandan), I pulled the plug. I mean, really, this is supposed to be funny? Thinking about pumping sugar into a diabetic?

As a matter of fact, as I eventually discovered, it was hilarious, because it was tightly woven into the relationship between Benson and his employers, the Tates, and the whole show was built around the tightly woven relationships between the rich Tates and the just-getting-by Campbells -- families joined by blood, as Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon) were sisters. Well, the relationships between all of those wildly extended families and the weird and wonderful people who intersected with their complicated existences.

My goodness, it's the Tates, Jessica and Chester (Katherine Helmond and Robert Mandan), and the Campbells, Burt and Mary (Richard Mulligan and Cathryn Damon), with Benson (Robert Guillaume), er, watching over.

I didn't make my way back to Soap until its first run was over and it was in syndication. At some point I must have done something like what I just described: for no particularly good reason sort-of-watched an episode, and then another, and then more persuadedly another, and at about that point I was squarely inside the world imagined by series creator Susan Harris and executive producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas and the rest of the creative team, obviously including the huge and astounding cast.

Eventually I got to see that first episode again, and realized how brilliant it was, once I was properly tuned in. The creative team had it mostly all in place in the pilot episode. We hear a lot about shows "improving" from the pilot, and I'm generally skeptical. I've found that what usually improves is my appreciation for the creative world that has been staked out. Oh sure, on a good show, as the writers and actors get to know each other and the characters better, there's room for all kinds of growth and deepening, but I don't find a lot of shows that get "better." (One exception I can think of is 30 Rock, which was extremely good from the get-go but which developed much more ambitious aspirations as -- I assume -- all concerned came to appreciate just what they had created and began pushing the boundaries of TV comedy with almost every episode.)


And it's frustrating, because I like but don't love the show, and for a while now I've been waiting for some kinds of pieces to fall into place to enable me to say something significant about it. But it just doesn't happen. Instead, the last few new episodes have made me wonder whether I'm starting to get tired of it.

The premise, in case you're not familiar with Blue Bloods (Fridays on CBS), is that four-generations of Reagans, a family saturated in NYPD-blue blood, live under one roof. Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck), a widower, is in fact the police commissioner, a job once held by his father, Henry (Len Cariou), and all three of his sons are, or at least were, cops. The oldest, Danny (Donnie Wahlberg), is a detective, somewhere between "old school" and "school of cement brain." The youngest, Jamie (Will Estes), surprised everyone by joining the force; he's a Harvard Law School grad. The middle son, Joe, was murdered in the course of a covert investigation, which I gather formed an important part of the running subject of Season 1, which I didn't see at all. I must have come in sometime last year, in Season 2, where it became clear that Joe's death created a particular void among the brothers; Joe had been a sort of go-between between his older and younger brothers, who now have to deal with each other.

There is, in addition, a Reagan sister, Erin (Bridget Moynihan), a divorced ADA with a teenage daughter. Filling out the fourth generation of Reagans are the two young sons of Danny and his wife Linda (Amy Carlson), a nurse whose patient load also seems to intersect surprisingly frequently with cases of Danny and her other Reagan in-laws.

I've gone into this in some detail because the relationships created are -- surprise! -- the great strength of the show. The individual characters have been created with a lot of care and a lot of respect, and it's not hard to be drawn into their aspirations and perils, their bonds and frictions. Frank is a commissioner who came up through the ranks, and thinks of the police force as both an essential force for social coherence and his responsibliity, and this is stuff Tom Selleck is really great at. He's also great at making us feel those gaping voids in his life caused by the deaths of his wife and middle son. Len Cariou is a terrific actor too, and can do a lot more than Henry asks of him, but he's fastidious about making sure he does everything the character needs.

I should mention that when I started watching Blue Bloods (which happened, I'm guessing, because what the heck else is there to watch on Friday nights? sometimes you wonder whether the networks, cable as well as broadcast, are even trying on Fridays), I didn't realize that the show was created by Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green, who are two of the executive producers, along with Leonard Goldberg and Michael Cuesta. I wish I'd known! Burgess and Green are TV royalty of a sort for me, having been an important part of the writing-producing team that assembled by David Chase on The Sopranos, with writing credits for a bunch of memorable episodes.

So what's my problem? Partly it has to do with possible exhaustion of the "police procedural" genre. I mean, at this point in time, how many zillions of such shows have produced how many kajillions of such episodes? True, Erin's being a lawyer rather than a cop -- and her ex-husband too (wait, didn't we have that with Carey Lowell's Law & Order ADA Jamie Ross?) creates certain legal plot openings, and the network of family relationships creates assorted openings like gramps-grandkids and uncle-niece (as when Erin's daughter, Nicki (Sami Gayle), wound up turning to Uncle Jamie for driving lessons after an epic fail with her mother).

Beyond that, well, there's the feeling that the team is kind of reaching. In this week's episode, for example, what was that lame plotline about Frank winding up getting dragged into the alcoholically troubled life of an ex-astronaut who's also a former friend? I guess it was good to see Brian Kerwin again after a long while (I see in IMDb that he's worked steadily since the glorious Beggars and Choosers of 1999-2001, apparently just not in anything I've seen), though it was a shock to see him looking, well, old and dumpy. Of course the character was supposed to look like the over-the-hill version of a guy who once been a real stud. Still, it was shocking to see him looking like that.

We all remember Brian Kerwin as LGT network head Rob Malone on the wonderful Beggars and Choosers, don't we? And it wasn't that long ago, was it? (Well, not that long -- 1999-2001.) That said, Brian is 63 now.

So what, in the end, have we learned? That I loved Soap and Law & Order and Beggars and Choosers, for one thing. (Wait, isn't that three things?) And that I'm still looking foward to the remaining new episodes of Season 3 of Blue Bloods, and someday should probably catch up on Season 1 and the part of Season 2 that I didn't see. Unfortunately, one thing I can't say is, "You know that Blue Bloods is one heckuva show, and if you're not watching it, you're nuts."

But I'm always nervous about saying that even when I think it's true -- as in, "You know that Good Wife is one heckuva show, and if you're not watching it, you're nuts." It would be better if we could figure out some way for you to sort of stumble onto the show and then see over a few episodes whether it does anything for you.



At 7:43 PM, Anonymous bmaz said...

I have seen it a couple of times because, well, as you note, there is not squat else on Friday nights. The character interaction was okay, but just could not warm up to it in the least. And I like Selleck usually.

At 9:24 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Another ringing endorsement, eh, B?


At 12:13 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Soap WAS hilarious.

We are BIG fans of Selleck, since In & OUt, nvr watched Magnum PI. (not a fan of Selleck's politics).

Ken, I think you might be stalling on Kalifornication and House of lies....SHOCKING! Oh u don't know...

At 6:33 AM, Anonymous ap215 said...

I'm not a fan of Selleck's politics either but he's one heck of an incredible actor

At 5:43 PM, Anonymous bmaz said...

Maybe I'll try it again. Cause this last Friday I think I watched a Law & Order SVU rerun at that time, and boy is that getting old.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

For what it's worth, B, SVU was the L&O show I tired of quickest -- until the L.A. monstrosity, of course.

I guess maybe what I want to say about Blue Bloods is that, even when I'm not thrilled by an episode's plotline(s), I would still rather spend time in the company of the Reagans than of most TV people. It's sad that the Right has so corrupted the word "values," because there really are such things, of the personal, family, and social kinds, and this is one place on the tube where they're fought for.



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