"NYPD Blue" in a family way

Mothers Who Think: NYPD Blue started out as a cop show, but it has become a meditation on the challenges, nightmares and blessings of parenthood

Published December 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

A friend of mine who was thinking about getting pregnant told me how afraid she was of bringing a child into such a dangerous world. "How did you do it?" she asked me. "You make the leap of faith," I told her as calmly as possible. She didn't need to know yet about the middle-of-the-night panics, when you lie awake imagining crib death and stranger abductions and hit-and-run accidents and how if anything happened you don't know how you could go on. I didn't want to scare her with tales of empathy gone haywire -- how your heart breaks over every cheesy tabloid TV story about missing children and abandoned babies, how you're still haunted by that stupid, gut-wrenching episode of "Homicide" three years ago about the 10-year-old boy who was struck in the head by a stray bullet on a trip to the mall with his parents and rendered brain dead, or how you stopped watching "E.R." because you couldn't stand to see one more made-up story about sick, abused, dying kids.

Instead, I told her, "Go for it. It's worth it. You'll see," and I meant it with all my heart.

A couple of weeks ago on "NYPD Blue," Detective Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) found out she was pregnant by her lover, Detective Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits). Although the baby was planned, she's scared. "What was it like for you being pregnant?" she asked her only female colleague, Detective Jill Kirkendall (Andrea Thompson) in the locker room after their shift, without telling her why she was asking. But Jill's Mona Lisa smile let you know that she knew. Jill kissed Diane on the cheek -- a sweet maternal peck between co-workers who'd previously held each other at a professional arm's length -- before answering. "It's all worth it, so much more than you can imagine," Jill told her. "It's the most wonderful thing in the world."

That brief, simple, powerful scene between Diane and Jill sums up what "NYPD Blue" is all about these days -- the leap of faith on which relationships and families are built. I have to confess that I'd fallen away from ABC's much-honored drama for a while, for many reasons -- the snail-like pacing, the focus on the characters' personal lives (which I mistakenly saw as soap operatic), the endless parade of suffering children and parents. But then I snapped out of it; there was meaning in the relentlessness of the show's focus on dead/abused/vicious kids and grieving/bad/helpless parents. There were too many of these episodes for them to be random.

This season, especially, there has been at least one -- and often several -- story lines a week about families falling apart or picking up the pieces. There have been numerous scenes of adults breaking down like babies while relating how they were molested or beaten as children. Strangest of all, there are three simultaneous pregnancies on the show, the main one being Diane's. As "NYPD Blue" watchers know, Diane is a former alcoholic, sexually molested by her father; three years into a sometimes rocky relationship with Bobby (who still has abandonment issues over the cancer death of his wife), Diane finally seems stable and strong. Perhaps owing to the show's long-overdue influx of female writers this season, Diane is not being portrayed solely as a victim.

Diane's pregnancy had a spectacular start -- after one of the couple's trademark end-of-episode bouts of acrobatic lovemaking, she panted, with curious certainty, "We just made a baby," and viewers were left with their jaws agape, wondering, "Did I miss something?" You didn't -- the couple never talked about starting a family. But thinking back on the past few months' episodes, you can see now what made them want to try.

Business as usual for Diane and Bobby consists of poking into other people's family tragedies, hearing confessions of love turned perverse or lethal and breaking the news to people that their children or parents are dead. They're bombarded with this stuff -- the way the rest of us are bombarded with screaming media scare stories about the terrible things that can happen to kids and families. There comes a point when you can let it paralyze you or, like Diane and Bobby, you can take the chance and try to make your own family come out right. Now in its fifth season, "NYPD Blue" is looking more and more like a long, blue meditation on the family as the repository of the best and worst intentions, on the challenges of parenthood, on the childhood roots of criminals, abusers, molesters, alcoholics and bigots, on the way some people can break free from these destructive beginnings and others can't, on the preciousness -- and awful cheapness -- of a child's life in our society.

All of these themes came together in the recent two-parter "Lost Israel," a tense, moving episode in which an upscale father who had been sexually abused as a child murdered his young son, whom he had been sexually abusing, and then tried to frame a Bible-toting, mute, homeless man for the crime. Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who's still struggling with grief and guilt over the murder of his adult son last season, was incapacitated by his rage at the father; still looking for an answer to why his own son had to die, Andy became obsessed with finding a motive for this case in the homeless man's inscrutable Bible passages. Meanwhile, Diane bartered her own history as a sexually abused child, using these revelations to draw out the dead boy's emotionally withdrawn mother and get her to incriminate her husband.

"NYPD Blue" mirrors real-life crime statistics -- very few of the show's crimes (particularly against children) are random or perpetrated by strangers. On "NYPD Blue," the bogeymen are fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, children and friends. And increasingly, the cops' compassion and moral courage are more important than their deductive powers or target-shooting accuracy.

In the Jan. 13 episode, Diane investigated the death of a 6-year-old boy who allegedly slipped on icy stairs and hit his head. What really happened was that the boy's abusive stepfather punched him in the face when the boy wouldn't go outside and play and accidentally sent him hurtling down the stairs to his death. Near the end of the episode, Diane confronted the boy's hugely pregnant mother, who seemed indifferent to her son's death and her husband's guilt. Stepping outside her usual tight-lipped, dispassionate on-the-job attitude, Diane said to the mother, "You know, not everyone's cut out to raise kids," suggesting that she put the new baby up for adoption. Diane's suggestion (which the mother took with relief, confessing her lack of interest in parenthood) is the sort that some people might see as impertinent, judgmental and plain wrong. But in the context of "NYPD Blue," with its revolving door procession of family violence and despair, it was a concrete, almost heroic solution.

I hope that Diane and Bobby have their baby and that we're not being set up for some lame soap-opera heartache. It took guts for the writers of "NYPD Blue" to bring Diane and Bobby this far, to get them to the point where the ugliness and misery they've seen on the job and off are outweighed by that tiny, instinctual voice that says, "It's worth it." For all of the show's gloom, the stubbornly fecund characters' (every cop on the squad now has a kid or one on the way) unspoken faith in the love, safety and comfort of family is at once mundane and profound. What started out as a cop show has turned into the most pro-family hour on television.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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