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ON TV / BRIAN LOWRY

How Some Shows Manage to Cope With Change

September 29, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY

With an informal ceremony next month unlikely to remind anyone of Buckingham Palace, "NYPD Blue," arguably television's best drama, will complete its latest changing of the guard.

The ABC police show's sixth season doesn't hit the streets until Oct. 20 but will quickly get down to business, bidding farewell to Jimmy Smits--who has chosen to hang up his badge as Det. Bobby Simone--before ushering in Rick Schroder to join the much-decorated Dennis Franz (Det. Andy Sipowicz) in the show's central duo.

Ever practical, co-creators Steven Bochco and David Milch have devised a timetable to milk some extra ratings mileage out of Smits' departure. The series opens with a five-episode story arc that concludes with Simone's exit, extending three weeks into the November ratings sweeps.

Schroder, the onetime child star of "Silver Spoons," can demonstrate how much he's grown up beginning Nov. 24--the last Tuesday within the sweeps period--with no overlap between him and Smits.

For those who grew up watching TV dramas, such changes feel a bit unsettling. "Gunsmoke's" James Arness, after all, kept the streets of Dodge City clean for two decades. Jack Lord made dark suits look good in "Hawaii Five-O" for a dozen years, and Lorne Greene and Michael Landon presided over the Ponderosa through 14 seasons of "Bonanza," after which Landon spent nine more occupying "Little House on the Prairie."

These days, television stars have become more restless, with feature film offers looming and egos swelling as soon as shows are proclaimed a hit--a dynamic that's helped fuel a steady flow of new faces on some of TV's top dramas.

Doctors and nurses file into and out of "Chicago Hope" and "ER," which loses George Clooney after this year. Law enforcement has proven equally fickle, with the cast of NBC's "Law & Order" turning over several times and "Homicide: Life on the Street" discovering whether there's life in Baltimore without Andre Braugher's intense Det. Pembleton around.

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These shows have managed to flourish due principally to their behind-the-scenes auspices. "NYPD Blue," the winner of consecutive Emmy Awards for writing and directing, has leaned on the twin pillars of Franz, prime time's most compelling presence, and the brilliant writing as channeled through Milch, who with former Det. Bill Clark provides the character's soul.

Bochco and Milch couldn't hide the acrimony that surrounded the leave-taking of original leading man David Caruso, who wanted more time to pursue a movie career and left early in the second season. Smits, by contrast, has been part of the family, so much so that the producers have planned a private dinner and roast (the aforementioned ceremony) to say goodbye when he finishes shooting his final episode.

"We'll sit down, have a meal and try to embarrass him a little bit," Bochco said, sitting in his spacious office on the 20th Century Fox lot, where the decor includes a fake collie that appears so real one has to stare hard to be sure that's not just an old, very still dog sleeping on the couch.

Having once said he didn't believe the show could withstand any more serious defections, Bochco now says "NYPD Blue" can march on. ABC apparently agrees, recently renewing the series for an additional year, extending into 2000.

"I don't think you can do it wholesale," Bochco said regarding cast changes. "This show really has been essentially a two-star vehicle from Day 1, and we're lucky that Dennis has remained a constant in the process. As long as you have that, then I think, on occasion, you can cycle other characters in and out."

Bochco didn't want to delve into too many specifics about the Simone story line, but he promised that the path chosen doesn't involve "dropping a safe on the character's head."

While hoping that the ending will remain secret, Bochco said it's not critical to enjoying what happens, which he characterized as unique and "kind of cool." The producers even tried to take into account the fact that Smits' decision to go--a plot development they would never have chosen on their own--means savvy TV viewers will realize his absence is being brought about by off-screen considerations invading the show's fictitious world.

"It's going to be a change, and it's a hard change," Bochco said. "[But] any time you go through change, it's always simultaneously a loss and an opportunity. We don't want to turn our back on the emotional reality of losing a guy that we love, and at the same time, given that we are losing him, we're looking forward to making a change."

Adding Schroder promises to alter the show more fundamentally than when Smits replaced Caruso, pairing Sipowicz with an unproven detective unlike those more seasoned partners.

"It's an old dinosaur and a young kid, and there's an aspect of reluctant mentoring," Bochco noted. "There are aspects to play in that kind of relationship that just didn't exist in the previous relationships."

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