TV Drama Script Writing: Why NYPD Blue?

29 Dec

For the workshop on TV Drama Script Writing in Ethiopia [syllabus] that I mentioned in my first blog post, I have chosen to focus on the first and second season of the show NYPD Blue, a drama about the New York Police Department that started in 1993. In this post, I want to explain why I chose it and then analyze its very first episode in order to explain why it is a good show.

I looked at many different shows and talked to many different people before deciding on NYPD Blue for this workshop, and I chose it for two simple reasons. The first reason is that the textbook Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas includes interviews with the writer and the producer of that show (David Milch and Steven Bochco) and includes an analysis of the script of one of its episodes. So, it’s convenient, and the writing workshop will read that analysis of the script on the last day, January 13th. The second reason is that not only did the show win many awards and significantly influence television, but also it follows some of the basic, classic patterns for TV drama. Therefore, it’s useful for teaching those basic, classic patterns. To be honest, it’s not my favorite show. My friends and I used to make fun of NYPD Blue by calling it “NYPD Butt,” because it was the first show on American network television to frequently show men’s and women’s butts. My favorite show is The Wire. But in contrast to shows such as NYPD Blue and Law and Order, which follow all of the classic rules for TV drama, The Wire breaks all the rules. What I wish I could do is first run an introductory workshop on NYPD Blue where we learn the rules and learn how to make a good show, and then at some later date run an advanced workshop on The Wire about how to make a truly great show.

So, let’s look at the very first episode and try to understand why it’s good. According to Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, a well-known textbook by Robert McKee, a good story must have meaning, and what gives a story meaning is structure. He defines structure as “a selection of events… composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life” (page 33). Somewhat differently from McKee’s idea, one can also think of structure as the relation of various characters, settings, and events to create meaning (and the meaning is precisely in that poetics of relation).  The important point that I see in McKee’s book is the argument that the event is the key to a good story.

Some might argue against McKee and say that the key to a good movie, TV show, or play is a well-developed character, a provocative idea, or an important moral or political message. For instance, considering the political and social aspects of each character’s identity, the selection of characters in NYPD Blue is not random or accidental. Each character comes from a different ethic background: Detective Andy Sipowicz’s ethnic background is Polish, Detective John Kelly’s background is Irish, his ex-wife Laura’s is English, District Attorney Sylvia Costas’s is Greek, Detective  James Martinez’s is Puerto Rican, Officer Janice Licalsi’s is Italian, and Lieutenant Arthur Fancy’s is African-American. The show is not about ethnicity, but it is clear that in the 1990s, producers felt they needed to appeal to a diverse American audience, and the ethnic and racial identity of the characters was a central issue in some episodes. I suspect that Ethiopia has a very similar situation since its audience consists of Amhara, Tigray, Oromo, Somali, Gurage, Afar, Sidamo, and many others, so I imagine that a succesful television program in Ethiopia ought to include strong characters and cultural elements from those different backgrounds. But the main idea of NYPD Blue is not cultural background. Rather it is the moral ambiguity of police work. What makes police drama as a genre so compelling and so popular on American television is that the line between good and bad is sometimes unclear. On a simple level, the cop wants to catch the criminal, but the cop also has to respect the rules and the rights of citizens which sometimes prevent him from accomplishing his goal. This is the “meaning” of the police drama, which usually focuses on the complex and ambiguous relationship between cops and ordinary citizens. Thus, in any police drama, there needs to be “good cops” and “bad cops” so that the audience can think about the contrast, and the central characters need to struggle with internal conflict — conflict between their loyalty to the public good, their loyalty to their fellow officers, their loyalty to the government that employs them, their loyalty to their own moral principles, and their own self-interest and their personal lives. We see such conflicts in the main characters of NYPD Blue‘s first season: Sipowicz, his partner Kelly, and Kelly’s lover, Licalsi.

For McKee, however, more important than character or message is the “story event,” which is an event that sparks a series of other events that create problems for the characters and force them to make tough decisions. NYPD Blue begins with a rather small, seemingly insignificant event that quickly escalates into a larger, terrible problem. By means of these events, the show is able to communicate a lot about the characters and the moral ambiguity of police work in just a few short scenes — in just 20 minutes. Scene one is at the courthouse where we see Detective Sipowicz and District Attorny Costas lose their case against the mafia criminal Alfonse Giardella. Sipowicz’s response to the situation indicates his character when he loses control of his emotions. Because of the event, the audience quickly learns that he is a “bad cop” who breaks the rules in order to do his job. The event also quickly shows a contrast between him and his partner Detective Kelly, who is calm, good-looking, and in control of himself. Scene two is the police station, where we learn the cause of Sipowicz’s failure — his alcoholism. The effect of this knowledge is that Kelly faces a moral dilemma. How can he be loyal to his job, to his partner, and to the public when these loyalties seem to conflict with each other? The third and fourth scene move from the public lives of the officers to their private lives: Kelly is getting a divorce from his wife and Sipowicz is getting drunk. The action becomes more intense in the fifth scene when the public space of their work and the private space of their personal problems explosively come together. In this scene, Sipowicz drunkenly attacks Giardella in a restaurant, which leads to disciplinary action, and he loses his job. Sipowicz’s reaction to his problem is not surprising, since the show has already established his alcoholism. The criminal Giardella predicts that Sipowicz will get drunk with his favorite prostitute, and Giardella uses that knowledge to attempt to kill Sipowicz. The intense scene marks the end of the first “act” of the show, and we can see how the first act was simply a movement from a very small failure to a larger failure. Each event (or each scene) presents the characters with situations about which they must make hard decisions.

The conclusion of the first act when Sipowicz gets shot by Giardella also signals a turning point in the story. In the textbook Story, McKee notes that a good story must have several turning points, moving from positive to negative (page 123). McKee claims that turning points move the story from positive to negative or from negative to positive, and they always relate to the main theme. In NYPD Blue, the main theme is the moral ambiguity of police work. So, Kelly of course feels responsible for everything, because he suspects that his decision to end his partnership with Sipowicz is what caused Sipowicz to attack Giardella. Now he becomes emotionally involved and begins to break the rules. His actions are risky, as he harasses the mafia and has sex with Officer Licalsi.  In other words, after his partner is shot, then Kelly’s character becomes more like his partner’s character. So, in terms of the theme of a police officer’s moral ambiguity, the story moves from a negative representation (Sipowicz’s failure) to a positive representation (Kelly’s success) of similar behavior. The second act is a mirror of the first act, but with a positive instead of a negative aspect.

The second act climaxes when Kelly’s ex-wife catches him with Officer Licalsi. This event signals a transition to the third and final act, which must in some way resolve the dialectic between positive and negative — between good and bad. Giardella arrives at the police station with his lawyer, then the mafia boss Marino proposes a deal with Kelly which Kelly heroically rejects, and next he comes to an understanding with his ex-wife. The various problems and dilemmas are starting to get sorted out, and the positive and negative behaviors are coming to some meaningful resolution. Finally Kelly visits Sipowicz in the hospital. In this concluding scene, the audience finally learns Kelly’s deep emotional connection to Sipowicz when he whispers, “you’re like a father to me.” This especially has meaning since we know that Kelly’s real father died in that same hospital, and it also explains the second act. Metaphorically, the events of Sipowicz’s life generate (like a father generates a son) the events of Kelly’s life.

The important thing to realize here is that character matters, and the moral message matters, but for television, more important than character and message is the organization of events that make the story work. It is the story event that matters most because it sheds light on both the character and the meaning of the show. NYPD Blue was famous for being a “realistic” police drama, but in actuality, most of the events are not realistic at all. What makes them seem realistic is that the episode begins with a small ordinary event that is realistic (Sipowicz’s failure in the courtroom and his alcoholism), but this leads to a series of events that magnify the problem which gets bigger, less realistic, but more exciting and compelling.

But lastly, because this is television and not a movie, the show has to give the audience a reason to watch the next episode. Suddenly, at the very end, the audience learns that Andy might recover, and suddenly the audience learns that Officer Licalsi is not who she originally appeared to be. She is working for the criminal Marino. As I explained in my previous blog post yesterday [here], movies are like sex, and notice that the two climactic moments in NYPD Blue are a failed, negative sexual encounter when Sipowicz gets shot and a successful, positive sexual encounter between Kelly and Licalsi. But television is like marriage, so the climax is not the end. The relationships between the characters and with the audience must continue.

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