warning: spoilers about NYPD Blue‘s lesbian storylines
During the twelve seasons that it was part of the ABC Tuesday night line-up, Steven Bochco’s NYPD Blue became known for a number of things: Emmy-winning writing and acting; language, nudity and violence that pushed network standards of the day; and an overarching narrative that took Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) from a racist, alcoholic and isolated cop to a respected family man and lieutenant of his squad.
Unfortunately, NYPD Blue was not known for its multifaceted portrayals of women, or lesbians.
In the first three seasons of “NYPD Blue,” every single female member of the cast was paired romantically with a male cast member (while there were male cast members without on-screen partners), and that romance took up a significant portion of the character’s screen time. Indeed, Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas seemed to spend more time helping lover Andy Sipowicz through his personal crises than she did putting perps behind bars.
For gay men, it was even worse. The early years of NYPD Blue relegated gay men to occasional guest-starring roles, and frequently those roles were limited to an early appearance as a corpse. A typical second-season episode, “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel,” features the murdered co-owner of a gay bar whose body is discovered by a transsexual cabaret performer that Sipowicz (true to his character) continually refers to as a “he-she.” When asked by the detectives about any financial troubles that the bar might be having, the (straight and alive) surviving owner remarks casually, “If you’ve got a gay bar, you’ve got a bank. All those people, they want somewhere to go. Two incomes and no dependents.”
Though season three saw the introduction of gay civilian aid John Irvin (who in later years would go on to become a main cast member, albeit one without a continuing storyline), NYPD Blue still struggled with its “female trouble” in the guise of Detective Adrian Lesniack (Justine Miceli).
Lesniack is introduced in season two as a detective who transfers from the 27th precinct to get away from a controlling lover. As season three progresses, she becomes the focus of Detective James Martinez’s (Nicholas Turturro) crush. When Martinez’s partner, Medavoy (Gordon Clapp), asks if she might return those feelings, she matter-of-factly tells him that she is gay. To Medavoy’s stammering comment that he thought she had a boyfriend, and she blithely remarks, “Yeah. And now I have a girlfriend.”
Score one for the lesbians! Except not.
The audience quickly learns that Lesniack only says this to discourage Martinez because she feels uncomfortable getting involved with another detective again. The idea that Lesniack might actually be bisexual lasts all of one scene where she confesses some confusion about what exactly she does feel, and John Irvin suggests that she sit in one of the Gay and Lesbian Officers meetings.
Five episodes later, Lesniack has dismissed the alliance as “a place where I don’t belong” and shortly thereafter, she and Martinez are consummating their heterosexual relationship. Four episodes after that, Lesniack is reduced to a screaming jealous caricature, who bears no resemblance to the character that was introduced in season two, let alone a three dimensional-portrait of an actual woman that an audience might care about.
Season four, which arrives this week on DVD, brings some changes with it. Meredith Steihm (who will later go on to create, along with Dee Johnson, the Kim-Kerry storyline for ER) joins David Milch, Mark Tinker, and out-director Paris Barclay as a permanent member of the creative staff; and a new female cop, Jill Kirkendall, is introduced. In 1996 when this season first began airing, I remember hearing rumors of how “the new girl” was going to be gay. The casting of Andrea Thompson, whose biggest on-screen credit was playing Commander Susan Ivonova’s lover, Talia Winters, on Babylon 5, seemed to lend credence to those rumors.
That wasn’t exactly what happened.