Friday, December 26, 2008

DVD Notes: NYPD Blue Season One

I just finished watching everything on the NYPD Blue Season One DVD set. Here are a few observations.

I'm not going to talk about the episodes themselves - this is my favourite series of all time, and by now most TV viewers already know whether they like it. Either way, I wouldn't argue with or try to convince anybody. I like it. If you don't, fine by me. I'm just here to discuss matters specific to this DVD set.

I really don't like the menus. First of all, they take too long to get through the video clips to the point where you actually start selecting something. Thankfully, pressing the Next button on the remote moves past the video and gets you to where you want to be. This could have been far worse. My son got the Wall-E DVD for Christmas, and I couldn't believe how much garbage we had to skip through to actually get to where we could start the movie. To Disney's credit - and I don't normally give them much - it was at least all skippable, one "feature" at a time

Each disc holds three or (usually) four episodes, and the "Select episode" screen is truly obnoxious. Instead of a nice clean move of the highlighted selection when you press the Up or Down button on your remote, a long horizontal bar that highlights the currently selected episode (and I didn't even realize that until the bar moved) slides, painfully slowly, up or down. It's so scratchy and glitchy looking that I thought I had a defective disc (or player read problems) when I first played disc one.

Then, the menu option to play the commentaries is in the wrong place. You select the episode, then go into Language options. Unless your commentary is in a foreign tongue, that's not where the option should be. Closed Captioning was also under Language. I've learned to expect DVD designers not to understand those simple matters, so I'm trained to look there by now, but it's still an irritation.

I watched all 22 episodes, then all six episodes with commentaries, this time with the closed captioning turned on and the commentary audio track playing. As always, I found myself frequently getting distracted by the subtitles and following the episode's storyline that way, and ignoring the commentary. That's partly because I'm easily distracted by reading material of any sort, and partly because the commentaries weren't that interesting. The only cast member present was Sharon Lawrence for one episode, and there were very few interesting stories from her or anyone else. I heard an awful lot about how "groundbreaking and revolutionary" this show was (not that I disagree), and not nearly enough about how difficult David Caruso was to work with.

A lot of people also talked about how new and different the handheld camera technique was at the time. There was some discussion among the crew as to whether they'd gone too far and would be annoying and / or nauseating the audience with the near-constant movement. The funny part of that to me now is that half the movies made in the last decade have had camera work by Parkinson's patients, as near as I can tell, and I usually hate it. I had blamed the Blair Witch Project for starting the trend, but perhaps my beloved Blue was the culprit. In any case, I'm not bothered by the camera work on Blue. I think they did it well, in contrast to the derivative hacks who strap the camera to a mechanical bull at the start of each shooting day. (Come on, you knew those mechanical bulls all went somewhere. They can't all be under an inch of dust in the back rooms of sleazy bars.)

The moving camera on NYPD Blue also provided one of my favourite jokes from Third Rock From The Sun. I wound up liking that show despite initial misgivings (I called it Alf II, which I did not intend as a compliment, for its first year), but only watched sometimes. In one episode, the characters visited a police station and Harry (the guy who never opened his eyes) started bobbing his head around like Stevie Wonder and said, "Hey, if you do this it looks like NYPD Blue!"

I was surprised that David Milch, the show's co-creator and primary writer, didn't have more interesting stories. He's normally a riveting, dynamic speaker. His commentary is fine, but doesn't pack the punch I was expecting. He delivered one of my favourite lines ever during an interview with Tom Snyder a while back. Milch was talking about his well-known struggles with substance abuse. During the interview, he said he had been clean and sober for a while. Snyder asked, "So those demons aren't here in the studio with you tonight?"

Milch replied, "No, but they're doing pushups out in the parking lot."

The other extras are far more interesting. There's an hour-long "Making of Season One" documentary that has lots of great interviews with cast and crew members. I would have liked to see more outtakes, but the documentary is still well worth seeing for even casual fans of the show. It's interesting to see Dennis Franz, Gordon Clapp, Gail O'Grady and Sharon Lawrence out of character, because they're all nearly unrecognizable if you've only ever seen them on the show. Franz looks the same physically, but the change in demeanour - he's actually (by all accounts and observations in these extras) a very pleasant and jovial guy - is so dramatic that you can tell with a glance whether or not he's in character as Sipowicz.

The documentary touches on the Caruso issue, but not in detail. The worst it gets is when Steven Bochco, the show's co-creator and executive producer, openly says that before season two began production he was explicitly stating in no uncertain terms that he wanted Caruso (who was still under contract) gone.

And if you're the prurient sort, the documentary has a segment on the show's nudity and sexual content, with a montage containing side-boob aplenty.

The much shorter "Cast Blotter" and "Love on NYPD Blue" features are also good. The first includes interviews and anecdotes about casting the actors for the show (Blue's casting director thought David Schimmer was destroying his career by following up a strong recurring role on NYPD Blue with some sitcom, which turned out to be Friends). The second covers not only onscreen romance between characters (yes, with more clips showing just how close the NYPD Blue camera could get to showing nipples) but also a real-life relationship (Amy Brenneman and director Brad Silberling) that started on the set and culminated in marriage and children.

The "Cast and Crew Bios" are standard text-on-the-screen, press-Next-for-the-next page stuff. Few will be interested, as usual for this sort of thing, but if you are (I am), be warned: the DVD designers, in their infinite wisdom, chose to frame much of the small text against light-coloured background photos. Prepare to try to read white letters against sightly off-white backgrounds.

Finally, even I lost interest in the "Script-to-Screen Comparison" feature and gave up on it. You get the standard onscreen text of the script, then you can click a button to see the scene as aired. I read and watched a few without finding any significant differences between the script and the final version. I may as well have just turned the closed captioning back on if I wanted to read the dialogue.

The 2003 DVDTalk review of this set said, "22 episodes, 6 commentaries, 90 minutes of featurettes, and a MSRP of $59.98 equals a must-have for ANY fan of 'NYPD Blue', or cop shows in general." While I might not agree with that bottom line (sixty bucks would be a lot for me to throw at DVDs), I found my copy at Wal-Mart for under twenty dollars. At that price, I grabbed it so fast that the box may have broken the sound barrier on its way into my cart. I later found seasons three and four on that same rack at similar prices, and bought them, but not as quickly, because Wal-Mart (or at least my local store) has never stocked season two.

While I'm on that theme, my local Wal-Mart had jack squat for TV season DVDs this year. For the last few years they had big displays, in several places around the store, of reasonably priced seasons (usually $20 or less) of pretty much everything you could think of. This year, if it wasn't Lost or Sex In The City, they didn't bother with it. They didn't even have Stargate or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both shows with strong geek appeal, so my wife collects both), forcing me to come up with an alternate Christmas present idea. I finally went with the second X-Files movie. Yeah, I hear it was bad (I would never contemplate watching it myself, because, y'know, X-Files...), but it completes her collection.

There probably won't be another NYPD Blue Season DVD Notes entry on here for a while. I still don't have season two (although I taped the entire run, and digital copies are available if you know where to look), and while seasons three and four are on my shelf, season one sat there for over a year (possibly over two, I'm not sure) before the shrinkwrap even came off. Seasons five and up haven't been released on DVD yet, and I'm not holding my breath waiting for them.

That may be for the best. There's a strong inverse correlation between how much time I spend in front of the TV and how much I actually get posted here. It's not coincidence that I finished watching season one (i.e., stopped watching TV) and posted this on the same day. If I don't start watching something else, I may be back tomorrow.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the castle at Disney World, just because I don't think this image is quite omnipresent enough. Hasn't it ever occurred to anybody to take a picture of this thing? ("This is my picture of Cinderella's castle! There are many like it but this one is mine!")

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