DVD Review: Blue Bloods: The Ninth Season and Blue Bloods: The Tenth Season
The police procedural has been a staple of television screens for nearly seventy years, and for just as long, viewers and critics have critiqued how dramatic descriptions of police. In the early 1950s, Dragnet (a continuation of the radio series of the same name) was credited with positively shaping public attitudes towards police, won prestigious awards, and has been revived multiple times over the decades. Naked City, Racket Squad, and Ironside were also early and influential hits. As the decades passed, Columbo, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, Police Story, The Streets of San Francisco, and Baretta would all bring in tons of Emmy nominations during the 1970s. Hill Street Blues would triumph over initial low ratings and set Emmy records in the 1980s, and Cagney and Lacey and Miami Vice would also gain their share of viewers and acclaim. Law & Order started its two-decade run in 1990, with multiple spin-offs appearing in the coming years. Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue both made indelible marks on the television landscape as the 2000s approached, and the twenty-first century saw the rise of the CSI franchise, along with The Wire, The Shield, and True Detective. Federal investigative procedurals, like Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, and the NCIS franchise also met with considerable recent success. If I’ve overlooked anybody’s favorite series, please note that this not meant to be a comprehensive history of the genre. Though in recent years major awards have minimized the presence of police procedurals amongst their nominees, these series still continue to bring in millions of viewers.
Since the end of May, as current events have understandably produced outrage, there have been calls from various critics and activists that the entire genre of the police procedural be cancelled, as positive portrayals of law enforcement officials are believed to harm the cause of general reform, and to cover up for police brutality and corruption. Notably, some prominent producers, writers, and actors have listened to these statements, and have expressed a desire to reshape their programs in order to reflect a more negative view of policing in general, and to provide more coverage of the perspectives of those who demand that police forces should be defunded and abolished.
While it is understandable and perhaps necessary for those connected to television series to confront current events and criticisms of their content, the attitude that specific perspectives and even an entire genre must be removed from the airwaves makes for neither good social policy nor entertainment. Creating a culture where certain opinions are blocked from being said and demonizing an entire profession will not lead to an enlightened age of virtue and justice, but to a dangerous quagmire of censorship and fear where independent thought and moral inquiry are smothered. Such a world will not produce great art or great entertainment, but it will produce mediocre propaganda.
Increasingly, it seems as if the Office of War Information (OWI) of WWII is back, this time a volunteer organization staffed by activists, rather than as the government’s direct attempt to reshape popular opinion. Though the Hays Code/Motion Picture Production Code is often talked about in film circles, and midcentury blacklisting is frequently and loudly decried, the OWI has been nearly forgotten, which is a dangerous gap in the public’s collective memory. During WWII, the U.S. government, concerned about public attitudes towards topics ranging from race to economics, encouraged Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers to pepper their work with FDR-administration-approved messaging, adding speeches, subplots, and government-approved villains to fill the nation’s viewing entertainment with indoctrination, all done in a way in which casual viewers would fail to realize that they were watching propaganda.
Countless TV series have adopted the OWI’s old approach to filling their productions with messaging, but as is often the case with propagandizing, the results have often been blatant, unconvincing, and generally make for terrible viewing, though those who support the open messaging tend to approve, while those who disagree change the channel. The result is that more and more, OWI-inspired shows preach to the choir, reinforcing their audience’s views rather than trying to persuade. Instead of addressing the complexities and moral ambiguities of hot-button subjects intelligently and fully, the result is a smug, snide, self-righteous op-ed page come to life, which reduces characters to a single dimension, makes plots predictable, and drains all originality and critical thought from the productions. While those who create such shows pat themselves on the back for “addressing important issues” and “educating viewers,” the frank truth is the vision of American society that they produce on screen is not an accurate depiction of how life is, but is instead a zerrspiegel, a “distorting mirror.” What we get is not reality or even an intelligent fictionalization of the effects of certain ideas, but a slushy blancmange of forceful opinions with minimal basis in fact, creating weak drama that neither edifies nor entertains.
For better but usually for worse, nearly all police procedurals have dealt with social issues to varying extents, sometimes brilliantly, often annoyingly, and generally ham-fistedly. Over the course of my next few reviews, I intend to profile some of today’s most popular police procedurals, address how they cover topical issues in their dramatizations, and also how they may react to current anti-police activism.
One of the most popular police procedurals on television today is Blue Bloods, the multigenerational story of the Reagan family, who all play pivotal roles in New York City’s law enforcement. Tom Selleck plays Frank Reagan, the NYC Police Commissioner, who devotes his life to looking after his city and the police officers who serve it. He’s the second in his family to hold this job, after his father Henry (Len Cariou). Frank has three surviving children, Danny (Donnie Wahlberg), a homicide detective and ex-Marine who’s great at solving crimes and chasing down suspects, though he wrestles with his temper and his patience constantly. Dealing with anger, sometimes righteous, sometimes not so much, is a recurring issue for much of the Reagan family, as is seeing how they deal with their personal flaws in varying ways. The only daughter, Erin (Bridget Moynahan), is a prosecutor who sees cases from a legalistic perspective in a way quite different from her police officer brethren. Youngest child Jamie (Will Estes), went to Harvard Law but decided to join the less lucrative but to him more fulfilling family business, spending the first several seasons as a beat cop before being promoted to sergeant in recent seasons, and transitioning to a supervisory position. The fourth sibling, Joe, was killed prior to the start of the series, and his murder was a critical driving force of the first season’s plot, and Joe’s death and legacy continues to have occasional reverberations on the present, most notably in the tenth season’s finale.
Police procedurals are frequently hit by the standard criticism that they minimize characterization, but Blue Bloods has always put characterization in a subtle yet prominent role. The characters don’t change and grow (or shrivel) in an artificial arc, but instead, more realistically, always remain essentially themselves, battling with the character flaws that constantly threaten their careers and relationships, yet continually finding ways to overcome them. While anger is commonly at the forefront of their clashes, pride and self-righteousness frequently inflame and endanger them to varying extents in most episodes.
At its heart, Blue Bloods is a love story about a family, consisting of several righteous, determined figures united by a shared passion for justice, a renewing Catholic faith, and an unbreakable bond with each other. Most episodes juggle at least four storylines, usually one for Frank, Danny, Erin, and Jamie, and often incorporating another one centering around Henry, one of the Reagan grandchildren, or another family friend or ally. At some point in the narrative, the entire Reagan family invariably comes together for a Sunday dinner, where they reflect on the week’s work, often argue, and sometimes address critical personal and professional decisions.
Blue Bloods consistently addresses hot-button issues in its episodes, usually in connection to crime and policing. Depictions of criticisms of police are common on the show, and notably, some criticisms wind up being more apt than others. In some episodes, innocent officers are smeared due to false accusations or edited video recordings, and in others officers are proven to be corrupt or excessively violent. In other cases, government policies are targeted, as Erin in particular deals with bureaucrats who put budgetary concerns over justice, or new policies are embraced by the government with no regard for the consequences. Sometimes Frank sees the value in these changes, in other cases he has no choice but to shake his head at the poor planning that is being imposed on the citizenry. As these issues are often real problems faced by people in law enforcement, the treatment and discussion of these policies feels more organic than in other shows, where a controversial topic is introduced solely so the screenwriters can turn the show into their own one-hour op-ed.
Blue Bloods ably makes the case that while police reform may be necessary, what is also critical is activist reform. Over the years, the show has dealt with politicians willing to smear the NYPD to score a few quick political points, hucksters who peddle lies to make a quick buck, academics who are true believers in their causes, college students who love protesting and refuse to consider opposing viewpoints, and people who have suffered tragic losses but direct their grief and fury towards the wrong targets. When a character is attacking the NYPD for malice or personal gain, they’re lampooned. When the character’s rage is justified, they’re humanized, even if they’re partially in the wrong. Some of the show’s most thought-provoking moments come from Frank using psychology and event replication to prove that memory expectations are unrealistic, or simple illustrations of how common complaints fail to take the reality of life on the ground into account. Ultimately, Blue Bloods argues that activism that seeks to change policies is morally and intellectually bankrupt if it dehumanizes its opponents and lacks a basic awareness of the reasoning behind the current policies. Unfortunately, thinking is hard and virtue-signaling is easy.
Over the years, one of the more interesting recurring plotlines is the clash between Frank and the self-appointed voice of the African-American community Reverend Darnell Potter (Ato Essandoh). Rev. Potter hasn’t been on the show in a few years, but his last appearance, where the two men realized that they may have more in common than they ever knew due to personal tragedies, might set the stage for a more complex relationship if the show chooses to bring him back for episodes centered on racial issues.
One of the most interesting episodes of Season Nine is “Milestones,” a sequel to the previous season’s episode “Legacy” that was probably never dreamed of when it was originally written. “Legacy” sparked a firestorm amongst fans, arguing that Frank was out of character when he decided to terminate the employment of an officer who was shamed for an action that many viewers defended. Apparently, Selleck agreed, and in “Milestone” he reverses his past choice, declaring that he was swept up in a zeitgeist and that he needs to convince the fired officer, now working as a waitress, to return to the police force. It’s an interesting look at how the series has reevaluated its own use of messaging in a blatant repudiation of the previous season’s moral.
Another notable episode from Season Ten is “Vested Interests,” featuring Ed Asner as the victim of a violent robbery, who is now compelled by a new law to allow his attacker into his home in order to prepare a defense. Featuring well-acted scenes between Selleck and Asner, who plays a traumatized and agoraphobic man, “Vested Interests” raises valid concerns over the prioritization of the accused over the victims, as well as what good citizens can do in order to when the law, in its rush to create a more just system, actually creates a new injustice.
Most episode subplots feature a unifying theme, such as the damage caused by lies, how trying to protect someone can harm them, or the dangers of misplaced loyalty. Over the course of the last two seasons, there has been a larger theme of forgiveness running through several main characters’ storylines. At the start of Season Eight, Danny’s wife Linda (Amy Carlson) was killed in what was thought to be an accident (Carlson wanted to leave the show). Throughout Season Nine, Danny learns that his wife was actually murdered, and spends much of Season Nine seeking vengeance. By Season Ten, he’s forced to work with his wife’s killer on a case, and eventually discovers their shared humanity through love, loss, and fatherhood, and Danny must choose to set aside his trademark anger in pursuit of the greater good and the peace that forgiveness can bring him. (This plotline leads to a big question mark as to what Danny has kept from his sons. A stray remark from Jaime’s fiancée (later wife) Eddie (Vanessa Ray) indicates that the adults of the family are aware that Linda’s death was actually murder, but one would think that if the boys (Andrew and Tony Terraciano) were aware of the truth, this would affect them deeply in ways we haven’t seen.)
Comparably, in an episode of Season Ten, Erin learns that she has put an innocent man behind bars. He makes a dramatic declaration of forgiveness, but I can’t help but wonder if future seasons might have deeper character development and insight into the effects of injustice on a man’s psyche if this character or someone close to him decided not to forgive, and instead sought to undermine her reputation, leading Erin to experience first-hand the venom that her father and siblings experience due to their choice of profession.
With increasingly vociferous attempts to defund and disband the police force in the public sphere, many people working for TV police procedurals have announced plans to revise their series’ portrayals of the police. It’s difficult to see how a massive tonal shift will affect these shows without completely changing the characterization dynamic or essentially replacing the characters’ mentalities, and Blue Bloods, a firmly pro-law enforcement series that remains fully aware of the issues facing law enforcement and the damage that corrupt law enforcement officials can do, will almost certainly respond to these challenges to the established moral order of their series, but likely not by a thematic renovation. The embracing of a full ideological overhaul would likely prove destructive to the show’s foundation and fan base.
Given the show’s realization of the need to be suspicious of so-called “zeitgeists,” it’s possible that the show will address issues currently facing New York City, such as the pandemic, protesting, monument removal, NYPD budget slashing, and all of the other current attempts to change the current status of the police in American culture, not to mention the current surge in violence in the city. Frank Reagan is a man with great authority, but his power is tenuous as he only serves at the mayor’s pleasure. A storyline where the mayor bowed to pressure to remove Frank, and the repercussions leading to his eventual reinstatement, could provide Selleck with some compelling directions for his character. Furthermore, Blue Bloods has adopted the common trope of painting Internal Affairs in a negative or blundering light, and with increased calls for the police to be more intensely policed, it might be interesting to see this oft-maligned branch of law enforcement explored more sympathetically, possibly involving the rank-and file’s fiercest defender, Danny, temporarily transferred to Internal Affairs.
Ultimately, Blue Bloods succeeds because it puts characterization over messaging, and makes all of its cast real people with real opinions that reflect their real-life experiences. (I have not yet mentioned the contributions of the other supporting players, such as Sami Gayle as Erin’s daughter; Abigail Hawk, Gregory Jbara, and Robert Clohessy as Frank’s trio of trusted aides; Marisa Ramirez as Danny’s loyal partner; and my personal favorite, the often-hilarious Steve Schirripa as Erin’s trusted assistant investigator.) As America continues to debate the nature of policing and the effectiveness of alternatives, it’s important that informed reasoning take precedence over strident slogans, and that understanding of different perspectives be embraced over demonization. I deeply fear that OWI-esque attitudes will lead to more teleplays that are simply talking points and cardboard characters tied together with only the merest semblance of a plot, but if any current network series can address these critical issues with intelligence and balance to a broader audience, Blue Bloods is the most likely success story.
Blue Bloods: The Ninth Season
Blue Bloods: The Tenth Season