A Few TV Thoughts

Conflict for Boring Blue Bloods

I love me some police procedural! It wasn’t always so. I spent my 20s learning to love murder as much as my writing partner does, as a result she and I are resident connoisseurs of the genre. Castle, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and The Mentalist are a few of my favorite series, but I knew Blue Bloods could be equally as good because of Tom Selleck. I loved him in Jesse Stone and knew he’d make a good character in this series as well. We’d just have to see about the writing…

Blue Bloods Header

When I read CBS’s blurb on the show: “Blue Bloods is a drama about a multi-generational family of cops dedicated to New York City law enforcement.” That one line told me they believed their hook was the multi-generational family. In our socioeconomic times turning to family and a quasi-religious mentality to get through life makes good sense. It’s the basis of our American upbringing. A police procedural drama format provides a villain for the family every episode in the form of the murderers in each case and the political tensions than arise from them. These cases would act as the nuts and bolts for the family’s do-gooder sensibilities to work upon and family tensions to play out.

The multiple point of views is the biggest boon to me. It’s an opportunity to put a twist on our basic format. If you know my examples from above, you can see we generally only get two point of views in a police procedural – each partner. This is a family of cops with points of view as diverse as each individual. We have Danny and  Jackie for the typical partner point of views focused on closing the cases. We have Erin to be the devil’s advocate among the cops as the lawyer who must try the cases. We have the wife and kids of the siblings who give a dose of reality to events surrounding the Reagans and remind us everything has consequences. And finally we have Frank and Henry with their political viewpoints, one from the age of political correctness and the other a more old-world, no bull perspective. And then we have the youngest sibling separated from the rest by the sheer fact the family has covered the entire law enforcer gamut as well as the death of his next older brother also a cop.

Blue Bloods Cast 11-14-2011
Tom Selleck leads a stellar cast as Frank Reagan. The fact he can be a part of a show where a family is center stage instead of a character says a lot about the actor. He has great cast mates to back him up in the form of Donnie Wahlberg, Bridget Moynahan, Len Cariou and Will Estes.

And Blue Bloods has several production aspects going for it as well. A great cast for one. Donnie Wahlberg and surprisingly, Bridget Moynahan make a great brother and sister with an honest give and take to their relationship. Tom Selleck rocked as their father, Len Cariou as their grandfather. The contrast between Henry’s ways and his son’s ways defined Frank (Selleck) as a modern man. Jennifer Esposito as Danny’s partner, really made the cop partner relationship a reality (as good an example as Goran and Eames’ relationship on Law and Order: CI). New York also makes a great melting pot location. The ethnic and economic diversity opens a large field to draw from for fascinating back-stories and situations for each case.

So what’s the point of my post? Well, there’s one glaring problem and it’s major – the show’s boring! From the first episode I found the cases to be rather dull and uninspiring. If this was a procedural then it was less than impressive. As the nuts and bolts of each episode the cases needed some aspect to hold our interest. I realized right away the writers creative brain cells were not in use developing the basic plot. At least on Castle they try to wow with the surprising ways in which the bodies are found. And on Law and Order: CI Detective Goren notes oddities about the body or crime scene that intrigues you. And Jane is so fun to watch as he manipulates his team into laying a trap for the murderer. These aspects of the actual cases add just the right touches to the overall premise of each show.

Since the strength of Blue Bloods is in the multiple point of views and the family that’s what should make the cases more compelling. Right now the cases lack anything to make them pop and the ho-hum detecting is phoned in to fill time. And what’s worse is the hook doesn’t work – the family while depthful isn’t dynamic enough. There’s not enough conflict and stress on the actual family. Studying Blue Bloods I’ve found three places that are easy fixes and would improve the show tremendously. They each share one common denominator – conflict, adding an unexpected element that takes the family and twists it in a compelling way.

Natural Conflict through Grief

One way to shake up a family is through the death of a loved one. It could be an unexpected death or a second death following quickly on the heels of an expected one. As there are already two deaths in the Reagan family I propose to reuse them in a slightly different manner setting the family up for some great conflict. I propose restarting from the beginning – we open graveside at the funeral of his wife, Mary, after a long bout with cancer. The family is gathered around to mourn the matriarch. Joe is still alive and at his side to help him through the grief is his pregnant young wife. Even Jamie flew in from medical school to be at his mother’s passing (more explanation on this later). Grief adds natural conflict to the happiest of families like no other contrived conflict ever will. And the death of the mother happened, it informs every characters life and actions, so why not utilize it at the best possible moment to effect the family?

Blue Bloods Len and Tom at Graves
This scene tries too hard to wring sympathy way too late in the story. Sure we never really get over the loss of a loved one and we do keep visiting them even if only to feel closer to them, but we needed it from the start. If this family is religious then show us they are religious, don’t spring it on us later for effect.

Joe Reagan I would make the beat cop with the story arc Jamie took in the first season. I’d give him the partner Jamie had, the wonderful Nicholas Turturro and have him go undercover, but informally, to expose the Blue Templar who try to recruit him. I’d explore this story line with him taking center stage (with only phone calls and bit dialogue with Will Estes) for the first season. As the season finale I’d have Joe killed in the line of duty with none the wiser of his off the books undercover operation. In the second season I’d explore his widow’s relationship with the Reagans and their role in her new baby’s life. At the end of the second season I’d have her move across country to live with her parents, where she’d eventually get remarried. This second death on the heels of the first (many deaths come in one two punches) adds another layer of grief. We can see how such emotions play out in subtle ways on the job.

(Not everyone reacts wildly and wants to kill suspects and gut people when they are grieving, but they can get super passionate about a cause, like a grandchild for Frank and Henry, or look back at old relationships, like Erin with her ex-husband, or re-evaluate where they want to be like Jamie, being out of state for his education.) Through just switching around these two major events in the Reagan’s lives with add so much more possibility. With a television show there are different writers coming in and writing episode scripts and so with more possibility we get less of the dulled status quo and more of the conflict driven family.

Surprise with Contrasting Characters

The Reagan family overall works as a unit, everyone has their roles (as happens in families) and each of their backgrounds informed the whole. For example, Erin and Danny’s backgrounds really work well and play off of one another in a close sibling sort of way. Contrast and a clear line on their history helped to establish them quickly within the family dynamic. He’s a family man and she’s a divorced career woman. The way they interacted within the cases, was partially informed by their relationship and partially by their backgrounds. The personal arcs made in each episode helped add dimension to the show in ways not as well done in other procedurals.

Frank and Henry could have done with more conflict but that could be done through Joe and his widow and their take on those characters’ actions. Frank moving on from his wife with a younger reporter in the second or third season would have been great conflict between the two of them as well. I can even see Frank with his moral perspective moving on from the affair when his father gives his blessing. Such is the way with rebound relationships. There needed to be episode by episode advancement of this specific plot for it to work though (even if that advancement is relatively minor.) You can’t just have a plot line pop up randomly in episode 1, 5 and 10, let’s say, just because those screenwriters decided they liked that bit of developed plot, while the others didn’t have any ideas for the same.

Blue Bloods Will Estes
Will Estes as Jamie Reagan, a beat cop in the NYPD. Casting wise he makes a great choice, it’s his character that needs a lot of work. He has the most potential to make a drastic difference to Blue Bloods if the writers and producers would give him the chance to develop naturally through a unique relationship to his family.

The real problem in the family though is Jamie Reagan. He was plainly mishandled. He failed as a character and as a Reagan. Will Estes has a charm and way about him that captured the audience but was underutilized in the actual fabric of the story and family. Specific plot points like the Blue Templar operation worked, in the end result, but not in an episode by episode advancement. If handled better this plot line would have made for a major story arc that would have rocked our and the Reagan’s entire season!

I feel like Jamie misstepped as a character right out of the box. His background had been overly worked and bordered on rank stupidity. The writers/producers wanted a character on the outer edges of the family: not lawyer, not cop. Yet the basis of the show is the family’s dedication to the New York City Police department. So I assume they concluded he had to be a cop…I totally disagree.

As major case cops, Danny and Jackie, give us a view of the streets and the situation on the ground. As commissioner and retired commissioner, Frank and Henry, give us the political perspective and it’s effect on the street. What did the beat cop perspective add to this dynamic? Nothing that I could connect back to being a cop. Sure his relationship with his training officer is very cool but it doesn’t really add anything, we already have great partners with Danny and Jackie. It did add some humor and heart to the overall view of the hour. And it gave us a character we should want to root for. He didn’t need to be a cop to add either of these though.

In my view, Jamie’s strengths as a character lie in his instincts (as good as the rest of his family’s), his gun-ho attitude, a desire to make a difference in the world and his unique kind of thinking (by deviating from his family’s typical path). They tried to show the unique thinking by having him start out as a lawyer and switch gears to beat cop. I just didn’t believe it. It didn’t feel extreme enough. The switch didn’t really make him stand out from his siblings, feel necessary to the family perspective or add anything to the general plot. The first three aren’t even contingent on Jamie being a cop anyway. He could have been anything and shown the same instincts, attitude and desire. From a logical view, that meant Jamie Reagan should be anything but a lawyer or a cop.

The surprising thing is they made him the pivotal point in the story line. He’s the one with the main arc of figuring out who really murdered their brother and why. In my opinion, not a bad idea. The best way for the youngest, most inexperienced, of the family to examine his brother’s case is from the outside looking in. We also get the added benefit of an honest view of the Reagan family from someone who could relate to the family but didn’t really feel like they belonged either. So Jamie’s contrast to the entire family is feeling left out of said family. So many people in the world feel left out of the main group, why not add that unique point of view to the Reagan clan?

Varying the Pattern Keeps Them Guessing

With a procedural the biggest problem is that each case tends to be solved the same exact way and the mystery itself tends to twist the same exact way. If viewers like the method used for said solving and said mystery this works very well and you have successes like Castle, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and The Mentalist as mentioned above. For a procedural if the cases and solving them is dull than the show will surely fail. Blue Bloods didn’t fail so that must mean the show’s pattern must work then, right? Well because of its multiple point of view family hook, some of the pattern works and some doesn’t making a show that limps by in the ratings but doesn’t do well enough to do much more than sustain itself.

When a case launches the NYPD into the public eye and causes Frank to step into the limelight – these really work. We want to see more of Frank, he’s the moral compass of the Reagan family and the entire Police Force, so any time a situation arises where he has to make choices we’ll be there. Yet if they made every case like this then the show would get predictable and the major advantage the show had (Tom Selleck) would become a contrivance with all the other contrivances. So the solution is to create a pattern that is a little more unexpected than the typical pattern for cases. With a multiple point of view story line there is already a little more complexity going on anyway it’s not much more work to keep track of a more depthful case pattern as well.

Blue Bloods Brother and Sister
I really like the moments between the family in the kitchen, on the street or on the phone, but I really dislike the Sunday dinner table scenes. They smack as old fashioned and the family isn’t any such thing. In fact, the family still exists today all across the world, so why not approach it with more imagination, more modernity?

I suggest banking on the strengths already present in the show. Danny and Erin and the way they work together and Danny and Jackie and their major case partnership both really work. So we intersperse the Frank centric cases where the case goes political with ADA cases where it gets a little Law and Order up in here, centering more on Erin and her work with the police force. We can use Joe here a lot in the first season and Jamie after than in his new role (more explanation on that later). Then we have a more Major Case centered case where the other family members provide their perspective to Danny to help him solve the case. One of the best parts of House was when he’d be talking down to one of his subordinates and suddenly jump up with an idea. Why not use this perspective with the Reagans and their wonderful multiple viewpoints of the legal system? Frank can always play the role of moral ground while the grandfather can be the advocate for action and taking risk.

The creators and producers of Blue Bloods took on a huge task when they decided to make a multi-generational family the hook in a police procedural. A producer willing to keep divergent story lines and point of views continuing through every episode helps a show immensely. They are there for the big picture and not dropping the ball on long arc advancements keeps the tension high for the viewer. Did they rise to the writing task? Not quite. With a little more effort and a bit of creative brain cells they’d have a real gem here and not just a show that older folks like the put on during boring Friday nights at home.

Blue Bloods Jennifer Esposito
I honestly can’t believe CBS sacked Jennifer Esposito! Detective Jackie Curatola’s what gave the show a New York vibe and she made one hellava cop, giving validity to her partner and the whole cast. Without her you could transplant the show to any major city: Boston anyone?

6 thoughts on “Conflict for Boring Blue Bloods”

  1. Exactly. It is a show that us old folk put on because Friday tv sucks.
    The big problem with Blue Bloods is that, as much as I want to like it, the story line is always implausible and the police procedure is always off, despite having technical advisors on the show. I am a retired LT in NY and some of the tactics and procedures I’ve witnessed on the show, as well as the Reagan philosophies, is annoying to the point of frustration. Your also right about the predictability and boringness of the show. The characters are underdeveloped and underutilized, despite the quality of the actors. Overall, the show has about a season left before it gets “shitcanned” as we used to say on the job.

    1. Hi Andy!

      I loved your comment! You’d think by now they’d be able to portray procedurals with better accuracy! I too felt the lack in the procedural part of the show, the off-ness. It’s good to know that my instincts weren’t wrong. I really enjoyed your comment. I read it to my whole family it was so great. Thanks! You made my day. 🙂

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