After David Caruso largely sleepwalked through his final episodes, this second-year drama seems to have weathered the storm -- and, indeed, gotten an infusion of vitality -- with Jimmy Smits' arrival. Demonstrating much of what's best about the show, tonight's hour features sharp writing and powerful performances, plus the promise of new dramatic situations thanks to Smits' character. While some hardcore fans will mourn Caruso's absence, for most "Blue" won't miss a beat.

After David Caruso largely sleepwalked through his final episodes, this second-year drama seems to have weathered the storm — and, indeed, gotten an infusion of vitality — with Jimmy Smits’ arrival. Demonstrating much of what’s best about the show, tonight’s hour features sharp writing and powerful performances, plus the promise of new dramatic situations thanks to Smits’ character. While some hardcore fans will mourn Caruso’s absence, for most “Blue” won’t miss a beat.

Starting with a symbolic gesture — Smits’ detective Bobby Simone literally crosses out the name of Caruso’s John Kelly on his locker — the show employs a riveting pre-credit sequence to establish Simone as a formidable force in his own right.

Even so, Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is clearly uncomfortable with his new partner, and the seeds of grudging admiration planted between them would be best served if allowed to sprout gradually.

The producers seem intent on doing just that, trying to bring out Smits’ character and effect the transition without deviating from the format, as Sipowicz and Simone investigate the murder of a mob-connected man outside his

girlfriend’s apartment.

While that case is rather ho-hum, the real stunner is the secondary plot, in which a mother (Barbara Bosson) fears her husband is molesting her teenage daughter.

If Caruso’s character was the series’ heart and moral compass, Franz remains its irascible soul, and Smits deftly displays traces of an emotional depth that will doubtless be brought out in future episodes. Justine Miceli is also proving herself to be a fine addition as the precinct’s new female cop.

Writers David Milch and Walon Green and director Gregory Hoblit provide smaller moments as well that demonstrate the show’s depth and texture, including a sequence where a silent Det. Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) pays special attention to whether Donna Abandando (Gail O’Grady) is noticing the tall, good-looking newcomer.

Another amusing if somewhat gratuitous moment has the detectives encountering a potential witness at a modeling shoot, with unclad bodies scattered around the room — reaching a bit to include the “partial nudity” that helped put the show on the map.

No objection here, but it’s simply a gimmick “Blue” doesn’t need anymore.

Nypd Blue Simone Says

(Tues. (15), 10-11 p.m., ABC)

Production

Filmed in New York and Los Angeles by Steven Bochco Prods. Exec producers-creators, Bochco, David Milch; co-exec producers, Channing Gibson, Charles H. Eglee; supervising producer, Michael M. Robin; producers, Ted Mann, Gregory Hoblit; coordinating producer, Robert J. Doherty; co-producers, Steven DePaul, Burton Armus, Gardner Stern; director, Hoblit; writers, Milch, Walon Green; story by Bochco, Milch, Green.

Crew

Camera, Brian J. Reynolds; editor, Stanford Allen; production designer, Paul Eads; sound, Joe Kenworthy; music, Mike Post.

Cast

Cast: Jimmy Smits, Dennis Franz, James McDaniel, Nicholas Turturro, Sharon Lawrence, Gordon Clapp, Gail O'Grady, Barbara Bosson, Justine Miceli, Bruce Nozick, Tim Quill, Alicia Coppola, Cordelia Richards, Charles Lanyer, Jessica Bowman, Barry Gordon, Una Damon, Gerry Becker, Mario Todisco, Louis Cantarini, Jim Burke, Robert Blakeman.
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