Ponderosa on the Hudson: The Parables of Blue Bloods

Tom Selleck in Blue Bloods (CBS)
It’s an up-to-the-minute police show that’s rooted in eternal verities.

For those who came of age in the 1970s, television today is as different from the television of our youth as The Twilight Zone must have been to those who grew up on vaudeville. Having first become addicted to television during its simplistic “vast wasteland” era (in the famous words of Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow in 1961), I now often find myself lost among intricate story arcs that can cover an entire season, bewildering overlapping plot lines, and pacing far different from that of traditional 43-minute episodes.

Many critics and commentators call this television’s latest “second golden age.” Shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Homeland have been hailed as genre-busting dramas. Their ability to develop characters in leisurely fashion over several seasons and limn their evolution aligns these series more with serious literature than with popular entertainment. Many in the industry, of course, celebrate the license to explore hitherto ignored themes, such as homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration, drug use, and the like. Not surprisingly, most of the lauded shows are on cable, but even network television has evolved with the times.

Cop shows have not been exempt from this trend. In decades past they relied heavily on Good-vs.-Bad storytelling, but some of today’s police dramas would be unrecognizable to their predecessors. In the 1980s I avidly watched Hill Street Blues, which was considered cutting-edge; yet if it were on today, it could not hold a candle to shows like The Wire, with its intense story arcs and brutal characterizations.

Now in its sixth season, CBS’s Blue Bloods seems at first glance to have little to do with television’s latest renaissance. Compared with Sons of Anarchy or Boardwalk Empire, it feels like a throwback to the 1950s. Its plots overwhelmingly unfold in one episode, with only one or two story lines having stretched longer. By species, it is related more to Dragnet than to The Wire, more Adam-12 than True Detective.

In spirit, though, Blue Bloods is really an urban western, reviving a genre that defined television drama from its infancy through the early 1970s. The story of the Reagans, an Irish Catholic family of New York City cops, Blue Bloods is Ponderosa on the Hudson. However, it is not a straightforward police procedural, like the venerable Law and Order empire. Rather, it is a morality play. It eschews the moral ambiguity that cable shows are steeped in, focusing instead on a catechism of good and evil.

In Blue Bloods, the identity of an individual is inseparable from his family ties, whether of blood or shield.

The core of Blue Bloods is family — both the Reagans, who serve as the central characters, and the larger New York Police Department. In the world of Blue Bloods, family is not just an important, but the most important unit in society. This is a very traditional, if not anti-modern, idea. In the show, the identity of an individual is inseparable from his family ties, whether of blood or shield. One is judged by how one acts within and towards family, and personal strengths are employed in no small part for the sake of family, or to uphold its values. Conversely, an individual’s fate is largely preordained when he is part of a family that has chosen evil, such as the Sanfino crime family from the series’ second season, or falls in with dangerous surrogate families, such as the ubiquitous gangs.

As a band of brothers (and sisters), NYPD members are a close second to blood relatives. The demands of the family that is the police fraternity often burden the real husbands, wives, and children of its members, but its bonds are, in a sense, more powerful, as partners on the job face life and death daily in a way that families rarely do. Perhaps just as important, the NYPD is among the very few institutions in society that appear truly color-blind, living up to the loftiest ideals of the American creed, and in which the content of one’s character far outweighs the color of one’s skin, at least in the world of Blue Bloods.

These abstractions come to life in the Reagan family. They are the aristocracy of the thin blue line, a grandfather-father duo of police commissioners, whose third generation is comprised of one detective, one beat cop, and a daughter serving as deputy district attorney of Manhattan. It is all too easy today to view the main characters as stereotypes, but that would misunderstand the message of the show. The Reagans are in fact archetypes, predictable ones perhaps, but ones whose classical virtues provide the lens for viewing the world in which they live.

#share#The core of the family is Frank Reagan, played by Tom Selleck. The current police commissioner, Frank is the exemplar of wisdom, sustained by faith and guided by experience and temperament. Having wisdom, though, does not mean being infallible, and it is Frank’s missteps that highlight the virtues that ultimately see him through. His fondness for quoting 19th-century New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (perhaps a personal choice of Mr. Selleck) ensures that a bevy of character-building aphorisms are spread through the airwaves.

Selleck, in the years since his breakthrough show Magnum, P.I., has become something of a national conscience, a television counterpart to Clint Eastwood, perhaps. His roles in a number of notable cable Westerns and the Jesse Stone series, as well as in Blue Bloods, celebrate firmness of character and the stability of those guided by a deeply engraved morality as opposed to faddish opportunism.

Frank is the exemplar of wisdom, sustained by faith and guided by experience and temperament.

The other members of the Reagan clan represent other virtues or related elements, such as tradition (Len Cariou as Henry Reagan, Frank’s father and predecessor as police commissioner), courage (son Danny Reagan, played by series top-biller Donnie Wahlberg), and temperance (Bridget Moynahan as deputy DA Erin Reagan). As archetypes, they are challenged but not altered by the flood of misery, horror, and sin they encounter on a daily basis.

If there is a character on a journey in Blue Bloods, it is younger son, Jamie (Will Estes), a Harvard-trained lawyer who joined the force after his older brother Joe was killed in the line of duty. Jamie’s graduation from the Police Academy is where Blue Bloods started, and his struggle to reconcile the law of the courtrooms for which he was trained and the law of the streets on which he must survive reveals a character searching for truth. In a more indirect way, so does the adolescence of Erin’s daughter, Nicky (Sami Gayle), whose trials growing up with a single parent allow the show to explore issues facing contemporary youth, such as drug abuse, sexuality, and social media.

Since both Henry and Frank are widowers, Linda (Amy Carlson), Danny’s wife, occupies a unique role in the family. She is the only Reagan who is not a blood member, yet she serves as the maternal center of the clan, both to her two sons and to the extended family. Sitting to Frank’s left at the family dinner table, she is often the referee in the battle among the various virtues.

At the dinner table in “Blue Bloods”

The Sunday family dinner serves as the centerpiece of the show. What could be a hackneyed device to bring the main cast together instead brings out some of the most compelling arguments, if not ideologies, of the series. The dinner gatherings remind us not only that the family is the indispensable unit of society, but that it is the cradle of democracy and morals. It is where tradition is passed on, ideas are debated, and the young learn to be citizens. The Reagan family’s discussions range across legal theory, Church teachings, ethics, and social-science concepts. Few other television dramas would discuss the late James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory or unapologetically show their characters saying grace and blessing themselves.

Away from the dinner table, Blue Bloods does not shy from controversial topics. Race relations are near the top of the list of recurring themes. The show accurately portrays the demographic makeup of criminal offenders. It gives no quarter to divisive race hucksters, such as the flamboyantly dressed Reverend Darnell Potter (excellently played by Ato Essandoh). An episode about a white cop shooting and killing a young black male who may or may not have been armed, setting off community demonstrations, aired in November 2013, nine months before Ferguson and the Michael Brown shooting. Not all cops are saints, but the criminals of Blue Bloods are not portrayed as misunderstood victims of society, as criminals so often are today. Nor is mercy absent from the actions of those faced with the responsibility of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. It is into this modern, urban version of the Wild West that the members of the Reagan clan ride out of their Bay Ridge ranch, fighting for justice and the old virtues.

The show itself is a virtual form of the Reagan clan’s Sunday dinners, where the challenging and sometimes unanswerable questions of life and modern society are explored and debated. The plots have no twists, and the resolutions are rarely subtle. Yet there is nothing wrong, and a great deal right, with being reminded on a weekly basis of timeless lessons that most of us already know but many have forgotten.

If the mores of Blue Bloods are surprisingly conservative for network television, it is a reflection more on the times than on the writers or producers. As an old-fashioned cop show, it may give the audience what it wants. But the aristocrats of Blue Bloods also give the people what they need.

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