By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published February 25, 2019
One of the great pleasures of parenthood is being able to discover new interests, or rekindle old ones, through the eyes of our children.
I have enjoyed this sense of discovery and recovery with both my sons, but lately my younger son Nicholas has especially sparked my imagination.
Nick loves baseball, and he adores art, and he’s experienced both at their finest in New York City, which has become his favorite place in the world. From the treasures at the Museum of Modern Art to the mysterious world of the subway, Nick loves all things New York: skyscrapers, ice cream trucks, pizza and the police. Nick is fascinated by the NYPD, and after school—if he’s not playing ball or painting—you can usually find him dressed in his official New York City Police costume. He’s written me a number of citations for offenses which shall remain nameless.
Nick’s passion for the Big Apple led me to a recent immersion in the CBS television show “Blue Bloods” that splendidly showcases the culture of both the city and its police department. That the program also features, and indeed depends upon, the richness of Catholicism is a particular bonus.
I’ve written before about police television shows and movies, and I’ve also written about detective fiction and its connection to the religious imagination; in eight years of writing for The Georgia Bulletin, the column I wrote on Jack Webb of Dragnet and Adam-12 fame remains one of the pieces for which I received the most appreciative mail. I hope that my observations about “Blue Bloods” might lead you as well to a discovery of this more recent show.
Faith and family portrayed
“Blue Bloods” premiered in 2010, and quickly established a strong viewership that has increased into its current ninth season. Part of the show’s resonance with its audience has to do with its genre. Ever since Jack Webb, television cop shows have become a mainstay of prime-time programming. Yet I think the program’s success goes beyond its realistic portrayal of police procedure. The show’s depiction of family and faith are crucial aspects of what makes Blue Bloods unique among other recent hyper-realistic police dramas.
The program centers on four generations of the Reagan family, close Catholics who all have a deep connection to the New York criminal justice system. Great-grandfather Henry is a former New York City police commissioner whose son, Francis Xavier (Frank), is the current commissioner. Frank’s sons, Danny and Jamie, are both cops; Danny is a detective and Jamie—a Harvard graduate—is a young beat cop. Frank’s daughter, Erin, is an assistant district attorney. There seems to be little doubt that at least a few of the great grandchildren are headed for similar careers. In keeping with the family’s Catholic identity, there are also several deceased Reagans all of whom are present even in absence. Joseph, Frank’s son, was killed in a covert police operation, and both Henry’s and Frank’s beloved wives are also dead. The close bond of the Reagan family and their faith keeps all of the departed united in memory, alongside the great losses of September 11th, which is frequently alluded to on the show.
Some of the biggest stars in television history have feature roles on the show, first among them Tom Selleck, who plays Frank. Donnie Wahlberg and Bridget Moynahan play Danny and Erin. And Tony Award-winning character actor Len Cariou is Henry. Yet all the actors on the show achieve what is absolutely essential to the success of an episodic television program: they completely inhabit the characters they play; they become their roles and make the people real to us, week after week and year after year. Tom Selleck is not a Catholic, but you would never know it from watching his Frank, a self-described “old-school Catholic who loves the Latin Mass and believes in kneeling in the confessional.”
The first several installments of the show were fairly conventional television cop fare, with one exception that has become a mainstay of every episode. The Reagan family—all four generations—assemble every Sunday for a dinner which never begins unless every family member is seated and Grace is said. At Frank’s home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn all the Reagans gather for good food, good drink and lively conversation in which matters both practical and idealistic are argued and discussed. Anyone who argues for the importance of family meals to family structure will absolutely swoon over the Reagans’ Sunday dinners.
By the second season, however, executive producer Kevin Wade—who is a practicing Catholic—took more of a role in writing the evolving show. Wade maintained that depicting the culture of Roman Catholicism was as important to the success of the show as a realistic depiction of New York City and its police department.
Capturing the cityscape
I have never seen a television program that captures the allure and decadence of New York City as well as Blue Bloods; New York certainly got its money’s worth for the nearly 80 million dollars in tax breaks it has given the show. Sweeping panoramic shots of Manhattan are simply gorgeous, but just as important are the small moments in pizzerias, taxis, city parks and street scenes shot all over the five boroughs.
Still, of particular importance to me beyond the on location shooting and the realistic depiction of police action is the thoroughly convincing portrayal of Catholicism. Clergy and religious are sensitively but realistically portrayed. The conviction that prayer is legitimate is addressed reverently and without edification. Some of the family struggle honestly with their faith and with church teaching, yet Frank and Henry especially are firm in their beliefs. They know what they believe, and they know how to argue in favor of their faith, as well as how to criticize the church with respect and sincerity when rare disagreements arise. Blue Bloods never shies away from controversial topics, including homosexuality and clerical abuse, but the show does not have an agenda. The emphasis remains upon depicting real people, in both ordinary and extraordinary situations, who happen to be New York City cops—Catholic cops.
Like me, Frank and Henry experience all the joys and trials of watching their children develop and deal with challenges for which they have experience and empathy. I so wish I could share the show in its entirety with my boys, and I have shown them frequent excerpts.
Yet regarding content, “Blue Bloods” is a realistic television police drama. It contains violence and mature situations that are not suitable for children, though nearly every episode also includes subject matter or storylines that are completely appropriate for younger viewers. In fact, one thing I like about the show is that rather than being overly graphic, it often trusts the viewer’s imagination. One comes away from an episode feeling much like one regards New York City itself today; cleaned and polished since the decline of the 70s and 80s, New York still retains a mystery quite unlike that of any other place.
That “Blue Bloods” is able to capture this essence of both the city as a place and a state of mind, while also presenting the Catholic faith and Catholic family values with compassion and realism, is a testament to the empathy its cast and staff have for special and lasting traditions.