If Jimmy Smits hadn't quit his role on "NYPD Blue," Kim Delaney probably wouldn't be starring in the new ABC drama "Philly."
Delaney, of course, played Detective Russell on "NYPD Blue" for five seasons. And her character was married to Smits' character, so when Smits left and his character died, Delaney and Russell were cast adrift.
"For the next year-and-a-half or so, Kim's character was, I think, an underused resource on the show," said Steven Bochco, the creator/executive producer of both shows. "That wasn't accidental or an oversight. It was, I think, true to the nature of her character in that show that she would be grieving and that that was a significant dramatic distraction for the character."
And, he said, that was a waste of talent. "Kim's a star. She is a real television star."
At the same time, Bochco was "kind of monkeying around with the idea of a law show" — a show that was "really sort of focused in a different direction." But his wife, Dayna (who is also president of Bochco Productions) suggested that he think of Delaney as the star of that new show.
"I sort of re-oriented my thinking about this thing — like 180 degrees," Bochco said. "It was a great idea. And when I spoke to (ABC executives) about it, they committed to it very quickly."
Delaney wasn't looking for a new job, but she jumped at it.
"I loved working on 'NYPD Blue.' I loved playing that character," Delaney said. "But when Steven and Dayna came to me with this, it was such an incredible opportunity."
The show they all committed to has a lot in common with "Blue." "Philly" is gritty, fast-paced and emotional, and it deals with the legal system.
But instead of cops, "Philly" is about lawyers — specifically, relatively newly minted attorney Kathleen Maguire. In the premiere (Tuesday, 9 p.m., Ch. 4), the already harried Kathleen has her stress and caseload doubled when her partner has a mental breakdown in the courtroom.
(In typical, over-the-top Bochco fashion, that breakdown involves the lawyer flashing the jury. Which is far less shocking that it is par-for-the-course in a Bochco show.)
Kathleen quickly acquires a new partner (Tom Everett Scott) who has few moral compunctions about how he works the system. A single mother, Kathleen also has a 10-year-old son (Scott Leavenworth) and an extremely hostile ex-husband (Kyle Secor), who also happens to be an assistant district attorney.
"Philly" enters a television landscape cluttered with legal dramas, but Bochco makes a case for "Philly" carving out a place for itself.
"Our perception of the criminal justice system is that the only way it works is when you avoid trials. . . . When Kathleen Maguire has a caseload of 150 cases, if she has to go to trial on something everything else grinds to a halt," he said. "The idea is make a deal, get a continuance, strategize to postpone, do all the things you have to do to buy yourself time to get to your next venue."
In the first two episodes the only time anyone is in trial is that opening sequence. There are several times when lawyers appear before judges, but at hearings, not trials.
"Philly" is far more successful at differentiating itself from other lawyer shows than it is at differentiating itself from "NYPD Blue" — it seems too been-there, done-that. But it is a change for Delaney.
"The characters are different," she said. "The look is different. She's a little more vulnerable and not as guarded as Russell was. She's a mother, so she's more nurturing."
Delaney is good, and the show has the professional sheen of a Bochco production. If you like "NYPD Blue," you probably won't be disappointed. If you sit down and watch an episode, you won't feel like you've wasted your time.
But if you miss an episode, you probably won't be kicking yourself, either.