Television’s Last American Aristocrats

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CBS’s long-running hit Blue Bloods depicts a faithful, self-made leadership class that flies in the face of Hollywood.

CBS’s Blue Bloods remains an unexplained anomaly. Now in its improbable eleventh season, a television show less suited to the ruling zeitgeist can hardly be imagined.

As the double meaning of the title indicates, the Irish-Catholic Reagan family are law enforcement aristocracy in New York City, with police commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) as paterfamilias. One of his sons, Joe, has died in the line of duty as a police officer before the series begins, oldest son Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) is a senior detective on the force, daughter Erin Reagan (Bridget Moynahan) is an assistant district attorney, and in the pilot episode, Harvard-educated youngest son Jamie (Will Estes) decides to give up a promising law career to join the NYPD. Living with the widowed Frank is his father Henry Reagan (Lou Cariou), a former police commissioner himself who is there to provide historical perspective and grandfatherly advice.

Any aristocracy is an affront to modern sensibilities, but what makes this a peculiarly old-style American one is that it is self-made; its scions don’t live off of trust funds. Frank has as his personal sidearm a revolver carried by his father Henry before him, who in turn inherited it from his own father. Each of the Reagan men have followed the path that Jamie embarks on at the beginning of the first season: starting at the bottom as a rookie beat cop and expected to work his way up on his own, albeit aided by that most precious of family inheritances, wise advice born of experience.

What the late producer Leonard Goldberg created in Blue Bloods is an atmosphere with a satisfyingly biblical sweep, conveyed through impressive production quality, sterling writing, and fine acting from the cast. Television series have mastered a multi-episode story arc concept that suits both broadcast needs and streaming services, and the layered Reagan family allows such arcs to follow unpredictable paths that include not only crimes, but also New York political conflicts, legal wrangling, police corruption, social disruption, and family crises. Blue Bloods touches on contemporary issues, to be sure, but without the tiresome didactics to which lesser series fall prey.

Beyond all of that, the tight Reagan family bonds create emotional arcs that hold the viewer’s attention more closely than any storyline. To be sure, portraying healthy nuclear families is older than Leave it to Beaver. But showing the dogged work that goes into creating and maintaining a close-knit multi-generational family in a modern urban world is something only a decade-long series could do, and it is a brilliant accomplishment. (As a side-note, how deliberately subversive was it to choose the name “Reagan” in 2010?)

After an uneven first few episodes, the show relaxed into a comforting and almost liturgical feel, with a sweeping aerial shot of New York City immediately after the opening credits and with each episode containing a Sunday dinner at which attendance by all family members is obligatory. Goldberg reportedly had to fight CBS executives to keep the latter element, but it quickly became the show’s iconic set-piece. And there is literal liturgy, with episodes occasionally showing the family at Mass on Sunday or discussing what their parish priest had said in his homily. Most meals are shown to begin with bowed heads and prayer, complete with “through Christ our Lord.” One struggles to remember when unassuming religious practice was last portrayed on television as an ordinary part of life, even though it is a reality for millions of Americans. And under it all is an unapologetic portrayal of the lives of police officers, showing the force as the calling and life of service that it is.

Frank as police commissioner backs down neither in his determination to treat his officers fairly when they are accused of wrongdoing nor in his firm meting out of discipline if an investigation shows they are guilty. As Frank endures through a series of mayors and community activists over the course of the series, it feels as though one is getting a television-friendly inside view of the politics of police work and the difficulties police chiefs have in shielding their rank-and-file from it.

Conservatives have long been supportive of law enforcement, seeing it the way Blue Bloods portrays it: imperfect, to be sure, but filled overwhelmingly with people who do the right thing, as countless “Back the Blue” rallies have shown over the last year. But recent experiences with COVID lockdown enforcement and a perceived lack of appropriate responses to last summer’s Antifa rioting have dulled a bit of the luster in the eyes of some. That means that Blue Bloods may indeed portray law enforcement as Americans wish it to be, but not necessarily as even all conservatives see it at this particular moment in time. How the series might deal in any future seasons with such seeds of ambivalence in its core audience remains to be seen, but it bodes well to watch the producers’ deft handling of the current pandemic, in which they give viewers a welcome respite by setting season 11 a convenient six months after its end.

As for Selleck, the diffusing effect of an ensemble cast allows him to divide his time between New York and the grounding agrarian environs of his California ranch. But even when he isn’t on screen, his aura pervades Blue Bloods with the secure masculine presence he has honed in his post-Magnum, P.I. career throughout numerous Westerns and Jesse Stone movies, combining taciturn thoughtfulness with decisive decision-making. Selleck’s long and audible pursed-lip sighs punctuate nearly every episode, conveying the patient “I guess we’re really doing this again” reality of patriarchal existence. And Wahlberg, playing Frank’s son Danny, an experienced but impetuous detective and scarred Iraq veteran, provides a reliable and perfect counterpoint to Selleck, throwing a little chaos into the otherwise ordered Reagan world.

Eleven seasons is a long time in television, so Danny’s and Erin’s kids grow up into college students before our eyes, new relationships are forged and discovered, and we travel from a time when 9/11 was still a vivid and painful memory to more recent times when domestic forces of anti-police activism have become more pressing concerns for law enforcement.

Fans of Blue Bloods have gone through annual worries that each season could be the last, but its ratings have only trended up as the years have passed. Even though 2010 shouldn’t feel like all that long ago, Blue Bloods was a bit retro even then—and after the social traumas and political disruptions of 2020, one finds it hard to imagine anyone in major network television pitching something like it today. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Bradley Anderson writes from San Francisco, California.

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