Harry and Diane
NYPD DEA badge Who is Harry Denby?

The last of the major characters created by David Milch for NYPD Blue, Detective Harry Denby is also the most mysterious, and arguably, the most troubled. Unconstrained by the necessity of confining Harry to the lawfulness of the regular detectives of the 15th precinct, Milch introduces him as a man whose life is already spinning out of control due not only to alcohol addiction, but it is implied, to substance abuse as well.

Interestingly, we know relatively little about Harry the man: He’s seen only through the eyes of the detectives of the 15th, chiefly Diane Russell, herself a recovering alcoholic for whom Harry develops a certain fascination. As he uses her as a sounding board in his struggles with his own conscience, he reveals what little we do know about him: Promoted to detective at a young age, he went into the Narcotics branch, where he excelled sufficiently to get himself appointed to the Narcotics Task Force, an elite team of the best officers in the field.

We meet Harry while he is serving as the guard/protector of a witness who has agreed to testify in exchange for immunity in the Federal protection program. But Harry seems bent on re-directing himself into a life of crime, and follows his charge back into the underworld. Whether this was done intentionally as part of a sting operation (as a Narcotics detective he would have been accustomed to such undercover work) or whether Harry deliberately broke the law is never made clear (by Milch). What is made clear is that Harry loses control along the way, and that he sees what is happening and feels helpless to stop it even as he deplores the depths to which he has sunk. And Milch lets him sink just about as far as he can without passing the point of no return. In the end, and at the last possible moment, Harry finally makes the right decision. And the seventh season of NYPD Blue - the last with Milch as writer - comes to a close.

Denby without Milch
Although Harry was able to finally make the right decision at the end of the seventh season, the plotline involving him was far from resolved. As he was quite popular - people either loved him or they hated him with passion, but they all watched him - he returned, now sober and working at menial labor as he awaited his trial, embittered at being forced to resign from the department. But whereas the Harry Denby of the previous season had a conscience which tortured him, it quickly became clear that the new Harry had none. When, in the last week of the ratings sweeps month, Harry murders two people in front of a security camera, then confesses to two previous murders before committing suicide by cop, viewers were shocked but not really surprised - for while it was shocking that the deliciously complex Harry of the previous season could ever turn into the one-dimensional crook-of-the-week depicted, it was already becoming evident by their treatment of the other characters that the new writers knew little but formulaic TV exposition. Fans hoping for a revelation in later episodes were doomed to disappointment as the character of Diane, by whose bullet Harry died, walked cooly away from the scene without a backward glance - or later thought - in direct contrast to the emotional drain and charged sexuality the two of them projected together under Milch’s pen. Because of this, and because the character assassination was not limited to Diane and Harry but touched on all Milch’s characters, many fans consider the eighth (and later) seasons to be apocryphal.

Denby as an action hero
Harry’s persona, more than any other character on NYPD Blue, lends itself to the larger-than-life stature of the action hero: Coming from a background in undercover Narcotics, he immerses himself in, if not the same thing, then its counterpart of actual drug smuggling. From his presenting Diane with her dead husband’s wedding ring freshly taken from a mutilated corpse in a dumpster, to his obvious fear that his words are being overheard in a bar, to his showdown with a gun on a crowded sidewalk, he is definitely not the standard issue “do paperwork, deal with morons, go home and deal with life” NYPD Blue detective. But while his vast intellect, quick wit, razor tongue, and dark good looks might place him with the 007s of fiction, the sheer vulnerability he projects definitely does not. He is more vulnerable than even Simon Templar, whose nebulous persona he most closely resembles. Both have the same ambiguous relationship with the law and/or underworld, the same harsh Jesuit schooling, and the same ability to manipulate those around them for their own purposes. But Templar, though emotionally tortured, never had a genuine problem with substance abuse. And although some have speculated that Denby, like Templar, may have faked a drinking problem, his Milch origin makes that unlikely: In an interview, Milch once stated that he deliberately created characters with drinking and/or drug problems; that it was his way of re-writing the lives of people he’d known that had made the wrong decisions and giving them a second chance to make the right decision through his fiction. And though he wasn’t speaking of Denby specifically, the character would certainly have been included in his statement.

So what’s the big mystery?
As a recurring but not regular character, Harry’s development was limited to the minimum necessary to further the plot in which he was involved. That Harry could become the complex character we knew in what amounted to twenty-five minutes or less of total screen time (he was in five Milch episodes, each appearance lasting for approximately five minutes) speaks for the quality of Milch’s writing. However, with Milch’s device of always viewing Harry through the eyes of others who were not privy to his (Harry’s) personal motivations, we were left - as were the detectives of the 15th precinct - to piece together what was really going on. We know Harry had a fall from grace and caught himself at the last moment (8th season antics aside), but how far and how deliberate was that fall and why did it happen? And, what real role did Diane play in his machinations? None of these questions were ever answered by Milch and the inept handling by the subsequent writers clouded the issue rather than shedding light upon it. We were, however, left clues, in Milch’s enticingly complex dialogue, as well as in actor Scott Cohen’s interpretation. And even though it’s doubtful that these clues are enough to provide a unique solution to what Denby was really doing, they can and do point in the right direction.

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