Some were drunks. Some were racists. Some were merely maladjusted. Together, they worked in a charmless fortress seething with primitive...
Some were drunks. Some were racists. Some were merely maladjusted. Together, they worked in a charmless fortress seething with primitive desire and Machiavellian logic.
And it was a hit.
In 1993, “NYPD Blue” defiantly took just about everything audiences were not supposed to like and flung it on the screen, thereby creating one of television’s finest dramatic series.
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The resulting success ushered in a boundary-pushing era whose hallmark was exposure. Even as profanity fell from the lips and clothing from the limbs of characters on later shows like “ER” and “EZ Streets,” so were their dark and messy lives revealed.
But few series ever balanced the twin ritual of emotional and physical stripping as well as “NYPD Blue.”
Though the program got more attention for a couple of semi-nude scenes that initially drew boycotts from some advertisers and ABC affiliates, it was the raw, unsparing depiction of Det. Andy Sipowicz and his colleagues that ultimately spellbound audiences.
Today, that legacy continues — on cable.
“NYPD Blue” finale, at 10 tonight, with a retrospective at 9, ABC (KOMO).
Viewers seeking a show with complicated anti-heroes will have to consult FX’s “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” or HBO’s “The Wire” in the future, for their likes won’t exist on network TV after “Blue’s” finale at 10 tonight on KOMO-TV (preceded by a one-hour retrospective at 9).
Some have wondered why this is so and blamed conservative activism and recent Federal Communications Commission fines for indecency. Producer Steven Bochco himself said he does not think “NYPD Blue” could get on a network today. His new contemporary Iraq-set war drama, “Over There,” will debut on FX in July. Meanwhile, “Blue” co-creator David Milch took his gritty Western “Deadwood” to the unfettered confines of HBO.
But the true impact of “Blue” lay within its writing. Bochco and Milch broke many rules that first season, giving us a pair of internally tortured, unhappy men whose ability to solve crimes did not mask their inability to manage their private issues.
Despite his stalwart exterior, Det. John Kelly (David Caruso) was a failure at marriage and was a repressed product of an Irish Catholic upbringing dominated by a bullying, successful father who’d also been a cop.
Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) was even worse off: a fat bully and a rampantly territorial, alcoholic Vietnam War veteran who didn’t bother to hide his dislike of minorities and gays or his violent methods of persuasion with perps and skells.
The accepted wisdom of network TV was that such characters could only work in minor roles, never as stars.
But it was wrong — so wrong that Sipowicz, tentatively marked to be killed off after a few episodes, stayed around for 12 years while other characters came and went.
The credit goes in no small part to Franz. When he read for the part, he wondered aloud to Bochco how any viewer was going to like this character. “That’s your job,” he was told.
He did it. So believable was Franz that he became fused with Sipowicz. To this day, he gets letters from men who fought in Vietnam, sympathizing with his struggles. Drinkers write to him offering counsel or seeking it.
The rest of the cast also abounded with talent, which proved over the years to be a blessing and a curse.
Caruso, whose pallid calm and offbeat good looks provided an antidotal on-screen presence, left in search of film stardom after the first season. (“CSI: Miami” may be considered a good consolation prize.)
The successor was Jimmy Smits, who imported his own smoldering brand of control as Det. Bobby Simone. From 1994 to 1998, he and Franz would form one of television’s greatest partnerships, achieving an intimate rhythm that constituted the peak years of “NYPD Blue.”
Because the main focus of the show was Sipowicz and his partners — professional and romantic — other cast members at times could and did feel as if they were appendages to the plots.
This was especially true of the women. Kim Delaney as Det. Diane Russell and Sharon Lawrence as Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas had successful runs as love interests for Simone and Sipowicz, but did not develop markedly beyond those assignments.
Sherry Stringfield, Amy Brenneman and Gail O’Grady left “NYPD Blue” to become stars in “ER,” “Judging Amy” and “American Dreams.”
More recently, actress Charlotte Ross abruptly declined to come back for the final season, which has deprived viewers of a chance to see Sipowicz’s newly contented life with wife and fellow cop Connie McDowell.
O’Grady’s exit was especially tough for morose, Job-like Det. Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp), who never got a good story line after his romance with blond receptionist Donna Abandando ended.
Similarly, Lt. Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel), gay administrative assistant John Irwin (Bill Brochtrup) and Officer James Martinez (Nicholas Turturro) never seemed to have enough to do, though Irwin does baby-sit young Theo Sipowicz.
To many, 1994 to 1998 also marked the height of great writing at “NYPD Blue.” Milch’s mesmerizing, idiosyncratic dialogue and the ventilating effect of story lines that fleshed out Simone and Sipowicz through their relationships with the entire cast created memorable chemistry and atmosphere.
In truth, the show had difficulty weathering Smits’ exit despite the unusual choice of former child star Rick Schroder as Sipowicz’s new partner. The bar “NYPD Blue” had set for psychological and emotional drama inevitably descended to melodrama. It is hard to keep things tuned to a high pitch all the time.
But it also became clear in recent years that the network audience’s appetite for complex and demanding fare has abated.
The epidemic of “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises is an indication that viewers are more comfortable with flesh-tearing procedure rather than emotion-baring people. Character comes mostly in the form of quirky and impenetrable types like William Petersen’s Gil Grissom, though “Without a Trace” is a stellar exception.
Overall, it has not been a good time for morally complicated new entries that paint in shades of gray rather than black and white. NBC’s brilliant “Boomtown” lasted only a season. It will be interesting to monitor how audiences receive the internally tortured, bitter if determined hero of “Blind Justice,” ABC’s successor to “NYPD Blue.”
Did “NYPD Blue” outstay its welcome? Yes, although Mark-Paul Gosselaar has proven surprisingly adept as Sipowicz’s latest partner and the episodes this season have been well-executed.
Nevertheless, I know I’m going to miss “NYPD Blue.” No other network police show captured so well the oddly tense and companionable atmosphere of a precinct house. From the percussive opening to the clipped language to the jittery camera, it was a complete work of art.
Nor does any other series come close to reflecting the testosterone-fueled attitude of cops in general and New Yorkers in particular. With its heady mix of aggressiveness, sex and moral pragmatism, “NYPD Blue” was only a shock if you liked to pretend otherwise.
Here we go again. Tonight’s 10 o’clock “Frontline” called “The Soldier’s Heart” explores psychological issues for soldiers returning from Iraq. It has spurred controversy because of some expletives used by the soldiers. Nonetheless, KCTS-TV advises that it will show it in its unedited version — a decision Seattle viewers should applaud.
Kay McFadden: firstname.lastname@example.org