NYPD BLUE (1983)

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NYPD Blue

NYPD Blue was the first real attempt by a US broadcast network to create an adult drama that could compete with the increasingly violent, frank and sexually explicit series showing up on cable television in the 1990’s. If the show had just relied on shock value, “Blue” probably would have died a quick death. Instead, co-creators Steven Bochco and David Milch built a strong foundation of story and character for this police drama set in New York City’s Manhattan district. The result was a consistently good series that ran for 12 seasons, making it the longest-running hour-long drama in ABC’s history.

Coming up with groundbreaking television was not new for Bochco, who co-created Hill Street Blues in the early 1980’s; it’s still considered a milestone police drama. “Hill Street” was daring for its time in its unflinching gritty look and feel, along with its treatment of sex and violence. But Bochco still had to fight NBC censors over the show’s content, coming up with alternative phrases for common four-letter words. Bochco and the NBC censors continued sparring over his even more successful L.A. Law in the late 1980’s. By the early 1990’s, he had a multi-series deal with ABC, which spawned one success (Doogie Howser, MD) and several flops, including the infamous musical police drama Cop Rock and a series about divorce lawyers called Civil Wars. New dramas weren’t burning up the rating charts at the time and Bochco thought he knew why. He felt television viewers were looking for more thrills (read: sex and violence) than what the broadcast networks could offer without facing the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission.

For his next drama—which would be a police procedural--Bochco wanted to use real four-letter words that the networks would have never allowed. He also wanted to show some nudity (though full-frontal shots would still be barred), and unlike “Hill Street”, he wanted to focus more on a small group of characters rather than a large ensemble. Bochco, Milch and ABC agreed on a “bible” for the show, specifying what would be allowed. Later, Bochco would describe “Blue” as television’s first “R” rated drama. Milch, a former “Hill Street” producer, fleshed out the characters, the situations and the cases. He came upon real-life New York detective Bill Clark, who provided Milch with a number of real-life stories that were incorporated in the show; Clark later retired from the department and became a producer on NYPD Blue.

The next step was casting. For the key role of Andy Sipowicz, Bochco turned to Dennis Franz, the character actor who played not one but two cops on “Hill Street”—including the role of quasi-sleazeball Norman Buntz, who was given his own short-lived series, Beverly Hills Buntz in the late 1980’s. By the time he was approached for “Blue”, Franz had played 27 fictional cops and wasn’t looking to portray another one. But Franz respected both Bochco and Milch, and agreed to do the show. Franz had second thoughts after getting the pilot script; he told “Entertainment Weekly” magazine, “When I finally read it, my main problem with the character was, Who was going to give a damn about Sipowicz? He was a loose cannon, a womanizer, a drunk, a racist, and an atheist. I got shot, like, five or six times in the first episode; who's gonna care if I lived or died? Steven and David said, ’You will find a way to make this character redeemable.’”

To play his world-weary partner, John Kelly, Bochco again turned to his “Hill Street” days and hired David Caruso, who played a gang leader in several episodes. Kelly as played by Caruso, was an unusual television sex symbol with his red hair and pale complexion. But Kelly was the perfect counterpart to the boozing, womanizing, bigoted Sipowicz; he was the sympathetic man who cared about everyone and was a good lover; women (on-screen and off) soon swooned over Kelly. Also hired in that first season was Cop Rock veteran James McDaniel as the squad’s African-American commander, Lt. Arthur Fancy; rookie Oficer James Martinez (Nicholas Turturro); and Gordon Clapp as Detective Greg Medavoy, who came in during the middle of Season One. Clapp and Franz would be the only original cast members still on board when “Blue” ended its run.

Proving that even supporting players on a Bochco show could go on to stardom, the first season included such characters as Laura Hughes Kelly, the estranged wife of John Kelly. Amy Brenneman played Officer Janice Licalsi (who was John Kelly’s love interest) for nearly two seasons; she would later get her own drama series, Judging Amy. One of Laura Kelly’s neighbors was known only as “4-B”; he carried a gun and was later shot to death. A pre- Friends David Schwimmer played “4-B”. And the squad’s first visible secretary/receptionist, Donna Abandando, was played by the beautiful Gail O’Grady; she left the 15th after having a brief affair with Medavoy and went on to such series as American Dreams.

Even before “NYPD Blue” premiered on September 21st, 1993, conservative groups were gunning for the show. They denounced the sex and language (though the show was relatively violence-free for a police drama). Longtime sex and violence foe Reverend Donald Wildmon with the “American Family Association” launched a boycott against the sponsors. Even worse, about 25% of ABC’s 200-plus affiliates refused to carry the premiere. ABC fought back by having a disclaimer air before each episode -“This police drama contains strong language and nudity. Viewer discretion advised.”- The network also offered “Blue” to independent stations and Fox affiliates in cities where the ABC affiliate refused to carry the show, but had to reduce how much it could charge for time on the show because of the controversy.

Ironically, all the publicity over “Blue’s” content did what Wildmon probably feared—the premiere drew an audience of 23 million, while critics praised the show to the hilt. As the weeks passed, viewers realized that NYPD Blue was a strong, well-crafted and superbly acted drama that happened to offer more nudity and stronger language than other network shows. Wildmon’s boycott eventually fizzled; “Blue” finished its first season tied for 18th place. ABC affiliates that had refused to carry the show changed their minds and began airing it. Critics also realized that Dennis Franz truly found a way to portray Sipowicz. He brought a sense of worth and being to a seemingly unredeemable man. His craft elevated both Andy and the series to dramatic heights. Indeed, it was Franz who set the pace for the series’ run; he was its heart and soul and he turned “Blue” into true television gold. His now-famous scenes interviewing crime suspects—or “tuning them up” in Sipowicz’s words—were powerful as Andy eventually wore down the guilty party.

Caruso was even more popular despite reports that he was difficult to work with on the set and was a perfectionist. Franz later described his former co-star as “a hands-on kind of guy who had something to say in his performances, and he wanted his voice to be heard”. A number of filmmakers also wanted a piece of Caruso; movie offers came his way. Before the second season of “Blue” began, Caruso made a number of demands, including cutting back his appearances so he could also work on films. Bochco and Milch refused; after a much-publicized feud, the producers released Caruso and he left NYPD Blue after the first few episodes of Season Two. But Caruso’s film career didn’t work out too well; his movies were not critical favorites or commercial successes. Caruso returned to television in the short-lived legal drama Michael Hayes in the late 1990’s, but found TV success once again with his lead role on CSI: Miami.

Bochco wisely decided not to replace Caruso with another actor who had the same personality. Going back to the files, he approached Jimmy Smits, the man who played attorney Victor Sifuentes for five seasons on L.A. Law. Smits, not Caruso, was originally offered the role of Sipowicz’s partner; he declined because of other commitments. After reading the script that would introduce him to the show, Smits agreed to replace Caruso. As the handsome, intense Bobby Simone, Smits brought a new dimension to “Blue”; he eventually won his new partner over. The proof came during the second season when Simone and Sipowicz sat in their car during a stakeout; Simone began singing the do-wop classic “Duke of Earl” and Sipowicz soon joined in, bonding the two in the eyes of the viewing audience. Simone was also a more settled character; his previous wife had died of cancer and there was a restless edge underneath the surface that made Simone interesting...and rather sexy.

Viewers quickly accepted the addition of Smits; NYPD Blue became the seventh most-popular series of the 1994-95 season. Also during Season Two, Sipowicz began going to Alcoholics anonymous meetings to help stop his drinking; he began a relationship with Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence), a woman Sipowicz called a “prissy little bitch” in the pilot. The two eventually married and had a son, Theo, before Costas was gunned down by an unstable man during a court trial.

John Irwin (Bill Brochtrup). He stepped in for Donna temporarily before he left the 15th for another job in the NYPD. One of the more credible gay characters on a US television series, Irwin was in part a physical reactor to the various cases and personal woes of the other squad members; he also managed to bond with Sipowicz and become his babysitter despite Sipowitz’s initial homophobia.

After five seasons as Simone, Smits decided to leave “NYPD Blue” when his contract ended, partly because co-creator David Milch was infamous for last-minute changes in scripts that drove Smits crazy. In November 1998, just after his marriage to Russell, Simone came down with a bad cold that was later diagnosed as a heart ailment. His death shocked both viewers and the members of the 15th Squad. And critics soon said without Smits, “Blue” was heading for the last roundup. Not quite yet.

The producers once again came up with an actor whose personality was completely different: Former child thespian and Silver Spoons star Rick Schroder was brought in as Andy’s newest partner, Detective Danny Sorenson, a good-looking young former narcotics cop with his own personal demons. Reluctantly, Sipowicz became his mentor. While never as popular as Smits, Schroder silenced his critics with a strong performance against one of the best actors in prime time. (He also had a brief affair with the newly widowed Diane Russell, who left the show in 2001 for her own short-lived Bochco-produced legal drama Philly.)

As the cases continued, new characters were added, including Medavoy’s new partner, tall, good-looking African-American Detective Baldwin Jones (Henry Simmons), who soon began a romance with Sylvia Costas’ replacement, ADA Valerie Haywood (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon). The same year Jones came to the squad, Lieutenant Fancy left, replaced by new squad commander Tony Rodriguez (Esai Morales). Also joining the 15th were two new detectives, Connie McDowell (Charlotte Ross) and Rita Ortiz (Jacqueline Obradors). Around the same time, co-creator David Milch left, and Schroder left as well, leaving two large holes in the “Blue” family. (Sorenson was killed off while working an undercover investigation at a strip club.) Fortunately, the remaining staffers were able to pick up the pace; and another former sitcom star—Mark-Paul Gosselaar of the teen comedy Saved By The Bell—was hired to play Andy’s fourth and final partner, John Clark.

In the wake of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, it was decided that Sipowicz had endured enough tragedy in his personal life, and the writers slowly moved him closer to Connie, as the two eventually began a relationship and had a baby despite the huge differences in their ages. Sipowicz had a total of three kids—Andy Jr. (Michael DeLuise), who reunited with his estranged father before he was killed in a bar robbery; Theo, who was portrayed wonderfully (as a REAL life boy, not a TV cute child) by the young actor Austin Majors; and Matthew, the baby Andy and Connie had. (Connie was also given custody of her infant niece Michelle, giving the couple three children.)

After 11 seasons, the time to end the show was near. By this time, “Blue’s” weekly audience was less than half the 27 million who tuned in during the second season, but Bochco wouldn’t give up until Franz decided the time was right. Still, ABC was making noises about canceling “Blue”, so both sides agreed the 2004-05 season would be the last one. “Blue” was still a solid drama, but it was overshadowed by newer and more captivating series—The Sopranos; Deadwood; the early seasons of The West Wing and more Law & Order and CSI spin-offs.

In the final season, Clark was spiraling into a pattern of heavy drinking and sleeping with prostitutes—the same behavior Sipowitz was engaging in during the pilot show. On top of that, Rodriguez had left the squad, and his replacement turns out to be a by-the-book Lieutenant named Thomas Bale (Gordon Currie), who alienates the squad with his rigid rules and unbending personality. The final episode, which aired March 1st, 2005, showed no big hugs, no shootings, and no grand announcements. Just a normal day in the life of the 15th Squad, drawing 16 million viewers, the highest rating for a “Blue” episode in three years, despite strong competition from CBS’ reality show The Amazing Race and NBC’s Law & Order: SVU.

Ironically, “Blue’s” departure came at a time the Federal Communications Commission began cracking down on what it considered obscenity on broadcast television. But NYPD Blue proved that an adult themed drama could succeed on a network. Even more ironically, cable series such as David Milch’s revisionist western “Deadwood” and the police drama The Shield have gone far beyond anything “Blue” could offer in sex, violence and language. The moral, it seems, is that good writing and excellent acting remains the key to success. That’s why NYPD Blue earned its stripes as one of the best dramas in US television history.

Review: : Mike Spadoni. April 2005

for Television Heaven