U.S. Police Drama

Amid controversy about Steven Bochco's intent to produce network television's first "R-rated" series, NYPD Blue premiered on ABC in September 1993. The innovative police drama survived a serious onslaught of protest to emerge as a popular and critically acclaimed series. Blue (as it was sometimes promoted) deliberately tested the boundaries of broadcast restrictions on partial nudity and adult language. Praise for the show's finely crafted storytelling and engaging style soon overtook initial condemnations of its occasional flashes of skin and salty dialogue. By the end of its first season, NYPD Blue had revived Bochco's reputation as a risk-taking producer of "quality television."

As a gritty, downbeat cop drama filmed against a backdrop of urban decay, the program was seen as a return to form for Bochco, who had co-created the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. Attempts to repeat the success of his law and order shows faltered (Bay City Blues, Cop Rock, Civil Wars) until Hill Street writer-producer David Milch teamed with Bochco to revitalize the genre once again. Arguing that the networks had to compete with cable TV for the adult audience, the producers persuaded ABC to approve content previously forbidden. The pilot episode concluded with a dimly-lit lovemaking scene. While mild by motion-picture standards, its partial male and female nudity stirred controversy.

Three months before the debut of such "blue" material, ABC screened the pilot for affiliates and advertisers. Although Bochco agreed to trim fifteen seconds from the sex scene, adverse reactions threatened the show's broadcast run. Conservative watchdog the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association (AFA) led a national campaign against NYPD Blue, calling on affiliates not to air the program and on citizens to boycott products advertised during the show. A quarter of ABC's 225 member stations preempted the first episode.

Despite the unprecedented number of defections, Blue scored well in the ratings. Most blackouts had been in small markets (representing only 10-15% of potential viewers); Wildmon's campaign provided extra publicity in larger ones. Furthermore, NYPD Blue maintained its large audience, leading most advertisers and affiliates to cease their opposition. By the end of its first season, ABC's new hit drama survived a second round of attacks from the AFA and won endorsements from Viewers for Quality Television, the People's Choice and Emmy awards, and most reviewers.

After all the hype about sex, violence, and profanity, what viewers and critics discovered was a compelling series that was "adult" in the best rather than worst sense. It was mature and sophisticated, not libertine. Instead of inserting racy language and showy sex for the sake of sensation, this story of career cops featured complicated human characters. Charges of excessive violence also proved unfounded. As a new round of protests against TV violence circulated in 1993, critics tagged this latest bęte noire of television as a prime offender. Yet, particularly for a realistic police show, NYPD Blue seldom depicted violent acts. When it did, it tended to dramatize the terrible consequences of such actions. (Eventually, ABC responded to public and congressional pressures by adding an advisory announcement, though it did not mention violence: "This police drama contains adult language and scenes with partial nudity. Viewer discretion is advised.")

Again like Hill Street, NYPD Blue excelled with a potent combination of writing, acting, and directing. The look of the show was both realistic and stylized. New York City location shooting made the show's feel for big-city street life palpable, while the jumpy editing and nervous, hand-held camera movement (already a convention of the genre) heightened the dramatic tension of scenes in the precinct offices, the place where an ensemble of characters' lives intertwined. Unlike the innovative police drama to which it is often compared, Barry Levinson's Homicide, NYPD Blue kept its stylistic flourishes in check, letting actors control scenes. In fact, actors familiar from past Bochco productions, Charles Haid, Eric Laneauville, Dennis Dugan, Jesus S. Trevińo, often directed episodes.

But it was another set of alumni from the Bochco stock company who stood out above the ensemble cast. Dennis Franz emerged as the scenery-chewing mainstay of the show, reinventing his seedy, sharp-tongued Norman Buntz character from Hill Street Blues as Detective Andy Sipowicz. The lesser known David Caruso quickly became a star and sex symbol playing Sipowicz's partner, John Kelly, a throwback, red-headed Irish cop. Early in the show's run Caruso received more publicity, largely because he was the first of the male leads to do a nude scene. However he left NYPD Blue at the start of the second season to pursue a movie career. L.A. Law star Jimmy Smits replaced Caruso as Sipowicz's new partner, Bobby Simone. The series' smooth transition into a successful new phase testified to the storytelling skills of Milch, Bochco, and their collaborators.

Individual episodes introduced new cases for the detectives of New York's 15th precinct and blended them with ongoing melodramatic storylines about personal relationships. Entanglements of professional and personal affairs were always imminent as every detective in the precinct became romantically involved with a co-worker (usually during a divorce): Sipowicz with assistant D.A. Sylvia Costas, Kelly with Detective Janice Licalsi, Gregory Medavoy with office secretary Abandando, and detectives Martinez and Lesniak with each other.

Even with so many couples, male characters dominated NYPD Blue. Their tough-guy machismo, however, was always tempered by a caring side. Rather than playing to good cop/bad cop stereotypes, Sipowicz, Kelly, Simone, and their fraternal colleagues exemplified that emerging archetype of nineties television: the sensitive man. Like TV cops of the past they were moral, yet hard enough to crack down on criminals. To this "guy" image the men of NYPD Blue added a dimension of sensitivity. Here were sentient cops. The replacement of the Cagneyesque John Kelly with empathetic widower Simone heightened this aspect. These were working men concerned with emotion. The boys in Blue had feelings and discussed them, with both their professional and romantic partners. Women's roles, even nominally feminist ones, tended only to be supportive of men's and lacked depth.

As with other Bochco productions, NYPD Blue leavened its mixture of police drama and soap opera with comic relief, often interjecting moments of irreverent, even scatological, humor. The show's controversial uses of nudity and language often played at this level. Naked bodies appeared in awkward, comic scenes as well as erotic ones. And writers seemed self-conscious in inventing colorful, funny curse words for Sipowicz to spew at criminals.

Whatever the length of its run, NYPD Blue made history with its breakthrough first season. While not a model for commercial imitation, the series proved that risky, adult material could be successfully integrated into network television programming.

-Daniel G. Streible




Detective John Kelly (1993-1994)................ David Caruso Detective Andy Sipowicz ............................Dennis Franz Lieutenant Arthur Fancy ........................James McDaniel Laura Hughes Kelly (1993-1994).............Sherry Stringfield Officer Janice Licalsi (1993-1994).......... Amy Brenneman Officer/Detective James Martinez ..........Nicholas Turturro Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas (1994-)
..........................................................Sharon Lawrence Detective Greg Medavoy (1994- )................ Gordon Clapp Donna Abandando (1994-1996)................... Gail O'Grady Detective Bobby Simone (1994- )............... Jimmy Smits

PRODUCERS Steven Bochco, David Milch


September 1993-August 1994          Tuesday 10:00-11:00 October 1994-                                 Tuesday 10:00-11:00


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See also Bochco, Steven; Hill Street Blues; Police Programs