In the dawn of the last decade of the twentieth century, Mayor Rudolph
Guiliani was putting a dazzling new sparkle on the formerly graffiti-laden
and dingy New York City; meanwhile, on the West Coast, the beating of a
law-defying Rodney King by enraged cops (and captured on videotape) caused
the nation to wring its hands.
In the world of make-believe, traditional network television was being
challenged – for the first time ever – by pay-TV channels like HBO and
Showtime and their compelling counter-programming for adults, which was both
raw and refined all at once.
All this, and the O.J. Simpson trial was only around the corner. Meanwhile,
the first attack on The World Trade Center was still a freshly stung slap in
Out of this ground swell came ABC's NYPD Blue, which was desperately
marketed as television's first R-rated drama. The R was arguable: what we
got for it was some very soft porn (only seconds worth), bare asses (the
good, the bad and the ugly), side profiles of breasts (all good, but
absolutely no nipplage), and language not ever heard before on prime-time,
including "prick," "asshole" and the revolutionary "lying sack of crap."
NYPD Blue on HBO!), but one giant step for
ABC. Look at it two ways: either we're a country that has a difficult time
with adult situations, sex and rough language, or we're told that we're a
country that has a difficult time with adult situations, sex and rough
language. Not exactly HBO (imagine
The series, well-crafted and well-acted to within an inch of its life, was
as new as new could be. This was a miracle, considering that by the 1990s,
the cop drama seemed played out (even an innovative idea called Cop Rock,
which was a police drama performed as a musical, became an industry joke).
It was word-of-mouth that shot NYPD Blue's ratings through the roof.
This came as a surprise and a relief to the powers that be, being that our
fear of implicit sex and straight talk can be traced back to the Pilgrims
and our worrisome self-censorship of entertainment is laughed at by the rest
of the world (Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl being a more recent example).
Still, NYPD Blue was lighting that struck at the exact right time, in
a wino's bottle. There may have been a bit too many hot women on staff at
the station to be believed (Gail O'Grady, Sherry Stringfield, Amy Brenneman),
but the series was still beautiful in its ugliness: the mournful Mike Post
theme song set against the backdrop of a busy, nervous, messy, meanacing,
awesome New York; the shaky camera and the anxiety-inducing rush of the
subway was as stylish and as innovative as the newness of Miami Vice
a few years before; only unlike Vice, Blue had complex stories
(though simple at first) and amazing characters that actually breathed real
breath. And depth. Unlike Vice, Blue wasn't
just style triumphing over substance.
Midtown Manhattan may have been becoming Disney-fied, but the Lower East
Side, where Blue takes place, was still a hotbed of scummy stories
and a persistent tap on the shoulder from the old, bad-boy New York, the
kind depicted on film in the seventies, the place from which to stay away,
to clutch your purse or wallet tighter to your person.
The series gives us glimpses of corpses (quickly), crimes so heinous
(or as Gail O' Grady's
character says, "heeen-ee-ous"),
interrogations so heated and confessions of guilt so tour-de-force that all
cop shows that had come before this one immediately appear phony.
It's just another day on the job for the underpaid and overworked force, who
go on hunches by day and make love in front of steamy camera lenses at night
(though honestly, the romantic scenes often seem tacked on and gratuitous).
No doubt, though, that the series repeats its message over and over: the
bridge between death and life is love.
We get David Caruso only in this compelling first season, which is a real
damn shame. The long and strange tradition of Blue is that most
characters come and go just as we warm up to them, but Caruso's parting (for
a movie career) was unforgivable to the people of this nation. He was not
soon excused, not until CSI: Miami, which debuted
almost a decade later.
Being that Caruso is quite possibly the world's best actor, with the
streetwise tough/tender/dignified/stand-up guy thing he has going on, and
his ability to be a good listener (elbows on his knees, chin down, eyes up),
he was an eight-cylinder engine that kept the
series revving out of the starting gate. Though he spawned a parade of
successors, Caruso was the real deal and ultimately not as easily
replaceable as we tried to convince ourselves.
Dennis Franz (here playing Detective Andy Sipowitcz), was first seen on TV
in many reincarnations (Hill Street Blues, The Bay City
Blues, Beverly Hills Buntz), but it's on Blue that he
takes his well-deserved shot at center stage, for the entire run of the
series and sporting a long list of tragedies that
befall his pathetic but fascinating character.
"I'd rather be lucky than good," he observes in this first season, but
evolves in the exact opposite way.
We perk up every time he gets the least bit annoyed, and watching him be
pissed off and not suffer fools gladly had quickly become America's favorite
pastime. His sour cynicism is nothing short of a work of art ("Whoever
invented cellular phones should be hung by his nuts," he bellows), but his
romance with lawyer Sylvia (Sharon Lawrence) is a wash-rinse-repeat of Andy
goofing up (saying or doing the wrong thing) and then telling her, "I
apologize." It's tiresome, but he comes a long way from his first meeting
with her on Episode One, where he calls her a "pissy little bitch" and
America's mouth drops open.
also gets right its
casting of day players, amazing actors portraying everyone from the rich and
powerful to the scum of the earth, most of whom you never see again.
However, there are a few soon-to-be familiar faces here, most notably David
Schwimmer, eventually of Friends, who actually says, "I haven't made
that many friends in New York." Little does he know.
You'll also nod your head at Don Stark (the permed dad on That 70s Show,
here playing a sleazy private investigator) and Michael Ian Black (the
standout commentator on VH1's I Love The… series) as a gay hustler.
As well, recognize Mitch Ryan (the detached captain of industry on Dharma
and Greg) wowing us as an old-time racist Irish cop. And the über-amazing
Daniel Benzali, who begins his recurring fabulousness as
the bald, arrogant, superstar attorney James Sinclair
by saying, "Everyone's entitled to an
attorney. They're just not entitled to me."
The series runs for a satisfying and electric twelve seasons, with its
revolving-door cast of Hemingway-code macho men and smart, impossibly
beautiful women. Throughout it all, the camera remains as shaky as a fiddler
on the roof; and the city that never sleeps continues to inspire, frighten,
tease, baffle and attempt to solve its own mysteries.
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Posted: July 23, 2007.