The dream of ’90s TV drama is alive, on Hulu! A few months after the subscription service finally brought ER into the streaming world, it followed with the addition of NYPD Blue to its ranks. This was a bit less momentous, both because NYPD even at its peak was never as popular as ER, and because NYPD has been available to stream in the past (Amazon had its rights for a while), but it still feels symmetrical and satisfying to have two of that decade’s heaviest hitters available at the same time, in the same place.
NYPD Blue is one of the best and most influential TV dramas ever made: a police procedural with complex dialogue (not just the new-for-network profanity, but the overall richness and circuitousness of the syntax), themes, and characterization, and with an anti-hero at the center of it (Dennis Franz as bigoted, alcoholic cop Andy Sipowicz) who helped make the likes of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Walter White possible. It’s aged a bit less well than ER or some other contemporaries like Homicide (still not available to stream anywhere), in part because its storytelling could be fairly erratic (co-creator David Milch has many abundant strengths, but narrative follow-through was not one of them here), in part because its pro-police brutality politics(*) wouldn’t really fly today, but the best parts of it — the first three seasons in particular — feel as vital and as profound now as it did during the Clinton administration.
(*) In the early days, the show was judicious in how it depicted cops using physical force in interrogations, with one episode (the first season’s “Tempest in a C-Cup”) essentially an hour-long explanation of the specific and rare instances where it should be considered acceptable. After a while, it became a regular part of the show, often presented in a way where the audience was meant to cheer on Sipowicz when he smacked a suspect, or empathize with him when circumstances forced him to restrain from doing so.
When ER made its streaming debut, I picked out 10 episodes newbies could sample to get a sense of why it was one of TV’s biggest-ever deals. I then promptly ignored my advice and watched the great majority of the series (because it’s okay to rewatch old shows even in Peak TV), and even wrote a few thousand words about the Benton/Carter relationship, before finally giving up the ghost after the second chopper came for Romano and jumping ahead to the final season’s last few episodes.
I’m not planning a similar NYPD binge, if only because I’ve already seen every episode multiple times from my days as a rookie TV critic and recapper, but it’s been so long since the series was at the forefront of cultural conversation that I wanted to provide a similar blueprint for newcomers to sample what made it so special and so connected to the great TV we watch now. You could probably just watch the first dozen or so episodes (the pilot through “Up on the Roof”), which feature the show’s one successful period of sustained arc storytelling, but that would deprive you of getting to know so many other people who didn’t turn up until much later. So here are 15 (instead of 10, because I couldn’t abandon a couple of two-parters, and prefer round-ish numbers) to teach you all about humps, skells, squeezing shoes, reaching out, and all the other famous Sipowitticisms:
“Pilot” (Season one, episode one)
The development process for the series took a year longer than normal for broadcast TV, as legendary co-creator Stephen Bochco (who passed away earlier this month) and the head of ABC had to have long and complicated negotiations about the kinds of profanity and nudity that could be included. All that extra time to bake led to one of the best pilots ever made, making an instant impression with a drunk and bitter Detective Sipowicz — at that stage, primarily a supporting player and foil to David Caruso’s self-righteous hero cop, John Kelly — making a fool of himself on the witness stand and then on the courthouse steps, then with Kelly juggling a half-dozen professional and personal crises, including the end of his marriage to ADA Laura Kelly (future ER star Sherry Stringfield), a fling with uniform cop Janice Licalsi (Amy Brenneman), and trying to keep his rogue partner alive and on the job. Everything is here from the start: the jagged camerawork, the salty and/or complicated language, the sex, and the profound sadness of the whole affair.