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.
“Emission Accomplished” (Season One, episode five)
Caruso behaved very badly through his star-making season-plus stint on the show. He kicked a trash can at Franz’s head, without warning, while rehearsing a scene, and Milch would later blame his difficult leading man for the heart attack he suffered midway through that season. But before he devolved into a sunglasses-wielding self-parody on CSI: Miami, he was a riveting, intuitive actor, and rarely are his gifts in this role on better display than in this early episode where Kelly tries to save protege James Martinez (Nicholas Turturro) from having to risk his career by going against a dirty cop. The final scene, involving a bagpiper at a cemetery, is a beauty.
“NYPD Lou” (Season one, episode seven)
If you’ve only got time for one, this is it: the perfect distillation of the series’ ethos about the emotional hardships of police work, the episode that won Franz the first of his four Emmys in the role, and an alternately stomach-churning and poignant story of Sipowicz and Kelly investigating the child molestation and murder of a little boy whose grief-stricken immigrant parents are looking for any sign of hope in the face of so senseless a loss. Tough to watch, but incredible.
“Guns ‘N Rosaries” (Season one, episode 21)
As mentioned before, the serialized aspects of the show got very iffy after the first half-season (in part because Bochco, the more focused and talented of the creators on narrative, largely left Milch in charge of things after that), but this is a pretty riveting merger of standalone and arc storytelling, as Kelly is torn between helping Martinez clear his name in the shooting of an armed man whose gun goes missing, and helping Licalsi cope with the ongoing guilt over a terrible crime she committed earlier in the season.
(Also, look for a young Bradley Whitford as an obnoxious TV reporter whom Sipowicz enjoys creatively insulting. Though the best of the show’s Before They Were Stars recurring players was David Schwimmer as Josh “4B” Goldstein, Laura Kelly’s lovestruck neighbor, whose series-opening four-episode arc as an increasingly tragic victim of a mugging was as emotionally potent in the show’s early days as anything Kelly or Sipowicz themselves were doing.)
“In the Butt, Bob” & “Vishy-Vashy-Vinny” (Season two, episodes 10 & 11)
Caruso left early in season two to try to become a movie star, and in came Bochco’s old LA Law leading man Jimmy Smits as stoic widower Bobby Simone. Simone was never as well-written a character as John Kelly had been, but Smits brought so much soulfulness to the role, and had such abundant chemistry with Franz (where Caruso was jealous of and distant from his increasingly-popular co-star) that the series was in many ways better during their partnership. This two-parter is notable for several reasons: 1) It’s loosely based on NYPD Blue‘s technical consultant Bill Clark’s role in helping to catch the infamous Son of Sam serial killer; 2) It has Joe Pantoliano in a great guest turn as a wisecracking informant; and 3) It lets Simone take the lead on the investigation, demonstrating the impressive brains he has to go along with his intense smolder.
“Heavin’ Can Wait” (Season three, episode four)
The slow-burning Sipowicz/Simone friendship was a big part of the show’s appeal at its ratings peak, but some of the best episodes put the partners at odds. This one’s particularly ugly in the way it mixes the personal and professional, as a gruesome case is complicated by Bobby’s resentment over the fact that his recovering alcoholic girlfriend (and new squad member) Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) called Andy when she fell off the wagon rather than him.
“The Backboard Jungle” (Season three, episode 10)
The series would, across a dozen seasons, sand off virtually all of Sipowicz’s rough edges, but the early years periodically tried to remind the audience that while he was a lovable bigot, he was still a bigot. In this one, he gets in trouble for calling a black activist the N-word, and his defense that he was only throwing the man’s words back at him sounds lamer each time he says it. (Other good episodes about Sipowicz and racism: season one’s “Oscar, Meyer, Weiner,” where James McDaniel’s Lt. Fancy takes Andy to a rib joint to teach him a lesson, and season four’s “Where’s ‘Swaldo,” featuring the return of “The Backboard Jungle” activist.)
“Hollie and the Blowfish” (Season three, episode 17)
This one’s fascinating as a TV history road not taken. David Simon, having written the book that inspired Homicide, began to dabble in television, co-writing a Homicide episode with his college friend David Mills, then taking this freelance assignment on NYPD Blue after Mills was on staff there. The Blue powers that be were impressed enough by the script — guest-starring Giancarlo Esposito as a Simone informant who was also a legendary stick-up man who went after drug dealers — to offer him a full-time job at the same time the Homicide producers were trying to hire him in a similar role. Simon opted to stick with Baltimore, and the professional relationships he made there would lead to The Corner, The Wire (which featured its own famous stick-up man), and everything else. Would an apprenticeship under Milch have been as fruitful, or would the two strong-willed Davids have wanted to kill each other? We’ll never know, but it’s an awfully good hour of TV, regardless.
“A Death in the Family” & “Closing Time” (Season three, episodes 20 & 21)
If “NYPD Lou” is the series’ quintessential episode, these are probably the show’s two best, or at least its two most emotional, as a family tragedy knocks Andy off the wagon, leaving his friends in the 15th squad torn between a desire to help him in this moment of intense grief and recoil at the things he’s doing and saying now that he’s drinking again.
“Taillight’s Last Gleaming” (Season four, episode 15)
NYPD Blue could be purely gritty and realistic, but it could also aspire to more poetic and/or metaphysical types of storytelling. Nowhere are those two seemingly contradictory impulses better paired together than in this hour, which on the one hand has Lt. Fancy pondering revenge against a white uniform cop who harassed him for Driving While Black, and on the other has Sipowicz meeting The Lord Almighty, presented as a surly trucker (future Deadwood co-star Jim Beaver) at a diner in a recurring dream Andy keeps having about eldest son Andy Jr. (Michael DeLuise), who gets to congratulate his father for literally offending Jesus Christ.
“Hearts and Souls” (Season six, episode five)
The longer Milch ran the show, the later he would deliver script pages to his actors, sometimes just wandering onto the set right before cameras were about to roll and dictating new dialogue in stream-of-consciousness rants. Some actors, like Franz, thrived under these working conditions, but Smits never felt comfortable with them and opted to leave when his contract was up. Milch decided to incorporate some of his own health crises into a difficult, occasionally over-the-top, but undeniably tearjerking arc where Bobby dies of heart failure. Being stuck in a hospital bed isn’t the best showcase for Smits (who again lost the Emmy to Franz that year), but the reactions of everyone else make this a grand TV tragedy.
“Raging Bulls” (Season six, episode eight)
The surprising pick to replace Smits was former child actor Ricky Schroder (Silver Spoons), who proved up to the challenge of seeming like he belonged next to Franz, even if his character, rookie detective Danny Sorensen, tended to be all over the map emotionally before he, too, was killed off. (It didn’t help that Milch left the show midway through Schroder’s run, apparently never telling Bochco or anyone else about the deep dark secret behind Danny’s fear of “getting stirred up.”) This is more of a Sipowicz/Fancy showcase, as the long-simmering tension between the two comes to a boil, then to actual punches, in a case involving the “Taillight’s Last Gleaming” cop, but it’s also memorable for providing the first glimpse of just how scared and damaged Sipowicz’s new partner was, no matter how confidently he tried to present himself to Andy, Diane, and others.
“Oh, Mama” (Season nine, episode 12)
The first post-Milch season, like that first post-Aaron Sorkin West Wing season, is mostly a mess, playing like a clumsy attempt to reproduce a unique creative voice. After that, Bochco steered the series back towards convention, lowering its creative ceiling but also raising its floor, so that its pleasures were more consistent, if not as exuberant. Occasionally, though, the later years were able to conjure up the power of the Sipowicz/Simone days, like in this episode where Andy’s final partner, John Clark Jr. (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, another kid sitcom alum doing credible adult work, and with a better-written character than Schroder got) is faced with an impossible choice about an underage witness with a monstrous home life, and becomes convinced he chose wrong, even as Andy tries to assure him that he did the only thing he could.