‘NYPD Blue’ 20th anniversary: The cop show that helped change television

As most of you know, “NYPD Blue” is the show that changed my life, prompting me to unofficially launch my career as a TV reviewer and eventually leading to my first job at The Star-Ledger. It’s also one of the shows that changed TV, albeit not in the way its creators intended.

I’ve told the former story a bunch lately. On the occasion of this weekend’s 20th anniversary of the show’s debut, it’s important to reflect on the much broader impact of “NYPD Blue.”

It arrived on ABC on September 21, 1993 with as much hype and controversy as any show anyone could remember at the time, and more than most shows have debuted with since. The idea to do an R-rated (today it’d be more PG-13) network TV cop show was the brainchild of Steven Bochco, who had defined and dominated TV drama in the ’80s with “Hill Street Blues” and then “LA Law.”

Bochco was a great storyteller – “Hill Street Blues” is essentially the “Citizen Kane” of TV drama, as he and Michael Kozoll took a variety of familiar storytelling techniques and combined them in a brand new way that changed our expectations for what the form could accomplish – but he was also a savvy businessman and student of the medium. In the early ’90s, Bochco could see the future coming, and it was one where cable would make the broadcast networks obsolete. From Brian Lowry’s recent look back at the series’ origins (a terrific read worth the click  just for the anecdote about Bochco and Bob Iger drawing nude sketches):

The one-hour drama business on network TV was “moribund,” as (Bochco) puts it, and he felt broadcasters “had to compete more aggressively, and graphically, with cable,” which was bringing uncut movies and other racy material directly into homes.

Bochco brought in David Milch, who had written so many of the most memorable episodes of “Hill Street” (and who later helped run the show after the studio fired Bochco), to help him write it. In time Milch – leaning heavily on the real-life experiences of technical supervisor Bill Clark, a legendary NYPD detective who helped catch the Son of Sam – would take over the writing process entirely, but at the start the two partners made equal contributions in different ways, and with different philosophies.

The show’s hero, divorced, self-righteous Irish-American cop John Kelly (to be played, for one season plus four episodes, by the young, very difficult but undeniably charismatic, David Caruso), was very much in the vein of “Hill Street” leading man Frank Furillo, in the same way that Kelly’s racist, alcoholic, self-destructive partner Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz, who would win four Emmys in the role) was just a more extreme version of the two characters Milch had written for Franz on “Hill Street.” Bochco was great with plot, and helped sketch out a complex 13-episode arc involving compromised patrolwoman Janice Licalsi (Amy Brenneman) being asked to murder Kelly by a local mob boss. Milch, one of the greatest wordsmiths to ever work in this medium, helped craft a distinctive style of dialogue that went above and beyond the liberal and creative use of profanity. Bochco saw the nudity and language as a way to lure the audience away from cable. Milch saw it as cover to tell much darker stories about the emotional toll of policework; while everyone – most famously the Rev. Donald Wildmon, whose condemnation of the show only brought it more publicity – was paying attention to Caruso’s naked butt and Franz saying the phrase “pissy little bitch,” Milch was busy loading up the show with frank discussions of child murder, mental illness, race relations, spirituality and more.

It was a delicate balancing act, for everyone involved. Caruso did not respond to instant celebrity well at all – Milch would later blame him for a heart attack suffered in the first season – nor to the growing popularity and screentime of Franz as Andy Sipowicz. (Milch’s memoir “True Blue” alleges that Caruso kicked a trashcan at an unsuspecting Franz’s head while filming a scene; by the end of the first season, Kelly and Sipowicz barely shared any screen time.) Bochco took a step back after the Licalsi arc concluded, and the writing became more episodic – with a few exceptions, the show was a strongly-characterized police procedural for the rest of its run – with the focus moving even more to the demons of Sipowicz. (Jimmy Smits replaced Caruso, and did fine work for four-plus seasons – he would quit because he didn’t work well with Milch’s increasingly late-arriving script page – but his soulful widower Bobby Simone existed primarily as Andy’s frustrated support system.) 

And it was Sipowicz who would ultimately be the most transformative part of the show, rather than the sideboob and frequent use of “asshole.” The Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident rolled back virtually all progress this show had made in opening network primetime TV up for blunter language and sexual images, but the deeper point – the Milch point rather than the Bochco one, to put it in incredibly simplistic terms – survived, and spread across all of television. Sipowicz – who wasn’t designed to be nearly as big a part of the show as he became, thanks to Franz’s great performance and greater on-set manners – was a hugely important transitional figure from the “complicated” but ultimately noble drama leading men of the ’80s to more genuine anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey and Walter White. Andy was also revealed to be a good guy in the way those other men would not be on their own shows, and his rough edges were sanded off one by one over the course of 12 seasons. But viewers fell in love with “NYPD Blue” back when Sipowicz was going on and off the wagon, hurling barely-veiled racial invective at new boss Lt. Fancy (James McDaniel), cursing, yelling, and beating confessions out of suspects. Sipowicz was pushing the outermost of boundaries of the “crusty but benign” archetype that Paddy Chayefsky made fun of in “Network,” and that “The Sopranos” and the cable shows that followed (including Milch’s own “Deadwood”) would gleefully burn to the ground, but I have to imagine Sipowicz’s popularity gave HBO execs some comfort as David Chase began explaining Tony Soprano to them, and Shawn Ryan has openly said that “NYPD Blue” was one of the big influences on “The Shield.”

You can absolutely see “NYPD Blue” DNA in the great cable dramas being made today, but much less so in what’s happening on network TV. Every now and again, a creator will insist they’re making “a character-heavy police procedural” like that show, and in even more rare instances – at times involving “NYPD Blue” alums, like the short-lived “Prime Suspect” remake from writer Alexandra Cunningham – those shows live up to that description. Mostly, though, network drama has become the place for more straightforward procedurals with heroes whose behavior you won’t often question; leave the complicated characters and morality to the folks in cable and on Netflix.

Bochco saw this shift happening, albeit not in exactly this way. He tried to get out ahead of it, and had a big success, a critical darling, and an Emmy magnet, for a while. And as he notes in the Lowry piece, the people who tried to shut down the show because they felt it would destroy our culture “lost the battle, because cable television, is television.”

As I wrote in the intro to my book (where the “Deadwood” chapter discusses the show even more in-depth), I assumed that “NYPD Blue” and its contemporary “Homicide”(*) were the peak of the medium dramatically. This would prove to be incorrect, thanks to Tony Soprano and those who followed him. But Tony in turn was very much following Andy Sipowicz. And though HBO didn’t have to worry about FCC fines, the success of “NYPD Blue” showed that there was a public appetite for morally complex characters, for blunter discussions of sex, but also race and class and crime and so much more, and though the other broadcasters never quite figured out how to build on that success, cable sure as hell did.

(*) People often ask me which show to try first: “Homicide” (which is available in its entirety on DVD) or “NYPD Blue” (whose first 4 seasons got DVD releases; if you want to watch the full series, Amazon Prime streams ’em all). I’ll say that you really can’t go wrong watching the first season of “NYPD” (22 eps) or the first 3 seasons of “Homicide” (33 eps), and that there’s a lot of isolated greatness in the Franz/Smits/Milch years of “NYPD,” just as there are occasional gems in middle-aged “Homicide.” That said, episode-by-episode the peak years of “Homicide” have probably aged a bit better (and “Wire” fans can find a lot of early DNA there, since the show was based on David Simon’s book, and later employed him on staff), but I would never turn anyone away from the chance to watch Franz as Sipowicz.

Virtually all of what you’ve read above was written a week ago, with the thought that I’d add some personal memories of the show before it was time to run the story. Instead, life and a ruptured appendix got in the way, and I don’t have the energy for more than one. But it’s the most important one.

In the pilot episode, we see John Kelly juggling an intriguing new relationship with Licalsi and his desire to reunite with estranged wife Laura (Sherry Stringfield). They have some enthusiastic sex, which he assumes is make-up sex and which she wants to be break-up sex, and she sends infatuated neighbor Josh “4B” Goldstein (an impossibly young and naive-seeming David Schwimmer, only a year away from playing Ross Gellar) to act as go-between in divorce proceedings. Over the course of four episodes, 4B attempted to befriend John, got mugged in the building’s laundry room, puffed up his self-esteem with a violent reprisal on his attacker, then died trying to break up a subway robbery after deciding his vigilante career wasn’t a one-shot. It’s not the kind of season-long arc we focus on so often now in TV, but it was perfect in the way it slowly and carefully let us get to know this lonely, doomed kid as he let the city eat him alive, piece by piece, despite John Kelly’s best efforts to save him. I watched his final scene at the end of episode 4 – a tearful, scared and confused 4B trying to explain what happened to the cop he wished had been his friend and mentor – and I was shaken.

I’d grown up on Bochco/Milch drama. I knew the formulas, knew the tricks. This was something deeper. This was something magical. This was something that devastated me.

This was something I knew I wanted to write about.

Twenty years later, I still am.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com