Sure, the nudity was startling. But the proof that “NYPD Blue” would be a bold and unsettling new force on TV was police Detective Andy Sipowicz’s snarled insult.
“Ipso this, you pissy little -----,” he told an attorney spouting legalisms at him in the 1993 debut episode, emphasizing the b-word with a crotch-grabbing gesture.
“NYPD Blue” — which ends its 12-year run 10 p.m. EST March 1 — had no intention of being polite. Building on creator Steven Bochco’s “Hill Street Blues,” it was an in-your-face saga of cops whose lives were as troubled as the streets they protected.
The new drama went a step — a leap — beyond with frank sexuality that included bare skin and an emotionally raw, adult approach to life’s complexities: Alcoholism, racism and more were part of the caseload along with crime.
As the show nears its end, it’s clear “NYPD Blue” was able to shift boundary lines but not obliterate them. Another flash of skin — from Miss Super Bowl, Janet Jackson — has networks cowering under threat of federal indecency fines.
“We all thought television would stay shook up” after the success of “NYPD Blue,” Bochco said. But in readying the new series “Blind Justice,” which debuts March 8, he’s become acutely aware it hasn’t.
“Same time slot, same genre, same attention to grittiness and detail, and yet the battles I’m fighting with broadcast standards are totally retro, if you will,” Bochco told The Associated Press.
While the social impact of “NYPD Blue” may be in question, its legacy as one of TV’s outstanding dramas is secure.
The heart of the series
With intense co-creator David Milch (“Deadwood”) crafting scripts, “NYPD Blue” bored into the men and women of New York’s 15th Precinct, especially Sipowicz. He was etched with brutish grace by Dennis Franz as the detective evolved from tortured soul to self-acceptance and became, as Bochco says, the heart of the series.
The flesh and blue language initially frightened off major advertisers and some ABC affiliates, who refused to air it. But viewers decided — surprise, surprise — that dramatic excellence counted for something and helped “NYPD Blue” trump timidity.
Landing in Nielsen’s top 20 at the end of its first year, the program earned a best-actor Emmy for Franz for the first season and won a best drama series Emmy for the second.
Bochco wanted “to tell adult stories to adults in an adult manner,” said Franz. “He wanted more tools to tell them with and asked for those liberties to be given him by ABC. They took a chance on us and it paid off.”
With the initial shock worn off, the show settled comfortably into its long run. (Milch left after seven seasons.) For its final season, it’s ranked 49th in the ratings and is averaging 9.7 million viewers weekly — about half of its peak audience.
Parade of partners
The buzz it generated through the years (besides conjecture on the tush-of-the-week) involved cast changes: David Caruso bolting to seek elusive movie stardom (and ending up back in another crime drama, “CSI: Miami”) and the ensuing parade of partners for Sipowicz.
Jimmy Smits was on board from 1994 to ’98, then received a protracted, 24-hanky send-off when his character became fatally ill. (Smits made a recent ghostly comeback to help a troubled Sipowicz.)
Two one-time kid actors joined the squad, with Rick Schroder (“Silver Spoons”) followed by Mark-Paul Gosselaar (“Saved by the Bell”). “NYPD Blue” was so sturdy it absorbed the oddball casting and gave the newcomers a chance to shine.
Besides Franz, Gordon Clapp was the only other featured cast member on hand from the beginning, providing a welcome sense of continuity as schlubby Detective Greg Medavoy.
Compelling in their blemished individuality, the detectives stood for something larger.
“What I thought we always focused on was fleshing out the men and women who do police work for a living as having vulnerabilities, having flaws, having home lives, having losses, tragedies,” Franz said. “I also think we paid respects to the difficulty of police work and the effects the job can have on individuals,” he said.
Heading for the desk
In the season so far, Sipowicz has assessed his life at midpoint and reluctantly made the jump up to sergeant and a desk job.
Is that where his journey, and the show, ends?
Bochco said “NYPD Blue” will conclude without a bang, and he means that literally: A contrived and melodramatic finale was quickly ruled out.
“You don’t want a bomb to go off in the building,” he said. “What we finally settled on was to try to end this show in a way that implies that the life of the precinct doesn’t end. It’s just that you don’t get to visit it every week.”
Franz, 60, is ready to try something new, maybe even a movie comedy. “I spent all my 50s here. I’m the most appreciative guy on earth for this opportunity. It was wonderful, but it’s time to move on now.”
As for the series’ ultimate impact, Bochco suggests it may have helped fuel the backlash against changing cultural standards. The reaction was building, he said, with the 2004 Super Bowl just the tipping point.
“That said, in the long view, you just can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “It’s not going to happen, notwithstanding the fact that broadcast television in these days has become an extremely conservative and frightened medium.”