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In 1993, the TV landscape was a far, far different place. Shows like “Murder, She Wrote,” “Coach” and “Grace Under Fire” sat comfortably at the top of the heap, and audiences seemed content with a steady diet of crime-solving sexagenarians and bland, inoffensive sitcoms.
Then “NYPD Blue” hit the air amid a flurry of bluster, boycotts, and bare butts, and everything changed. Now, 12 years later, “Blue” is ending its shift, with its March 1 series finale (10 p.m. ET, ABC). And the show has left behind a lot more than just a dirty ring around the television tub.
Yes, “NYPD Blue” was packed with more than its share of swearing and nudity — the envelope-pushing program exhibited an R-rated cable sensibility just as HBO was beginning to unveil its own adult-situation-heavy original programming.
“Blue” begat show after show that tried to match it, flawed hero for flawed hero, swear for swear. But only the shows which understood that it wasn’t just about the shock factor survived. Some of the most successful descendents, like “EZ Streets,” “The Sopranos” and “The Shield,” owe their entire runs to the ground that “Blue” broke.
As much as “Blue” buoyed in recent seasons, those early shocking episodes — Dennis Franz’s pasty-butted shower scene notwithstanding — still hold up as the show’s shiniest moments. But “Blue” could have been DOA before it even hit the air. When the American Family Association organized a pre-broadcast boycott, dozens of ABC affiliates refused to air the show. The move backfired, though, and in markets where the show did run, viewers tuned in to see what all the hubbub was about. The spooked stations eventually came around, and “NYPD Blue” eventually became both a top-10 commercial and a critical success — with a total of 82 Emmy nominations over its run.
“NYPD Blue” took what was grittily perfect about its beloved predecessor, Steven Bochco’s long-running series “Hill Street Blues” (on which “Blue” co-creator David Milch was a writer and Dennis Franz had not one, but two, roles), and kept on pushing, dealing out equal parts stark drama, dark humor and jittery camera moves.
David Caruso’s John Kelly and Franz’s Andy Sipowicz were at the center of a small-screen revitalization, shattering what viewers thought network fare was all about. And today, TV is what it is because of one overweight, alcoholic cop, his rotating roster of coworkers, and the gritty, grimy — and altogether real — world they inhabit.
Along the way, the series helped launch the careers of dozens of actors, many of whom went on to star in their own series, from Kim Delaney (“Philly”) and Amy Brenneman (“Judging Amy”) to Sherry Stringfield (“ER”) and David Schwimmer (“Friends”).
A long string of characters made their way in and out of the 15th precinct. Remember Donna Abandando? Sadly, the infuriating Greg Medavoy’s last chance at a good storyline walked out the door when she did. But at least she left her hair behind, now proudly worn by the latest administrative assistant to fill her seat, John Irvin. Characters like Sylvia Costas, Lt. Fancy, Lt. Rodriguez, James Martinez and Bobby Simone made way for the final lineup of Medavoy, John Clark, Rita Ortiz, Baldwin Jones, Laura Murphy, and Lt. Bale.
Sure, “NYPD Blue” faltered a bit in its middle age. Plots grew saggy, characters lay flat. Ricky Schroder came. Ricky Schroder went. But through it all, there was Sipowicz. And his journey is the one viewers want to see end happily when the final credits roll.
Sipowicz evolved from a hooker-visiting, boozing, racist jerk to become the heart of the show. He suffered through the death of two partners, a son, and a wife. With all the terrible things that happened to him over the years, he could have continued to harden until he was nothing more than a gruff piece of cop-shaped concrete, propped up against the desk.
Instead, the tragedies in his life evened him out, carving out a little more humanity with each death or piece of bad news. Call him Sipowicz 2.0. He even ranked number 31 on “TV Guide’s” list of the greatest TV dads of all time. But that’s not to say the newly tender Andy has softened into a Marshmallow Peep with a short-sleeved dress shirt and shoulder holster. Sipowicz can still kick butt when he needs to, whether he’s standing up for a colleague or a generally good suspect who made a bad decision.
The show flirted with jumping the shark last season, when producers allowed the Job-like Sipowicz to finally experience contentment, thanks to an unlikely relationship with fellow detective Connie McDowell (Charlotte Ross). Sipowicz’s improbable — but not impossible — romance with younger, better-looking Connie could have flatlined on a dramatic level. But instead it worked, and the show found a new spark. In fact, Sipowicz was the one dragging his feet in the relationship, as if to say, “Yeah, I see the difference in our ages and sex appeal as much as the audience does. If I can get over it, so can they.”
And most of them did. If anything, the fact that Andy now had a relatively stable life with a wife, son, and two new babies cranked up the tension by upping the stakes. He now has something to live for: a bright future. (One disappointing note to this otherwise uplifting coda: Due to Ross’s departure last season and inability or refusal to reprise her role one last time, viewers will have to forgo a final shot of the new family as the series fades to black.)
“Blue” has found its stride once again. The show has been slowly but surely moving forward with each character’s storyline. Put-upon Medavoy finally retired. Clark shed his destructive ways and settled down. Sipowicz took and passed the sergeant’s exam.
There’s been Internet speculation on the dramatic ways the series could go out with one final shocker. But instead of the bombastic way many dramas sing their swan songs — blowing up sets, killing off characters — “Blue” is set to go out amid the clickety-clack of keyboards and muffled rings of telephones. It’s business as usual at the 15th.
“NYPD Blue” is ending the only way it could end, the only way viewers who have stuck with the show over the years would be satisfied: with Sipowicz truly happy, in charge of the squad, and content with his life. It’s going out not with a bang, not with a whimper, but someplace in between.
With the explosive way it burst onto the scene, a quiet, dignified exit for this often-shocking show may be the biggest, most satisfying surprise of all.
Brian Bellmont is a writer living in Minneapolis.