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NYPD Blue – Season 01 (A TV on DVD Review)


Season 01 (1993-1994) (20th Century Fox-2003)

In the dawn of the last decade of the twentieth century, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was putting a dazzling new sparkle on the formerly graffiti-laden and dingy New York City; meanwhile, on the West Coast, the beating of a law-defying Rodney King by enraged cops (and captured on videotape) caused the nation to wring its hands.

In the world of make-believe, traditional network television was being challenged – for the first time ever – by pay-TV channels like HBO and Showtime and their compelling counterprogramming for adults, which was both raw and refined all at once.

All this, and the O.J. Simpson trial was only around the corner. Meanwhile, the first attack on The World Trade Center was still a freshly stung slap in the face.

Out of this ground swell came ABC's NYPD Blue, which was desperately marketed as television's first R-rated drama. The R was arguable: what we got for it was some very soft porn (only seconds worth), bare asses (the good, the bad and the ugly), side profiles of breasts (all good, but absolutely no nipplage), and language not ever heard before on prime time, including "prick," "asshole" and the revolutionary "lying sack of crap."

Not exactly HBO (imagine NYPD Blue on HBO!), but one giant step for ABC. Look at it two ways: either we're a country that has a difficult time with adult situations, sex and rough language, or we're told that we're a country that has a difficult time with adult situations, sex and rough language.

The series, well-crafted and well-acted to within an inch of its life, was as new as new could be. This was a miracle, considering that by the 1990s, the cop drama seemed played out (even an innovative idea called Cop Rock, which was a police drama performed as a musical, became an industry joke).

It was word-of-mouth that shot NYPD Blue's ratings through the roof. This came as a surprise and a relief to the powers that be, being that our fear of implicit sex and straight talk can be traced back to the Pilgrims and our worrisome self-censorship of entertainment is laughed at by the rest of the world (Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl being a more recent example).

Still, NYPD Blue was lighting that struck at the exact right time, in a wino's bottle. There may have been a bit too many hot women on staff at the station to be believed (Gail O'Grady, Sherry Stringfield, Amy Brenneman), but the series was still beautiful in its ugliness: the mournful Mike Post theme song set against the backdrop of a busy, nervous, messy, menacing, awesome New York; the shaky camera and the anxiety-inducing rush of the subway was as stylish and as innovative as the newness of Miami Vice a few years before; only unlike Vice, Blue had complex stories (though simple at first) and amazing characters that actually breathed real breath. And depth. Unlike Vice, Blue wasn't just style triumphing over substance.

Midtown Manhattan may have been becoming Disney-fied, but the Lower East Side, where Blue takes place, was still a hotbed of scummy stories and a persistent tap on the shoulder from the old, bad-boy New York, the kind depicted on film in the seventies, the place from which to stay away, to clutch your purse or wallet tighter to your person.

The series gives us glimpses of corpses (quickly), crimes so heinous (or as Gail O' Grady's character says, "heeen-ee-ous"), interrogations so heated and confessions of guilt so tour-de-force that all cop shows that had come before this one immediately appear phony.

It's just another day on the job for the underpaid and overworked force, who go on hunches by day and make love in front of steamy camera lenses at night (though honestly, the romantic scenes often seem tacked on and gratuitous). No doubt, though, that the series repeats its message over and over: the bridge between death and life is love.

We get David Caruso only in this compelling first season, which is a real damn shame. The long and strange tradition of Blue is that most characters come and go just as we warm up to them, but Caruso's parting (for a movie career) was unforgivable to the people of this nation. He was not soon excused, not until CSI: Miami, which debuted almost a decade later.

Being that Caruso is quite possibly the world's best actor, with the streetwise tough/tender/dignified/stand-up guy thing he has going on, and his ability to be a good listener (elbows on his knees, chin down, eyes up), he was an eight-cylinder engine that kept the series revving out of the starting gate. Though he spawned a parade of successors, Caruso was the real deal and ultimately not as easily replaceable as we tried to convince ourselves.

Dennis Franz (here playing Detective Andy Sipowitcz), was first seen on TV in many reincarnations (Hill Street Blues, The Bay City Blues, Beverly Hills Buntz), but it's on Blue that he takes his well-deserved shot at center stage, for the entire run of the series and sporting a long list of tragedies that befall his pathetic but fascinating character.

"I'd rather be lucky than good," he observes in this first season, but evolves in the exact opposite way.

We perk up every time he gets the least bit annoyed. Watching him be pissed off and not suffer fools gladly had quickly become America's favorite pastime. His sour cynicism is nothing short of a work of art ("Whoever invented cellular phones should be hung by his nuts," he bellows), but his romance with lawyer Sylvia (Sharon Lawrence) is a wash-rinse-repeat of Andy goofing up (saying or doing the wrong thing) and then telling her, "I apologize." It's tiresome, but he comes a long way from his first meeting with her on Episode One, where he calls her a "pissy little bitch" and America's mouth drops open.

Blue also gets right its casting of day players, amazing actors portraying everyone from the rich and powerful to the scum of the earth, most of whom you never see again. However, there are a few soon-to-be familiar faces here, most notably David Schwimmer, eventually of Friends, who actually says, "I haven't made that many friends in New York." Little does he know.

You'll also nod your head at Don Stark (the permed dad on That 70s Show, here playing a sleazy private investigator) and Michael Ian Black (the standout commentator on VH1's I Love The… series) as a gay hustler.

As well, recognize Mitch Ryan (the detached captain of industry on Dharma and Greg) wowing us as an old-time racist Irish cop. And the über-amazing Daniel Benzali, who begins his recurring fabulousness as the bald, arrogant, superstar attorney James Sinclair by saying, "Everyone's entitled to an attorney. They're just not entitled to me."

The series runs for a satisfying and electric twelve seasons, with its revolving-door cast of Hemingway-code macho men and smart, impossibly beautiful women. Throughout it all, the camera remains as shaky as a fiddler on the roof; and the city that never sleeps continues to inspire, frighten, tease, baffle and attempt to solve its own mysteries.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: July 23, 2007.


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