Farewell to the 15th

Spiowicz and 'Blue' crew redefined modern police drama

The detective sits on the witness stand, squirming inside a cheap suit that probably hasn’t fit right since Dukakis rode in that tank. He’s half in the bag, struggling to stay upright long enough to finish his bogus story about finding illegal cigarettes in the car of the mobster he hates.

When the judge predictably throws out the bust for lack of probable cause, the detective takes out his frustration on the weary female prosecutor. She tries scolding him with the Latin phrase “res ipsa loquitur,” to which he responds by grabbing his crotch and snarling, “Ipsa this, you pissy little bitch!”

This was the face of the greatest cop show ever?

Of course it was.

When it arrived on TV screens a dozen years ago, “NYPD Blue” was known for its nudity and rough language, part of co-creator Steven Bochco’s plan to reclaim the creative high ground from pay cable. But as it goes off the air tonight, what “Blue” will be most celebrated for is its warts-and-all celebration of the working men and women of the NYPD, as embodied week after intense week by one Det. Andy Sipowicz.

Sipowicz wasn’t supposed to be the star of the show, not at first. David Caruso’s John Kelly was the leading man, and he fit more into the traditions of tough yet fair TV cops we had met before, from Joe Friday through Frank Furillo, hero of Bochco and David Milch’s previous masterpiece, “Hill Street Blues.” Kelly got the girls, Kelly closed the cases, Kelly stood up for his friends.

Sipowicz? Sipowicz was a mess, even before he took some bullets late in the pilot. Alcoholic. Bigot. Foul-tempered. Foul-mouthed. He also had echoes of previous TV cops, but mainly bad guys, such as Sal Benedetto, the crooked detective Dennis Franz memorably played on “Hill Street.” He was there as Kelly’s sidekick and foil, not much more.

But then two things happened. First, Caruso let the show’s instant success go to his head (“I was imploding to some degree,” he would say years later) and became difficult to work with. Second, Milch discovered that Sipowicz’s voice matched his own. As that first season went along, Sipowicz cleaned up his act — but just a little — and began taking over the show. By the time Caruso quit to pursue a movie career, Sipowicz had already moved to the drama’s center.

Other fine actors followed, from Jimmy Smits to Rick Schroder to Mark-Paul Gosselaar, but “Blue” became Sipowicz’s show.

Just as it should have been.

Sipowicz wasn’t glamorous, and neither was the world he worked in. His clothes were ugly, his cases uglier. But he and they always felt real.

That’s a testament to Franz, and to Bochco and Milch, but it’s also a testament to Bill Clark, a decorated 25-year veteran of the real NYPD who became the show’s technical adviser, and later one of its exec producers.

Most of Sipowicz’s caseload, if not his personality, came straight from Clark. Bochco and Milch picked his brain for every last detail about each case, and it was those little touches — partners arguing over whether to offer soda to a witness, grieving parents pointing to a pigeon on a rooftop as a sign their son’s spirit lived on — that helped make the show great.

Jonathan Littman is exec producer of all of CBS’ Jerry Bruckheimer cop shows, whose emphasis on plot and procedure over characterization seems antithetical to the “Blue” model. But he says his shows owe a huge debt to Sipowicz and company.

“The thing about ‘NYPD Blue’ and all the Bochco stuff is the reality of it,” Littman says. “When Steven brought ‘NYPD Blue’ onto the air, nobody would go near it, advertiser-wise, because it was real. It would show an ugly side of the world. He raised the bar when he went on the air so that for everyone else it can be slick, but it better be real and it better seem accurate. And if it’s not, you’re going to get caught because the audience isn’t going to believe you.”

It would be easy to look at the current state of primetime and assume that “Blue” has had little, if any, lasting impact.

Bochco’s crusade for R-rated network television never quite caught on, and disappeared altogether post-Nipplegate. And while cop shows dominate network TV today the way that Westerns used to in the ’50s, most of them are either “Law & Order” and “CSI” spinoffs or shows in that mold.

Bochco himself, asked recently what effect he felt his show had made on network TV, shrugged and said, “I don’t know that it has.”

But Littman is right. Thanks in large part to the success of “Blue,” the audience demands authenticity from its cop shows, almost hungers them. Since “Blue” debuted, fluffy, reality-divorced shows like “Fastlane” or “Hawaii” — the kind of dumb and loud rides that might have been big hits in the ’70s or ’80s — have come and gone without anyone caring.

The audience doesn’t want car chases and flashy clothes from its cop shows anymore. It wants realism. It wants truth. It wants Andy Sipowicz, or someone as honestly written as him.

In one of the series’ more memorable story arcs, Sipowicz’s son Andy Jr. prepared to enter the police academy by taking a few private lessons with his old man. At the end of one of them, Andy told him, “This is a good job for people like us. We don’t have a lot of education, but we can read and write, and we’re honest. Don’t ever embarrass this job.”

“I won’t,” Andy Jr. replied.

“I know you won’t.

Thanks to “NYPD Blue” and its perfectly imperfect hero, the job has had no reason to be anything but proud for the past 12 years.

Newark Star-Ledger TV critic Alan Sepinwall has a Web site dedicated to “NYPD Blue.”

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