Precinct politics

Getting at police underbelly remains show's legacy

BY RICK KUSHMAN

Any good discussion of “NYPD Blue” starts with those early scenes that led to Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz getting shot. A lot of viewers sitting there in 1993 were thinking that this guy’s got to die.

It was hard to figure “Blue” — with all that talk of broken taboos — to be anything more than flash. How could a series with any brains or grace have a character who’s that big of a jerk at its center?

Saying that now sounds positively quaint. It turned out Sipowicz and a pack of other immensely complicated, sometimes unlikable characters would power this show, and it would blow us away.

Twelve seasons later, now that Sipowicz is more like trusted family and the messy bunch at the 15th Precinct remains an endearing tangle of foibles, good intentions and humanity, it’s easier to see “NYPD Blue” for what it would become: one of the great battleships of television.

Its impact can’t be understated. The ground it has broken made way for so much of what is good about TV now. Never mind the language and nudity; those were bonus features, maybe a bit of misdirection. “NYPD Blue’s” real legacy goes deeper, and is more profound. “Blue” told vital stories about crime, race and class. It gave us fleshed-out people — sometimes irrational, often wrong — making their way through all the complexities of being human, and it did it with nuance and an unblinking eye.

Who else showed an angry black man and an angry white man butt heads over race with no real resolution? Who else let Sipowicz and Lt. Fancy (the underappreciated James McDaniel) carry a racial feud, muddled even more by their authority issues, not just for episodes, but for seasons?

And “Blue” detailed some of the genuine heroism in being a cop. It wasn’t the save-the-speeding-bus “Starsky and Hutch” stunts, but the grind-it-out work, the guy on the beat helping a working stiff, the battles against politics, bureaucratic pressure and, sometimes, your own feelings.

The echoes of what Steven Bochco and David Milch created with “NYPD Blue,” the intensity and the depth, are everywhere on TV — some of it, to be sure, is carryover from Bochco’s “Hills Street Blues.” You see it not just in the great cop shows such as “The Shield” and “The Wire,” but in so many great characters, all the way up to, I’ll argue, Tony Soprano. Often unlikable. Volcanic. Not particularly trim. Andy and Tony could be cousins, and wouldn’t you love Thanksgiving at their house.

Just on power and content, “NYPD Blue” ranks among the TV classics. Then there are the 19 Emmys, the jittery cameras (now used everywhere) and, of course, all those butts.

But what makes any TV show live, what makes it echo, are its simple abilities to entertain and to make us connect and feel. Through most of its run, with kinetic John Kelley, the cool Bobby Simone, mercurial Diane Russell, and always Andy Sipowicz, these were people who stayed with you: It was an hour of television you could not miss.

If by season 12 — a bounce-back season by the way — “NYPD Blue” isn’t the appointment viewing it once was, it doesn’t make all those years when it was a major TV event and it kept the lights on at ABC any less bright.

There was a scene a few weeks back, when Sipowicz — irascible, battered, valiant Sipowicz — got promoted to sergeant. He is headed to the ceremony and everyone seems to have gone home. Then he walks downstairs and sees the squad, the detectives and the uniforms, lined up and saluting. Sipowicz stops. His eyes are wide and soft. Then he salutes and marches proudly through the lines of his friends and fellow cops, and walks out into the night.

That scene was more than just a hero’s moment for Sipowicz, it was a metaphor for the whole series. Sipowicz, war-horse that he is, has carried this war-horse of a drama on his shoulders for a dozen years, and together they left the building to stand among the best characters and best shows TV has seen.

Rick Kushman is the TV critic for the Sacramento Bee.

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