(NOTE: This column originally ran in The Star-Ledger of NJ on Feb. 27, 2005.)

Farewell to NYPD Blue: Bye-Bye, 'Blue'

By Alan Sepinwall

The cop sits in a cheap metal chair, hands folded in his lap, face to face with pure evil.

Evil is wearing a fairly innocuous face at the moment, looking very much like a pale, trembling homeless drunk named Freddy. The cop, a growly, middle-aged hulk named Sipowicz, no stranger to booze himself, suspects Freddy of raping and murdering a nine-year-old boy and he's going to get a confession, no matter how distasteful it is to sit a few dirty floor tiles away from this creature.

"You want to help with this thing, Freddy, don't you?" Sipowicz asks, his face devoid of any emotion. "I know this has gotta be tearing you up inside, but you're gonna feel a lot better if you just tell the truth. Did you have sex on him?"

"Yeah," says Freddy, his breath heavier with each passing second, and as he explains how he forced the boy to drink until he passed out, then strangled him to death when he woke up in the middle, Sipowicz leans back, puts his hands behind his head and fights every impulse to keep hitting Freddy until he's just a stain on the interview room wall.

The confession secured, Sipowicz stands and bolts the room. His mustache twitching, he looks for something to vent his fury on, finally smashing a wooden door in two with his fists. His colleagues look over for a moment, then return to work like they see something like this every day - probably because they do.

Dennis Franz's gutter mouth and Amy Brenneman's naked rear end might have attracted all the attention when "NYPD Blue" debuted a dozen years ago, but that interrogation scene from the series' seventh episode, "NYPD Lou," may have been the more important one.

"Blue" had two creators: Steven Bochco, a producer with a canny commercial instinct; and David Milch, a writer battling his personal demons by putting them into his work.

For Bochco, the nudity and curse words were an attention-getter, a way to compete with the more relaxed content standards on cable.

For Milch, that stuff was just a cover, a way to make the censors and the audience accept the material he really wanted to use: Frank discussions of race, addiction, violence, sexual misconduct, civil liberties and urban decay.

And, from time to time, monsters like Freddy.

Bochco and Milch's previous collaboration, "Hill Street Blues," had touched on many of those subjects, but not with the depth Milch envisioned for this new show. "Hill Street" was groundbreaking for its day, but it was still television as far as Milch was concerned, introducing tough material but keeping it at a safe distance from both the characters and the audience. The cops could never use an insult tougher than "hairball" or "dog breath," which only called attention to the fact that these weren't real people, that these crimes, though terrible, didn't really matter.

By using real swear words and showing characters having sex without an artfully draped sheet concealing their private parts, Milch was slashing through any barriers that might have kept viewers from accepting Sipowicz and his partners as real people tackling real, raw problems. The Freddy interrogation scene doesn't feature any cursing or even graphic descriptions of what Freddy did to the boy, but because the show had dealt with its audience with such candor up to that point, the viewers could accept a story this ugly and tragic as an authentic part of Sipowicz's world, and not just a bit of shock value designed for sweeps.

Similarly, that honesty allowed viewers to embrace Sipowicz, warts and all, as a conflicted hero, where an earlier show might have had to treat him as cautionary tale at best, a bad guy at worst.

"I remember a conversation I had (with Bochco) in the very beginning," Franz said at the show's farewell press conference. "I said, 'Who is going to give a damn about this guy? He's a womanizer. He's a loose cannon. He's a drunk. He's an atheist. He's got everything going against him. Who's going to care whether he lives or dies?' And I got the vote of confidence from Steven saying, 'Dennis, you will find a way to make him likable.'"

When we first meet him, Sipowicz is a trainwreck, making trumped-up arrests of crooks he doesn't like, slipping out of work in mid-afternoon for a shot and a beer and making sure not to miss his regular Tuesday quickie with Lois the hooker.

But as played by Franz and written by Milch (inserting all his most primal instincts into the character), Sipowicz became a noble, defiantly appealing symbol of both policework and the series' alternately bleak yet optimistic worldview.

Sipowicz was crude, angry, violent, prejudiced and an alcoholic, but he was also decent, loyal, tenacious and irrestisibly funny. He was terrified of change (meeting new partner Bobby Simone for the first time, he immediately decided it wouldn't work out because Bobby greeted him with "How are you doing?"), yet surprisingly willing to accept people on their own terms given time (his evolving friendship with gay civilian aide John Irvin was one of the show's funniest and most touching).

The show's New York was similarly bursting with contradictions. At times, it was a dark and opressive prison, one that consumed doomed young lawyer Josh "4-B" Goldstein (a then-uknown David Schwimmer) when he couldn't get over being mugged in his apartment building's laundry room. At others, it was a place of great beauty and strength, as we saw whenever Simone would release his homing pigeons to soar over the East River after a trying day at the office.

The other characters could be just as paradoxical as Sipowicz. John Kelly, the redheaded firebrand played all too briefly by David Caruso, was a second-generation cop and apparent straight arrow, but he helped his girlfriend cover up a murder, and in another episode he explained to a younger detective exactly when, how and why he would be willing to violate the Constitution and beat a confession out of a suspect.

(Eventually, the series' use of smacks and punches to secure a statement became self-congratulatory, but at first, it was revolutionary for a cop show to view excessive force not as something to be villified or overly praised, but simply as a fact of life for many detectives.)

Sipowicz originally viewed boss Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel) as an Affirmative Action paper pusher, but Fancy and Sipowicz's ongoing racial discourse featured some of the most insightful and blunt discussion of the subject that TV has ever seen.

In one memorable early episode, Andy gets into a shouting match with a suspect who thinks he's being interviewed solely because of his skin color. After work, Fancy drags Sipowicz to a rib joint where Andy's the only white patron.

As Sipowicz squirms, Fancy smiles and says, "You're being served, aren't you, Andy? They cooked those ribs for you. Maybe they wanted to spit in the plate, but they didn't. They served your white (behind) just like they would anyone else who came in here. Even though some of them hate your guts. So why would you feel uncomfortable, Andy? You got your meal. What difference does it make what they're thinking? That they don't like you, that's just an opinion. Why should that bother you?

"Now what if they had badges and guns?"

But Fancy wasn't some tokenized saint. In a later episode, he and his wife get pulled over by a racist uniform cop who's suspicious of a black couple driving a nice car through a white neighborhood. Fancy takes a perverse pleasure in arranging for the guy to be transferred to a black section of Brooklyn, pulling back only when someone points out that he's about to make life a lot worse for the people on the cop's new beat.

The sex scenes occasionally felt perfunctory - especially the way the camera went out of its way to pan down and show Jimmy Smits or Kim Delaney's rear ends - but more often than not were used to illustrate points about these characters that couldn't be made outside the bedroom. The entire Bobby Simone/Diane Russell relationship was less about titilation than sublimation; these two probably couldn't deal with their jobs if it wasn't for their nightly bedroom gymnastics.

The show didn't always do right by its female characters, who were usually viewed as little more than romantic appendages for the men. In the worst instance, no-nonsense Det. Adrienne Lesniak was so ruined by a story arc where she turned into a shrew while dating another cop that the writers just sent her out for coffee one day and never bothered to explain why she didn't come back.

As inevitably happens on a show that runs for 12 years, certain stories and themes got trotted out over and over, notably Sipowicz's growing stockpile of dead relatives and partners.

Milch left at the end of the seventh season, so burned out towards the end that he was still writing scripts hours before scenes were supposed to shoot. For Milch's last episode, Franz was preparing for a scene where Sipowicz rants at God in a hospital chapel, but he had no lines to memorize until Milch wandered onto the set, ordered a production assistant to start transcribing, and spat out a stream of consciousness monologue that Franz repeated verbatim for the cameras a few minutes later.

With Milch gone, the show became more consistent but less exciting, and the cast got increasingly pretty. The writers gradually domesticated Sipowicz - he'll end the series with a gorgeous wife, three small children and a respectable role as the new leader of the 15th squad - but he remained such a sturdy character that Franz kept the show watchable no matter how repetitive and tame it got.

It would be easy to look at the current state of primetime and dismiss "Blue" as an anomaly. Salty language and nudity never really spread to other network shows, and even "Blue" itself had to ease back on them for the last year and a half thanks to Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. Police dramas dominate network TV, but most are modeled on the plot-heavy, characterization-light "Law & Order" and "CSI" models.

But the great cable dramas of the last half-decade arguably wouldn't have existed without "Blue." The emergence of Sipowicz as a prickly, deeply flawed hero paved the way for the likes of Tony Soprano and "Shield" cop Vic Mackey, sending a message that if the writing was strong enough, viewers could be convinced to like just about anyone. And the "CSI" shows and their imitators regularly deal with subject matter - blood, gore and kinky crime - that would have been unthinkable pre-"Blue."

The series may be going out with a bit of a whimper, but a dozen years ago, it was the big bang that ushered in a golden age of TV drama, a perfect mixture of anger and joy, of faith and skepticism. 

Even an unspeakably dark storyline like the one from "NYPD Lou" found a way to end on a hopeful but true note:

Sipowicz and his partner Kelly go to tell the dead boy's parents about Freddy's arrest and confession. The parents, sober-faced Polish immigrants, quickly usher the detectives across the street to look at a lovely white dove that had perched on the roof of their building the day their son died.

The mother asks the detectives if they see a light coming from the bird, and explains that they believe it's really their son, come back in this new form "to let us know that he is all right in his soul."

Sipowicz looks at the grieving parents, then up at the bird. 

"I think there is a light there, coming out of him," he says, easing their pain, if just for a moment.

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