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''NYPD Blue'': Show to watch

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In a fall season overrun with smiley sitcoms, fatuously functional families, and lovey-dovey messages, what a relief it is to spend time with the fascinatingly screwed-up guys who pass as the heroes of the season’s most compelling new drama, NYPD Blue. There’s John Kelly (David Caruso), a world- weary police detective who’s depressed and angry about his failing marriage. And there’s Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), a career cop on the skids — a lewd, crude fireball described by one colleague as ”a drunk who won’t help himself.”

The police work — and the officers’ private lives — carry the weight of truth in NYPD Blue (premiering Sept. 21): Tempers fray; clues lead nowhere; people are tempted by all sorts of bad things and succumb. ”This is the 27th or 28th cop that I’ve played,” says Franz. ”And I’ve spent the last year and a half trying to avoid playing another cop.” But Sipowicz was too vivid a character to pass up, so Franz signed on.

Now you’d think that having overseen production of the season’s best pilot episode, Steven Bochco could sit back and let the raves pour in. But no: Because some members of Congress and the controversy-starved media have turned the issue of violence on television into some sort of moral Armageddon, the man who has given us some of the police genre’s best (Hill Street Blues) and most peculiar (Cop Rock) work now has to justify his creativity. While noting that Hill Street ”was a significantly more violent show, I think, than [NYPD] will ever be,” Bochco doesn’t shy away from defending gunplay and fistfights: ”When you make shows that by virtue of their subject matter occasionally incorporate violence, you hope that your use of it is justifiable within the context of stories that you’re telling.”

And what would a kafuffle over violence be without one over racy language and sex? Sipowicz’s profane mouth is giving ABC’s standards-and-practices department ulcers, and Bochco has already trimmed 15 seconds out of a lovemaking scene between Kelly and a woman who’s not his wife. ”Those things — the language and the so-called nudity — you want to be able to go out and do them [on television],” Bochco says. ”And why not? Are there people out there not doing those things?” Not many, beleaguered Steve. Hey, would people just get off this guy’s back and let him make more good TV?

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