We gave it an A+
A couple of weeks have gone by since the season-ending episode of NYPD Blue, and this week the series comes back for a few weeks of reruns. It’s an opportunity, therefore, for some viewers to catch up on Blue‘s pleasingly dense story lines, and for the rest of us to savor what became, in the last episodes of its first season, an amazingly moving, vivid, and effective cop show.
Any reservations one might have had that Blue is just a canny updating of Steven Bochco’s best previous credit, Hill Street Blues, have by now been erased. Blue (created by Bochco and David Milch) has improved on Hill Street‘s trademark innovation by taking a drab police precinct station teeming with colorful, meticulously detailed individuals, and deepening those characterizations. Blue is at once more realistic (in its blunt language, its racy visual images) and more stylized (in its wobbly handheld camera angles and loose, jagged storytelling).
Bochco once remarked that Hill Street was “fundamentally a series about despair.” If so, then NYPD Blue is fundamentally a series about redemption. Most obviously, Det. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is trying to rescue his life from alcohol and loneliness; less obviously, Det. John Kelly (David Caruso) is trying to live by a code of moral honor that is constantly under siege. On Hill Street, Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) tried to stave off the feeling of hopelessness that wafted through his station house like smoke; on Blue, Kelly is ever alert to the possibility that the cynicism that is a cop’s stock in trade can also poison his soul.
It’s taken some viewers Blue‘s entire run to get used to David Caruso’s orange-red hair and milky pallor. For all the quite accurate talk about Caruso becoming an overnight hunk, his is not the chiseled mug of the TV police officers we are accustomed to — it’s more like an updated version of the classic Irish cop of countless ’30s and ’40s movies. Caruso has a face that seems to melt in bright light, which only makes his brooding seem that much more heroically vulnerable.
One of the most gratifying aspects of Blue is the way various characters have come in and out of focus, fading away for weeks at a time, then reemerging to reveal different aspects of themselves just after we’d decided we had them all figured out. That’s true of a relatively minor character like Detective Medavoy (Gordon Clapp), who until Blue‘s penultimate episode had been little more than a doofus cheating on his wife with the bodacious Donna Abandando (Gail O’Grady). Medavoy, however, has recently been allowed his own complicated life-it turns out, his wife has cuckolded him, and his attraction to Abandando has become edgily ambivalent.
Even better is the transformation of Det. Janice Licalsi (Amy Brenneman) from dependent girlfriend to ennobled confessor of two murders she couldn’t help but commit. Nowhere else on prime-time television has a woman been allowed to be so independently, stubbornly, tragically wrongheaded.
Blue, it occurs to me, provides the opposite kick of Melrose Place, where half the fun comes from characters who change partners and motivations at the drop of a spike heel; on Blue, the pleasure derives from the exquisitely long length of time required for anyone to make a major change in his or her life. It seemed, for instance, like it took half a season for Sipowicz to ask that tough-but-nice assistant DA Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence) out for a date.
So far, Blue has been able to transcend its hype in a way that TV’s other top-quality cop show, Homicide: Life on the Street, could not. It pains me to say this, but Homicide, which early on in its run went even further than NYPD Blue in exploring the ugly side of police work, became a pathetic ratings-beggar during its last three episodes. By adding comic subplots and conventionalizing its stories in a successful bid to lull NBC into renewing it, Homicide is committing creative suicide. By contrast, NYPD Blue has become that pop-culture rarity: a piece of original work that attracts a large audience by following its own desires and instincts. A+