October 01, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s a sense in which NYPD BLUE (ABC, Tuesdays, 10-11p.m.) is producer Steven Bochco’s way of thumbing his nose at his audience. It’s as if he said, ”All right-you didn’t like my experiment in musical police work (1990’s Cop Rock); you didn’t like my cute little cartoon show (1992’s Capitol Critters). Okay, I’ll give you what I know damn well you’ve wanted for 10 years now-I’ll remake Hill Street Blues and throw in a lot of sex and swear words, and if you don’t watch this, BLEEEEEP you.” In a way, NYPD Blue is a step back for Bochco-it’s just a cop show, with good guys, bad guys, tough talk, and wobbly,pseudo documentary-style camera work. But in a way, it’s an advance for him because this is a pretty darn great just-a-cop-show, featuring at its center a superlatively understated performance by David Caruso as New York City police detective John Kelly. Caruso has done strong work in supporting roles in such feature films as Mad Dog and Glory and King of New York, but his Detective Kelly is already an exceptional creation. Caruso manages to make Kelly seem very hard-nosed-you can easily imagine him beating a suspect if he thought it would help crack a case-and yet extremely sensitive. When he tells his nasty lug of a partner; Andy Sipowicz (played by Dennis Franz, Hill Street’s Norman Buntz),”You’re like a father to me, man,” the line loses all triteness as you look into Kelly’s infinitely sad, grateful eyes at that moment. Bochco and cocreator David Milch, another Hill Street vet, have filled NYPD Blue with so many cop-show cliches that the relentlessness of them lends the series its own sort of intensity. You’re not just caught up in the stories being told, you’re also absorbed in the way the producers are hooking you with stuff you’ve seen a thousand times before. For instance, with his red hair, pale skin, and pleasantly lumpy face, Caruso’s Kelly is your classic Irish cop. Like a lot of cops, he works long hours, and his dedication to the job has led to trouble with his wife, played by Sherry Stringfield: Over the course of the first two episodes, the couple got a legal separation. More cliches: Kelly is also a crusading cop, angry at The System . Early on in the series, he confronts a judge who has let the murderer of a child off with a light sentence. When the judge (Michael Griswold) tells Kelly he’s holding him in contempt, Kelly shoots back,’I hold you in contempt-you should be ashamed of yourself.” And let’s not forget the cliches that decorate the cliches, such as the big, gleaming Dragnet-style police badge that serves as the show’s logo; the jazzy pop soundtrack, supplied by the pervasive Mike Post (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Law & Order); and even the title of the show itself. NYPD Blue is an echo of the ’60s cop show N.Y.P.D., its added Blue-ness a faint pun, referring both to the color of police uniforms (which none of our plainclothes investigators wear) and to the series’already famously blunt language. But Milch, who wrote the show’s first two episodes, and Gregory Hoblit, who directed them, know the degree to which familiarity is alluring on series television and that the judicious use of soothing genre conventions ultimately permits you to spring surprises on viewers without alienating them. (This is the lesson Bochco and Hoblit learned from Cop Rock, a show only Bertolt Brecht could have loved.) Thus the rough language spat out by everyone-especially by Franz’s character-doesn’t seem at all shocking. Instead, it helps NYPD Blue achieve hard-boiled dialogue fully equal to that of first-rate thriller novelists like Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. It’s this style of talk-police jargon riddled with in-jokes and insults (New Yawk mobsters who respond to a hostile question by sneering, ”Izzat a tret?”)-that gives NYPD Blue its juiciness. The pilot show had an over-hyped sex scene, but the series doesn’t rely on inches of skin to keep viewers glued to the set. Sex and violence certainly have their place here, but they’re placed in the context of a vivid city that, as dangerous, seamy, and profane as it can be, is a place you want to revisit every week. A-

TV Show
run date
Steven Bochco,
David Milch
David Caruso,
Dennis Franz,
Jimmy Smits
Complete Coverage

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