By Ken Tucker
March 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Although NYPD Blue‘s Andy Sipowicz and Hill Street Blues‘ suspect-chomping Mick Belker might make it seem otherwise, TV has usually preferred its police officers to be mannerly, shrewd, and moral: Think Dragnet‘s Joe Friday, Columbo, Kojak, Cagney, Lacey. The notion of the uncouth, break-all-the-rules cop entered popular culture most forcefully not via television, but in the movies — with Gene Hackman’s corrosive performance as brutal, ruthless Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin’s 1971 film The French Connection.

By probably no coincidence at all, the standout member of the remarkable ensemble that inhabits Big Apple is Ed O’Neill, best known as the doofus father on Married…With Children, but who also once played Popeye Doyle in a 1986 TV movie of the same name. O’Neill never got much credit for his portrayal of loutishness beyond the call of duty on Married (one of those shows that got tagged as junk the moment it arrived on our screens), but O’Neill was doing solid, deadpan comedic work there, and laboring on a low-rent Fox sitcom can only have toughened his hide and honed his chops for his classier dramatic role as Big Apple homicide cop Mike Mooney.

Mooney is what Married‘s Al Bundy would’ve been with a badge, more testosterone, and class animus: In the pilot episode alone, Mooney told an uppity FBI agent played by Titus Welliver (Falcone) to ”kiss my underpaid Irish a– ,” and later decked Welliver’s weaselly sap for good measure. The G-man had, after all, referred to Mooney and his ilk as ”NYPD clowns.”

Again by probably no coincidence at all, that phrase finds itself in a show cocreated by producer-writer David Milch — cocreator of NYPD Blue. Milch isn’t exactly insulting his previous job; he’s using his new show to explore the hierarchy of law enforcement. In Big Apple, police detective Mooney, all bullheadedness and bluster, as well as his younger, more politic partner (Jeffrey Pierce), are ordered to team up with the FBI in a major organized-crime sting connected to a murder case Mooney was investigating. This situation gets at the drama’s emotional core: Mooney’s resentment at having his case pulled away from him by what he views as arrogant feds — and when you want arrogance, you can’t do better than David Strathairn (A Map of the World), who does stiff-necked truculence as well as anyone.

Add Michael Madsen as a rogue FBI informer who acts as if he’s just waiting for CBS standards and practices to turn its back so he can pull out his Reservoir Dogs razor, and you’ve got one darn good crime story. Some may say that the series’ murky hues and murkier plot give it the air of that 1996 CBS ratings loser, EZ Streets; I say, hang in for what could be a good, wild ride: O’Neill is ferocious, and who’s not looking for a good reason to bail out on ER Thursday nights at 10 p.m.?

Like O’Neill, Denis Leary also plays an Irish, loose-cannon Manhattan crime fighter on a new show, titled The Job, which we know from NYPD Blue is cop talk for police work. Leary cocreated The Job with The Larry Sanders Show‘s Peter Tolan, and this half hour is billed as a comedy, but it’s no Barney Miller. Actually, The Job is more like NYPD Blue played for laughs. Shot on film with intentionally herky-jerky camera work, The Job is surprisingly effective. Leary, whose jaded-wise-guy persona can get annoying fast, has found a good character here; his Mike McNeil is, in the words of his partner (Bill Nunn), a ”smokin’, drinkin’, and self-medicatin”’ punk, who’s cheating on his wife (Wendy Makkena) with a steady girlfriend (Karyn Parsons).

So why should we like McNeil as a TV-show protagonist? Because we like screw-ups (The Job comes a lot closer to the tone of Robbie Coltrane’s incorrigible British crime solver in Cracker than Robert Pastorelli did in his 1997 Americanized version) — especially screwups who acknowledge their sins and are good at their work. Mike may pull out a mint tin full of pain-killers, pop one, and say, ”That box and a bottle of Bushmills is the only thing keepin’ me from takin’ a hostage, OK?,” but he also admits to the ”idiotic path that I’m on,” even as he nabs crooks and coaxes confessions from killers.

Both Big Apple and The Job may seem, on the surface, like cop-business-as-usual, but each, in its own way, digs new grooves into its well-worn genre.
Big Apple: B+
The Job: B