The Blue Years

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(Pictured: NYPD Blue‘s David Caruso looks askance.)

(Note to patrons: we have a TV category at this blog and we’re not afraid to use it. As the old network disclaimers used to say, this program contains strong language. Reader discretion advised.)

Twenty-five years ago tonight, NYPD Blue premiered on ABC. If I were making a list of my Top 10 TV programs of all time, Blue would be on it. The show was part of producer Steven Bochco’s unprecedented 10-series deal with ABC, although he and co-creator David Milch had to negotiate with the network over how far they could push broadcast TV’s restrictions on language and nudity to compete with more explicit shows on premium cable. Predictably, a few ABC affiliates refused to carry NYPD Blue at first, but once the show became a hit, their moral considerations fell by the wayside.

Bochco was already famous when Blue premiered, but the show also made a Hollywood player out of Milch, a former teacher of creative writing at Yale University who first became prominent as a writer on Hill Street Blues. (His first script, the third-season episode “Trial by Fury,” is considered by some Hill Street aficionados to be the show’s greatest single episode.) Milch’s gift for language is unique, from the Shakespearean vulgarity of Deadwood to the impenetrable gambler’s patois on his ill-fated HBO show Luck. The ways in which the characters spoke on NYPD Blue, both in normal conversation and when using strong language, were pure Milch. (His DVD commentaries are must-listens for fascinating explanations of plotting and characterizations, but also just to hear him talk.) NYPD Blue is the show that brought asshole into the unbleeped broadcast TV lexicon, and eventually bullshit, which ABC’s Standards and Practices department apparently permitted once per episode. The fact that George Carlin’s famous list of seven words you can’t say on television is now down to five—shit and piss are forbidden no more—is due largely to the influence of Blue and David Milch.

Digression: When the show began, local TV stations and cable channels would buy network hits to run in late-night or daytime slots, thereby making money for the producers forever. It was presumed that NYPD Blue would have a hard time in the syndication market because of its language and nudity. That presumption underestimated the willingness of certain channels to edit the language. I once caught a syndicated repeat that was so complicated that I had to take notes. Two detectives were interviewing a suspected rape-murderer who had a porn fetish. In the line, “You took a collar for dickie-waving last year,” dickie was bleeped. But in a later scene, dickhead went unbleeped, as did dick when used as a synonym for nothing, as when a suspect tells a detective there’s no evidence he committed a crime by saying “You ain’t got dick.” So you might guess that modifiers are fine, but nouns referring to the male unit are forbidden. But you would be wrong. In the interview scene, chubby, pecker, and johnson remained intact, as did the even-more-colorful whip your skippy and flog your dummy.

And people say TV is a visual medium where words hardly matter.

NYPD Blue intersected with popular music hardly at all, although stories occasionally dealt with rappers, rock-star hangers-on, and club-goers, all of whom were often targets of the cops’ moral disapproval. In one classic scene, however, partners Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) disagreed over the merits of “My Sharona” only to find common ground with “Duke of Earl.”

By the end of its run in 2005, NYPD Blue was far less exotic than it had been at its premiere. Language aside, the show relied less on buzz-inducing partial nudity as the years went by. (It’s a testament to the show’s singular place in history, however, that no other network show to date has showed quite so many people quite so naked.) By 2005, the era of Peak TV had come, thanks to the success of The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire, all of which premiered while Blue was on the air. NYPD Blue stands alongside those series, and alongside its predecessor Hill Street Blues, as one of the highest peaks of Peak TV.

NYPD Blue was only one of the premieres in a remarkable season of television debuts and schedule adjustments: Frasier, The X-Files, and Late Night With Conan O’Brien all appeared for the first time in the fall of ’93, Seinfeld moved to Thursday nights, and the Letterman-vs.-Leno duke-out began. Former TV executive-turned-historian Ken Hommel runs down the milestones here.

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