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Good-bye, ‘NYPD Blue’!

The last cop show with characters.

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Until NYPD Blue arrived in 1993, in a flurry of bad words and bare butts, the hour-long drama had been left for dead. Now, as Blue signs off, cop shows crowd the schedule. So NYPD Blue must have saved the genre, right? Not exactly. In fact, shows like CSI, Law & Order, and their various copycats aren’t Blue’s happy offspring so much as a torch-wielding mob that’s run Blue right out of town. NYPD Blue wasn’t formally inventive—creators Steven Bochco and David Milch had honed its techniques with Hill Street Blues—but Blue’s acclaimed first season made prime time safe once again for grown-up problems. When David Caruso bolted, his defection nudged Blue toward an open-ended character study of Detective Andy Sipowicz, brilliantly animated by actor Dennis Franz—giving TV a cop character of almost novelistic texture and depth. But TV, it turned out, was more interested in nuts and bolts than nuance, and Blue now stands as the last of the character-driven cop shows. Franz once described Sipowicz as “a loose cannon, a womanizer, a drunk, a racist, an atheist,” which gives him roughly five more character traits than the entire cast of CSI. Prime time’s been colonized by slick, self-contained hours of clockwork-efficient drama. Sure, able actors like Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston might have painted portraits from stingy drips of information, but most of these shows are awash with detectives and assistant D.A.’s so interchangeable you remember them only by their hair color. These series fit squarely in the tradition of yes-ma’am procedurals like Dragnet, the very shows Hill Street Blues was invented to explode. Meanwhile, the great characters have migrated to cable: Tony Soprano, The Shield’s Vic Mackey, or Al Swearengen on Milch’s Deadwood. These are NYPD Blue’s real progeny: not the network’s jargon-spouting automatons, but the salty, squalling offspring that cable has kidnapped and raised as its own.


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