US TV FEATURE
‘People aren’t tuning in to hear a couple of words they hear every day. they’re coming back because the show has captured their imagination.’
with an enthusiastic patrolwoman, while his partner Andy Sipowiez (Dennis Franz) stripped off for a session with a prostitute. Inspector Morse it ain’t.
In British terms there’s nothing here you wouldn’t find in any domestic post-watershed adult drama. In the USA though there has been a major furore since NYPD Blue began its run on the ABC network last autumn, fanned mostly by the denunciations from Mississippi clean-up activist Rev Donald Wildmon. His American Family Association ran a massive campaign before the series was even launched, with the catchphrase, ‘This time TV has gone too far.’
Wildmon’s campaign had mixed success. Around 40 ABC affiliated stations in ‘sensitive’ areas (mostly in the South) refused to screen the series, triggering the biggest affiliate mutiny in American TV history. In Texas only five of ABC’s 17 stations showed NYPD Blue. In Dallas, local station WFAA’s general manager Cathy Creaney summed up the attitude: ‘We thought the sex, nudity and violence went beyond our standards. We think the show is inappropriate for Dallas.’
Other stations who did show the series were subjected to concerted phone complaint campaigns, and one station HQ was even shot at from a passing car. In Dallas meanwhile local bars were thriving by showing the embargoed series on satellite screens, packing in Texan reprobates with the promise of raunchy cop action and NYPD Blue cocktails (made with blue curacao). If the stations didn’t want the series, the viewers certainly did.
Wildmon’s campaign effectively did the network’s pre-launch advertising for them free of charge. When the series finally aired on 2] September, it reached a healthy audience of 2] million, making it the
F- __ I I
Lucy) deﬁned the sitcom’s structure for decades to come. Still remarkably repeatable.
is for Jerry Seinfeld, current J doyen of American stand-ups
turned sitcom stars. Seinfeld the series is a hip, allusive slice of Manhattan thirtysomething existence that eschews Big Chill-style sactimonious introspection in favour of the trivial annoyances and triumphs of daily life. Its sophistication and literate wit made it a substantial cult and eventually a huge national hit in the US, although BBC2 seem to be mucking about with its scheduling in Britain.
is for Kojak, lolly-sucking Kdetective of the mid-70$ whose
‘Who loves ya baby?’
‘The guy a Kelly’s a good f cop, he nails ; ’ the criminals, and his wife’s ' got a great butt.’
third most successful new series of the season, behind two anodyne comedy shows. Steve Bochco looked like having the last
laugh. ‘l’m delighted,’ says the producer. ‘I knew this would
polarise people. I knew it wouldn’t be some folks’ cup of tea. But when you’re doing a show like this, some people are going to love you, and a lot of people are going to be very disturbed.’ Not that Bochco is setting out to be controversial. Prior to the series’s launch he did emphasise that audiences were crying out for R-rated (ie adult) television, but plays down the extent to which he is using titillation to sell the show. ‘People aren’t tuning in to hear a couple of words they hear every day. They’re coming back because the show has captured their imagination. You don’t do this stuff to rub anybody’s nose in it.’ The suggestion is that the provocative elements of NYPD Blue are crucial to its (considerable) impact. ‘My argument is that maybe it wouldn’t be quite as good a show without it,’ says Bochco. ‘Maybe it wouldn’t be perceived as having quite the focus or quite the energy or quite the specificity or quite the contemporary feel that it has, if not for those elements that some are squawking about.’ Bochco’s career has been a continuing jog around the margins of challenging and popular television, with NYPD Blue potentially the most cohesive blend he’s achieved so far. Hill Street Blues in the early 805 remains the benchmark against which Bochco’s subsequent productions have been judged, and his work since hasn’t quite measured up. Of the shows seen in the UK, LA Law sparked brieﬂy before degenerating into yuppie banality, Hooperman and Doogie Howser MD were uninspiring mainstream fodder, and the plain silly Cop Rock was laughed off the networks after seven weeks in I990. To the outsider, Bochco was beginning to look like the yesterday man of TV, and the suspicions, founded on its title and subject matter, were that NYPD Blue was an attempt to climb back up the Hill.
surname . . .
catchphrase stormed British playgrounds. At the time US detectives needed to have a physical quirk to cut it in a competitive market, hence lronside’s wheelchair, Columbo’s raincoat, Cannon’s beergut, Harry O’s lack of a complete
unchallenged king of the quirky
‘alternative’ chat, music and bizarreness show. Letterman’s since come into the mainstream fold, but his surreal and occasionally sick shows were blatantly ripped off in the UK by Jonathan Ross and Danny Baker. Also The Love Boat, a shamelessly mushy late 70s afternoon soap in which movie stars of the 305 you thought were dead met and o?
Lis for Davld Letterman,
‘I love cop shows,’ Bochco admits, ‘and the only hesitancy I had about making another was that I didn’t want to revisit an arena that I’d been enormously successful in without finding some approach to the material that made it fresh.’ ‘There isn’t a theme that we will touch on that wasn’t touched on in Hill Street,’ adds Bochco’s partner, screenwriter David Milch, ‘but I think the manner will be identifiany different. The racism is much more of a theme here. The NYPD is soaked in . . . let’s say racial awareness as a good neutral term. It would be unrealistic to try and do a series without taking that theme up.’ Take it up, it certainly does, with future episodes cutting free with terms like ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ that will probably be more disconcerting to British viewers than the nudity and sex.
NYPD Blue also diverges from Hill Street by concentrating on the central figure of Kelly, rather than taking the ensemble approach that series pioneered. David Caruso plays the role as a cross between an urbane LA Law sophisticate and a Cagney-esque Irish street cop. For a guy who looks like a boxer developing a familiarity with the canvas, Caruso is already emerging as an unlikely heart-throb in the States. ‘The other day l was working,’ he says, ‘and two Puerto Rican girls pull up in a car and they say “You’re making a mistake! Go back to your wife! That other girl, she’s not right for you!‘ ’
In the US, Kelly’s brooding charms and marital complications are replacing the moral panics in the magazine headlines, and the storm is abating. After three months NYPD Blue is emerging as a contender for the title of definitive cop show for the 903, challenged only by Barry Levinson’s Hill Street-inspired ensemble piece Homicide. The critical consensus has been that Bochco is back to top form. ‘It is an intensely moral show,’ said TVGuide’s JeffJarvis. ‘This is not an adult show in the dirty sense of the word. It is a grown-up show: wise and frank. TV needs more shows like it.’ The discerning badge and gun-wearing critics of the actual NYPD confirm it. ‘The guy Kelly’s a good cop, he nails the criminals, and his wife’s got a great butt.’ What more do you want?
NYPD Blue is on Channel 4 on Saturdays at 9pm.
Johnny Carson: Here’ssss Johnny
(and Miss Plggﬂ
The List 28 January—IO February I994 13