The Middlebrow


The eroticism of the cop show.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

When NYPD Blue debuted on Sept. 21, 1993, 57 ABC affiliates declined to show the premiere episode, citing the show’s affection for nudity and lower-tier swear words. One of those bashful affiliates was located in Dallas, Texas, where I was living at the time. I was 15—widely recognized as the Talmudic age for nudity and lower-tier swear words. A few weeks passed without Blue. Then, one glorious afternoon, a critic from the local paper called the house. He had a tape of the pilot, he said, and asked if my mother and I would join a few dozen culturally savvy North Texans for a private screening. My mother, who had never heard of NYPD Blue but was always on the lookout for edifying mother-son outings, told the critic that we would. Awesome.

A few nights later, we sat around a long table at the newspaper office. The critic lowered the lights, and the show began. Exactly 34 minutes and 51 seconds passed. Some cheesy music swelled (“It’s alright, c’mon now …”), and Blue went blue: Amy Brenneman, dark-haired and svelte, and David Caruso were undressing. Soon Brenneman and Caruso were topless and bottomless. It wasn’t nudity, exactly: Their bodies were bathed in the genitally sensitive shadows of network TV. But no matter. At the time, the Blue pilot represented something of a sexual revelation. As Caruso continued to search and seize, I realized this had the makings of a transcendent adolescent moment—which, on the debit side, was being experienced in the company of my mother.

As NYPD Blue leaves the air next Tuesday, the 12-year-old cop show will be laureled with words like “gritty” and “uncompromising.” That feels half-right. NYPD Blue was uncompromising, all right, but only when it came to love scenes. The brainchild of David Milch and Steven Bochco, Blue was one of network television’s great erotic experiments. Its nudity will linger long after its gumshoeing fades. Such brazen sexuality takes a certain degree of skill when one of your romantic leads (Dennis Franz) looks like a lightly medicated version of Captain Kangaroo.

For all its merits, Blue never was much of an “authentic” cop show. The producers gave the 15th Precinct—the “one-five,” in Milch’s streetwise parlance—an ethnic mix as varied as the bridge of the Starship: Enterprise:equal parts Irishman (Kelly), African-American (Fancy), Hispanic (Martinez), French-Portuguese (Simone), and weaselly white guy (Medavoy). If you think Law & Order has contrivances, plot-wise, then Blue has but a single story line. Sipowicz and Co. track down a lawyer-less “perp.” Perp is thrown into “interview.” Perp is threatened, cajoled, and beaten senseless by detective until he confesses. At which point detective promises to “reach out to the DA,” and, in the soothing voice of a kindergarten teacher, instructs perp to write down his confession on a yellow legal pad. Then detective says something like, “Thank you very much, Mr. So-and-So” and flashes a sinister smile. At which point perp is screwed.

Blue had more skill at doling out sex in small and enticing bits. Bochco spent the summer of 1993 gleefully offering hints of the depravities to come. He told TV critics that, at ABC’s request, he had trimmed 15 seconds from Caruso and Brenneman’s inaugural love-making session. Fifteen seconds—this when most network love scenes began and ended with the camera fading to black. The same summer, Bochco further confided that all cast members signed contracts with nudity clauses and could be counted on to disrobe regularly, a new twist on “Must-See TV.”

The first season of Blue was a masterstroke of the buddy-cop genre. The show was built around a hard-won partnership between two old pros: the swollen, foul-mouthed Sipowicz (Franz) and David Caruso’s backside. The latter seemed to win the bulk of the screen time. Caruso’s derriere was glimpsed in the pilot; then again, in a love scene, in Episode 4; and finally, in all its alabaster glory, in Episode 6. When Caruso left the show the next season, the mandate for full-dorsal exposure was passed on to other Blue cast members. Franz succumbed in Season 2, in the shower; Jimmy Smits, who replaced Caruso, followed weeks later. By the finale next Tuesday, Bochco and his co-producers will have undressed 14 current and former cast members, according to this Blue fan site; another five will have appeared “topless or in very revealing underwear.”

Those of us who watched Blue as much for the couplings as the gumshoeing needn’t feel ashamed. There was a good reason—besides ratings points—for the copious nudity. A former writer for Columbo and McMillan and Wife, Bochco spent his career watching audiences slowly flee homogenized network crime dramas for the grittier stuff on cable. It wasn’t because the cable programs were superior—The Sopranos was still six years away in 1993—or even more “authentic.” It was because by adding nudity, HBO and Showtime created the illusion of adult sophistication. Bochco wanted to appropriate some of cable’s urbanity, its edge. As he put it in 1993, “When you’re doing a cop show … I don’t think you can compete [with cable] unless you can paint with some of the same colors that you can paint with when you’re making movies.”

Bochco was right. When Blue didn’t spawn R-rated network imitators (Bochco tried, unsuccessfully, with a comedy called Public Morals in 1996), the networks’ adult audience began to slowly migrate up the dial. These days, the producers with Bochco-like gravitas work for the premium channels: The Sopranos’ David Chase and Bochco’s old Blue collaborator, David Milch, who produces Deadwood for HBO. When critics praise The Sopranos and Deadwood, they don’t just mean the shows are better-acted and better-written than anything on network TV. They mean the shows seem to be pitched at a completely different bandwidth. In an odd way, NYPD Blue’s nude scenes, however gratuitous, conferred upon the series the maturity network TV so sorely lacks.

Why haven’t Blue’s heirs followed suit? For one thing, ABC lost money on the gamble: Even when it finished strong in the Nielsen ratings, for a few seasons Blue had to charge a reduced rate for its commercials to lure skittish advertisers. Then, more recently, came the twin horrors of Michael Powell and Janet Jackson, which scared the bejesus out of network executives. ABC has become coy about sex—wrapping it in satire, à la Desperate Housewives, or in a reality show, à la The Bachelor. This has produced highly rated series but sapped an untold amount of the network’s cool. We may never see anything as stark as Dennis Franz making love in the shower again. Which, depending on how you see the world, may be the best thing to happen to network TV, or the worst.