During the credits, the camera appeared to have tumbled off the tripod, then roll down Fifth Street on the Lower East Side. The "shaky camera" effect, this was called. There was nudity in the premiere episode that followed, 40 seconds worth but who was counting (ABC maybe)? There was the language-oh-the-language. We had never heard such words on network TV before, or maybe the 30 ABC affiliates that boycotted "NYPD Blue's" Sept. 21, 1993 launch hadn't.
Thirty years later, the power of "NYPD Blue" to shock is gone. What once scandalized is now quotidian. But to re-watch is to fall into a sort of trancelike memory hole, where scenes, characters, the city itself assume different meanings or perspectives. The B-roll where the New York scenes were shot (everything else was on the Fox lot in California) was at 321 E. Fifth St., which had been home to the Ninth Precinct since 1929. It was torn down in 2003, a couple of years before "Blue's" run ended.
David Caruso, one of two breakout stars — the other being Dennis Franz — would be gone much sooner, by the middle of the second season. David Milch, who co-created "Blue" with Steven Bochco, later wrote this of Caruso's implosion: "I can't count the number of times I watched that process of striving as David tormented himself (and others) in preparing a scene, then discovered in performance the humanity and compassion which eluded him in real life." Milch suffered a heart attack while battling Caruso. Bill Clark, the former Queens homicide detective who provided Milch and Bochco 12 seasons worth of material, would thereafter only sputter "that other guy" when referring to him.
But then, it was that other guy who would eventually become the true star, to an extent "Blue's" lodestar too. Watch this opener (you can stream "Blue" on Prime Video and Hulu), and the torment is all Franz' Det. Andy Sipowicz of the (fictional) 15th precinct. Pure bluster with a chaser of homicidal fury, Sipowicz pounded shot after shot in a bar scene, while cigarette smoke steamed out his nostrils and mouth. Even with all the "content" notoriety, that's the only scene that still resonates, the one with enough latent punch to reach across the decades.
"Blue" at heart was a redemptive story — Sipowicz' and Milch's. Now 78 and struggling with Alzheimer's, Milch wrote in his recent memoir, "Life's Work," "the deepest gift I think an individual can experience is to accept himself as part of a larger living thing." Attaining that gift would be Milch's battle — drugs, alcohol, gambling, depression — and Andy's. We now think of Sipowicz and Milch as interchangeable, but Andy was really based on Milch's father, Elmer. Close enough. The battles were waged, but were they ever won?
The opening episode also offered a view of the NYPD, and of '90s New York City. Seen from afar, or through that memory hole, neither view seems particularly complimentary. This is no "Blue Bloods," with the wise patriarch, and adoring brood, seated around a Sunday dinner table. These cops were flawed, and human, all too human. The NYPD has had countless close-ups before and since; this one seemed, on balance, the fairest. The opener hinted at that too, with Caruso's soulful John Kelly, Franz's explosive Andy.
What did "Blue" say about New York? "I would hope," Milch told me some years ago, that the city knew from this show "how much it was respected, admired and loved, and that the conventional wisdom about New York as it's perceived in other parts of the country — that it's unlivable or a place unto itself — is wrong. For me, this truth was tragically brought home by the events of 9/11. New York is the essence of the country. It's not a different place. It's the concentration of the American experience rather than an aberration."