How ‘NYPD Blue’ Paved the Way for Tony Soprano and Walter White

DAVID CARUSO;DENNIS FRANZ - Credit: Disney General Entertainment Con
DAVID CARUSO;DENNIS FRANZ - Credit: Disney General Entertainment Con

Late in the NYPD Blue Season One episode “Tempest in a C-Cup,” cop Andy Sipowicz and prosecutor Sylvia Costas wind up on an impromptu dinner date. To call the occasion unexpected would be a wild understatement, as we were introduced to the characters at the very start of the series with a drunken, rampaging Sipowicz grabbing his crotch and calling Sylvia a “pissy little bitch.” But Andy is sober now, and Sylvia finds herself charmed by his company. After he tells her about the aquarium of saltwater tropical fish he keeps in his apartment, she admits, “You know, you give ’em half a chance, people can surprise you.”

This scene in many ways is NYPD Blue in a nutshell. The show is one of the most influential TV dramas ever made — and often, especially in its first three or four seasons, one of the best — but it was also abrasive, disreputable, and surprising both at the time and 30 years later, albeit for different reasons then versus now. Sylvia and Andy’s relationship would have many ups and downs — multiple falls off the wagon, a wedding, births, deaths, and more — just as the show itself would. And you had to be willing to risk the bad parts in order to be dazzled by the great ones.

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NYPD Blue debuted 30 years ago today on ABC, at a pivotal moment in television. Co-creator Steven Bochco had worked on two of the defining dramas of the Eighties in Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. He could already see that broadcast network TV was in danger of being eclipsed by cable, which didn’t have the same content restrictions and could feature nudity, profanity, and other explicit material. He met with then-ABC president Bob Iger and proposed a cop drama that would push up against the limits of what ABC’s censors would allow, and perhaps a little beyond that. After intense negotiation — and the two of them drawing a series of crude sketches to determine what body parts could and couldn’t be shown — they came to an agreement. We could see the sides of women’s breasts, for instance, and full shots of male and female rear ends, but no more. And “asshole” could be used with some frequency, but no “shit” or “fuck.”

While Bochco was thinking about the commercial appeal of pushing the outer edge of the envelope, his partner David Milch looked at the laxer content standards as a creative Trojan Horse. If they could get away with partial nudity and some curse words, Milch reasoned, then he could also be much franker about the harsh realities of modern policing. The show featured truly heinous crimes — “NYPD Lou,” the episode before “Tempest in a C-Cup,” finds Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and partner John Kelly (David Caruso) dealing with a pedophile who abused and murdered a young boy — and also didn’t flinch from the extralegal methods its cops would use to close cases.

The main story of “Tempest in a C-Cup” involves Kelly and protege James Martinez (Nicholas Turturro) interrogating the man responsible for a string of taxi cab robberies, the last of which ended in the murder of a police officer’s father. When Kelly can’t get the suspect to confess to that final crime, he asks Martinez to leave the room and threatens to beat the killer “until you wish you were dead.” The threat alone is enough to close the deal, and afterward, Martinez asks Kelly about the idea of defying the Constitution in situations like this.

“I never raise my hand to a guy if I think he’s guilty or I’m trying to find out if he’s guilty,” Kelly insists. “But if I’m sure he’s guilty, and the case is gonna walk unless I raise my hand, I do what I gotta do.” But, Martinez wonders, what if he’s wrong about a particular guy? “Well, then, God forgive me,” Kelly says.

Sipowicz would eventually begin beating confessions out of suspects with some regularity, in scenes presented with much less introspection than Kelly and Martinez’s conversation. In one episode, Richard Schiff plays Vartan Illiescu, a Romanian-born bomber seeking violent justice against the one percent. Sipowicz smacks him around in order to save a wealthy family endangered by Illiescu’s explosive devices. Afterward, a bitter Illiescu says Sipowicz could only hit him because he’s a poor immigrant. “This is America,” Andy smugly replies. “I’d have beat you, rich or poor.” In another episode, he elicits a confession without force, considers the heinous perp in front of him, and snarls, “I’m gonna get a migraine tonight ’cause I didn’t beat you.”

The ensuing three decades have largely flipped our sense of which parts of NYPD Blue are shocking and which aren’t. In 1993, the show was protested for the nudity and profanity, but Kelly having PG-13 sex with girlfriend Janice Licalsi (Amy Brenneman) seems incredibly tame now, as does Andy’s salty language(*). Instead, it’s the show’s casual attitude about police brutality — and, frequently, its outright endorsement of it — that feels like the thing that would incite viewer outrage(**).

(*) Much of it is so pleased with its own edginess for the time that it now borders on parody. Andy’s other storyline in “Tempest in a C-Cup” involves him enthusiastically going undercover at a topless bar to find out if the owner is forcing his female employees to sexually proposition customers. “A-plus in the tit department, Monique,” he tells one of the women.  

(**) Obviously, there were plenty of viewers — people of color and defense attorneys chief among them — who looked on this with horror even at the time. But their voices were drowned out by the ones talking about how amused they were when Sipowicz declared himself a human lie detector and shouted “Beep beep!” every time he struck a dishonest suspect in the face. (As someone who recapped episodes of the show for years in the nascent days of Internet TV discourse, I tended to encounter the latter group much more often.) 

NYPD BLUE - Pilot - Shoot Date: April 27, 1993. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
Dennis Franz with extras on the set of ‘NYPD Blue’ on April 27, 1993.

Then and now, though, there is Andy Sipowicz himself. With all due respect to Caruso, to Jimmy Smits (who replaced Caruso after Season One and had a beloved run as Andy’s partner), Lawrence, Brenneman, Kim Delaney, James McDaniel, and the rest of a frequently-shifting ensemble, Franz was the defining part of NYPD Blue — by far the biggest reason to tune in, and the show’s most enduring legacy.

Sipowicz actually began the series as a supporting player in John Kelly’s story — the fat, bigoted, alcoholic disaster whom the more traditionally heroic Kelly had to save. Riveting as Caruso was(*), both Milch and the audience gravitated to his dangerous partner. Sipowicz fit the general shape of characters TV had seen before, from Archie Bunker on All in the Family to the cops Franz played for Milch on Hill Street Blues. Previous iterations arrived with their edges sanded down, as if no one thought viewers would accept the rawer version. But the unvarnished Sipowicz was an instant hit, a credit to the deep soulfulness of Franz’s performance, and to the specificity and humanity with which Milch wrote him.

(*) Caruso’s exit after Season One for a failed movie career made him a punchline, before he later returned to TV as a highly-paid caricature of himself on CSI: Miami.

Sipowicz was not cuddly at the beginning. Beyond the “pissy little bitch” scene, the series was transparent about his many flaws. In one of its very best episodes, Season Three’s “The Backboard Jungle,” Andy gets into a shouting match with Kwasi (Tom Wright), a Black activist whom he blames in part for a shooting at a charity basketball game. Kwasi boasts that this racist cop is “dealin’ with the one [N-word] in a thousand who knows what you can and cannot do.” Andy instantly retorts, “I’m dealin’ with the one [N-word] whose big mouth is responsible for this massacre.” The use of such language threatens to derail Sipowicz’s career, even as he insists that he was just throwing Kwasi’s own phrasing back at him. The episode, written by the late David Mills, understands that the epithet is only scratching the surface of Sipowicz’s bigotry. A few moments later, Andy tells Kwasi that the shooting happened because “your homeys decided to act their color.” Smits’ Bobby Simone, an empathetic guy who often functioned as the show’s surrogate for how we were supposed to feel about events, calls the “act your color” line — and the deeply-held sentiments behind it — wholly unacceptable.

In another of that season’s story arcs, Andy begins preparing son Andy Jr. (Michael DeLuise) for a career in policing, offering lessons in some of the basics of the job. These are largely meant to be heartwarming bonding moments between a father and son who were estranged for many years, but they proved more complicated than that. In one scene, Andy tells Andy Jr. about how a patrolman should clear a corner if troublemakers are harassing ordinary citizens, then gives a speech about how policework is “a good job for people like us. We don’t have a lot of education, but we can read and write, and we’re honest.” Several episodes later, Andy Jr. dies trying to stop an armed robbery. A devastated Andy goes back to drinking, and returns to the corner where he gave that lesson. Three young Black men are standing there, passionately arguing about funk music, not bothering anyone. So blitzed that he can barely get out a coherent sentence, Andy decides it’s his responsibility to clear the corner, and instead gets his ass kicked. Simone once again expresses his extreme disapproval with his partner’s actions, even allowing for his devastating recent loss.

It’s an ugly sequence that, like a lot of Sipowicz’s antics, plays very differently in 2023 than it did in 1996. But the show was clearly aware of the ugliness. As charming and rascally as Franz could play the part, we were frequently reminded that Andy was not supposed to be a lovable bigot, and that all the affection we felt for the character was supposed to be in spite of his bad behavior, not because of it(*).

(*) An early source of tension comes from the mutual disdain between Sipowicz and McDaniels’ Lt. Arthur Fancy, who is Black. After one case where Sipowicz’s actions regarding Black suspects are both by the book and reflective of the detective’s prejudiced attitudes about race, Fancy takes Andy out for a meal at a local rib joint where the staff and all the other customers are Black. As Sipowicz squirms and assumes this is some kind of punishment, Fancy points out that they’ve enjoyed a tasty meal, and nobody spit in Andy’s food, even if they clearly don’t like or trust him. “Now what if they had guns and badges?” Fancy concludes. 

But the audience’s embrace of such a figure would have ripple effects on the medium that are still being felt to this day. Before NYPD Blue, there was a widely held belief in the business — by executives, if not by all creators — that the audience demanded relatable characters, that any flaws could only run so deep, and that protagonists had to ultimately be shown as pure of heart. As a casting director put it in the 1975 satiric masterpiece Network, the goal was always “crusty but benign.” But Sipowicz wasn’t always benign, and viewers took to him anyway. As a result, other creators were given license to push their central characters even further into dark territory. Without Sipowicz, it’s hard to imagine Tony Soprano, Walter White, Vic Mackey, Don Draper, Al Swearengen (on Milch’s masterpiece, Deadwood) and his many other descendants, from anti-heroes to outright villains. And if the more, uh, blue material seems a bit quaint from our vantage point, it also helped prepare viewers for the harsher visuals and language to follow on The Sopranos and company.

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 21:  NYPD BLUE - Season Five - 10/21/97, Jimmy Smits, Kim Delaney, Dennis Franz,  (Photo by Eric Liebowitz/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
Jimmy Smits, Kim Delaney, and Dennis Franz in ‘NYPD Blue.’

Sipowicz at his most gregarious spoke in a kind of gutter poetry. In one episode, he mocks an intrusive TV reporter (played by a younger Bradley Whitford, one of an army of guest stars who would go on to bigger fame after) by saying, “All’s we know so far, Norman, is we heard some reporter called a low-life asshole turd pimp with the brains of a flea and the balls of a moth. But we haven’t nailed down yet who was being referred to.” Yet NYPD Blue as a whole could be genuinely poetic, and poignant, and thoughtful. Near the end of “NYPD Lou,” the immigrant parents of the murdered boy invite Sipowicz and Kelly to look at the bird that’s been hanging around the roof of their apartment building, investing their last ounce of hope in the idea that this is their late son’s spirit letting them know that he’s OK. Much of Season One follows Licalsi slowly crumbling from the guilt of murdering a mobster who was blackmailing her; the scene where she confesses to a priest friend of Kelly’s is as patient, quiet, and devastating as anything ever put on network television, and much of cable and streaming. The romance between Simone and Delaney’s recovering alcoholic Diane Russell is as sexy now as it was back in the day, easily the best example of the show taking advantage of the latitude ABC had offered. And if some of the humor seems unapologetically juvenile now, the many Sipowitticisms, or the neuroses of unhappy Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp), remain very, very funny.

It’s a Case of the Week show with minimal serialization outside of seeing people evolve over time. The series was filled with supporting characters that the writers seemed to lose interest in almost immediately after introducing them. And it was much more formulaic than its Nineties peer Homicide: Life on the Street, with the 15th Precinct’s detectives achieving close to a 100 percent clearance rate. (Despite Martinez’s question to Kelly in “Tempest in a C-Cup,” the writers did not generally seem concerned that the cops had zeroed in on the wrong suspect.) But those stories were filled with New York color, with great character actors, and with a sense of verisimilitude that went beyond the use of cop lingo like “skel” (a drug addict and/or vagrant), “squeezing shoes” (a slightly gentler alternative to “busting balls”), “reach out” (contact someone for information, or to see if they need help), etc. And on occasion, the cops were even allowed to display some moral qualms about what they did as part of the job. In Season Five’s “It Takes a Village,” Simone is consumed with self-loathing after he helps a drug addict mother talk her sons into confessing to a murder so she can get a cash reward, while Sipowicz is unnerved to hear a mentally ill rapist suggest that Andy takes sadistic pleasure in tuning up suspects.

It was also a show made in an environment of frequent chaos. Milch was constantly rewriting scripts, and at times didn’t have finished scripts at all, and would simply tell actors new dialogue when they got to set. In one episode, an anguished Sipowicz visits a hospital chapel while his younger son Theo (Austin Majors) is being treated for a potentially serious illness. Franz was supposed to deliver a monologue where Andy both pleaded and argued with God, but Milch still hadn’t written it when cameras were set to roll. Milch arrived, told someone to take dictation, and delivered a stream-of-consciousness speech that, legend has it, Franz(*) performed word-for-word only minutes later. It was not an atmosphere in which everyone thrived; Smits left when his contract was up because he found it hard to work without proper time to prepare with the material. And eventually, even Milch was asked to leave to make things calmer.

(*) Franz, who won four Emmys for the role, became the rare actor to go out entirely on top. When the series ended, he retired to spend more time with his family, and has never acted on screen again. Other than a surprise appearance with Smits at the 2016 Primetime Emmy Awards, and a statement he put out earlier this year following the death of Austin Majors, he has largely stayed out of public life. 

The final Milch years were erratic, at times bordering on incomprehensible. In his absence, NYPD Blue turned into a more consistent, and much more conventional, procedural drama, where Sipowicz — now working with younger detectives played by Ricky Schroder and then Mark-Paul Gosselaar — was largely presented as a figure of great wisdom who had let go of his old demons, despite abundant tragedies along the way.

In those early years, though, NYPD Blue — which had been created so cynically — was executed beautifully. It could be messy, and at times just outright copaganda. But at its best, it understood its tone, its language, and its characters — the guy with the bushy mustache and sidewalls most of all — as well as any TV show ever has. Like Sipowicz, there are aspects of its past that are deeply uncomfortable to look back on now, but also moments of jaw-dropping grace, and kindness, and magic.

All 12 seasons of NYPD Blue are streaming on Hulu.

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