'NYPD Blue' is a referendum on TV violence Gritty 'NYPD Blue' is a referendum on TV violence


September 21, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Tonight's the night that viewers finally get to see Steven Bochco's "NYPD Blue," the new cop drama that's been debated in the media for the past five months.

There has been a lot of manufactured controversy and hype surrounding tonight's premiere, at 10 on WJZ (Channel 13). But it's also genuinely one of the big events of the TV year. It's a moment of true cultural confrontation that will deter- mine to some extent what's acceptable in terms of harsh language and violence on network TV.

Viewers have said over and over in recent polls that there's too much violence on TV. Tonight, ABC gives them a program with an excess of violence in it. The Nielsen ratings for "NYPD Blue" should tell us how committed viewers really are to reducing TV violence.

Is "NYPD" as good as some critics have said it is?

Yes, it's a quality drama that's almost in the league of "Hill Street Blues," an earlier Bochco work. I say "almost" because so much of "NYPD Blue" is merely a matter of Bochco repeating "Hill Street."

Does it contain so much sex, violence and harsh language that some viewers might be offended by it?

Yes, on most of that count, too, unfortunately. The sexual content is not worth worrying about. In fact, 15 seconds from a sex scene in the original version of the pilot that contained considerable nudity have been removed.

But there's an excess of violence and coarse language that isn't warranted.

In his zeal to "push the envelope" and "create R-rated television," to use Bochco's own words, the producer has purposefully manufactured some of the controversy, which is sure to result in blockbuster ratings for the pilot.

Most of the controversial scenes in the ensemble drama involve characters played by David Caruso and Dennis Franz, a "Hill Street" alum. Franz's character, Detective Andy Sipowicz, is the emotional center of the pilot.

Caruso's Detective John Kelly provides most of the sex and action. They are partners.

Sipowicz is a troubled cop with a drinking problem and an obsession with busting a certain Mafia wise guy. His career is in serious decline. His rage and impotence are the stuff of fine drama, which Franz's performance makes all the finer.

Kelly has his own problems. In addition to trying to help his partner, Kelly is going through a rough divorce. Tonight, he meets and sleeps with a young policewoman. The relationship looks like it's going to provide more pain than pleasure. Caruso plays tough-but-vulnerable better than anyone since Don Johnson on "Miami Vice."

Each is in a scene that folks are going to be talking about tomorrow morning.

Sipowicz's scene involves him in bed with a prostitute. Just as he and the prostitute are about to start having intercourse, the wise guy whom Sipowicz has been dogging walks in with a gun.

Suddenly, everything starts to look like a Sam Peckinpah movie with slow motion, silence, muzzle flashes and a jerking body as the shooter pumps five slugs into Sipowicz at close range.

The scene ends with Sipowicz lying face down on the bed in his underwear, blood running down his legs.

Needlessly violent? Absolutely, especially since Sipowicz survives the shooting.

At the opening of the show, Sipowicz has another scene which some viewers might find even more offensive. It involves verbal violence and a coarse gesture directed at a female assistant district attorney. In my view, it's offensive because it celebrates what amounts to sexual harassment. The language in the scene is such that most newspapers -- this one included -- will not print it.

Kelly's big scene is the one in bed with the patrolwoman. There's rear nudity of both, as well as side views of her breasts. This is the one scene Bochco re-edited after ABC affiliates objected and threatened to not air the pilot. Bochco cut 15 seconds out of the sequence, but nothing was totally deleted -- only abbreviated.

Overall, the world of "NYPD" is urban, ethnic, gritty, violent, paranoid, loud and angry. It is the same dark Bochco vision that permeated the great "Hill Street" and the awful "Cop Rock."

In terms of quality, "NYPD" is closer to "Hill Street" than "Cop Rock." But that's no guarantee of success.

Polls show that attitudes toward violence have changed in the past 10 years. And a vision of cops and the city that millions of viewers connected with in the early 1980s might or might not be all that relevant today. *** 1/2

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