A pioneering cop show ends its night shift

With just one episode left, "NYPD Blue" is going gently into broadcast history. The show will not end with any big deaths or buildings blowing up, according to show creator Steven Bochco. After one final visit to NYPD Precinct 15 on March 1, "Blue" will fade to black.

"For the people who have stuck with us all these years, we want that audience to feel as if it's a well-earned end to the show," says Bochco, sitting in a screening room on the Fox lot in January. "From a story point of view and character point of view, that speaks more to letting things evolve organically rather than ending things."

This graceful departure is a far cry from the controversy the show stirred up in 1993 by introducing more adult language and themes - not to mention partial nudity - than network television had been accustomed to. "It was a storm," recalls the show's creator. "If there had been any wobble in audience reaction to us, I don't know that we would have survived three or four weeks." But the show's hit status made Bochco feel confident that the show could survive the initial bumps in the road.

The low-key exit hardly reflects the impact the show has had on the overall TV landscape, nowhere more visible than on cable. Such character-driven crime shows as "The Commish," "The Shield," "The Wire," even "The Sopranos" all owe a creative debt to "Blue," says Gary Edgerton, co-editor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television. "All these shows are getting under the surface of these tough characters. They are action adventures, but the action is less important than the drama," says Mr. Edgerton.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for many was the emergence of such an unlikely hero in Detective Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz. The actor himself had his doubts. "I said, 'He's a womanizer; he's a loose cannon; he's a drunk; he's an atheist; he's got everything going against him,' " says the actor. "Who's going to care if he lives or dies?"

After Bochco told Franz that he had confidence in him, the actor says he began to see the light. "I realized at the core of it, this is probably a good man who just started some wrong turns on a downhill slide and couldn't put the brakes on," he says. "That's when we got introduced to him, at his very lowest."

Franz says once he understood that the character was undergoing a slow process of redemption, he knew he could play him. When star David Caruso abruptly left the show after a single season, it helped turn the show's focus to Andy Sipowicz.

"He's got his problems, which can be perceived as being [unlikable]," says Franz, "but he's willing to try to understand himself and to try to change, if possible. I think that's kind of heroic and wonderful to invest in watching."

"NYPD Blue" complemented its complex characters with a sophisticated visual style. The show made extensive use of the jerky, handheld camera look that contributed greatly to the show's sense of authenticity - a technique that soon influenced other TV shows.

"Before 'Blue,' the standards for TV production were such that you could always tell the difference between something done for TV and film," says TV critic Ed Robertson. But with its cinematic storytelling and focus on character, Robertson says, the show raised the stakes for the entire genre. " 'Blue' brought a certain movielike quality to TV and pushed the envelope for everyone else."

Although the show is credited with blazing the way for a grittier, more adult form of drama, Bochco is more circumspect about the show's impact, particularly in the post-Janet Jackson wardrobe-malfunction era. Initially, when the show took off, Bochco says he and others had high hopes. "I think everybody in television had hoped that 'NYPD Blue' would pave the way for a more open approach a more adult 10 o'clock kind of programming," says the creator of such previous landmark shows as "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law." In the world of broadcast television at least, the climate has chilled. "There's no doubt in my mind that over the course of the last 10 years ... the medium has become more conservative," Bochco says. "I don't think today we could launch or sell 'NYPD Blue' in the form that it launched 12 years ago."

While the show was an unquestioned hit in its early years, it has slipped in the ratings recently. The decision to end came from ABC, says Bochco, noting that the show is extremely expensive to produce. He agreed it was time for the show to end, although he feels it would have flourished had it continued. "Notwithstanding the fact that I think the show could go a 13th or 14th season, I have no problem leaving the party an hour early," he says. "I'd rather leave an hour early than an hour late."

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