IT'S impossible to discuss Steven Bochco's new cop series, ``NYPD Blue,'' without reference to the controversy surrounding its language, violence, and sexual content. With the recent popular furor over the proliferation of violence on television and the threat of congressional action to curb it, fearful cries of ``censorship'' are heard in TV land. Again, Mr. Bochco defies the boundaries. But to what purpose?
``NYPD Blue'' has raised concerns in public discourse and complex First-Amendment issues. The Rev. Donald Wildmon, a conservative critic of TV morality, says he will lead a boycott of the show's sponsors. ``NYPD Blue'' includes more-revealing sexual material and raw images of violence. In most time zones, where it will air at 10 p.m. (ABC, Tuesdays), it theoretically will not pose a great threat to children.
Mr. Bochco has produced some fine TV series, including ``Hill Street Blues,'' ``L.A. Law,'' and ``Civil Wars.'' These included at least some groundbreaking concepts. But will ``NYPD Blue'' do the same?
The show is a mixed bag. The story line is formulaic, but the dark tone is skillfully shaded in gray. The approach to sex is basically gratuitous, sexist, and tiresome - more banal male fantasies. The handling of violence is at least concerned with consequences. There are too many stock characters, and the speedy pace is manipulative, but the camera work is excellent in the pilot, and the character development of the show's protagonist is one of the most interesting ever created for a weekly cop show.
The first story establishes at once the frustrations of a disturbed cop on the skids. Vulgar detective Andy Sipowicz (``Hill Street's'' Dennis Franz) breaks too many rules as he flails in a thick soup of alcohol and bitterness. Obsessed with a small-time hood, he crosses the line once too often. The hood shoots him. Meanwhile, the real hero of the piece, Detective John Kelly (David Caruso) tries to hold onto his wife and his sinking partner. All of this is familiar territory.
What is less familiar is the way the story is told. Hand-held, expressive camera movement establishes the disjointed and frenzied life of the city. When Kelly arrives at the scene of his partner's shooting, the camera pans back and forth between the officers, finally locating Kelly in a moment of grief and rage. The camera work is sometimes dizzying, but always involving. It creates the sensation of documentary work and lends immediacy and urgency to the story.
One of the few involving things about the film is the way Kelly's character is built. A loving and faithful husband while he and his wife were together, Kelly loses his spouse because she can't take the life of a cop's wife.
Kelly is a tough cop, but he's no Dirty Harry. A touching sequence finds him telling a policewoman the anguish of his failure to communicate with or understand his wife or his partner. In another sequence, he tries to tell his unconscious partner how he feels about him. It might have been maudlin. Instead, it's a beautifully written moment, intelligently interpreted.
The acting is, by and large, terrific. Dennis Franz is savage and crude. Caruso is intermittently brilliant, quietly heroic, and always human. The lesser characters are natural and engaging.
But the story is stock stuff. No new light is cast on police work or the depravity of the streets. The quick pace and sharp editing, even the flashy camera work, may add to the sensation of realism, but there is nothing realistic about it. Nobody ever has to fill out any forms. The film ends up merely celebrating chaos.
The violence is of two orders. When Sipowicz torments the Mafia hood, he force-feeds him a $100 bill, a dirty sock, and his own toupee. Because of its sadism, the scene is more disturbing than the later one in which Sipowicz is shot. The savagery of the attack on the detective is honestly portrayed in all its painful consequences.
The much-discussed sex sequence is standard stuff - standard to the movies and cable TV, anyway: nude bodies in close embrace; the woman's body all the viewer really sees; her face the only one shown. It is typical Hollywood, designed and shot to titillate men. It serves no useful narrative function and utterly exploits the woman.
``NYPD Blue'' is competent police drama - better than most. But that's not saying much. There is nothing brave or particularly inventive or genuinely insightful about it. I recall how rigorously real and smart the PBS miniseries from Britain, ``Prime Suspect,'' was by comparison. The police there were up against the tedium of hard work, the banalities of ordinary racism and sexism, the relentlessness and horror of crime practiced by brutal men without conscience. ``NYPD Blue'' counts on the glamour of chaos to get us hooked.
Hollywood never seems ready to concede that the muck it produces contributes substantially to the muck the country struggles with. ``NYPD Blue'' cannot be defended as realism - as an accurate reflection of police work - nor as art. The boundaries (nudity and violence) it pushes have already been smashed elsewhere. All the casual sex and sadism it indulges will only help desensitize and dehumanize the public further. How brave is that? With all the talent at Bochco's disposal, why didn't he defy the formulas and do something truly brave, inventive, and intelligent and tell the truth about human experience? Or braver yet, shed some light on it?