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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

THE MILCH STUDIES - NYPD Blue, The Beginning



Everyone knows what NYPD Blue is famous for, right?  It’s the network TV series that showed nudity.  Actually, I question if people under a certain age even know that much.  NYPD Blue ran for twelve seasons, 261 episodes, was nominated for countless Emmys, became a part of the cultural lexicon, and then kind of disappeared.

Why couldn’t NYPD Blue live on in reruns like Frasier or Seinfeld?  Possibly because it’s a drama, I can’t think of too many dramas that have lived on forever in syndication, but NYPD Blue would seem to at the very least be a candidate to rival Law & Order reruns on cable.  My assumption is all of the nudity and adult language used to sell the show ultimately worked against it.

Why was this hook used in the first place?  What is the origin of NYPD Blue?



Development of the show began in 1991, when David Milch proposed a cop show to Steven Bocho that Bocho dismissed as “not very good.”  (Milch wanted to do a series about a cop working undercover in the mob, with the device of tape recordings being used to tell much of the story.)  Bocho wanted to create a show that would revive the hour-drama for network television.  His idea was to develop a cop show that pushed the boundaries of “language, sexuality, and violence” -- apparently, his reasoning was that this would be less gratuitous in the context of a realistic police drama, all the while, giving network TV something that it’d never seen before, and building publicity for the series before its debut.

ABC agreed to develop the series and Bocho and Milch began work on the pilot.  Bocho then fought with the network for a year to obtain a specific list of things he could and couldn’t do on the show, delaying NYPD Blue’s series debut from 1992 to 1993.




The context of the early ‘90s is important to remember.  This is not the Rudy Giuliani, Disney-fied Times Square New York of the late ‘90s.  This is still, essentially, the crime-ridden, urban decay, Bernie Goetz-shooting-muggers-on-the-subway New York of the 1980s.  NYPD Blue is the last representation of that era of New York, and due to the long run of the series, viewers can watch the show itself evolve along with the city.

The language/nudity gimmick certainly succeeded in giving the show advance publicity.  If you remember anything about the news that year, the debut of the series was preceded by months of reports about affiliates refusing to air the show, religious groups arranging protests, and behind-the-scenes conflict between the producers and ABC regarding last minute edits.  (Milch maintains in his True Blue book that due to his temperament, he stayed away from these discussions and allowed Bocho to take the heat.)  Ultimately, I think the language/nudity gimmick hurt the series.  For starters, it makes the name of the show a pun, as in NYPD Blue “works blue.”  (Every hackneyed newscast in 1993 asked the question, “Is NYPD Blue...too blue for television?”)  Secondly, it’s hurt NYPD Blue’s run in syndication.  The series debuted in late night syndication in 1997 because affiliates didn’t want to air the series during the day, placing it up against comedic talk shows and infomercials.  I don’t think the series lasted too long in syndication, and I do know that TNT’s later attempt to air a censored version of the series in the mornings was a bust.  Also, just the freedom to feature partial nudity doesn’t give you the story justification to actually do it -- many of the nude scenes on the show are literally tacked on to the end of an episode.  Watch the first season’s finale, “Rockin' Robin,” a wonderfully written episode that serves as the redemption of Detective Sipowicz, a character we met at the start of the season as a drunken shell of a man.  Then watch that hideous sex scene in the final 90 seconds that mars everything that preceded it.  (That title is also terrible -- Blue debuted back when most viewers never saw the titles of episodes.)





While the nude scenes can occasionally elicit an eye-roll, the show itself remains entertaining throughout its run.  It’s actually quite remarkable how consistent the series remained over the course of a dozen years, especially given the extremely high standard set by the first season. What set Blue apart, aside from the naughty talk and bare heinies?

The Look.  Blue is often referred to as “shaky cam” or “documentary style,” which is accurate, but there is a specific use of the camera that’s developed in the pilot that remains unique.  Director Gregory Hoblit (who produced the 1970s Dr. Strange TV movie!) wanted the camera to act as the viewer, in the sense that you’re in the room with the characters.  Early on, you’ll notice that he rarely cuts from one actor to another in a scene; instead, the camera swings over to face the actor, just as you would turn your head to look at someone speaking.  The show doesn’t stick to this aesthetic religiously, but it maintains a unique feel throughout most of the run.

The Authenticity.  Talking about NYPD Blue would be impossible without mentioning Bill Clark, the man who pretty much is the show.  Clark was working as an NYPD homicide detective in 1992 when he received a call, asking him to read the pilot script and give his thoughts on it.  (Milch asked a friend, a New York Times columnist, if he knew a cop who could give notes on the script.  The columnist responded that Clark was the best detective he knew.)  Soon, Clark was a consultant on the show.  By the end of the first season, he had his first writing credit.  By the second season, he retired from the NYPD and moved to California to become an associate producer on the show.  By the third season, he was co-writing most of the episodes.  By the final season, he was an executive producer, co-writing virtually every episode of the show.  The cop mentality that permeates the series is Bill Clark.  When detectives examine a crime scene, speculate on a killer’s motive, or interview a suspect...that’s Bill Clark. 

Not only did Clark influence the series’ view on police-work, but Clark’s friendship with David Milch had a noticeable impact on Milch’s writing.  Clark has a peculiar way of speaking, a kind of cumbersome, formal yet slightly whimsical way of structuring sentences.   Clark co-wrote the True Blue book, inserting his own cop stories in the book whenever Milch references one that influenced a plot on the show.  Clark’s speech pattern comes to be known as “Cop Talk” or “Milch Speak” by fans and, for better or for worse, goes on to dominate the show.

Clark’s background was also adopted for parts of the backstories of not only Dennis Franz’s character, but Jimmy Smits’ as well.  As an homage to Clark, his name was usually featured on the assignment board during the first season, even though the viewer never saw a detective named “Clark.” Bill Clark himself did cameo several times in the early years, but he was never identified by name, and often just appeared to be any random cop working for any detail that the 15th detective squad encountered.  (In the final seasons of the show, Sipowicz is paired with a young John Clark, whose father is a detective, one that’s worked with Sipowicz in the past.  In your NYPD Blue fan fiction, you can declare that mysterious Clark on the board as John Clark, Sr.) 

Another sidenote, even though Clark was a homicide detective, the actual classification of a homicide detective is rarely if ever mentioned on the show.  The detectives on the series work murders, certainly, but they’ll take robbery, assault, and domestic violence cases if they happen to be “up” whenever a civilian needs a detective.  I might be off on the details, but I believe homicide detectives aren’t assigned to a specific precinct; they go where the murders are and work with the detectives in that house.

It’s my understanding that Bill Clark and David Milch remain close.  Clark tends to get a credit on Milch’s shows, either on the opening as a producer, or in the closing credits in what I assume are joke credits.  (Clark’s credited as a “Welfare Worker” on Deadwood.)  People who know Milch say that his dream TV project is to tell the story of Clark’s early days on the NYPD in the 1970s.  The closest he’s come is Last of the Ninth, a pilot that HBO didn’t pick up.  (Looking online, I can’t tell if HBO ever aired it, but I’d love to see it one day.)

If you remember Milch’s short-lived HBO series John From Cincinnatiyou might recall Ed O’Neill playing a neurotic retired NYPD detective with a fascination with birds.  That’s Bill Clark, perhaps caricatured a bit for dramatic purposes.



It’s not a procedural.   Even though NYPD Blue is methodical about showing you how cases are worked and the various legal issues that surround law enforcement,  NYPD Blue isn’t strictly a procedural.  It’s not strictly a drama, either.  Milch doesn’t feel as if one should contradict the other.  It’s a show about friendship and loyalty, with some soap opera elements thrown in, and not just the case of the week.  I think that’s one reason why the show reached such a mainstream audience; you care about the characters, but you’re also invested in their work.  I have absolutely no interest in network procedurals that are based on some kind of gimmick, which seems to be all of them now, but Blue holds up even after several re-airings because it’s not dogged about being just one thing.  It also enables the show to increase its batting average -- if you’re not invested in the personal life segments this week, the case might draw you in.  Or, vice versa.  It’s a smart approach to series writing, and it’s a shame that network TV dramas don’t seem to follow this ideal any longer.

That’s all for now.  I’ll get into the first season of the show next time. 

6 comments:

  1. I always wanted to watch this show back when it first aired, but at the time we did not have a local ABC affiliate. (It was a rural area and their broadcasting tower was destroyed in a small plane crash.) By the time we got Primestar (later bought out by Directv) there were a hundred million cable shows to watch and I just never got around to it. This is really making me want to track it down, so kudos.

    Also, I'm over halfway done reading your book. I love it! (I figured I should read in since I've read nearly every post on Not Blog X.) It reminds me of people I went to school with around that time period. Good thing most of them kept their day jobs. The period nostalgia is fun, but I really like the characters. They're what's keeping me invested in the book.

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  2. Thanks, Eric.
    I would suggest, at the very least, watching the first season and deciding if you want to go on from there. Season One remains my favorite, but I remained a fan for the run of the series.

    The book, hopefully, works independent of the nostalgia element. I tried to stay true to the characters and write something that someone who doesn't care about that era could enjoy. I'm glad you like it.

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  3. NYPD Blue is one of the holy trinity of cop shows, along with Homicide and The Wire. What all three have in common is something mentioned at the end of this article: a strong sense of character that frequently takes priority over the importance of the cases/crimes, just like it would happen in real life. It's a very easy thing to describe, but a good example of how difficult it is to pull off is to look at any of the dozens of other cop shows that tried and failed to do the same thing. The various Law & Order shows are generally well-written, but they're also dry as hell, and any "slice o' personal life" scenes feel clunky and out of place. Everything in Blue (and the two other shows) seemed like it was all part of one big connected world.

    The profanity may have added a touch of reality to the show, but these days I think it's better remembered as incremental boundary-pushing. NYPD Blue took a ton of heat for it, but that's to be expected. I remember Bochco or Milch saying in an early interview that they were allowed X number of "assholes" per episode (I think it was two or three,) so I'd absentmindedly keep tally while watching ("ooh, they haven't said 'asshole' at all yet! I wonder if the last scene is going to be really intense!")

    The nudity... OK, the nudity may have hurt the show's long-term cultural footprint by limiting its syndication value (if they played NYPD Blue the way they rerun every damned Law & Order, I may never leave the house.) But you can't blame an artist for not thinking of subsidiary income, especially when they were absolutely right about the immediate impact. Yeah, some of it felt tacked on (I wonder if they just drew someone's name out of a hat every week... "Smits! Get ready to show your ass on Thursday!"), but it was a legitimate draw. Any heterosexual man who doesn't admit that the prospect of seeing a little more of Gail O'Grady or Andrea Thompson's skin to go along with their fine acting and compelling storylines wasn't at least a LITTLE bit of a draw is a goddamned liar.

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    1. Bocho tells a great story about ABC not allowing a character to flip the bird in Season One, so he threatened to have the character just use their thirty-whatever "assholes" in that one scene. They gave in.

      Gail O'Grady...the outfits they put that poor beautiful woman in. I wonder if she viewed her nude scene as a relief!

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    2. Those outfits were horrid, but dead-on accurate for a late-80s/early-90s public service desk jockey. I bet they really helped her nail down that character.

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  4. if you’re not invested in the personal life segments this week, the case might draw you in. Or, vice versa. It’s a smart approach to series writing, and it’s a shame that network TV dramas don’t seem to follow this ideal any longer.

    It definitely seems like we're getting less and less of that, especially with network dramas. It seems like nowadays everything either has to be "serialized" or "episodic" (and I'm as guilty as anyone of pushing everything towards one of those poles or the other), but there is a happy middle ground where the best of both approaches can reside. But you just don't see it as often anymore.

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