The National Catholic Review

When it aired in September 1993, NYPD Blue became immediately known for three things. First, it wasn’t called blue for nothing. The show had graphic sensibilities and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable fare on network television. It was not uncommon to see men and women naked from behind or, with discreet shadows, up front and in the altogether. It is hard to say which caused more water-cooler conversation--the pilot, in which such nudity was presented for the first time, or the episode a year later, in which the dumpy Dennis Franz stepped out of his clothes and mooned the audience in a shower scene with Sharon Lawrence. (When the episode aired, Franz’s daughter said to him, “What’s the matter with you?”) Likewise, the language could be severe. People said things on “NYPD Blue” that otherwise could be heard only on cable television or street corners.

 

The show also revolutionized television storytelling with its dizzyingly jerky cinematography and gritty visual textures. Viewers actually complained when the show first aired that they could not watch it; the shaky, quick-shifting camera work left them queasy. This edgy style and choppy pacing offered a vision of life that was harsh, unsettled and unsettling.

And then there was Detective Andy Sipowitz (Franz), a bigot to make Archie Bunker sit up and take notice. Foul-mouthed, vengeful and a raging alcoholic, Sipowitz presented some of the darkest elements of our humanity. He was shot and almost killed in the pilot, and both a fear of self-destruction and a hunger for the same would haunt him through much of the program’s run.

On Tuesday, March 1st, “NYPD Blue” closed up shop after 12 years and 262 episodes. As the show neared its conclusion, reports focused almost entirely upon Franz. Fierce as a grizzly, Franz somehow still maintained a light touch, mixing the cosmic and tragic with the simple and absurd. His Sipowitz fed fish for relaxation and always wore an ill-fitting short-sleeved shirt. If the man was at times deeply troubled, in Franz’s hands he was always also very human.

At its best, though, “NYPD Blue” was the story of a group of men and women, the detectives and staff of the 15th Precinct, who, like Sipowitz, were burdened by demons and struggling for redemption upon a landscape of grief, violence and sometimes inconsolable loneliness. Whether present for a single episode or a regular part of the ensemble, nearly every character who appeared on the show came face to face with betrayal, the end of dreams and the same basic questions: Can there be anything beyond this? Is there any hope of forgiveness? Life was terribly, terribly delicate and happiness hard won. Always there lingered in the background the threat of collapse and the nagging fear that one’s sins were too great.

And yet, for “NYPD Blue” the fragile was also the occasion for the lovely and the profound. Grace was to be found in the starkest and simplest of moments--a fish tank, a passing glance, the words of a child, a final goodbye--and most especially in the companionship of one’s friends. It was a fundamental premise of the show that our friends and lovers are our means of deliverance. They accept us in ways we cannot accept ourselves. In their eyes, we are freed from some degree of self-hatred. In their arms, we are known and forgiven. So a character as initially repellent as Sipowitz or as buffoonish as his fellow detective Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) became over time tragic, noble and finally beloved.

Where is the holy to be discovered--in the pews, amid the steeples? Modern Catholic writers wrestled with this question. Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “It is generally supposed, and not least by Catholics, that the Catholic who writes fiction is out to use fiction to prove the truth of the Faith.” She found this expectation problematic. “Proving the faith” as a way of proceeding easily lent itself to a sentimental glossing-over of reality. True Catholic writing, she felt, begins rather with the humility to accept reality as it is. God is not to be found in a pious withdrawal from the world, but in its very ordinariness and baseness. “There will be nothing in life too grotesque,” she writes, “or too ‘un-Catholic,’ to supply the materials of [the writer’s] work.”

The landscape of modern Catholic fiction reflected that sensibility. It was a world of whiskey priests and hysterics, adulterers and criminals, polluted protagonists who found redemption not in spite of their depravity, but in its very presence. “God was the parent,” writes Graham Greene in The Power and the Glory, “but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex.”

The producers of “NYPD Blue,” Steven Bochco, David Milch and Detective Bill Clark, never claimed to be creating a Catholic or religious show. Explicit religious references on the program were few. Yet here too a search for the sacred was undertaken. And holiness was found in the darkest of corners and hope in the most unlikely of places. Such wisdom and humanity will be missed.

This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that your time was short.
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

Jim McDermott, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Peggy Boyle | 2/16/2007 - 2:42pm
Thank you for a wonderful reflection on “N.Y.P.D. Blue,” by Jim McDermott, S.J. (4/25). Both my husband and I watched the show “religiously.” Even though each of our professions helps us know full well the groans and aches of crime and unhappiness, we never tired of the nuanced redeeming qualities the characters in the show displayed week after week. Detective Sipowitz rarely disappointed us in taking the higher ground, and various aspects of the show over the years increased our faith by showing us how often and in how many subtle ways people on each episode not only tried to be better people but helped each other be better people as well. Father McDermott did the show and your readers a great service by his remarks. Rarely does television deliver such quality. We will miss the weekly ritual.

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