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As 'Blue’ Fades to Black

And so it comes to this, after 12 seasons and more than 250 episodes: ABC’s groundbreaking NYPD Blue signs off Tuesday night, March 1. Like they often say about the month of March itself: Here is a show that came in like a lion and left like a lamb.

Few shows in TV history created a bigger roar than NYPD Blue when it premiered in September 1993. It promised to not just push, but shred, the flimsy envelope of prime time content with a crime drama about living, breathing, aching and bellyaching detectives who existed in a gritty world of frank sexuality and realistically coarse language.

Steven Bochco, whose Hill Street Blues a decade earlier had changed the tone and texture of TV drama, was determined that network TV should be able to compete with the lure of R-rated cable. NYPD Blue was a wake-up call for a medium that needed to grow up. It was drama that was able to ruffle feathers and get under the skin (and sometimes show it).

How ironic, then, that a series initially banned by a number of affiliates for its occasional flashes of bare breasts and buttocks—until it became clear the show was a popular as well as critical hit—would be tamed in its final stretch by the split-second baring of Janet Jackson’s breast during a Super Bowl halftime. Could NYPD Blue in its bold original form have been launched this season in the wake of that incident and the ensuing FCC witch-hunt? Not likely.

Little wonder that Bochco is now in business with FX, developing an Iraq War drama for the upstart cable network whose The Shield (which has aired opposite NYPD Blue for three years) has taken the NYPD template to a much darker, even more graphic and morally ambiguous extreme.

The last months of NYPD Blue have been a curiously sexless affair. But it didn’t really matter. Which isn’t to say that NYPD’s past torrid sex scenes and vulgar language were just gimmicks or beside the point. For a while, they were very much the point, a device to paint the show’s flawed and combustible characters in as complex, honest and complete a way as possible. The intimate moments off the job revealed plenty about what made these people tick and how they coped with everyday pressures.

If current circumstances have been inhibiting NYPD’s game, it is not as if there was anything left to prove or anyone left to shock. This final season has served to reinforce the show’s reputation as one of TV’s most deeply human dramas ever—most notably in the grandly realized character of Andy Sipowicz, played with weary authority by Dennis Franz in a career-defining, mold-shattering performance that instantly achieved and sustained legendary status.

The entire series could be subtitled The Fall and Rise of Andy Sipowicz, beginning with his nadir in the opening episode: drinking and smoking like a human volcano of self-destructive impulses, which included bigotry and brutality. Over the years, as he has struggled toward sobriety and respectability, Andy’s darker angels have been supplanted and softened through a series of wrenching personal calamities. The death toll included a son, a wife and two partners. When the actress playing his latest TV wife abruptly left the series, they couldn’t kill her off. Andy, and we, had suffered enough already.

That is why it is at least a few years overdue for the show to wrap. A noble, stable Sipowicz is a less interesting Sipowicz. NYPD’s format of detection, interrogation and resolution has grown stale over the years. The bad bosses, the scuzzy perps—they all begin to blur. Time to go.

The valedictory tone of this farewell season was established last November when Andy was visited by the ghost of his most beloved partner, Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits). Andy, facing a crisis of conscience over a frustrating new boss and a rebellious young partner, was counseled, “Be a teacher.” From then on, Andy has been acting as more mentor than loose cannon. He recently earned his sergeant’s stripes, and in last week’s next-to-last episode, was offered the job of boss at the 15th. “Commanding this squad, teaching them, keeping them out of harm’s way, that’s my last job,” he said earnestly.

It is a satisfying way to go out, with a dignity few would have foreseen in the show’s ballsy early days. NYPD Blue has served a long and proud tour of duty. As Bobby’s ghost told Andy, “Life is long…long in possibility, long in those you effect. It’s long in what lives on after you’re gone.” However diminished it might seem now, the legacy of NYPD Blue is a powerful and inspiring one.