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Arresting Cop Shows Are Rare, Except This Year

October 21, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It's a tired, shot-up genre, carrying around a belly full of lead and cliches.

Happily, though, every decade or so comes a U.S. crime series--from "Naked City" to "N.Y.P.D." to "Police Story" to "Hill Street Blues"--that far surpasses the ordinary. Yet never before have two such stunners surfaced in the same year.

Sharing this unique pedestal in 1994 are ABC's hit "NYPD Blue" and NBC's staggering "Homicide: Life on the Street." And come to think of it, NBC's popular "Law & Order" is no slouch either, affirmed by this week's artful episode linking a contemporary robbery to anti-war radicals of the '60s. A series to like.

"NYPD Blue" and "Homicide" are even loftier, however.

Steven Bochco and David Milch's "NYPD Blue" streaked into the 1993 fall season with a fleet of blue noses smoking on its tail, snorting fire over the show's use of nudity and coarse street talk on a scale unheard of for major commercial networks. Fearing a public and advertiser backlash, some ABC stations timidly refused to carry the series last season; its subsequent good ratings proved they were the ones out of touch. Station clearances have risen this season.

Although some of us initially misread the series as basically a bluer version of Bochco's "Hill Street Blues," it created a distinctive ambience for its intriguingly flawed pair of protagonists, veteran detectives John Kelly and Andy Sipowicz, played respectively by those good actors David Caruso and Emmy-winning Dennis Franz. Jimmy Smits next month will succeed Caruso as Franz's partner, Caruso having announced after last season that he would leave the series to make feature films.

"NYPD Blue" is nubby to the touch, from crime-and-crack-clogged urban neighborhoods to its brooding, complex characters and their untidy personal lives. This season's opening episodes have been great stuff: Kelly and Sipowicz under fire for busting some dirty cops (turf warfare riddles their workdays); a sweet romance uniting Sipowicz and assistant Dist. Atty. Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence); and Kelly's lover, former detective Janice Licalsi (Amy Brenneman), going on trial for murdering a mobster.

The courtroom sequences are strikingly intense, with Licalsi's attorney, the snarly James Sinclair (Daniel Benzal), making O.J. Simpson defender Robert Shapiro look like a squiggly Don Knotts. "The truth and a trial," this swaggering cynic informs his client, "have as much to do with each other as a hotdog and a warm puppy." Observers of the Simpson preliminaries may be reaching the same conclusion.

Although capable of occasional tenderness, Kelly and Sipowicz themselves are no warm puppies, and it remains to be seen whether the Smits-for-Caruso switch will in any way blunt the show or alter its chemistry. Nothing should affect its sharp, colorful writing or the grungy, sweaty allure of Sipowicz, who wears disorder like thick chest hair and whose messy history includes divorce, hard boozing and an explosive temper that he struggles to control. Every good cop series has someone who seethes, and no one on TV seethes better than Sipowicz, who speaks in short, jabbing sentences that impact like body punches.


Although raging inside, he bit off words as tight-lipped as a ventriloquist last week in threatening a man who had savagely beaten his wife: "You wanna wind up on a pier? I'm talkin' about goin' off the end of a pier with a rock tied to your middle and a noose around your neck. I'm talkin' about suckin' water in your lungs until you're dead, until nobody knows what happened to you. Do not beat this woman again. Do . . . not . . . beat . . . her!"

Much of the seething on "Homicide" falls to Frank Pembleton, the brilliant, complicated Baltimore detective whom the electrifying Andre Braugher portrays with such an interesting edge. A shaky fall returnee after two brief trials that yielded much higher critical praise than ratings, "Homicide" resumed last week with more of its underwhelming Nielsens, ranking an ominous third in its time period. One hopes that NBC recalls how long it took its late, great "Hill Street Blues" to build an audience sufficient to ensure its survival through much of the 1980s.

Given the magnetism of its characters, the sheen of its ensemble cast and the brainy, cinematic way it re-creates and carves texture into the grim reality of the streets, just why "Homicide" has not yet caught on is mystifying. Executive producers Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana and Henry Bromell are wed to a style of filmmaking that's arresting, but it's one that many viewers perhaps find disorienting, whether from those nervous jump cuts or the fluidity of a hand-held camera that either orbits like a circling predator or bounces as if on a bungee cord.

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