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Bochco Under Fire

5 minute read
Richard Zoglin

“For 20 years,” Steven Bochco told an interviewer recently, “I’ve made a living swimming upstream.” But for the past three or four of them, TV’s brash experimenter has been thrashing mostly in dry creek beds. The creator of Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law tried a musical police show (Cop Rock), an “adult” cartoon (Capitol Critters) and a sexy law show (Civil Wars). Now, with his new ABC series, NYPD Blue, Bochco is back where he is most comfortable: chronicling the dark, turbulent world of big-city law enforcement. And fighting a raging current.

Bochco’s show, which he invented partly to test the boundaries of TV sex and language, finally goes on the air this Tuesday (10 p.m. EDT) after a hot summer of controversy. Conservative watchdog the Rev. Donald Wildmon has launched a campaign against the show. By late last week, 44 ABC stations had decided not to run at least the premiere; the majority won’t air the series at all. Though most are in smaller markets, the defections could seriously hurt the show’s ratings. Advertisers, meanwhile, have been wary. Although ad time on the first episode is sold out, ABC entertainment president Ted Harbert admits the show has “not been a huge sales bonanza. There’s a wait-and-see attitude.”

It is a sign of how placid the rest of network television has become that Bochco’s strong but relatively conventional cop show has incited such an outcry. The first episode contains a lovemaking scene with some fleeting, shadowy glimpses of breasts and buttocks — more nudity than elsewhere on network TV, but discreet by cable and feature-film standards. Language is a touch rawer than usual (“pissy little bitch,” “douche bag”) but stays outside of verboten four-letter territory. As for violence, it is less graphic and less prevalent than in dozens of older TV shoot-’em-ups, from Gunsmoke to Miami Vice. The show’s chief problem is unlucky timing: as one of the few new shows this fall to portray any serious violence, it has been put in the spotlight by antiviolence crusaders desperately looking for targets. NYPD Blue is also, by the way, a crackling good TV show, probably Bochco’s best since Hill Street Blues. Better than Hill Street in some ways: sleeker, more focused, less distracted by those often annoying comic interludes. Instead of a Hill Street-style ensemble cast, the show revolves around two characters: detective John Kelly (David Caruso), a red-haired department veteran going through a painful divorce, and Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), his hotheaded, battle-fatigued partner. Some of Bochco’s devices have become too facile and familiar (the shaky, hand-held camera; a major character who takes six slugs at point-blank range and survives miraculously the following week). But his storytelling skills have never been sharper, and his favorite theme — the clash between institutions and people, between the law and justice — has never been dramatized at a higher, more compelling pitch.

ABC is quietly trying to downplay the show’s racy content. The network sent its affiliates two episodes in addition to the pilot (neither segment has as much explicit material) and got Bochco to trim 15 seconds from the first show’s lovemaking scene. ABC’s Harbert says that scene is the “high benchmark” for what the series will allow; half the episodes, he promises, will have no nudity at all. “Given that our schedule is so dominated by family programming, such as Roseanne and Home Improvement, we felt there is room for a show that stretches the boundaries, so long as we inform the audience about what the show is doing.”

What the show is doing, however, has scared off many affiliates — more than have rejected any network show in recent memory. Most say they made their decision independently of Wildmon’s organized campaign. Executives of WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky, decided not to run the show after screening it at an ABC affiliates’ meeting in June. Says station manager George Hulcher: “The kind of product they showed us was not for broadcast television. It’s for cable.” Jan McDaniel, general manager of Wichita’s KAKE, rejected the show after a torrent of anti-NYPD Blue letters and phone calls that followed local newspaper coverage of the controversy. Says McDaniel: “I received so many thoughtful expressions of frustration, I felt we had to take a stand.”

Bochco expresses mystification at the response, pointing out that the show is mild compared with what the audience can see on cable and home videos. Indeed, he scaled back his original ambition — to do TV’s first R-rated show — after long discussions with ABC over what the network would allow. “We gave a lot, and they gave a lot,” he says. Still, NYPD Blue marks a small advance. “We have a new generation today,” says Bochco. “What people watch is significantly more adult because they can access so much more. This show gave us some additional colors to paint our pictures.” Those new colors may be startling to some, but they are a welcome alternative to the old, bland shade of network beige.

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