If you like bad words, anti-heroes, and nudity on your favorite TV shows you can thank 'NYPD Blue'

nypd blueABCABC

  • 25 years ago, ABC premiered a cop show called "NYPD Blue," and a bunch of advertisers, TV stations, and pro-family groups freaked out.
  • That's because the show featured rough language, nudity, and serious topics not common to commercial, broadcast TV at the time.
  • Today, 'NYPD Blue' looks rather tame, and advertisers find their ads next to all sorts of far racier content without batting an eyelash.
  • But the show's complicated lead character, Andy Sipowicz, continues to influence TV.


A few weeks ago, I started watching the new Kevin Costner series "Yellowstone." It's decent show. It wants to be prestige TV, but comes off more like a modern version of "Dallas" or "Dynasty."

Costner's character is a rich ranch owner, has a big dysfunctional family, and is kind of good (he's a grandpa), but also really bad (his ranch hands kill people).

One thing that stood out early on is there are loads of bad words, f-bombs and all, and a fair amount of nudity - all brought to you by Ram trucks, a major advertiser.

I've also just started watching Lifetime's "You" (don't judge because it's awesome). It's about a guy (the same actor who played Dan on "Gossip Girl") who stalks a love interest, so you're not exactly signing up for a Hallmark movie.

Just a few minutes into the first episode, the characters are saying and doing all sorts of naughty things that in a different time would be absolutely shocking on commercial TV.

Yet right after a scene of intense stalking and public masturbation, there was an ad for a bunch of great appetizer specials at Applebee's. Talk about feeling good in the neighborhood.

steak applebees

The common thread between these two shows: nobody seemed to care about the explicit content. There was no controversy.

As far as I can tell, there were no protests, blackouts, boycotts, or even press releases from family-focused organizations. Presumably, some viewers may have even watched both shows, jumped in their Ram trucks and happily headed off to happy hour at Applebee's.

The reaction was a bit different 25 years ago when "NYPD Blue" hit the air.

 

If you spend most of your time in a Netflix, HBO, anything-goes TV world,  it's hard to express what a big deal it was when ABC announced plans to launch "NYPD Blue." The show promised frequent cursing and tastefully shot nude scenes on network television, beamed out to the whole country, in 1993. (Variety has a great retrospective here.) Unlike HBO, this was definitely TV.

For one thing, each episode was preceded by a scary disclaimer, like you were about to buy a pack of cigarettes:

"This police drama contains adult language and scenes with partial nudity. Viewer discretion is advised." 

When it premiered on September 21, 1993, a bunch of ABC stations refused to air it, the Los Angeles Times reported, and advertisers were "skittish." Remember, this was pre-Sopranos, pre-ER, and way before "Breaking Bad" and "Sons of Anarchy." TGIF was in full swing.

Here's how you know it was a really long time ago: "NYPD Blue" depicted the East Village as a super gritty place with murders happening every week. Now you can get a one bedroom on Avenue B for like three grand a month.

Right before "NYPD Blue" premiered, fundamentalist minister Donald E. Wildmon told the LA Times: "ABC must be embarrassed and humiliated at this point."

Not so much. Right out of the gate, "NYPD Blue" was a major hit. It turns out, people really like mild cursing and modest nudity. And they really like dark, complex characters. Soon advertisers and ABC stations all got on board.

Initially, "NYPD's" racy scenes featured on its lead characters played by David Caruso and Amy Brenneman (who went onto "Judging Amy"and eventually "The Leftovers").

Dennis FranzGetty ImagesGetty Images

But it was Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, who broke out, and changed TV. In the pilot, Andy grabs his crotch and shouts, "ipso this, you pissy little bitch" at a female district attorney. No one knew what that meant, but it was definitely adult.

Sipowicz also boozed a ton, cavorted with prostitutes, might have been mildly racist, and was definitely not afraid to cross the line into police brutality territory. Yet he also had a heart of gold.

 

You can trace a direct line from Sipowicz to Walter White, or anyone from"The Shield" or "Peaky Blinders" - even Don Draper. To be fair, most of these envelope-pushing shows ran on cable, which doesn't have to deal with the Federal Communications Commission, which still regulates what is broadcast over the air (and cares about stuff like Super Bowl Wardrobe Malfunctions, even more than advertisers seem to).

But the point is, modern prestige TV, or even cheese TV, is a lot rougher around the edges than it used to be.

In terms of the peak 1990s - "I can't believe that was just on TV" - it's hard not to think of a 1995 "NYPD Blue" episode featuring Sipowicz in the shower with the DA he previously cursed out. If you like your TV shows edgy, you can thank Sipowicz's butt.

Back then, advertisers were surely holding their breath and waiting for the angry calls. Today, they'd just be happy to have people watch their ads on TV at all.

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