Contrary to what professional alarmists and a few weak-kneed ABC affiliates are saying, nothing in Steven Bochco's riveting and explosive new series "NYPD Blue" is likely to undermine the moral fiber of this great nation. And contrary to what Bochco himself said very early in the creation of the program, nothing in it could be called R-rated either.
The premiere, airing tonight at 10 on Channel 7, does contain about 40 seconds of partial nudity during a bedroom scene, but the most private of parts are not shown. And though the script includes some words not previously spoken in prime-time drama, the language is really only incrementally blunter than that on many other prime-time shows, sitcoms as well as dramas.
And the talk is nowhere near as rough as it really gets on the streets of New York, where much of the action takes place.
ABC will precede the program with a disclaimer: "This police drama contains adult language and scenes with partial nudity. Viewer discretion is advised." That should be adequate warning. Everybody in the nation is free not to watch.
Beneath the hullabaloo, what you have in "NYPD Blue" is a compelling and sometimes harrowing hour of high-tension urban trauma, different from Bochco's "Hill Street Blues" and at least as good as any other drama series now on the air. It delivers a good, stiff shock now and then, and what's wrong with that? It's surely preferable to shows that lull you into numbness.
Dennis Franz, one of the scariest actors around, plays Detective Andy Sipowicz, burly and combustive veteran of the force; red-haired David Caruso plays his partner, John Kelly. They are a formidable team, but Franz is formidable all by himself.
The short-fused Sipowicz is carrying on a vendetta against a sleazy small-time mobster named Alfonse Giardella (Robert Costanzo), whom he refers to by various unprintable epithets. One night, after a bout of heavy drinking, Sipowicz assaults Giardella, kicking him down the front steps of a restaurant and eventually stuffing the mobster's moth-eaten toupee in his mouth.
Giardella plots revenge with the help of Lois (Shannon Cochran), a hard-luck hooker with whom Sipowicz has been known to fraternize. It will fall on Kelly's shoulders to avenge an attack on his bellicose partner.
Kelly has his own problems, including the collapse of his 16-year marriage. Wife Laura (Sherry Stringfield) is divorcing him with the pro bono help of an attorney named Josh Goldstein, who lives in her building and has a king-size crush on her. Goldstein is played by David Schwimmer, an even more endearing schlemiel here than he was as a featured attorney on "L.A. Law."
Others at the police station include the authoritative James McDaniel as the lieutenant in charge of Sipowicz and Kelly; Nicholas Turturro as Officer Martinez, Kelly's interim partner after the assault; and intriguing Amy Brenneman as Officer Janice Licalsi, who may have a nasty little secret or two up her crisp blue sleeve.
Licalsi and Kelly are the lovers in the big nude scene, which has been trimmed since it was first shown to the press in early summer. For the record, it appears that fleeting shots of Kelly's bare bottom have been taken out, while shots of Licalsi's remain. It won't set your screen on fire, so don't expect it to.
Even with the trims, some ABC affiliates are worried enough about "NYPD Blue" to have dropped out of the lineup; at least 30 stations will not air the premiere, though some may pick up the show as of the second episode, which has strong language but less skin. Some of the defecting affiliates are in rural areas and are owned by ultraconservatives. Shockingly enough, even Washington's WJLA, in this presumably sophisticated market, was reportedly toying with the idea of preempting the premiere as late as yesterday.
This station does little enough to distinguish itself without going chicken-hearted the minute a controversial show comes down the line from the network.
Violence on the program is kept to a minimum, considering the milieu, and director Gregory Hoblit shoots the mayhem in a flickering, stylized way that gives it strong impact while downplaying gore. David Milch, Bochco's partner, wrote the first two episodes, which are filled with deft twists and provocative turns.
Hoblit opts for a nervous kind of cinematography that might be called STC -- Swing That Camera -- but it seems more appropriate than annoying, especially during scene-setting transitions in which the camera restlessly searches city streets for the next outburst of action. Things are bouncy enough that one should probably not watch the show from a water bed or a rocking chair.
Despite the overall high quality of the performances, Caruso seems curiously incomplete. He's out there acting while those around him appear to be much more thoroughly absorbed in their characters.
For the most part, the show upholds the Bochco tradition, which is a tradition worth upholding. It's the kind of drama that is invariably called gritty, but there's more to it than that. There's passion and veracity and a breakneck momentum.
The worst television is the kind you can shrug off a moment later. Whatever else it is, "NYPD Blue" is patently unshruggable.