Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Coffee, hot dogs, donuts: NYPD Blue and humanity in the darkness 

Dramas come and dramas go, but to the discerning viewer there’s only one that really matters; NYPD Blue. For nearly ten years its exquisite blend of scripting, casting, acting and directing have produced some of the most intense and involving television ever.

It isn’t a cop show at all; the genre simply provides a convenient framework. It’s really about how hard it is to live in a modern city, how emotions must be guarded and feelings seldom revealed, and how relationships are delicate things to be entered into with care. It’s about tiny fragments of fractured humanity adrift in a sea of anonymity and anxiety.

The storylines see the principal characters deal with the outcomes of the thousand small collisions that occur in the seething mass of a busy city. The terse filmic short-hand perfected by the series allows little time to sight-see, but cuts straight to the point, and the dialogue contributes. The characters’ speech in this milieu is machine-gun quick, a street rhythm matching the speed of the editing that’s laced with deadpan one-liners: “It’ll slip to the south end of my to-do list”; “When he’s in that kind of mood, you’d rather work on the ins and outs of that Chechnya thing”.

When it comes down to personal relationships, however, the same characters hesitate over their words like a soldier crossing a minefield. They become tongue-tied, ensuring little of import is ever conveyed, much is assumed and the rest left hanging as they gratefully rush to another crime scene. Amidst such awkward displays of emotion, snatched glances are often more meaningful than words. This internalising has the departure of even major characters under-played, a refreshingly realistic thing.

In the evening these bruised souls retire to the safety of bars and diners, where the barriers come down a little and the hesitant steps toward living a normal life become more sure-footed. Here, in a neat reversal of the bar-set alienation of Hopper’s Nighthawks, they welcome the chance to interact, sharing thoughts and fears and tip-toeing towards an end point against a prosaic neon background – COFFEE HOT DOGS DONUTS.

It is, though, in the home where NYPD Blue’s most intimate moments take place. It is no coincidence that these scenes are always signalled by the warm, golden glow of a window in a night-black brownstone, welcoming us and the characters to the ultimate sanctuary, a tiny cell-like apartment that allows them to relax, finally safe from the world outside. Whenever two characters reach a resolution, it feels like a huge victory to the viewer, so rare is the occasion and so fragile the bond. Even here, however, the scene often ends with a slow pan as a wall or item of furniture close to the camera moves across our vision, leaving them alone once more.

nypb cast

Season one cast of NYPD Blue; David Caruso, Dennis Franz, Amy Brenneman, James McDaniel, Sherry Stringfield and Nicholas Turturro; title design (Twentieth Century Fox Television)

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