Joe Sparrow : How NYPD Blue is the Instagram of cop shows

I recently bought two fat NYPD Blue boxsets for £5 from a second-hand store. I remembered the show from late-night Channel 4 in the 90s, a time when late-night Channel 4 was the place good imported TV shows went to die.

By any reasonable measure, NYPD Blue is now an anachronism.

Unlike the malleable story arcs of True Detective, thick with translucent plotlessness*, NYPD Blue’s storylines are almost comically direct, zipping at a dizzy lick from well-flagged plot point to well-flagged plot point.

The stories aren’t just spelt out in advance; they’re taken for granted. We’re all in on the scam, and we hop on NYPD Blue for the ride as you would a rollercoaster. The viewer scopes out the ups and downs in advance and then rides it on rails. And the fun is more real because of it.

David Simon, creator of the best TV show ever, The Wire, describes how he intentionally made the Wire’s storylines complex, long and foggy to separate the show from ‘unrealistic’ cop shows like — huh — NYPD Blue.

NYPD Blue isn’t The Wire. In fact, it’s replete with the kind of faults that would sink most shows.

The tonal qualities of the acting in NYPD Blue can sometimes be measured in inch-thick slices of ham, and the characters shuttle back and forth between cop cliches: seedy bars, choppy relationships, overtime forms, crappy coffee, powdered donuts and personal tragedy: tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. The stories are unadulterated slash ’n’ weep pulp fiction, gleefully veering into absurdity at every opportunity.

But here’s what that simple framework brings: space. Acres of grubby, smoggy, glorious space. 

Characters are given time to breathe and grow, despite the breakneck pace of the fast-talking-scamster bullshit storylines that surround it. The characters don’t grow much, but that’s not the point: they’re alive. It’s this focus on seemingly two-dimensional characters that make the show remarkable.

Essentially, NYPD Blue’s brilliance is in the rigidity of the show’s structure. Instead of trying to make ten different things fairly well, the focus is on portraying one thing brilliantly: the interaction between the humanity of the characters and the noise of the city.

Nuance of plot is secondary to finding out what happens when you draw characters with crayon and stick with them through thick and thin in a mad city.

NYPD Blue is addictive for the same reason that Instagram is so addictive. It seems stupid when you think about it: we are all carrying insanely advanced cameras in our pockets, and we take most pleasure from them when we shove shitty filters over them. It turns out that by picking from a simple set of options and washing out colours, scrubbing away detail and replacing complexity for noise, we create something more real, or at least more enjoyable.

Life is complex, but it doesn’t all need to be. Order out of chaos; and chaos out of familiarity. NYPD Blue does what it needs to truly be alive, and nothing more — and that’s more than most of us will ever do.

*Note: that meant to read “plotlines” but was autocorrected twice in a row. I assume that the mellifluous plotting of the show is crossing over to my own reality.