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NYPD Blue.

Also: 'NYPD Blue' has warmed-over story, overheated sex

The new television season does two things that were bound to happen. One is television's first 12-Step situation comedy, "The John Larroquette Show." The other is the first sex-and-violence controversy of the new network era, in "NYPD Blue."

It's a new era because the four networks, with congressional critics breathing down their necks, recently agreed to warning labels for adult-oriented programming.

It was probably a bad time for Bochco, the creative force behind "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law," to try expanding what can be done on broadcast television. Or the best of times, if free publicity was the aim. Ever since the first network publicity teasers went out last spring, "NYPD Blue" has been hyped as enlarging prime time's anatomical and scatological vocabulary. That promotional strategy, thrown in the face of antiviolence liberals and antisex religious rightists alike, seemed calculated to pick a fight.

But one doubts if ABC expected the battle to spill over on the sacred spreadsheet. More than 50 affiliates refused to air the first episode. The stakes for free expression are high.

It's worth noting here that, aside from the usual fundamentalist forces, Roman Catholic voices have been heard prominently protesting "NYPD Blue." The diocesan newspaper in Dallas, The Texas Catholic, is given some of the credit for bouncing the show there. In New York City, Fr. John Vondras, a "pro-life" activist, joined the protest.

"NYPD Blue" does carry the new warning label, though for "adult language and ... partial nudity," not violence. The show's new frontier in artistic expression consisted only of the upper half of the female buttocks, that and the slang word for urination which has been crossing over for a few years on late-night shows.

At least to this viewer, "NYPD Blue," buttocks and all, is more irritating than outrageous. The show itself is a tense, exceptionally well-acted and good-looking piece of drama.

The cop-show plot flirts with cliche from the outset. The opening night featured a search-and-siezure dilemma, an internal affairs witch-hunt, a back-booth rendezvous with Mr. Big from the mob, a second-generation cop on the take -- all seen many times since "Serpico."

However, old "Hill Street" hand Dennis Franz's performance as a veteran cop on the skids is genuinely harrowing. And Dennis Caruso, his worried partner, in the middle of an ambivalent divorce, does the troubled-soul bit to a T. The redheaded actor looks every inch the old altar boy weighed down by the moral conflicts of adulthood.

This would be enough for viewers who appreciate storytelling and still find moral juice in the cop show. But not for Bochco and company. Perhaps convinced that quality isn't enough, they threw in some sensation in the form of the aforementioned nudity.

The body shots came as an unnecessary addition to a sex scene which was, itself, unnecessary to the development of the show's story, or even to the development of the relationship between the characters having sex. The scene was also irresponsible, since it depicted two characters "doing it" on the first date without any consideration for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and other unwanted consequences. Note that the cardinal's man in New York had no protest on this point.

Meanwhile, also on Tuesdays, NBC's "The John Larroquette Show" has its own moments of gratuitous coarseness. In one episode, a regular character goes around showing his penis to people because he's afraid he might have one of those diseases. And there is a happy hooker character who gives an entirely too wholesome and harmless view of the oldest profession.

But the Larroquette show's excesses are easier to forgive. This is because the half-hour sitcom also bumps up against some of life's harsher and happier realities at unusual depth, and with the rare recognition that the harsh and happy are often flip sides of the same event.

Larroquette gained fame in the long-running "Night Court." He is also semi-famous as one of Hollywood's more prominent recovering alchololics, and his battle with the bottle provides both the "situation" hook and the emotional substance of his new series.

He plays John Hemingway, who has lost his wife and most of his life to the bottle, but has just turned the corner to sobriety. He's taken a job as the night manager of the Crossroads Bus Terminal in St. Louis and is putting it back together one day at a time.

Down at the bus station, the show has a conventional sitcom cast of characters: the aforementioned call girl; the ultramilitant young black guy who runs the lunch counter; the Puerto Rican desk clerk, who also serves as Larroquette's mother confessor; and the janitor who won't set foot in the men's room under penalty of death.

There is also a bar adjacent to the terminal where the bartender keeps commemorative chips AA hands out for sobriety milestones. He trades booze for chips.

Staying sober in this environment is, of course, challenge enough. The last six station managers died on duty, we learn -- four murders and two suicides. A bottle of booze comes with the manager's desk, and a small handgun is strapped under the counter with Velcro. By the end of the first episode Larroquette has used the gun, on the bottle.

If this were all there was to it, "The Larroquette Show" would be just another overloud sitcom. But Larroquette is also developing another life for John Hemingway, around and outside of work, that centers on the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Here we meet the old hippie rocker, and near-death recovery specimen, David Crosby himself in the role of Chester, a biker who is also a 15-year AA veteran. He becomes Hemingway's AA sponsor and begins leading him through the steps.

This is where the show gets into some uncharted territory for television. For instance, Chester demands that his new charge take a six-month vow of celibacy. This is a fairly common piece of AA wisdom for the newly sober, and Chester notes that, for Hemingway, booze and women have always been associated.

But at this point in history, it is fairly revolutionary to have an adult television character acknowledging that there might sometimes be benefits to not having sex. The lesson is even more laudable for the fact that it came in the midst of a near-sex scene between Hemingway and a female customer, which made the tension of unconsummated attraction achingly, almost palpably real.

In another episode, Hemingway is going through the ordeal of a Fourth Step "moral inventory." At the same time he gets a visit from the mother he has been dodging for years. In the process Larroquette's character learns that the mother was not responsible for either his or his father's drinking. He and his father were, respectively.

There is a lot of dialogue about not blaming other people for one's troubles and taking responsibility for self-inflicted wounds. This, too, is refreshingly incorrect and unfashionable in the age of psychobabble.

Here the show runs up against the hard stuff of life, and still comes up laughing. Right now, the cartoonish elements of "Larroquette" and the 12-step stories are in uneasy, sometimes clashing, juxtaposition. But as the show evolves it could hit upon a winning blend of sitcom convention and hard-bitten AA spirituality and become one of the all-time greats of the genre. More likely, however, "Roseanne" will kill it off in the ratings and it will be canceled before Christmas.
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Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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