I’ve written about the value of execution before and I expect I’ll do it again. It’s that kind of topic. Every so often I read or see something that reminds me of how critical it is, more important than any other facet of creativity, and I’ll end up in a cul-de-sac of thought until I work out the new angles. What happens to the rest of you here is collateral damage.
People alleged to know spend a lot of time discussing the value of catching the zeitgeist, or, even better, starting the Next Big Thing yourself. Hopefully by now the “Girl” wave has run its course. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Shook the Hornet’s Nest, The Girl with One Brown Eye and One Blue Eye, Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Girl Who’s Gone on the Train, The Dragon-Tattooed Train with the Girl On it, etc.) Even so, something else will replace it—it’s how we’re geared—and it will spawn its own incestuous family of
imitators artists uniquely inspired by it.
It’s still execution that matters if you want a long run.
Today’s example is a cop show from the 90s and early Aughts, NYPD Blue. Yes, it premiered 24 years ago. Regular readers know the Beloved Spouse and I are not people who like to rush into our entertainment choices. Two-and-a-half decades of universal acclaim is enough. We started Season 2 this week and I’m happy to say the show holds up.
Is it dated? Not in ways that matter. Sure, the cops still use pagers and have to find pay phones. The few cell phones on display are the size of shoes. They use manual typewriters hammer out paperwork on actual paper and documents have to be hand carried. Those are all peripherals. The key elements are still solid: relationships, dialog, and the effects of the job.
What strikes me most about the show is how little of it is ground-breaking. I know that opinion runs counter to the show’s reputation; bear with me. The sex and nudity and what was at the time foul language were the big deals at the time. A third of ABC’s affiliates refused to show the premiere. Those of you who have seen the show can attest to this: once creators Stephen Bochco and David Milch had made their point and grabbed your attention, the sex and nudity dropped way off. The language settled in. The show has little onscreen violence.
What else was ground-breaking? Hill Street Blues had been a procedural that spread its attention around to patrol officers, detectives, and the bosses. NYPD Blue is basically detectives, based on one key partnership. First it was Kelly and Sipowicz, then Sipowicz and Simone. TV detectives have worked with partners since before Dragnet. Big deal.
The show is basically episodic, with some carryover storylines. Ho-hum.
So why does anyone give a shit about it 24 years later? Because it was a great show. The writing was exceptional, and often brilliant. The casting was spot on, and the actors uniformly rose to their tasks. The sense of place is always there. The stories still resonate today because their underpinnings and greater significance were more timeless than topical.
If I had to pick one thing in which NYPD Blue was ahead of the curve it is how Bochco and Milch handled violence. There’s not much of it on screen. What they excelled—and a lot of creative people would do well to learn from them—is in showing the aftereffects of violence. Shootings. Domestic abuse. Muggings. It’s been a long time but I don’t remember any of Blue’s contemporaries or predecessors dwelling much on that. (Hill Street is the one exception that comes to mind. Big surprise.)
NYPD Blue is worth watching today because the things that made it a good show are timeless. It’ll be a good show in 20 years. All because it focused more on being good than on being different.