Rhapsody in blue: NYPD Blue was greeted with howls of outrage in America. Now it has 26 Emmy nominations. Gerard Gilbert on the making of a cult

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NYPD Blue's David Caruso has promised he will now attend tomorrow night's Emmy awards in California. 'I owe it to my character John Kelly,' read a tight-lipped statement from the 38-year-old actor. NYPD Blue? David Caruso? John Kelly? If these names mean nothing to you then stop here. If, however, they do mean something, read on. You're hooked, and you know it.

More on the 'Caruso Crisis' later. First, the good news. NYPD Blue, a drama serial from the same stable as Hill Street Blues and LA Law, and set in a fictional New York police department, is up for 26 Emmy Awards, television's equivalent of the Oscars. That's the second highest ever, only beaten by the 1977 slave drama Roots.

The triumph is all the more sweet because NYPD Blue had such a difficult birth, stirring up America's 'moral majority' with its unusually strong language ('tits', 'dick-head', 'prick' and 'douche bag') and almost unprecedented primetime nudity. Full-page adverts were taken out protesting at the programme's general lewdness, and shots were fired at the production company's premises.

Advertisers took fright, leading to over 40 ABC (the network which makes NYPD Blue) subsidiaries refusing to take the show. None of which has prevented NYPD Blue becoming the most highly rated drama on American television last season. 'The viewers are way ahead of the censors and the advertisers,' says Jeff Kaye of the Hollywood Reporter. 'They really don't care about the strong language or the nudity. In fact they appreciated that here were real, complex human beings.'

Even so, national acclaim has not been enough to reassure some of the more nervous local stations. 'Even now, some ATV affiliated stations will not take NYPD Blue,' explains Kaye. 'ABC executives say that they're not getting anywhere near the advertising rates they'd expect from such a highly rated show.'

In this country, the series has attracted a committed and growing audience. Having run the first series back in January, Channel 4 began repeating the whole thing almost at once 'because so many people came to it late'. Mike Dormer, producer of The Bill, the nearest British equivalent to NYPD Blue, admits to being 'besotted by it - I've watched every episode and every repeat'.

Tony Garnett, creator of the BBC's acclaimed Between the Lines, is another admirer: 'I'm a great fan of Bochco and I've watched his work from way back,' says Garnett, referring to Steven Bochco, founding father of NYPD Blue - not to mention Hill Street Blues and LA Law. 'Bochco really wrote the book on trying to do any serious work in this form. I've been nicking his stuff for years.'

The most oft-noted aspect of NYPD Blue is not the language or the nudity, but the jerky, restless, pseudo-realist camerawork. 'In Los Angeles all my friends in the film and television business watch it purely for the fantastic way that they shoot it,' says the Hollywood Reporter's Jeff Kaye.

'Technically it's a response to all those so- called factual cop things that were made cheaply in America in the 1980s,' says Tony Garnett, who employs lushly cinematic techniques on Between the Lines. 'Audiences now identify wobbly-scope with reality.' Meanwhile the old joke about NYPD Blue is that the only scenes that are shot smoothly and lovingly are the sex scenes (not something you'll see in The Bill).

In the final analysis, however, what makes NYPD Blue so compelling are the characters. Dennis Franz's tubby, street-broiled Andy Sipowicz is a straight transfer from Hill Street Blues, where he went under the name Lieutenant Buntz. Franz is a one-off, and his Sipowicz / Buntz is a fascinating study of bull-necked cynicism almost heroic in its inability to eat bullshit. 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' is Sipowicz's trademark demurral to society's lies, dissembling and self-deception. You can see why Bochco wanted him, to add some darker shade to the show's strawberry blond, morally righteous hero John Kelly.

As played by David Caruso (a piece of casting that has already won an Emmy), who rarely raises his voice beyond a measured Clint Eastwood murmur, Kelly is undeniably a figure from the 1990s, but he also carries old-fashioned moral authority - of the Gary Cooper or Alan Ladd variety. He says 'Hey' instead of 'Hi', and is always urging people to 'reach out' to each other, but it doesn't stop him leaning heavily on suspects, much to the consternation of Martinez, the idealistic Hispanic rookie who adopts him as a father figure, and who, along with the black station boss, Lieutenant Fancy, and Janice Licalsi, Kelly's one-time lover (who killed a Mafia boss in Episode 2), form the core of the team.

The first series ended with all its plotting options open (characters on bail, in turmoil or in soft-focus flagrante). But the action since then has been off screen.

Caruso, who is getting dollars 2m to star in the movie Jade, has developed a taste for Hollywood-scale salaries. His demand for a pay rise, from dollars 40,000 to dollars 100,000 an episode, is not entirely unreasonable: Roseanne Arnold pays herself dollars 500,000 per episode of Roseanne, and Tim Allen gets dollars 250,000 for each painful episode of the sitcom Home Improvement. But NYPD Blue is an ensemble show; paying Caruso more would mean paying the others more. So producer Bochco reluctantly let his star walk after shooting three episodes of the new series, which start showing in Britain next January. Jimmy Smits, formerly of LA Law - and reportedly Bochco's first choice for the Kelly part - has been hired as his replacement.

Of course, if Caruso's movie career were to falter (as did LA Law's Harry Hamlin's) he might yet be tempted back to NYPD Blue, so it's hard to believe that Bochco will allow Kelly to be killed off altogether. The word of mouth is that the detective's career is due for a serious but not necessarily terminal interruption somewhere around Episode 4. An awful lot of people are going to be praying that David Caruso falls flat on his face in Hollywood.

'NYPD Blue' continues its repeat run on Channel 4, Wednesdays at 10pm

(Photograph omitted)