From 'Naked City' in the '50s to 'Golden Boy' today, NYPD spells TV drama (and comedy).
NEW YORK — There are 8 million stories in the Naked City.
Here's another one.
That famous coda from ABC's Golden-Age cop show remains true more than a half-century later, and helps to explain television's eternal infatuation with the police force and legal system of New York City. With 8 million stories, you just never run dry.
The early, gritty, black-and-while drama Naked City, which began airing in 1958, was the first show shot on location in the city. Tuesday brings the latest, CBS' Golden Boy (10 ET/PT), which chronicles the fast rise of a cop (Theo James) to the city's youngest police commissioner.
But it's only one of many. As the current crop attests, New York remains the favorite locale for TV's most durable, and often most popular, genre. CBS' Blue Bloods features the Reagans, a multi-generational Irish family of men in blue living in Brooklyn. NBC's Law & Order franchise is the most successful and longest-lived, spawning four spinoffs, though only one — Special Victims Unit — remains on the air.
Less conventional gumshoes pop up in ABC's Castle and CBS' Person of Interest, Elementary and Unforgettable. Even BBC America got into the act with Copper, its first original series, which centers on the primitive Manhattan police force of 1864. And the producers of Parks and Recreation are at work on a Fox comedy pilot about a detective squad in the city's "outermost neighborhood," featuring Andre Braugher and Andy Samberg.
Big Apple TV cops can also be found in other long-running or classic series, from Car 54, Where Are You? (filmed in a Bronx studio), to Kojak, Baretta, Cagney and Lacey, Barney Miller and Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue and Brooklyn South, all set here but filmed 2,500 miles away at Hollywood studios. And movies such as Serpico and The French Connection were touchstones of the film realism of the 1970s.
"New York seems like such a perfect fit for a cop show," says Bochco. . "It's so diverse and so dense. So much is happening in New York every day: Open up a newspaper, it's all there." Adds fellow native and Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, "Anything that happens anywhere in the world happens in New York."
Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media, says Naked City was "the one show that defined New York and how to think about crime in the big city." And while Los Angeles may offer more opportunity for car chases and backyard stakeouts, "the tension between police and the city about to explode into some kind of chaos is one of the exciting elements of New York. That urban instability is why it's been so appealing."
A melting pot of story lines
Producers say the immigrant culture provides a well of stories. "You have a greater mix of ethnicities in one neighborhood of Queens than you do in the rest of the country combined," says Warren Leight, SVU's executive producer. "Successful cop shows are not about master criminals and brilliant crimes; they're about street-level greed and revenge, and the character-driven story lines that are part of the melting pot," says Blue Bloods executive producer Kevin Wade.
Then "there's the attitude of the wry, sardonic detective," emblematic to the Big Apple, Leight says, that just "felt out of place" in Law & Order: Los Angeles, a failed spinoff canceled in 2011 after one season.
"There's something about how they walk and talk and move," says Golden Boy James, a British native. "They have to come into a crime scene and own it; there's no beating around the bush as British people do."
Time has changed how some New York cops are portrayed. "Twenty years ago, it was just, 'Get the job done,' " says Nicholas Wootton, Golden Boy's creator, who also worked on NYPD Blue and Law & Order. "There was so much crime in New York, the decisions cops had to make on a daily basis were, 'Do I get the info and release a bad guy to get a worse guy?'"
Now, "the murder rate is so significantly down, the focus of this show is a little more selfish; if I can screw you over and get a promotion while getting the bad guy, that's better."
Frequent TV and movie portrayals have burnished the image of the real NYPD, and the "iconic nature of the department is wedded to history," says deputy police commissioner Paul Browne. Often, when there's a terrorist or other high-profile incident anywhere in the world, he says, New York's finest are "called from news organizations overseas to get our reaction. In part it's because we're the nation's biggest police department," 35,000 strong. "But it's also because the entertainment culture has told the rest of the world the NYPD is the police department in the American experience. In TV and movies, it's a brand."
Naturally, both the police and producers strive to maintain the authenticity of that brand. Each show relies on technical advisers, usually retired cops, to parse scripts for inaccuracies or suggest storylines to writers based on actual cases. A cop wouldn't, for example, pick up a gun by sticking a screwdriver in the barrel, which would scratch it. Suspects can't be arrested based on a photo ID without first appearing in a lineup. While chasing a suspect, a cop would never throw a radio down, as one actor did.
"The hardest part of my job is not technical advising; it's keeping up with the NYPD on procedures and guidelines," says Jim Nuciforo, a retired 19-year detective who consults on Blue Bloods and other CBS series.
But sometimes the need for high-stakes drama trumps the drudgery of real police work.
"In 262 episodes of NYPD Blue, Sipowicz maybe fired his gun twice," says Bill Clark, who spent 24 years as a homicide detective, then rose from technical adviser to executive producer on the show. (James' Golden Boy character is named for him). "You look at cop shows today, and there's 500 shots fired throughout the show. It's sad, because so many young guys grow up at home, thinking about becoming a cop, and thinking that this is what being a cop is like."
A particular bugaboo is the use of physical force in interrogation rooms or confrontations during an arrest. "I didn't tell a guy when I was taking him out of a house that I was locking him up for murder," Clark says. "It was very low key." He faults Law & Order for portraying perps who confess in front of their lawyers, whom he says would never permit guilty clients to speak. "They repeatedly do that, and it used to drive me crazy." And the so-called "CSI effect" has led many shows to focus on forensic evidence at crime scenes, though finding much is rarer than it seems.
Law & Orders have always been homegrown, but in a twist from the recent past most other New York cop shows are filmed here too. It helps to make the shows more authentic by allowing the liberal use of famous landmarks. But the major incentive is the state's 30% tax credit, which makes it just as cheap to film here now as in Los Angeles.
In the past, shows like NYPD Blue "became very adept at trickery," Bochco says, by adding a precinct facade and tenements to a New York street at the Fox studios that filled in apart from occasional forays to the real New York for exterior filming.
But Katharine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, believes "you can definitely tell the difference." When the Brooklyn Bridge or the Chrysler Building are "whizzing by" in the background, "it adds to the texture of the show. There's an energy and an atmosphere in this city, and you don't get that in a backlot with a phony stoop and a phony police precinct." New York now boasts a record 25 prime-time episodic TV shows, up from just nine in 2002.
With so many shows, producers say crews often bump into each other at popular locations, and clogged traffic and bureaucratic delays remain issues. Wolf says physically moving equipment is the hardest part of such filming, and his shows often try to find multiple sites on the same block to save time and money. Blue Bloods uses all five boroughs of the city as backdrops, and films as much as 60% of its scenes on location.
'The more chaos, the better'
Donnie Wahlberg, filming a Blue Bloods scene on the Queens waterfront (his character, Detective Danny Reagan, discovers a dead jogger), says the biggest challenge is the cold, windy weather he faced last week. "My bones are about to snap like icicles, because it's so cold, but the rest of it's fun. I love shooting on the streets of New York; the more chaos the better. That's what it would be like for a real cop."
And James says that makes it easier to inhabit the role. "The louder and busier and crazier it is, the easier, because it's all real. There's a griminess to it you wouldn't get anywhere else."
Which fictional cops got it right? Critics loved NYPD Blue's flawed Andy Sipowicz, and so did Emmy voters: Dennis Franz won four awards for the role, which became the series' central character.
But Browne says many cops were fondest of Lennie Briscoe, the hangdog detective played by Jerry Orbach on the original Law & Order from 1992 to 2004. "He resonated with a lot of people," he says. But "for myself, personally, I'm happy to see the DCPI" — his own job, the deputy commissioner for public information — "is getting the prominence it has long deserved in Blue Bloods."
Yet one aspect of the usually under-the-radar role has "dismayed" him: "I was portrayed as having an affair in Atlantic City, unbeknownst to my wife."
He explained to his real one that it was all fiction.