My friend and sometime-legal counsel Omar directed me to a recent EW piece spotlighting the stars of ABC’s one-time Emmy powerhouse police drama NYPD Blue reuniting for a reunion photo shoot. Omar knew that for about six years ‘Blue’ was my favorite TV show. I was a devoted fan from the first episode, which premiered in
1992 when I was all of ten or eleven years old in 1993 just before my twelfth birthday. (Omar, always protecting me from myself, was considerate enough to politely correct my timeline on this.)
In fact, I was a devoted fan before the episode even began, because the show opened with the disclaimer:
This police drama contains adult language and partial nudity. Viewer discretion advised.
Did you catch the part about adult language and partial nudity? Now recall how I mentioned I was
ten twelve years old. I didn’t have to steal glimpses of porn cassettes at the video store, or flip through old copies of adult magazines in my friend’s closet, or ruin my copy of The Terminator rewinding and fast-forwarding to the sex scene. I didn’t have to because sex and dirty words and violence came to me on Channel 7 every Tuesday night at 9:00. This controversially mature-for-its-time television show blew my little monkey mind. In ’92 this show and its themes were groundbreaking! Critics called it a bold, daring step in programming, while family groups organized boycotts and protests. Today the most extreme scenes from NYPD Blue would be considered tame by prime time standards. In ’92, Andy Sipowicz calling somebody an asshole was revolutionary. Today, ‘asshole’ is what cable news anchors call each other. In ’92, the show’s policy to alow on-air images of butts and every part of the breast except the nipple was shocking. Today, we call this everywhere you look all the time. And on top of the language and sexuality that permeated the series, it was just damn good, anchored by an incredibly talented cast and driven by the eventual creator of HBO’s Deadwood.
But this post is not a review of the show. I only offer the above reflection as context for what I wanted to write about, which is Van Halen.
Seeing the ‘Blue’ stars aligned literally and figuratively in that EW photo reminded me of a conversation I had with Omar years ago. I don’t remember which of us proposed the analogy that the show’s revolving cast of lead actors playing opposite mainstay Dennis Franz strangely mirrored the turnover in Van Halen lead singers, I only remember that one of us suggested it and the other instantly derided it as absurd while secretly admitting it wasn’t all that preposterous. That’s how most conversations with Omar went.
The actors on NYPD Blue parallel the singers for Van Halen. Stay with me. David Caruso is David Lee Roth. Jimmy Smits is Sammy Hagar. Rick Schroder is the guy who replaced Sammy Hagar. And Mark Paul Gosselaar is “is Van Halen even still a band? Didn’t one of them die?“
When NYPD Blue first aired, David Caruso was the hottest thing on television. He was like all the male stars of Mad Men, Lost and True Blood fused together with a dash of red hair and Irish Catholic Guilt. (Let that image settle in, ladies, because I could just as easily be describing myself.) Unfortunately, Caruso’s shock of red hair couldn’t cover the man’s ego, which grew so disproportionately large and all-consuming that it ruined his working and personal relationship with everyone on the show and landed him in Hollywood Purgatory for ten years. Today you might recognize Caruso from CSI: Miami, where plays the exact same character he played on ‘Blue’ only now he wears sunglasses, presumably to protect fans and reporters from the rage-fire constantly shooting from his eyes.
In 1985, the hottest thing in rock music was Van Halen’s front man David Lee Roth, a man who oozed sex, and not just metaphorically. I know that cocaine explains a lot about the 1980s, but I don’t know if there’s a sufficient quantity of blow in the world that can justify what people found attractive in that decade. If you look at Roth’s eyes when he smiles, you can see the fiery hunger of a cannibal serial killer looking back at you, and that, coupled with his insufferable personality led him to split from Van Halen at the peak of their popularity. The hottest singer breaking from the hottest band, just as the hottest actor departed the hottest TV show.
‘Blue’s producers pulled off a stunning coup with Caruso’s replacement. Many thought the red-headed firebrand’s premature exit would be the show’s untimely death knell. Instead, it ushered in five years of awesomeness starring Jimmy Smits. Smits you should remember from the third season of Dexter (if you know what’s good for you), but other readers might recognize him from the Star Wars prequels where he played the guy way, way too talented to be stuck in a Star Wars prequel. David Caruso made NYPD Blue the hottest show on TV. Jimmy Smits made it the coolest.
After Van Halen split with David Lee Roth, they brought on Sammy Hagar to replace him. Like Smits, Hagar came into the group at the optimum time, bringing Van Halen even greater commercial success with hit songs like “Right Now” and that other one. Smits and Hagar each brought history, an established fanbase, and a seductive kind of ethnic sexiness. Smits is an Hispanic icon; Hagar thinks he is.
Jimmy Smits left ‘Blue’ during its sixth (and last great) season, written out with an emotionally stripping, soul-punching, tear-jerking death that–I kid you not–took five episodes. I’ve watched his final episode maybe seven times and after every one I find myself walking the street sobbing and offering all of my clothes and money to total strangers. The show runners didn’t really stand a chance of replacing Smits, and neither did Van Halen when Sammy Hagar eventually left.
‘Blue’ tried lowballing viewer expectations by casting former child
prostitute star Rick Schroder. If you know who that is you probably remember him from his guest stint on Scrubs where he played a pink-clad male nurse, a role every bit as sexually confused and awkward as his character on NYPD Blue.
Meanwhile, Van Halen replaced Sammy Hagar with David Lee Roth again. For six minutes. They announced the reunion at one of MTV’s awards shows, but Roth did it in such an obnoxious and shame-inducing fashion (Thank you, Cocaine!) that the band fired him before they left the ceremony. After that, Van Halen signed on a guy named Gary Sherome. Look him up, ‘cuz I didn’t.
After Schroder’s character died (maybe?), ‘Blue’ cast as wildly against-type as they could with Mark Paul Gosselaar, who you’ll remember from Saved By the Bell and nothing else.
It’s impossible to think about Saved By the Bell without remembering this scene, so I’ll link it for your convenience. In case you’re not sure, Gosselaar is the one in the video NOT killing his future in film and television.
What did Van Halen do after what’s his name? I honestly stopped caring. I honestly don’t remember when this post began. When I said I wasn’t going to review NYPD Blue, what I meant was I was going to talk about it at length to solidify a possibly-valid but wholly-unimportant comparison between one of my favorite television shows and a guilty pleasure rock band from my youth. But if we follow this comparison all the way, the show’s twelve-year veteran star Dennis Franz is to ‘Blue’ what Eddie Van Halen is to his band.
So if you’ve come to the end of this post and have no idea why I wrote it, why I spent three hours on it, much of that time trying to format and line up the stupid pictures, well, you can thank my friend Omar. And cocaine.