Premiering on September 21, 1993, NYPD Blue was one of the most critically acclaimed new series ever and one of the most controversial programs television had seen in years. Even before the first program aired, word had leaked out regarding the show's use of language and presentation of partial nudity. While critics across the country praised its style and content, by the time the first episode aired fifty-seven of ABC's affiliates had declined to carry the program. Perhaps because of the immense publicity the program generated, this gritty police drama managed to rank nineteenth in the ratings and garnered a record twenty-six Emmy nominations during its first year. By the time the year ended, eighteen of the dissenting stations gave in and carried the program; by its second season NYPD Blue won the Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic Series while becoming the seventh highest rated program in the country. Amidst a whirlwind of controversy and debate, co-creators Steven Bochco and David Milch had managed, during a period of conservative programming, to launch what some have referred to as the first "R-rated" television series.
NYPD Blue's rare combination of critical acclaim, controversy, and mass appeal was familiar terrain for Bochco, who had earlier produced Hill Street Blues and Cop Rock. Like other Bochco programs, NYPD Blue used an ensemble cast led by Blues veterans Dennis Franz and David Curuso. Franz became a fixture at the Emmy Awards, winning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series three of the show's first four years. While Franz won critical acclaim, Curuso, who appeared partially nude in multiple episodes, became a popular star and generated new controversy when he demanded higher pay. Eventually, and quite publicly, Curuso left the show. Rather than slipping in the ratings, however, the program again benefited from the controversy and became even more popular with the addition of LA Law veteran Jimmy Smits taking over as Franz's partner. In addition to Franz, as detective Andy Sipowicz, and Smits's character Bobby Simone, other cast members included Emmy winner Kim Delaney, James McDaniel, Rick Schroder (who replaced Smits in 1998), and Nicholas Turturro.
The success of NYPD Blue can be linked in part to its realistic depiction of police work and the complex and conflicting impact that regular exposure to crime has upon these committed, yet flawed, individuals. The program consistently has used crimes, investigative processes, and character interactions to explore complex ethical and contemporary social conditions related to class, gender, and race. Like the hit Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue has managed to be thought-provoking, entertaining, and moving whether it's dealing with the mundane activities of day-to-day life or the disturbing events which detectives might experience in New York City.