NEW YORK - "NYPD Blue" ended its 12-year run without bare butts, gimmicks or ghosts - just Detective Andy Sipowicz making a tough but morally correct decision that put his new job as commander in jeopardy.
The 261st and last episode of the groundbreaking police drama aired on ABC Tuesday after a one-hour retrospective.
In the finale, actor Dennis Franz's Sipowicz character, just named squad commander, lets an investigation continue that nails a high-roller for murder despite an effort from his superiors to frame someone else.
For that, Sipowicz wins a chewing out from his commander - and the respect of all his colleagues.
"If there were any doubts about you running the squad, Andy, today you put 'em all to rest," said Detective Baldwin Jones, played by Henry Simmons.
After all of his detectives bid him good night in the final scene, the camera pans back to see Sipowicz shuffling files in an empty squad room.
"NYPD Blue" had settled into old age, in television time, with only Franz and Gordon Clapp's Detective Greg Medavoy remaining as featured cast members from the first season to the last.
Eclipsed by hotter dramas, "NYPD Blue" inhabited a middle-of-the-pack No. 49 ranking among Nielsen Media Research's top prime-time shows, with roughly half the regular audience it had at its peak.
From the beginning, the show attracted attention for barrier-pushing language and content, including a glimpse of Sipowicz's rear end in the shower. But the quality of co-creator Steven Bochco and David Milch's series - it earned 20 Emmys, including best drama in 1995 - kept viewers tuning in.
At one point, Sipowicz wasn't even supposed to survive the first episode. But the flawed everyman became the show's emotional center, and earned Franz Emmys for best actor in 1994, 1996, 1997 and 1999.
David Caruso left after one season as Sipowicz's partner, John Kelly. He was followed by Jimmy Smits' Bobby Simone, Rick Schroder's Danny Sorenson and Mark-Paul Gosselaar's John Clark.
Smits narrated the low-key retrospective that preceded the final episode, explaining the series' central idea: "What if you took a format everyone was comfortable with - a cop show - and turn up the volume?"
The special was blunt about how offscreen dramas affected the show. Milch, who left after the seventh season, explained how Sipowicz's struggles with alcoholism mirrored his own.
"Let's just say Sipowicz got sober before I did," Milch said.
Smits said the chaotic work environment, with dialogue handed to him minutes before he was to go on camera, ultimately led to his decision to leave. The only missing piece to the special was the absence of Caruso, now the star of CBS's "CSI: Miami."
Bochco, who remained as the show's executive producer until the end, is moving swiftly into something new: his ABC series "Blind Justice" takes over the "NYPD Blue" time slot on March 8.
At the end of the special, several of the cast members took the time to address fans directly on camera. The last to go was Franz.
"Thank you," he said. "Thank you one and all."
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