The vagaries of the television schedule have delivered an unexpected pleasure into the hands of those who love NYPD Blue. Beginning tonight at 10, the ABC and Global networks will run a new NYPD Blue for 22 straight weeks, with no repeats and no pre-emptions. That's unusual in television programming, and highly welcome. What it means to many of us is that we can watch 22 fresh chapters in the unfolding story of bald, fat, violent Andy Sipowicz, the most unlikely hero in the history of dramatic television.
He's been an NYPD Blue detective since the series went on the air in 1993, and he still surprises us. He's an anthology of contradictions: ''a drunken, racist goon with a heart of gold,'' as one TV critic wrote years ago, before Andy started on his strenuous program of self-improvement. Today Sipowicz still talks like a chronic depressive most of the time, and he has a nasty habit of beating up suspects in the privacy of the police station. But he's complicated, as complicated a personality as any ever constructed for television. Over the years we've watched him evolve into a new man -- hopeful, kind, even imaginative.
On his best days he's an old-fashioned hero, strong and silent, but redesigned for the age of 12-step programs and sensitivity training (he's learned to use the phrase ''reach out''). We can sense that he's glimpsed, through the haze hanging over the moral swamp he lives in, the outlines of the decent human being he might become. He's even learned to recognize the possibility that he can have a satisfying life.
The best TV characters deepen slowly over the years, until they acquire some of the power of the great figures in fiction. Sipowicz falls into this category. At a convention of the Popular Culture Association in Virginia last fall, David Lavery, a Tennessee State University professor, gave a paper, ''The Soul of Andy Sipowicz,'' in which he developed the occasionally heard (but still heretical) notion that good television programs are often more impressive than good movies. A TV series, Lavery suggested, can go deeper than a movie, because its characters have so much time to expand and develop.
My own experience supports Lavery. Sometimes I realize that I care more about someone on a TV show than about anyone encountered in current movies or novels. Detective Frank Pembleton (André Braugher) on Homicide: Life on the Street was the classic example. For a while he was not only the most compelling character in episodic television, he was the most compelling character in the culture of the 1990s.
Movies, of course, provide different satisfactions, because they dance swiftly through their stories, leaving much of the meaning implied. That's true of Steven Soderbergh's recent The Limey. It's aesthetically more adventurous than any TV show, and Terence Stamp's performance makes a searing impression.
But TV characters offer different compensations. Those who have watched NYPD Blue from the beginning have known its characters, above all Andy, for 5,280 minutes, or 88 hours, of narrative time, the equivalent of several dozen movies. A TV character grows like a coral reef, steadily adding layers, until we realize that he or she has become a part of our personal topography. By now we know so much about Andy that we can love him for his gaucheries as much as for his virtues. (Who wouldn't love his chronically unfashionable short-sleeved shirts, or his frequent and slightly furtive resort to a breath freshener?)
The actor who plays him, Dennis Franz, has impersonated more than two dozen cops in the last 20 years and now exists in the public imagination as the quintessential big-city detective. In 1980, at age 36, Franz was the mean, foul-mouthed Detective Marino in Brian De Palma's Hitchcock knockoff, Dressed to Kill, with Michael Caine. Later he played the scruffy Detective Norman Buntz on Hill Street Blues and on a short-lived spinoff called Beverly Hills Buntz. Franz appreciates what he has in Andy (''For an actor this is a pot of gold'') and plays him with measured, contained skill. He never quite lets us forget that Andy is a man of unresolved violence. He's always simmering.
If Andy looks depressed, he has reasons. David Milch, the producer responsible for the scripts (and the partner of Steven Bochco) has burdened him with Job-level misery. Andy has endured the deaths of his adult son (a cop shot on the street), his partner Bobby Simone (killed by an infection picked up during a heart transplant) and most recently his second wife (killed in a courthouse shooting). He's also had prostate cancer and an operation that produced temporary impotence. As Franz said recently, ''We can't continue to put him through this constant torment forever.'' The program won't look away from Andy's personal life (sometime in the future the producers will probably reunite him with his first wife, Katie), and he'll be a crucial figure on every show; but in the next few weeks other characters will swim into focus. Henry Simmons will soon join the cast as a black detective, Baldwin Jones (the character's mother named him after James Baldwin, the writer).
We can imagine that the conjunction of Andy and Baldwin Jones will produce tension, because Andy is a recovering racist as well as a recovering alcoholic. Just as he sometimes falls calamitously off the wagon, he sometimes reveals ugly feelings about blacks. ''You're a racist scumbag,'' a black activist said to him in one episode, which wasn't far from the truth. But he can be saved: The producers, and Andy, see racism as an inner devil that must be fought, like the lust for liquor. On race, as on police power, the Sipowicz character displays every nuance of his accumulated complexity, in the process expressing the ambivalence that much of the audience must feel on these issues. Anyone who imagines that TV drama is simple-minded should spend a little time with Andy.