VIRGINIA MANN, Television Critic;

Rarely has a series -- sight unseen --
provoked as much moral indignation
as "NYPD Blue."

During the summer, the Rev. Donald
Wildmon of the American Family
Association denounced Steven
Bochco's new cop drama as
"soft-core pornography" in full-page
newspaper ads.

Clucking critics have provided
titillatingly detailed descriptions of the
nudity, the naughty language, the
graphic violence. And in recent days,
ABC has capitalized on the publicity
by running a provocative promo
disguised as a viewer advisory.

Lost in the controversy -- and the
network's hyping of it -- is one
essential detail: You'd be ill-advised to
write off "NYPD Blue" as trash. It's one
of the most compelling TV series to
bow in many a season.

In tonight's hour-long pilot, Bochco
and David Milch introduce characters
who instantly connect with one
another, and with the viewer. Even
before the first commercial, you're
likely to care.

As in Bochco's groundbreaking "Hill
Street Blues," their world -- a New
York City police precinct house and its
environs -- is precisely and believably
drawn. It's a dusky, hazy place that
suits its denizens. They, too, are a
blend of light and dark, with great
strengths and human weaknesses.

The focal point is Detective John
Kelly, played by David Caruso. In
"Mad Dog and Glory," Caruso was the
guy with the odd shade of red hair
who stole the movie from Robert De
Niro. Caruso -- like his character -- is
an intriguing study in contrasts. He's
got an Irish-looking face and an Italian
name; a tough-guy voice and a soft,
almost angelic look.

Kelly can be thoughtful and gentle, but
his temper flares way too fast. When
Kelly's on camera, you won't be
fumbling for the zapper.

Kelly's life -- which one suspects was
never easy -- is complicated.

He can't quite cut himself off from his
estranged wife, Laura (Sherry
Stringfield), who sued for divorce
because she couldn't handle his line
of work.

Since he moved out, the Kellys'
building has gotten dangerous. One
nerdy neighbor (David Schwimmer),
who has more than a friendly interest
in Laura, totes a gun to the laundry
room. Kelly is grudgingly decent to
this fellow, whom he refers to as 4-B.

Another big headache is Kelly's
partner, Andy Sipowicz -- wonderfully
played by Dennis Franz, a "Hill Street"
alumnus. Sipowicz has a worsening
drinking problem and a long-standing
vendetta that's become an obsession.
His nemesis, Alfonse Giardella (Robert
Costanza), is a low-level mobster with
a bad toupee -- the source of much

During Sipowicz's weekly tryst with a
favorite hooker -- a fairly graphic
scene -- Giardella ambushes him,
shooting Sipowicz a half-dozen times,
point-blank. The cop hangs on by a
thread -- tied to the possibility of

Kelly's life is complicated by a
beautiful cop, Janice Licalsi -- played
by Amy Brenneman, the young singer
from "Middle Ages." She has some
ugly secrets, revealed in the pilot's
final moments and explored, more
plausibly, over the next few episodes.

It is their nude love scene -- featuring
clearly discernible breasts and
buttocks -- that has caused the
biggest stir. Originally, the camera
really lingered lasciviously, but
Bochco agreed to trim 15 seconds of
this scene. The end result should not
faze most adults -- the intended

The language is rough; Franz's
character is especially fond of crude
expressions. But in this gritty world, it
all seems natural and forgivable.

Some subplots spill over from one
episode to the next. Sipowicz makes a
miraculous recovery, stops drinking,
but maintains his grudge against
Giardella -- sometimes to hilarious
effect -- and tangles with the black
lieutenant, played by James McDaniel,
another veteran of "Hill Street."

Like that show, "NYPD Blue" has
humorous scenes and poignant ones.
And despite those sensational
updates, it is a subtle, intelligent