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By the middle of the 1990s, the police drama had become stale. Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and even the brilliant and underrated Homicide: Life on the Street each approached the subject matter from very traditional angles. Twenty years ago, the genre received a reinvigorating kick in the ass from New York Undercover, which took the style of Miami Vice and dumped it in New York a few years after it was ravaged by crack in New Jack City. It wove popular culture into its DNA in refreshing ways that its predecessors could never, tapping into a market eager to be catered to.
From the Tommy Hilfiger that J.C. and Eddie wore, to the slang, to moments like Brown Sugar era D'Angelo performing the album's title track live, New York Undercover is reflective of the ‘90s—a true visual time capsule.
When New York Undercover premiered on Fox in the fall of 1994, it joined Martin and Living Single, completing the network’s Thursday night triumvirate of excellence for minority viewers. The final piece of that puzzle, Undercover offered its audience a program about law enforcement where both leads were played by minorities: Det. J.C. Williams (Malik Yoba) was black, while Det. Eddie Torres (Michael DeLorenzo) was Puerto Rican. An entire demographic which had been largely ignored at the time was given a cop show with characters who looked like them in the two lead roles. Dick Wolf, the show’s co-executive producer, knew exactly what he was doing.
"We felt there was a huge minority audience out there that did not have a show to identify with," he told the New York Times in 1996. New York Undercover became that show—one which differed greatly from more well-known projects that Wolf was involved in.
Wolf, who cut his teeth on Miami Vice, is the mind behind NBC’s Law & Order and its many spin-offs. Despite the original Law & Order’s near-record breaking longevity, it followed a formulaic path to solving crime. Viewers felt like legal experts because they watched the system work in accelerated fashion on a weekly (and daily, once the show became syndicated) basis. Unlike Law & Order, New York Undercover went beyond the process, and did so with more personality than any other cop show of that period.
The events of J.C. and Eddie’s lives off the job were just as compelling as the danger they faced in the line of duty while working for the city's Fourth Precinct. J.C. was raising his son, "G" (George Gore lll), as a single father in conjunction with ex-girlfriend, Chantel (Fatima Fayole). Eddie dealt with his own family struggles, including his mother’s illness during the show’s opening season and his father’s struggle with drugs. Some of that stress was alleviated during the second season through the addition of Det. Nina Moreno (Lauren Velez), Eddie’s eventual wife.
The drama even reached their boss, Lt. Virginia Cooper (Patti D’Arbanville Quinn), during the show’s second season when her daughter was abducted by a pedophile she met via dial-up era Internet. The entire unit’s response to the crime was key to her daughter's safe return. The relationships that the primary characters had with each other drove the show, as it went beyond simply clearing cases within an hour each week. But heart and character strength aside, the show excelled by keeping its finger on the pulse of popular culture.
What truly set the series apart from others in the same vein was its appeal. Wolf's time on Miami Vice’s set familiarized him with the concept of the "cool" cop show, and part of what made New York Undercover attractive was its guest stars. The advent of the Internet has eliminated the element of surprise these days, but not knowing about special guests or cameos more than a week in advance added to the anticipation of watching a show each week during the ‘90s. But the show did more than merely cast reputable actors and artists, it placed them in major roles and effective cameos.
In a stark deviation from his New Jack City role, Ice-T, with his flowing mane and signature black shades, played drug dealer Danny Cort, J.C.’s biggest foe during the show’s first two seasons. Naomi Campbell had an extended role as a woman Cort employed to get close to J.C. as part of an intricate revenge ploy. NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing popped up, as did his bruising former New York Knicks teammate Anthony Mason, who appeared in the same episode as then-rising NBA star Chris Webber. Tyra Banks played one of G’s teachers and another love interest of J.C. What's more, legendary singer Gladys Knight played Natalie, who owned Natalie’s, the after-hours spot where nearly every episode during the show’s first three seasons concluded.
Which brings us to the show's defining characteristic: its music. Natalie’s was as important a character to New York Undercover as the city itself. In addition to serving as a safe haven during the show’s first three seasons, it was the place where hip-hop and R&B stars new and old would perform classics. This would often involve the newer artists covering the older artists' material, producing great moments like Xscape performing DeBarge’s "All This Love," Groove Theory covering The Stylistics’ "People Make the World Go Round," Jon B. taking on Stevie Wonder’s "My Cherie Amour," and Montell Jordan’s version of Bobby Caldwell’s "What You Won’t Do For Love." Other highlights include Chaka Khan performing "Sweet Thing," Teena Marie adding new dimensions to Rose Royce’s "Wishing On a Star," and Mary J. Blige pouring her soul into the cover of Rose Royce’s "I’m Goin’ Down," which appeared on her My Life album.
In a memorable one-off, the Notorious B.I.G. appeared on the show and performed at Natalie’s. The performances were good enough to spawn two soundtracks, and became a huge part of why the show’s audience tuned in every week. They brought generations of viewers together, primarily by feeding younger viewers their parents music through the mouths of their favorite artists. This was composer and Grammy-winner James Mtume’s (yes, that Mtume) aim.
"It's not just a question of entertainment," he told the Times. "It's also about information."
During seasons one through three, each episode began with a cold open shot music video-style with no dialogue. The drama was introduced through action only and set to popular songs such as Soul 4 Real’s "Every Little Thing I Do" and The Pharcyde’s "Runnin.’" This helped to simultaneously capture the spirit of the era, the show, and its core audience. It was the most critical component to a system that worked for three years, until off-screen drama blew everything up.
Prior to the third season, Yoba and DeLorenzo were embroiled in a contract dispute which halted production. DeLorenzo’s Torres was killed off in the third season finale, changing the show permanently—for the worst. Lt. Cooper was also written out of the series and J.C. and Nina were transferred to a new unit led by Lt. Malcolm Barker (Thomas Mikal Ford). This was the show's death knell, because, sweeping cast changes aside, audiences struggled to buy Tommy from Martin as a lieutenant (let alone having a job at all). They also couldn’t cope with Eddie’s absence, as his friendship with J.C. was essential to the show’s success. Worse, the signature opening sequences vanished, as did Natalie’s and the weekly performances it hosted. The show was gutted during its fourth and final season, as the essence of New York Undercover died with Eddie Torres.
Two decades after it extended a hand to a neglected market by becoming part of the alternative to NBC’s storied Thursday night programming block, New York Undercover remains both a cult classic and a phenomenon. A few years back, there were rumors of Malik Yoba reviving the series, but that will never happen and shouldn't. From the Tommy Hilfiger that J.C. and Eddie wore, to the slang, to moments like Brown Sugar era D'Angelo performing the album's title track live, New York Undercover is reflective of the ‘90s—a true visual time capsule. This forgotten relic is rarely mentioned in conversations about the best cop shows, but everyone who tuned in faithfully each Thursday at 9 p.m. knows how relevant, necessary, and inventive it was.
Like most New York Undercover fans, Julian Kimble likes to remember it as a three-season show. Follow him on Twitter here.