How could a Steven Bochco police drama with musical numbers not have its own very special niche market? With all the crazy things that happen on TV these days, it would seem that such a premise couldn’t miss. But, boy, did it ever.
Apparently in 1990, America was not very open-minded about what was socially acceptable to sing about on prime time television. Somehow, serious topics set to music were deemed unrealistic. Cop Rock was experimental and ambitious, as well as damn expensive to produce ($1.8 million an episode1). It had an eleven episode run and then, gleefully (no pun intended) belly-flopped by taking down the fourth wall and ending its “finale” with a plot-less, general jam session with the cast and crew.
So, what was Bochco thinking? It seems like a brilliant idea to take a successful, award-winning genre, à la his Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, and sprinkle it with a dash of Broadway pizzazz. Just to ensure the magic, he teamed up with Oscar-winning songwriter Randy Newman. It was new, original and done in a most serious manner. Perhaps the fact that it featured rapping junkies, gospel juries, among other unique ditties, was too “out there” for ABC’s viewers. Here are some of the infamous, and inspired, song titles of Cop Rock’s greatest hits: Under The Gun (Newman’s performed this theme song), Let’s Be Careful Out There, He’s Guilty, Don’t Mess With My Pursuit of Happiness, Quitcherbitchin’, Lineup, Where Bullets Fly and Baby Merchant. Cop Rock was nominated for three Emmys and actually won two of them. Bochco brought back some of his most famous faces from his previous successes to crossover into Cop Rock, namely James B. Sikking, Jimmy Smits and Michele Greene.2 Yet, its demise seemed predestined. Its greatest success came with it being considered one of the worst shows in television history. TV Guide ranked it in 2002 as the eighth worst show of all time.3
Clearly, today’s television is chock full of musical elements, both dramatic and comedic. But where Glee, which keeps tackling serious issues, often through song, or Smash, though this Broadway themed melody maker got cancelled, might seem to be breaking new ground in the musical genre, it has been a long road to get music into the spotlight on major network non-variety shows. Grey’s Anatomy had a very unsuccessful dramatic hospital themed musical episode, while Scrubs did it with comedic perfection. How I Met Your Mother also did it right, but, again, in the funny vein. In the 1990s, Ally McBeal used cutesy musical numbers to highlight the comedic elements, with the occasional dramatic moment for a meaningful duet. Joss Whedon didn’t miss a beat when he tackled all original music in a fantastic Buffy episode, and remained extremely faithful to Buffy’s campy supernatural fun. The episode titled, “Once More, with Feeling”, reached a cult-like status and even released a music CD and DVD of the episode for the die-hard fans. So, it would seem that musical numbers with lighter scripts have been more successful…at least for American viewers. As the reference of all references, when it comes to successful musical television shows, is the BBC’s The Singing Detective (1986), an absolutely flawless serial drama starring Michael Gambon. But, even The Singing Detective was not an immediate critical success upon its original release. Yet, its influence is undeniable. Even Bochco has credited The Singing Detective as being an inspiration for Cop Rock.4
You know, Cop Rock is just one of those things that you’ll love or you’ll hate. Personally, I don’t ever get enough musical satisfaction in my pursuit of quality television. Sure, Cop Rock seems kitsch these days, but you have to give Bochco brownie points for his way out of the box thinking. There must be a plausible progression in the script writing to allow for a musical number to seduce the viewer. Maybe Bochco’s could have been either more elegant in the transition from dialogue to song or he should have been more comedic and campy. Cop Rock did help cultivate a new path for the future of musical numbers in serial television. Cop Rock’s lack of success did not stunt Bochco’s writing prowess or his love for his cop protagonists, as he then went on to create one of the best cop shows ever, NYPD Blue, which would forever change the face of police drama and television. Meanwhile, the musical series still has a long way to go. But, it is a fascinating time in which we live that allows for every bizarre breed of cross-genre pairings conceivable and imaginable. I can’t wait to see what they think of next.