''Cop Rock'''s shot at survival -- Why writer/producer Steven Bochco thinks the ABC musical law drama will be a hit
”Has the jury reached a verdict?”
The words have an all-too-familiar ring, and the setting, a tense urban courtroom, could have been lifted from almost any episode of Hill Street Blues or L.A. Law. But as the trial of a ponytailed drug lord reaches its climax and the jury foreman solemnly rises, ABC’s new police drama Cop Rock suddenly metamorphoses into something exceedingly strange.
”Hit it!” hollers the finger-snapping judge, and presto! a glowing piano emerges from the stenographer’s well, the jurors — now blue-robed church choir singers — rise and start to sway in unison, and then?they sing. The foreman sings. The judge sings. The spectators sing. The lawyers sing. Even the defendant does a little plea-bargaining in tune: ”I was abused as a child,” he croons to the crowd’s church-party chant of ”He’s guil-illl-tee! He’s guil- illl-tee! He did the crime/And now he’s got to pay!” And that’s not all. When Cop Rock, the brainchild of writer-producer-mogul Steven Bochco, makes its debut on Sept. 26, viewers will meet up with vicious criminals who speak in torrents of rap, a mayor who takes bribes while shaking her booty, and officers who harmonize in the line of duty.
Among 34 new fall series, Cop Rock represents the most thorough scuttling of convention: an attempt to tell the personal and professional stories of a dozen policemen and politicos, and then move seamlessly, every 10 minutes, into a song-and/or-dance number that, if it hews to the musical-theater ideal, will advance the plot and illuminate the characters.
It’s a goal that has forced Cop Rock‘s creators to rethink every aspect of TV production. The scriptwriters have only 40 pages (the average for an hour- long series is 55) to interweave the stories of a crack-addicted mother, a renegade officer, and a gun-happy chief of police. Then, when a scene reaches a crest of emotion, they put down their pens and the songwriters take over. For the premiere, guest composer Randy Newman had to come up with lyrics and melodies that expressed the grief of a woman forced to give away her baby, the bewilderment of a middle-age forensics specialist at his marriage to a young, beautiful cop, and the hysteria of a packed courtroom. Starting with the second show, musical producer Mike Post (Wiseguy, The Rockford Files) will oversee a staff of half a dozen composers. Sometimes, a song goes back to the keyboard for repairs; sometimes, the scene is deemed wrong for any song, and the writers restructure their script.
Once a song makes the cut, it’s turned over to the cast, nine largely unknown actors (as the police chief, Ronny Cox of Total Recall is one of the most familiar faces) who were chosen for their vocal skills as well as their ability to fill out LAPD uniforms convincingly. Although some have musical- theater work on their résumés, none can claim any experience singing on TV week after week. So an army of choreographers, musicians, music coproducers, music editors, and music coordinators has been marshaled to make sure these cops look good keeping a beat as well as walking it.
That leads to the one big, unanswered question hanging like a noose over Cop Rock‘s future: Does anybody out there want to see a show about singing policemen?
”It’s a difficult sell,” admits ABC Entertainment president Robert Iger, who is nonetheless betting that viewers will be in a buying mood for something different. They’d better be. Cop Rock, at nearly $2 million per episode, is the most expensive show on ABC’s fall schedule. ”I’m thrilled that we’ve got it,” says Iger’s boss, Capital Cities/ABC CEO Daniel Burke. ”I confess that I had a little bit of trouble with parts of it the first time. I think it’s going to take some getting used to.”
The stakes are highest for Bochco, the 46-year-old wizard behind Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law who helped build NBC’s reputation through much of the 1980s. At one point, Bochco’s touch was considered so magical that he was offered the presidency of CBS Entertainment. He turned it down. Then, in 1987, ABC signed him to a 10-year, 10-series contract worth a reported $50 million — a number that could multiply like gremlins if the shows become hits and go into syndication. Last year, Bochco produced the first series in that deal, Doogie Howser, M.D., a growing success but hardly cutting-edge TV. As Twin Peaks and The Simpsons monopolized the public’s fascination, Bochco’s mantle of innovation began to slip away. Cop Rock is his chance to win it back.
ABC has given him plenty of room to try. As visitors walk onto the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, guards point the way to an imposing, multi-officed bungalow they refer to simply as ”the Bochco building.” Yards past the hangar-sized warehouses that hold Cop Rock‘s enormous sets is Bochco’s sanctum. His office is outfitted with studiously casual L.A.-screenwriter adornments — a football, a basketball, a gag poster for ”Dorky Housecall, M.D.” — and a stack of Cop Rock music cassettes that attest to his current obsession.
”These songs will knock your socks off,” Bochco says, his leg tapping out an anticipatory beat. ”They run a gamut from balls-out rock & roll to Latin stuff to gorgeous love songs. The music gets you.” He jumps up to play a Cop Rock song. ”It gets under you.” In the Robert Palmer-ish rocker, we hear a doctor and his backup nurses tout the merits of plastic surgery to the frumpy L.A. mayor played (under a slathering of latex jowls and wattles) by Bochco’s wife, Barbara Bosson, who also starred in his Hill Street and Hooperman. ”Nip and tuck, liposuck!” the doctor sings. ”Nose job, boob job!”
Bochco pops in four more songs. ”I’m really excited,” he says. ”I think if you yanked the music out, you’d still have a well-crafted, smart cop show. But it’s not a show that I would have wanted to do without the music.”
Of course, Bochco has already done it without the music. Minus its melodies, Cop Rock is a drama whose brutality, urban cynicism, and dollops of black humor descend directly from Hill Street Blues. So does its concept: Cop Rock was inspired several years ago when someone suggested that Bochco turn Hill Street into a stage musical.
”It was intriguing,” he recalls. ”A cop show lends itself to the heightened melodrama that music wants to embrace. I don’t think you could do L.A. Law that way. It’s so contained that the music wouldn’t explode. In Cop Rock, music affects profoundly how you reveal characters — it can bring forth big emotions, and it can function as a relief from intense drama the way the raucous humor of Hill Street let you blow off steam.”
That rowdiness emerges in a Bochco trademark: censor-agitating snippets of raw language, bare flesh, and schoolboy scatology (one episode of L.A. Law was titled ”Urine Trouble Now”). Critics who have noted Bochco’s seeming fascination with bodily functions won’t be placated by Cop Rock‘s first episode, which includes three scenes about the vagaries of the human bladder.
”I have no interest in shocking people,” Bochco insists. ”That’s like standing in the street mooning a tour bus. But in a realistic drama, not to be able to access a certain kind of language, grittiness, and sexuality is a shame.” ABC has, at least initially, stayed out of his way. ”He’s proven himself,” says Stuart Bloomberg, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment. ”He’s earned a wide berth. Besides, he’s tougher than our standards-and-practices department.”
Bochco’s freedom may depend on how viewers receive Cop Rock, and that will turn on how they react to the songs, five per episode, that occupy 12 minutes of each show. The ballads go down easily enough, but how about that hip- wiggling mayor and call-and-response courtroom?
”If we were guilty of anything in the pilot,” says Bochco, ”it was not being surefooted enough in the more out-there numbers. We sort of backed away. I wish we’d been a little more daring.”
As a result, he is lavishing even more costly attention on Cop Rock‘s music. Fully half of the show’s eight-day production time is reserved for dealing with the considerable technical hurdles of filming the songs. The instrumentals are prerecorded, but most of the singing is done by actors on camera.
”It’s nerve-racking even for a diva,” says James McDaniel, who left a starring role in the Off-Broadway hit Six Degrees of Separation to play officer Franklin Rose. ”You’re singing your song all day long, a minimum of 30 times. Even if you’re Mr. Cool and have the pipes of life, you still have to work as fast as you can. And if somebody bumps you and your rhythm gets thrown off even a little, that’s it — you do it again.”
Says Bosson, ”I’m used to being able to take a little bit from this take and a little bit from that take. But it’s not possible with the music. You can only use one take. That’s the part I hate.”
If all goes well, Bochco will leave Cop Rock next spring and move on to the third series in his ABC deal, an animated comedy about mice in the White House. But this year, he expects ABC to share his commitment to Cop Rock: ”Support entails sticking with us and not pulling the plug if the going gets rough.” That could be difficult. ABC already has an abundance of acclaimed dramas with so-so ratings: China Beach, Life Goes On, thirtysomething, Twin Peaks. On Wednesdays, Cop Rock will face two conventional police shows, NBC’s Hunter and CBS’ Top Cops. ”The show will need a gradual build,” says Bloomberg. ”There are smart folks who will watch it and say ‘What is this?’ The newness of people breaking into song will require viewers to hang in there for a while.”
”I’m not looking to have people fall in love in the first hour,” says Bochco, pacing expectantly as the strains of a duet between a police captain and his wife waft through the Bochco building. ”But if people are curious enough to want to try this again, then I think I’ve got a shot.” If not, he will have made the most expensive set of rock videos in music history.