Dear Steven Bochco,
I’m sure you were as shocked as I was when CBS canceled your rookie drama Brooklyn South. Right now, you’re probably asking yourself, “What went wrong?” Brooklyn seemed like an updated version of your first police-show masterpiece, Hill Street Blues, right down to the plaintive piano chords of the opening theme song. Maybe a comparison to Hill Street (which airs weekdays at 2 p.m. on TV Land) will provide a few clues why Brooklyn went south.
Both Brooklyn and Hill Street were beaten up in the Nielsens during their first seasons. In fact, Hill Street was the lowest-rated show ever renewed for a second season when NBC picked it up in 1981. The difference is not just that the nets have less patience these days. Hill Street started out weak but slowly built into a solid hit. Brooklyn began strong with a much-hyped debut, then quickly tailed off.
Ironically, the gimmick you used to generate controversy and lure viewers to Brooklyn‘s debut—a shocking, Zapruderesque image of a police officer getting shot in the head—may have driven some people away. Graphic violence doesn’t have the same allure as the bare butts on your own NYPD Blue. Brooklyn later added some nudity, but apparently afraid it’d compromise their wholesome “Welcome home” image, CBS didn’t publicize it.
In today’s increasingly competitive viewing environment, you have to grab people right away, but you also have to keep them. That’s why one of Hill Street‘s biggest assets—its teeming ensemble—turned out to be one of Brooklyn‘s biggest debits. Back when there were only three major networks, you could expect fans to tune in every week and keep track of a massive cadre of characters (at one point, Hill Street‘s regular roster swelled to 17). With 11 members in its starting lineup and several more recurring players, Brooklyn simply required too much attention from channel-hopping viewers.
Even worse, Brooklyn had no galvanizing central figure like Hill Street‘s soft-spoken, intense Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti). Jon Tenney was top-billed as Patrol Sgt. Francis X. Donovan, but he hardly appeared in some episodes. Hill Street vet James B. Sikking took over as the precinct’s captain early in the season, but he wasn’t charismatic enough to carry a show. By the time Brooklyn figured out who its most compelling characters were—beefy desk sergeant Dickie Santoro (Gary Basaraba) and tightly wound officer Jack Lowery (Titus Welliver)—millions had already tuned out.
But the biggest difference between the two shows was this: Hill Street was revolutionary, while Brooklyn was just another cop show. Before Hill Street, law enforcement officials were portrayed on TV either as dutiful civil servants (Dragnet, Adam-12) or superheroes (The Untouchables, Starsky and Hutch). Hill Street Blues took a more realistic view, painting cops as complicated, flawed individuals—and laying the groundwork for Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street, and NYPD Blue. With these three shows upholding Hill Street‘s verite legacy, there was no need for Brooklyn South.
Cheer up, Steve. There are plenty of other TV genres for you to explore. You’ve done the attorney thing with L.A. Law and Murder One, but is Doogie Howser, M.D. the only doctor show you’ve got in you? Just stay away from the cop thing for a while (need we remind you of Cop Rock and Public Morals?). And if you’re feeling blue, check out some old episodes of Hill Street. It was a great show.
Let’s be careful out there,