Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the small screen.
For good or for ill, police procedurals have been an integral part of the TV landscape from the beginning. From the scare tactics of Dragnet to the modern cop apologia found in shows like Blue Bloods, police officers have always been on our screens and often as the heroes. By 1990, the standard cop show had shifted to focus on “realism.” While officers were still portrayed as noble defenders of the law, they were shown to be flawed and vulnerable. Programs even began suggesting that some cops might be corrupt, an issue that could only be resolved by the “good” cops, naturally. Into this new era came a show that attempted to mix the trappings of a cop show with the flair of Broadway. Cop Rock was its name and boy, did it deliver both!
Created by powerhouse producer, Steven Bochco, the program aimed to follow the LAPD while combining black comedy and musical numbers into the framework of a procedural. Fresh off the success of Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, Bochco was at the height of his powers, having successfully redefined the entire genre. Cop Rock was produced as part of an extremely lucrative 10-series deal with ABC. Under this deal, Bochco was guaranteed to have his productions make it to air. Which goes a long way to explaining how this show made it on to TV when everyone around him insisted it wouldn’t work.
With a main cast hired more for their ability to sing than act, Cop Rock lacked exceptional acting or interesting characters, but attempted to make up for it with music. Under the guidance of Mike Post, the man behind such classic theme songs as The A-Team, The Rockford Files and, most famously, Law & Order, the songwriters were given the daunting task of taking the week’s storylines and attempting to engineer songs from the events. As you might expect, this led to many of the songs feeling out of place. Such as in the pilot, when a jury sings the Gospel inspired, “He’s Guilty,” to a judge in place of giving a verdict. One of the program’s many poor attempts at dark humor. The show’s musical woes were further exasperated by the decision to record each number live instead of the usual method of lip-synching over a pre-recorded track, meaning many of the songs lack the luster of a polished studio sound.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the involvement of none other than Randy Newman in this project. Newman’s presence is equal parts strange and expected. By the time 1990 rolled around, the musician had firmly entrenched himself as a film composer, but had yet to land on the fertile ground of being Pixar’s go to songwriter. Still, the money must have been pretty good to convince him to not only produce the show’s theme song, “Under the Gun,” but to write all the music in the pilot. He even appears in the opening credits, performing the theme song in-studio as the entire main cast watches on completely out of character.
This all might have worked out if the show was attempting to be a campy play on serious cop dramas. Sadly no, the show literally titled Cop Rock wanted to have its cake and eat it too. In the opening to the pilot episode, heavily armed officers conduct a drug raid on a crack house and arrest about a half-dozen men, all African-American. These men get the supposed last laugh when they launch into the NWA-styled number, “We Got the Power.” Later in the same episode, a drug addicted mother sings a mournful song as she sells her baby for money. It’s a juxtaposition so strong it will give you whiplash.
It would be one thing if it felt like the show was saying anything meaningful with these stories, but it is clearly no different from any number of gritty police procedurals on the air at the time. All of them striving for realism while still portraying cops as an ultimate good, even when they are looking down on a jail cell full of drug addicts or actively engaging in the unlawful questioning of a suspect. “That is just how it is. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to protect us all.” It is the same tired rhetoric you see today, just with some half-assed music numbers to spice it up.
In the end, no one outside of Bochco saw anything in Cop Rock and the show was cancelled after a half season on the air. To his credit, Bochco would later admit that the show was a failure, even if he still liked the idea. “If you have the guarantee of getting that many shows on the air and you don’t do something bold and adventurous and experimental, then shame on you.”That juicy quote and many others can be found here
In the years since the show’s glorious crash-and-burn, programs like Empire and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have showcased that musicals can be successful TV shows without having to sacrifice what makes them unique. They also were clued in on one of the most crucial mistakes Cop Rock made. If the music doesn’t have much to do with the story, why is it there? A musical isn’t just a bunch of random female officers in a changing room singing about respect. At its best, it comes from characters who have no other way to express themselves and their emotions. Like any other genre, musicals can be adapted to TV, they just need people behind them who actually understand what makes them unique.
Bochco would give ABC what they actually wanted a few years later with the debut of NYPD Blue, but Cop Rock remains a pop culture punchline. A mishmash of tones combining with a poor attempt at taking Broadway’s style and applying it to TV. There have been worse shows put on air, but few take such a big swing with a surefire miss. I almost feel like I have to respect the effort, even if I loathed the result.
Next Time: We head back to 1983 for the Tron-inspired trappings of ABC’s Automan.
As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for future shows you want to see covered, leave them in the comments below. For more great content, follow me on Twitter @JesseSwanson.