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Monthly Archives: September 2010

I’ve got not one, not two, but THREE different shows this week, all sharing a common theme, but approaching it in different ways.  One from 1976, one from 1992, and the last from 1994… and the longest ran only one full season.  A bonus quote from the article this week, just so each show will have two.  SIX quotes:

(from version 1, 1976)
… who was such a bumbler that his incompetence kept putting all of his former partners in the hospital.

The comedy was broad, hoping to invoke the style of Martin & Lewis, and Gleason & Carney.

(from version 2, 1992)
…emotionally, she’s at the level of a 7-year-old, still learning about human behavior…

…the characterizations and plots were undermined by the attempts at being “cutting edge” in style…

(from version 3, 1994)
…and instructions to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law.

“They need a husband… and a father.  I cannot be that.  But I can protect them.”

You’ve got THREE shows to guess this week, each with a different style and different characters, but using the same general idea.  Bring a new partner, and I’ll meet you at Friday 8/7 Central!!

“Why is everyone so intent on challenging me?  What have I done to create such chaos in my own house?  Is it so wrong to demand what’s right for your children?  To expect a small measure of respect?”
–Sir Thomas Grey, Lord of Covington Cross

Raising a family as a single parent is an adventure.  Fun, crazy, and heartbreaking… especially in those years where they’re becoming adults themselves, testing their limits (and yours), and the expectations you (and the rest of the world) may have for them.  All in order for them to grow into who they REALLY are.  Sometimes it’s humorous, sometimes emotional.  And society doesn’t help, wanting people to fulfill their proper “roles” rather than become individuals.

Now, imagine bearing that cross in the 14th century in Medieval England, when those expectations and “roles” were far more rigid than today.  It was a time when duty, honor, position, and tradition meant everything… and loving your family meant a balancing act between fulfilling those roles and letting them be true to themselves.

And of course, considering it was a 1992 television series as well, it also meant having fun and adventure along the way… in the castle manor of a place called Covington Cross.

Sir Thomas, Richard, Eleanor, Armus, and Cedric. The Greys of Covington Cross

Sir Thomas Grey (Nigel Terry) is a Medieval father who believes in honor, chivalry, and traditional roles.  His eldest son Armus (Tim Killick) is just returning from fighting in the Crusades; middle son Richard (Jonathan Firth) is in training to become a knight and protector of their land and the local village populace; youngest son Cedric (Glenn Quinn) is studying to become a Friar; and beautiful daughter Eleanor (Ione Skye) is learning the ladylike arts and studying music.  Or at least, that’s what Sir Thomas would wish for, in his traditional view of the world….

The truth is, Armus was in the Crusades all right… as a cook, and not the warrior that Sir Thomas believed him to be, even though he’s strong as an ox.  Richard has learned to be a great fighter, but is almost too eager and hotheaded, drawing his sword instead of respecting honor and authority, and too often challenging his father’s ideas.  Cedric would rather chase young maidens instead of living the chaste life as part of the religious order and studying Latin, and preferring mischief instead of meditation.  And Eleanor… accidentally almost puts an arrow into Sir Thomas’ head with the crossbow she’s been practicing instead of the lute and harp.

Lady Elizabeth

Sir Thomas isn’t angry with his children, just a bit frustrated, but at least he has one solace:  his relationship with the Lady Elizabeth (Cherie Lunghi), a widow who owns some neighboring land and forms both a romantic alliance with Thomas and a trade alliance with Covington Cross.  But even she doesn’t fit the traditional model, having to become a leader of her own territory and holding her own with any man.  While they obviously love each other, Elizabeth is not going to marry Thomas and become subordinate; yet because of her love for him and his family, she maintains a wise and reasoned balancing effect on all of them.

Baron John Mullens

But Sir Thomas has more to worry about than family squabbles.  Another neighbor, Baron John Mullens (James Faulkner) covets Sir Thomas’s land and wealth, and usually has a villainous scheme to try to gain control of them.  Mullens has a daughter who refuses to believe in his nefarious ways… and she is carrying on a secretive relationship with Cedric (echoing the opposing families of Romeo and Juliet, without the dying part).  But when Covington Cross is threatened by Mullens or any other outside force, Sir Thomas can always count on his family and Lady Elizabeth to close ranks and face any plot against them.

“It’s a straightforward adventure, but it’s fun as well.  And it’s not divorced from present day (…) because the dialogue is modern and the issues are modern.  It has a real relevance, but at the same time, it’s a different world.  It’s a wonderful, strange, magical world, which is fun to join for an hour a week.”
–James Faulkner

“14th Century Adventure… 14th Century Romance… 20th Century Attitude” was the advertising tagline for the show, and they meant it.  Covington Cross didn’t try very hard to be historically accurate, even to the point of never saying exactly what year they were in.  They were going more for a generic medieval period setting rather than being derailed by details, even though filming was in England and not just on a Hollywood back lot (the show was a co-production with Thames Television in Great Britain).

The biggest complaint made by TV critics was that Eleanor and Elizabeth most certainly were not accurate portrayals of women of the middle ages, considering their more liberated attitudes (not that TV critics were necessarily experts on the subject).  But this wasn’t a BBC docudrama or something that we’d find today on the History Channel.  The producers weren’t trying to portray the harsher realities of life in medieval times, but going more for the “Errol Flynn” type expectations of the modern audience. 

Covington Cross was a light-hearted entertainment series.  It may have told stories about people torn between duty to society and their own desires, with moral dilemmas and choices, discovering their own strengths and weaknesses, but those stories were told all in the midst of rollicking adventures.  They were modern stories, with modern ideas and modern decisions… it was simply the setting that was different.  Think of it as science fiction in reverse:  commenting on our own lives and struggles, but from the past instead of the future.  And again, with a sprightly tone that avoided parody or outright comedy, but was still fun and filled with heroism and gallantry.

“I was going through the TV Guide, and just kept seeing one frontier family show after another.  In the repeats, I saw High Chaparral, I saw Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, The Big Valley, you name it.  And it dawned on me that this could be a frontier family show, if you just moved the frontier back about 500 years, and changed the guns to swords, and chaps to armor.”
–Creator and Executive Producer Gil Grant

This is NOT Bonanza...

Unfortunately, the show was also dismissed by critics as actually being nothing MORE than Bonanza in the middle ages, with a patriarch and three grown sons (and a token daughter thrown in for 1990’s political correctness).  But that simplified the point of the show FAR too much; the men on Bonanza (like the traditional westerns of the 1960’s era it aired in) were very much fulfilling their expected societal roles.  But from the first five minutes of the pilot of Covington Cross (available here on YouTube), you could see that this show was NOT about trying to fill those roles, but instead, following your heart–and balancing both ends of that scale.  (The clip also shows the light-adventure tone of the series).  Even Sir Thomas, as the patriarch, had to realize that honor could still be fulfilled, even if tradition wasn’t.  In that respect, he’s more like Tevye from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, than he is Ben Cartwright from Bonanza; a parent trying to hold onto his grown children, and still let them go become themselves.

“The show is about them as they mature, discovering their new talents and discovering life, and cutting their teeth in the big bad world outside.  It’s an everyday story of frontier folk who just happen to be in 14th century England.”
–James Faulkner

ABC aired Covington Cross on Saturday nights at 8/7 Central, definitely as a family-oriented viewing choice.  They actually aired the pilot episode early as a “preview” on August 25, 1992… and didn’t air the second episode for another three and a half WEEKS.  (Great way to get people excited about a show, ABC.)  Four more episodes aired, then Covington Cross was pre-empted with no notice for another week (explained in the next paragraph), followed by two more episodes (including the last on a Saturday Halloween night, when their family target audience was likely not at home).  Although there were seven more episodes already filmed, they were never aired.

ABC received an offer from Ross Perot (a maverick businessman who was shaking up the established system by running an Independent Presidential election campaign) to buy the time slot.  Perot wished to air weekly political speeches in his bid to communicate directly with the voters, and ABC was more than willing to take free money for what was essentially an hour commercial.  Failing to find a consistent audience, Covington Cross was cancelled, ironically in part because of a man who thought it was more important to present who he was to the world than follow the traditional method of behavior on a campaign… much like the characters on Covington Cross desired to be true to themselves instead of following the traditional “roles” that had been designed for them.  Ultimately, Perot disappeared from the airwaves and the political scene, just as Covington Cross did from television.

The noble heroes and heroines of Covington Cross

NIGEL TERRY (Sir Thomas Grey) has had an extensive stage career in England, occasionally taking television and movie roles in British productions such as The Lion in Winter, MI-5, and Doctor Who.  He’s probably best known to American audiences for the 1981 movie Excalibur, in which he played King Arthur.  Ironically enough, his love interest in that movie was….

CHERIE LUNGHI (Lady Elizabeth) who played Guinevere in Excalibur, so their pairing in Covington Cross was a spectacular bit of casting.  She has appeared in many, many British series, becoming well-known enough that she was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing (the original British show that spawned American imitation Dancing With The Stars).  Her most recent work was as a regular on the BBC/Showtime series Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

TIM KILLICK (Armus Grey) is 6′ 5″ tall, and usually gets to play the intimidating muscle type.  He has appeared in the British series Lovejoy and Bergerac, and also in the British/American co-produced period mini-series Ivanhoe and fantasy mini-series The 10th Kingdom.

JONATHAN FIRTH (Richard Grey) is the younger brother of actor Colin Firth, and has performed in the American series Highlander, Relic Hunter, Jericho and Ghost Whisperer, as well as British appearances in The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Cadfael, and Heat of the Sun (all seen here in America on the PBS Mystery! series).  His major parts immediately before and after Covington Cross were in BBC productions of Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet, so he’s well-versed in period pieces.

GLENN QUINN (Cedric Grey) played Becky’s boyfriend Mark Healy on the American series Roseanne, turning what was supposed to be a one-episode appearance into a seven-year run.  He even spent the season break during filming of Roseanne to fly back to England to play the role of Cedric on Covington Cross, thereby appearing regularly on two ABC series at the same time.  He’s also well-known for playing the half-demon Doyle on the first season of Angel (and getting to revert back to his natural-born Irish accent!).  He unfortunately died of a heroin overdose in 2002.

IONE SKYE (Eleanor Grey) is remembered by any teenager who saw the 1989 movie Say Anything, as John Cusack’s girlfriend in the movie (and the iconic scene when he plays the song “In Your Eyes” to her on a boombox, held over his head, outside her house).  Her resumé includes impressive performances in many small films, including Gas, Food, Lodging and Zodiac.

JAMES FAULKNER (Baron John Mullens) has the perfect face and voice for a villain, and has used it well in productions ranging from The Martian Chronicles mini-series to Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis in Hound of the Baskervilles to Herod in I, Claudius.  Starting in 1998, his career branched out into doing voices for English-dubbed Japanese anime.  Even more recently he’s started doing voices for video games, including the best-selling Halo Legends and the voice of Snape in the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince game.

Covington Cross is not officially available on DVD, although excellent quality bootlegs of the entire series, including the seven unaired episodes, are available.  They were apparently taken from the original masters or the syndicated tape provided directly to overseas TV stations (the episodes have no commercials and a placard before the end credits stating “PLACE TRAILER HERE”, so these weren’t just taped copies of aired broadcasts).  Many of the bootlegs also contain an hour-long promotional press video, with interviews from a number of the cast.  Cherie Lunghi’s site has an excellent page on Covington Cross, with emphasis, naturally, on her role in the show.  And, of course, in addition to the scene from the pilot linked in the article, there are also the typical best clips on YouTube.  (Oh, and just for trivia’s sake, in the pilot, there’s a guard with a single line… played by Daniel Craig, the current James Bond in the long-running 007 movie series.  He’s on-screen for such a short time, the clip is only six seconds long! Every actor has to start somewhere….)

The castle of Covington Cross (actually, Allington Castle in Kent, England)

Citing concerns with the cost of the show (filmed entirely on location in England), and knowing that showing huge battles was physically and financially impossible on a TV show budget, there’s an interesting quote in the previously mentioned press video (made before the series even aired) that’s unfortunately rather prophetic:

“Television is still character driven, and hopefully, people are going to tune in after the sixth week to see what Sir Thomas and Eleanor are going to do, rather than see what sword fight they’re going to be involved in….
–Creator and Executive Producer Gil Grant

Of course, ABC only aired 6 of the 13 filmed episodes, so nobody got the chance to tune in after that sixth week for Covington Cross.  And some of the best episodes (in my opinion) are in that last seven that never aired.  But Grant is still right because, even though the middle ages was conducive to battles and swordplay, it was the growth and choices of the characters that made the show work, and not just the setting.  The characters’ push-pull between their roles in medieval society and making their own life choices made the series interesting, fun, exciting, and memorable.  And no matter how old a series is… or how old its setting is… that balancing act is still being performed, every day, by everyone, no matter how old their adventures or how modern their attitude.  It’s part of life.  That’s our cross to bear.

Vital Stats

6 aired episodes — 7 unaired episodes
ABC Network
First aired episode:  August 27, 1992
Last aired episode:  October 31, 1992
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Again, close.  Saturdays at 8/7 Central.  Of course, in a show that wasn’t really exact about when it was set, let’s not be picky about when it aired either.  It would’ve fit in the Friday slot just fine.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Back to both the early ’90s (the show) and Medieval times (the setting) this week, with modern characters, and an article about balancing personal desire with traditional responsibility… all wrapped up in adventure and fun.

Five quotes:

“Is it so wrong to demand what’s right for your children?”

…accidentally almost puts an arrow through his head with the crossbow she’s been practicing instead of the lute and harp.

“It has a real relevance, but at the same time, it’s a different world.”

Think of it as science fiction in reverse…

“It’s an everyday story of frontier folk who just happen to be in 14th century England.”

Have fun storming the castle, and meeting the family inside, this week on Friday 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

Now here’s something you won’t see on the TV menu every day:  an occasionally film-noir comedy mystery that gently spoofed classic movies and used an accountant as its lead character.  Yes, there was a show like that.  For a little while, at least….

Andy Barker will do your taxes... or find a murderer... And make you laugh too.

Andy Barker, P.I. aired (briefly) in the spring of 2007.  It starred Andy Richter, the former sidekick and announcer for Conan O’Brien on Late Night, and later on The Tonight Show.   And describing the show (including its evolution and eventual demise) is a bit like making a creative multi-course gourmet meal… and no one shows up for dinner.

But I’ll try anyway, because the meal (erm… show) turned out pretty well, even if nobody gave it a chance.

So, let’s start cooking… First, start with Richter’s character Andy Barker as an accountant.  (A bit boring, but we’ve got to start somewhere, right?).  Now add his wife, the sweet and kind Jenny Barker (Clea Lewis), who loves her mild-mannered, smart, but rather average teddy bear of a hubby.  (OK, so perhaps we can whip up a gentle domestic comedy at this point).

Andy is starting his first day as his own boss, having rented a spot in a local strip-mall.  Now he’s just waiting for the customers to flow in for information on 401K plans, tax shelters, and the like.  Except, at least on the first day, nobody knows he’s there yet…. so he has no customers.  (OK, so accountants really are boring… how can we spice this up?  Let’s try something really unexpected….)

Suddenly, a beautiful woman with a Russian accent walks in, thinking that the place is still occupied by the previous tenant, who happened to be a Private Investigator.  The mysterious Russian mistakes Andy for the former tenant and, after a bit of a sob story and a nice retainer, Andy Barker is contemplating no longer being just a CPA, but a P.I. as well.  (And now is when things get a bit interesting, at least plot-wise.  Maybe it’s a mystery show…  AND a gentle comedy.  There’s something to work with here, but it still needs more).

“You do kind of have a good starting place with the conventions of the P.I. genre, there’s a shorthand even with the audience, I think, that lets you get into things kind of quickly.  Then satisfying the story with enough of a twist so that people aren’t too ahead of it.  (…) I think we do try and be satisfying and respectful and not make it too outlandishly unbelievable.”
–Co-Creator Jonathan Groff

Andy has no experience in investigating things other than spreadsheets, so what to do?  Fortunately, while he was waiting all day for customers, he’s made friends with the owners of two of the other stores in the mall, and these flavorful characters are more than happy to help.

Simon (Tony Hale) runs the “Video Riot” movie rental store, and knows every cliché and plot to every great and not-so-great mystery film (and loves the opportunity to play the part of investigator, instead of just watching on video).  And Wally (Marshall Manesh) runs an Afghan restaurant (with an overly American theme, no less), which has been robbed so many times that he’s invested in the latest and greatest surveillance equipment available, just to monitor his eatery.  So Andy now has some tools (and I’m referring to both the people AND the equipment there) to help him in his brand new investigating business.  (And our “meal” now has some comedic counterpoints, and some ways to riff on Simon’s knowledge of old movie mysteries as well.  More flavors added!).

Simon and Wally convince Andy to find the previous tenant, former P.I. Lew Staziak (Harve Presnell), for advice.  It turns out that Lew’s retired (and just slightly crazy as well), but still has the P.I. business in his blood.  And Andy has stirred those old feelings enough that Lew’s now on board as part of the team (a lunatic part, whether Andy wants him or not).  And they’re off to solve a mystery, in every episode… with more than a few laughs along the way.

“Sometimes we do end up… getting into some conventional-type action sequences, but then having our comedic take on them, like a car chase where Andy is giving out accounting advice during the car chase.  Or, Andy has a gun drawn on him and tries to bargain his way out of a situation by agreeing to sign a waiver of liability or nondisclosure agreement.  It’s more like little snippets of things.  The show is not intended to be a straight ahead spoof or parody.”
–Jonathan Groff, on balancing comedy and mystery without one overwhelming the other.

Andy Barker P.I. actually tried to be all those flavors in the same show:  A gentle domestic comedy; a “fish-out-of-water” story of an accountant suddenly involved in a world he’s completely unaccustomed to; a light spoof (and sometimes homage) to some of the great film-noir mysteries of Hitchcock and Bogart; and an occasionally crazy and lunatic string of antics with Simon and Lew and some out-of-left-field situations with Wally.  All in a half-hour time slot, in every episode.  And the biggest mystery of all is that somehow, this strange combo-mixture worked rather well.

Simon, Wally, Andy, Jenny, and Lew

Like I said, a creative multi-course gourmet meal, with lots of new and different combinations of style and taste… and nobody came to dinner.  Probably because NBC forgot to send out the invitations.

Andy Barker, P.I. premiered on Thursday nights, in the time slot vacated for a short “break” during the first season of the Tina Fey comedy 30 Rock.  And even before the first Barker episode premiered, NBC then decided that 30 Rock‘s “break” would be shortened by a week, and that the fifth episode of Andy Barker P.I. would be an “online exclusive”.  (The fifth episode happens to center around Lew’s past and his old partner, guest star Ed Asner, and rumor has it that the network bean counters were worried that the episode had “too many geezers” and wouldn’t attract that valuable younger audience they were so desperate for.)

In other words, the network had little faith in the show before it even aired and, other than a bit of promotion before the premiere, there was almost no mention of the show for publicity purposes, at least not by the network itself.  The first four of the six episodes aired on consecutive Thursday nights, with the last two being shown back-to-back AND buried on a Saturday night just over a week later.  And for those who were at all technically savvy, the ENTIRE series was actually posted online at the NBC site BEFORE the premiere… which means, if you were interested at all in the show, you could watch it there (or buy the episodes on iTunes), and never actually HAVE to see the episodes as they aired, lowering the ratings even further.  Andy Richter himself put it a bit more bluntly:

“They apparently decided at some point that, ‘this show is not going to be a big breakout, runaway hit, so let’s just kind of cut our losses and put it on, and if magic happens, then great, we’ll get behind it.  But we’re not going to get behind it before.  We’re not going to really get behind it before and push.  We’re going to put it on.’  It’s basically like a friend of mine once referred to it — they shove you out on an ice float and push you out into the water and go, ‘All right now, thrive!'”
–Andy Richter, on NBC’s apparent attitude towards the series.

(Actually, I’ve found some much more “colorful” quotes by Richter on this subject, but while I’m not averse to using that language occasionally in these articles, this quote still gets the message across.  The show got stabbed in the back, figuratively, and Richter knows it.)

What show at the time DID get a lot of NBC’s promotion and money?  The Real Wedding Crashers, a short-lived “staged reality” series about people pulling stunts during weddings (with the bride and the groom in on the joke, but not the invited guests).  Yeah, THERE’S a show to get behind… just to get a running start at kicking it off a cliff….

All I'm looking for is a few commercials... please?

To be fair though, during 2006-2007, NBC wasn’t attracting many more customers than Andy Barker did on his first day in the strip-mall (they’d put their promotion machine behind Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip earlier that year, and I’ve already written about what happened there).  In fact, this is the THIRD article I’ve written about shows NBC aired that season (The Black Donnellys being the other).  But then, the question must be asked:  with such a variety of ingredients, how would you have promoted Andy Barker P.I. in the first place?

Again, we’ve made a great meal… but the network would’ve preferred McDonalds, because at least they knew what to do to promote the same old Combo #1 comedy or Combo #2 drama, and not the delights of the unique feast being served up here.  And for 30-second snippets in commercials, it’s easier to promote a straight comedy or true drama than to promote the subtle mix of genres, styles, and performances that made Andy Barker, P.I. so well worth watching.

Ultimately, sometimes television at its best is also the hardest thing for television itself to promote and sell.  Appreciating what makes some shows great is only apparent in the context of the show itself, much like the greatest food is complimented significantly by the wine or the ambiance of the restaurant.  And, like some great restaurants, this show opened and closed before most people even knew it was there….

ANDY RICHTER (Andy Barker) is best known as the sidekick (and co-writer) on the Conan O’Brien’s stints of Late Night and The Tonight Show (and Conan returned the effort by being one of the creators of Andy Barker P.I.)  His two other short-lived shows were the critically acclaimed Andy Richter Controls the Universe and the not-so-acclaimed Quintuplets.  He also holds the record for winning the most money on Celebrity Jeopardy, over $29,000 for charity.

CLEA LEWIS (Jenny Barker) was a regular on Ellen (starring Ellen DeGeneres), playing friend Audrey.  Her quirky voice has also lended itself to voice-over and animation work, including Pepper Ann and various characters on SpongeBob SquarePants, and a role in the two sequel movies in the animated Ice Age movie trilogy.

TONY HALE (Simon) is a specialist at playing oddball characters and is best known for his role as “Buster” on Arrested Development.  His other major role has been as Emmett on Chuck, and is now on the web series Ctrl on the NBC network website.

MARSHALL MANESH (Wally) has played recurring characters in numerous shows, including Will and Grace, Scrubs, and How I Met Your Mother.  He has also guested on JAG, Boston Legal, and Burn Notice, among many other series.

HARVE PRESNELL (Lew Staziak) first appeared on TV on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1956, but really had three separate careers.  First as a musical stage actor, he starred on Broadway in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and performing for many years in touring productions of Camelot and Annie Get Your Gun, returning to Broadway as Daddy Warbucks in Annie.  His film career includes the movies Fargo and Saving Private Ryan.  In his later years, he became a TV character actor in demand, guesting on The Pretender, Monk, and ER.  He passed away of pancreatic cancer in June 2009.

Surprisingly for a six-episode show, Andy Barker P.I. is available on DVD (especially if you want extras), but if you just wish to sample the series for yourself, all six episodes are also available for free streaming on Hulu.  NBC’s main website for the show still exists, although not all the links on it are still active.

If you’ll allow me one more riff on the “food” analogy, here’s another thing:  Just as restaurants’ meals get reviewed by critics, so do television series.  Strangely enough, the TV critics almost universally endorsed the show.  One of the few TV critics that I actually respect, Tom Shales of the Washington Post, had this to say in his review:

Andy Barker P.I. sails along on an admirably even keel, brightened by moments that are convulsively funny — visual gags and subtler forms of slapstick.  It’s the kind of comedy that sneaks up on you.  Sneaks up on you and threatens to steal your heart.”

Ready for action... and tax returns.

Wait…. Threats?  Maybe even a stolen heart?  Sounds like a mystery to me.  Or maybe he can just use the loss as a tax write-off.  Either way, I know just the guy who can help, and have a laugh or two along the way.  Just call Andy Barker, P.I.

Vital Stats

Six aired episodes — no unaired episodes exist
NBC Network
First aired episode:  March 15, 2007
Final aired episode:  April 14, 2007
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, four episodes aired Thursdays at 9:30/8:30 Central, up against two Top Ten shows (CSI and Grey’s Anatomy), and the final two episodes burned off in NBC’s “Saturday repeats” slot.

I’m cooking up a good one this week.  It’s got lots of different things mixed into a show that should have gotten much more attention and appreciation.  Even the bean counters should have been happy… but it’s another show that mysteriously disappeared before it had a chance.

Five quotes:

…is a bit like making a creative multi-course gourmet meal… and nobody shows up for dinner.

“I think we do try and be satisfying and respectful and not make it too outlandishly unbelievable.”

And they’re off to solve a mystery, in every episode… with more than a few laughs along the way.

“…let’s just kind of cut our losses and put it on, and if magic happens, then great…”

…just to get a running start at kicking it off a cliff.

I hope that’s whet your appetite for more… and you’ll find it, this week at Friday 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

“I wrote for Stephen Bochco’s series Cop Rock.  I was the only girl songwriter on the show which was, alternately, one of the most exciting and one of the worst things that was ever on television.  When it was good it was unbelievable, and when it was bad it was really bad.  But nobody had ever done something like that before.”
–singer/songwriter/actress Amanda McBroom, writer of the Bette Midler classic “The Rose”

One of the biggest shows of the eighties was Hill Street Blues.  It changed the way viewers looked at police dramas, and instead of dry “straight-laced” cops-and-robbers tales, viewers were told quirky, messy stories that didn’t always end in one episode (and didn’t always end with the criminal behind bars).  Even the heroes weren’t always heroic, and sometimes they took more of the damage (and broke more of the rules) than the villains.  It was a landmark show, in many ways.  Lots of viewers (including the Emmy committee who, at the time, awarded it more Emmys than any other show in TV history) thought Hill Street Blues was brilliant.  And then its creator followed with another winner, L.A. Law.  That man, Stephen Bochco, was considered a television genius.

Stephen Bochco, Creator

And someone put the unusual idea in Bochco’s head that Hill Street Blues could be made into a Broadway musical.  Never one to back down from a challenge, Bochco gave this idea some serious thought.  Logistically, it would have been difficult, with a large cast and source material that had both stand-alone and continuing stories.  Ultimately, the idea was deemed unworkable, and no Broadway musical materialized.  But the idea was still there, waiting for a different form… and boy, was it different….

“If I can’t bring the cop show to Broadway, why can’t I bring Broadway to a cop show?”
–producer/creator Stephen Bochco, on the genesis of Cop Rock

Hill Street Blues was a monster success, both in ratings and quality, with 98 Emmy nominations (and 9 Emmys for Hill Street and L.A. Law for Bochco himself).   On the basis of this success, Bochco then got a 10 SERIES commitment from ABC and, in the fall of 1990, premiered Cop Rock.  The show was supposed to combine the quality storytelling of Hill Street and… five songs, of different styles, from different actors, in EVERY episode.  It really was Hill Street Blues done with music… and Amanda McBroom was correct.  At times, it was terrific viewing… and at other times, it was so bad that TV Guide ranked it 8th on its list of “The 50 worst shows in the history of television.”

“…there’s no such thing as a track record.  You toil and you toil and you argue and argue and you tear your hair out and go nuts and eventually you either retire, go mad, or become powerful enough to make your own show.  You say, ‘I am going to show them how it’s done!’  And that’s when you make ‘Cop Rock from Cincinnati.'”
–Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; Firefly; and Dollhouse; on the craziness of making television, good and bad.

I (obviously) love quirky, different, and unusual (it’s why I write this blog, after all).  Therefore, just as obviously, I loved Cop Rock (well, mostly) and videotaped every episode.  I even made a “mix tape” cassette of the songs, from the beginning (and if this first song from the opening of the first episode doesn’t show you the dichotomy of the series, then you’re lost before you start).  Fortunately, I don’t have to refer to this “mix tape” anymore.  Someone has graciously posted almost every song (here’s the playlist) from Cop Rock on YouTube (over 50 songs, but fair warning, they’re NOT in the order that they were performed on the show, so continuity and context are sometimes lost).  This is where you can find the best few songs (which were about a love triangle, and therefore fit more emotional moments) AND the worst (some of the more ‘staged” numbers)… and decide for yourself, with some of the other clips, if you don’t happen to like my linked specifics.  But then, the entire show was a “love it or hate it” deal….

Captain Hollander confronts "bad cop" LaRusso

The actual plot of the show used many staple “cop show” ideas (the love triangle on the force; a good cop bending the rules; and racism and anti-feminism among both crooks and cops).  With only 11 aired episodes, all you have to know is it was a character-based cop drama, with occasional comedic moments (like all good shows).  Then add Broadway style numbers with groups of synchronized dancers, interspersed with introspective solo songs, depending on the particular scene and character(s) “moved” to sing.

You see, there’s a theory in musical theatre that says characters are only supposed to sing when mere words aren’t really enough, emotionally, to express themselves.  Cop Rock, when those moments occurred, did admirably.  The problem was, contractually, there were supposed to be five songs per episode…. in a four-act show, plus a teaser before the opening credits theme, in a series that featured ELEVEN regulars.  And at least one featured song each week was supposed to be the “big Broadway showstopper”.  (And sometimes, those were the ones that literally “stopped the show” in its tracks.)  Good musicals find reasons for the music, and bad ones don’t… and Cop Rock was, ultimately, both at the same time.

Initially to sell the show (and for publicity’s sake), the songs in the pilot (and the theme song) were written by Randy Newman, famous for his lengthy career, quirky songwriting, and more recently for his contributions to the Toy Story movie series.  Asked once if Cop Rock was simply ahead of its time, Newman replied this way.

“No… I think it’s an impossibility.  It just wasn’t fated to have an audience.  Out of the four or five things I did, 2 or 3 of them worked.  I did the first show.  You can’t take an action thing, and have people singing.  The audience [for that style] wants action.  If it had been a more touchy, feely show…. I don’t think the audience had tolerance for it.  When it worked, like in the courtroom number, ‘Guilty‘, it was really good, but you can’t do that all the time.”

But they tried… oh, how they tried.  On Cop Rock, they tried songs with every kind of topic and style, from funeral requiems to racism, from ballads to rap, police anthems to feminist anthems, and from country cowboy songs to riffing on The Temptations.  Again, some of it worked.  There were places where character, emotion, and story came together to create wonderful moments…. But some of the music was inserted for the sake of “having to have a song here”, took the audience completely out of the story, and gave some very good singer/actors some less than wonderful material to work with.

Greatness and imperfection, at intervals

If you get the feeling that this is about as much of a “mixed bag” show as you could get, well, you’d be correct.   But, based on those moments when it DID work, it had such promise that I HAD to write about it.  Of course, a show has to be more than “promising” or a “mixed bag” to succeed.  ABC had paid not only a premium for the 10 series commitment contract for Bochco but, thanks to the extensive costs of music production, rehearsal, a large cast, and significant location shooting, the show cost $1.8 million an episode (the most expensive TV series up to that time).  Despite the need for the show to be a big success, and a large promotional campaign (including trailers shown on thousands of movies screens the summer before the show premiered), Cop Rock just didn’t attract any kind of audience at all.  ABC even encouraged Bochco to drop, or at least reduce, the number of songs in the show and turn it into more of a “regular” cop show, but Bochco had already done Hill Street and had no interest in making just a pure retread.  The show was canceled just before Christmas 1990, with 11 episodes instead of the contracted 13.

With 11 regulars, the usual Bios will be short, and they will also be about the individual characters they each played on the series.  Following that will be just the most noted “other” project or two the actors have been involved with (or the bios will last longer than the show did!)  Using the picture above, starting L to R, at the bottom:

RON McLARTY (Ralph Ruskin) got to be the insecure part of the “love triangle” on the show, and sings “She Chose Me”, one of the best ballads of the series.  McLarty’s primarily known as a novelist, having had a best-seller with the book The Memory of Running, and has narrated numerous audiobooks.

ANNE BOBBY (Off. Vicki Quinn) was the female part of the triangle (married to Ralph), and, in my opinion, the breakout best singer of the regulars.  Bobby has been more of a stage actress since, performing in four Broadway shows, but probably best known for a long running stint in the off-Broadway musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

PETER ONORATI (Det. Vincent LaRusso) was the cop who “broke the rules”, killing a suspect instead of arresting him.  Onorati has done significant guest roles (including a recent episode of Rozzoli & Isles), but is best known as a regular playing a divorce attorney in the series Civil Wars, which aired a couple of years after Cop Rock.

JAMES McDANIEL (Off. Franklin Rose) had his character’s partner killed off in the first episode, and dealt with both the emotional fallout from that, and being paired with a new, unskilled partner.  McDaniel later found much more success on the NEXT Bochco hit, N.Y.P.D. Blue, as another cop, Lt. Arthur Fancy, winning a Screen Actors Guild award for the role.

(middle row)

VONDIE CURTIS-HALL (Warren Osborne) played the confidante and assistant to the Police Chief, and gets the fabulous Temptations number mentioned above.  Curtis-Hall’s best known other role is as Dr. Dennis Hancock in the series Chicago Hope, in which he starred in for 4 seasons.

RONNY COX (Police Chief Roger Kendrick) was the “throwback” traditional-style police officer (who also had a crush on the female Mayor, although his idea of “traditional” male/female relationship roles got in the way).  Cox’s long and established career included starring roles in Apple’s Way, St. Elsewhere, The Agency, and a recent recurring role in The Starter Wife.  He also has a real following as a traditional country music singer and, in Cop Rock, gets to ride down an L.A. Street, on a horse, playing a guitar, singing… with a tumbleweed following along after!

BARBARA BOSSON (Mayor Louise Plank) had a early storyline centered on the Mayor’s plastic surgery, and later a possible bid for the ’92 election year (provided her money grafting wasn’t discovered, or was covered by her use of the Police Chief’s feelings for her).  Bosson earned five Emmy award nominations for her work on both Hill Street Blues and Murder One.

LARRY JOSHUA (Capt. John Hollister) was in charge of the precinct, riding herd on all these crooks, cops, and politicians and keep them working (or off his ass) depending on whether they were below or above him in rank.  This created much pressure on his family life, and his character’s focus was the balance of work and family.  Joshua split his time career-wise between TV (also as a Captain on N.Y.P.D. Blue) and movies, appearing in both Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, among others.

(top row)

DAVID GIANOPOULOS (Off. Andy Campo) was playing Vicki Quinn’s partner, and the third part of the “romantic triangle” (he also got some of the best songs because of it).  The following season Gianopoulos was one of the good-looking boyfriend/husbands on the series Sisters, and also appeared in most of the episodes on the American version of Queer as Folk… again, as a policeman.

PAUL McCRANE (Det. Bob McIntire) portrayed the love-struck detective who fell for a suspect in one of his cases.  McCrane was credited in his younger days as P.R. Paul, and appeared as Montgomery in the original series Fame.  As Paul McCrane, he appeared in five seasons of E.R. as Dr. Robert “Rocket” Romano, and was in seasons 5 & 6 of 24.

MICK MURRAY (Off. Joseph Gaines) played the “really rookie” cop who becomes Officer Rose’s new partner after his previous one was killed.  Honest and inexperienced, the rookie’s a bit too generous with sympathy toward the criminal element, but at least his values are in the right place, and the character hasn’t been (and won’t be) corrupted.  Murray’s other acting roles included guest parts in series such as Civil Wars, Beverly Hills 90210 (the original), and Angel.

Kathleen Wilhoite (Patty), one of the many talented guest singers

Not listed as a regular, KATHLEEN WILHOITE simply must be mentioned, although she was only in a few episodes.   She has three of the very BEST songs in the series, playing Patty, a drug-addicted single mother who sells her baby for drug money, and then fights through the cops, until she gets the chance to get her baby back.  Wilhoite is a multi-talented singer/actress who specializes in guest roles (in everything from Quantum Leap during her Cop Rock days to The Mentalist this past season, along with a 16-episode stint on Gilmore Girls) and also fronts her own band.  I highly recommend, in addition to all the Cop Rock music I’ve linked to, that you give her site a try, and download and listen/see some of her own original music.

“I’m guessing I’m gonna end up talking about [Cop Rock] until the day I die… not by choice, I might add….  The advice I’d have to give producers is take responsibility for what’s up there, good or bad.  Preferably bad.  Always share the responsibility when it’s good.  Take all the responsibility if it’s bad.”
–Stephen Bochco, on the success and failure of all his shows, particularly Cop Rock.

If the above statement is taken as fact and not just opinion, then responsibility for Cop Rock has to be a shared thing, because the series aimed to do something stylistically that hadn’t ever been tried before, and dared, occasionally, to achieve it.  Of course, it went down in critical flames at other times, but that’s the cost of any attempt at greatness.  The final judgment isn’t really in the hands of critics.  They’re paid to be pithy, and to not like everything they see (and some critics refuse to like ANYTHING they see).  But in the case of Cop Rock, while it is still known as a “failure” by the business and some of the people in it, the show was nominated for five Emmys and WON two of them.

Cop Rock is still remembered now, 20 years later, by those of us who love TV, so it must have done SOMETHING right.  It was even rebroadcast multiple times on VH1, A&E, and the Trio cable networks into the 2000’s.   And one of the best quotes about the show also comes from Bochco, who said, simply:

“It was the most fun I ever had working on a show.”

Besides, as the old showbiz line goes, “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings!”  But the ratings weren’t there, and the company knew ahead of time that Cop Rock was going to be canceled.  So, in its usual atypical style (of course), in the last act of the final episode, they took advantage of it–in song.  Check out their farewell, where everyone gets a solo (there’s even a sly comment on the show that was going to replace them, called Equal Justice), and THEN, of course, the fat lady sings.

I’m not kidding.  She really does.  Go watch it.

Just one more coda of “different” on a show that dared to ALWAYS be that way… for which I’m grateful, and because of that, I still remember Cop Rock fondly… and still sing its praises.

Vital Stats

11 aired episodes — none unaired — no DVD release, but over 50 clips on YouTube.
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 26, 1990
Last aired episode:  December 26, 1990
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, Wednesdays at 10/9 Central

Comments and Suggestions welcomed, as always.

–Tim R.

Now here’s something REALLY different.  A police show that took a very unusual way to look at cops on the beat.  Even though it’s been awhile, it’s one of those memorable shows…. (of course, for some, it’s a fond memory… for others, they’re wondering how it ever got on the air).

Five quotes:

“When it was good, it was unbelievable, and when it was bad it was really bad.”

But the idea was still there, waiting for a different form… and boy, was it different…

“…eventually you either retire, go mad, or become powerful enough to make your own show.”

“If it had been a more touchy, feely show….  I don’t think the audience had tolerance for it.”

“Always share the responsibility when it’s good.  Take all the responsibility if it’s bad.”

Come join me while I note both the greatness and the faults of another remarkable short-lived show, this Friday 8/7 Central!

Tim R.

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