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Cop Rock

“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.

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