Like all tele­vi­sion shows with bizarre premis­es, it’s a mir­a­cle that Cop Rock made it through the pro­duc­tion process and out to the pub­lic.  It owes that mirac­u­lous exis­tence to the suc­cess of series cre­ator Steven Bochco, a respect­ed tele­vi­sion vet who was rid­ing high at the time as the cre­ator of Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law.  An CopRock-dvdunsuc­cess­ful attempt to turn Hill Street Blues into a Broadway show inspired Bochco to try mix­ing the police dra­ma and the musi­cal in tele­vi­sion form and a new con­tract made it pos­si­ble for him to try the idea out on the network’s dime.  The results didn’t work as planned but they are much inter­est­ing and watch­able than the show’s rep­u­ta­tion as a t.v. bomb would sug­gest.

Cop Rock is main­ly a straight­for­ward cop show at the plot lev­el, albeit one with some whim­sy around its gruff edges.  You’ve got a police chief (Ronny Cox) who gets in trou­ble for shoot­ing his mouth off to the press when he’s not start­ing up an unlike­ly romance with the may­or (Barbara Bosson), who just got plas­tic surgery to aid her bid for a sen­ate seat(!).

Captain Hollander (Larry Joshua) tries to keep his troops safe and hon­est but is chal­lenged at every turn by both fate and his troops. Detective Larusso (Peter Onorati) shoots an unarmed deal­er to keep him from escap­ing arrest and ends up going on tri­al,  there’s roman­tic trou­ble for a pair of mar­ried cops (Anne Bobby and Ron McLarty) and a detec­tive-in-train­ing (Mick Murray) tries to prove him­self afteCopRock-01r being demot­ed to beat cop.  Beyond the per­son­al dra­ma, there is also a baby-sell­ing ring, rapists and polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion to con­tend with.

The sell­ing point of Cop Rock is that it defies the cop show for­mu­la by insert­ing a hand­ful of musi­cal num­bers into each episode.  Sadly, the use of this ele­ment is wild­ly uneven through­out the series run.  Part of this is con­cep­tu­al: in musi­cals, the music is of equal impor­tance to the nar­ra­tive and the best musi­cals form a sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship between the two.  In Cop Rock, the songs are sim­ply an add-on to a show that could have worked fine with­out them.  The musi­cal sequences sim­ply play like a stunt in each episode, only offer­ing some­thing that adds to the dra­ma on rare occa­sions.CopRock-02

It doesn’t help the songs are usu­al­ly gim­micky, rely­ing on cutesy word­play and sad­dled with chintzy t.v.-level pro­duc­tion val­ues in their arrange­ments and pro­duc­tion.  Aside from a few strong Randy Newman songs in the pilot, most of the music falls into two camps: sap­py MOR bal­lads that are most­ly indis­tin­guish­able and nov­el­ty pop tunes.  The lat­ter type of song can be fun — there’s a great num­ber in one episode where the chief’s assis­tant (Vondie Curtis Hall) gets to dis­pense roman­tic advice via a song done in the style of the Temptations, com­plete with match­ing suits and chore­og­ra­phy — but the pop songs more often trends toward eye-rolling silli­ness.  A few attempts to incor­po­rate hip-hop fall flat, par­tic­u­lar­ly one num­ber where gang-bangers in a cell rap about how life in the hood “ain’t no piece of pie/when the bul­lets flyCopRock-03/anyone can die.”

Despite this key con­cep­tu­al prob­lem, Cop Rock is actu­al­ly a lot of fun to watch.  The musi­cal bits have a “what will they try next?” ele­ment that lends some kitschy fun and when the show sticks to dra­ma, it can be pret­ty good.  The sub­plot involv­ing LaRusso’s tri­al is han­dled in a pleas­ing­ly com­plex fash­ion, show­ing how his actions rip­ple through both the police force and the com­mu­ni­ty.  This plot thread also results in some well-craft­ed tri­al sce­nes that add Dennis Lipscomb as an aggres­sive defense attor­ney and CCH Pounder as his resource­ful pros­e­cu­to­ri­al rival.

Cop Rock is also a well-cast show, with like­able and inter­est­ing per­for­mances that respond well to the unortho­dox mate­ri­al.  In the main cast, Onorati does strong work in a sur­pris­ing­ly comCopRock-04plex take on the “bad cop” arche­type and Cox is clear­ly hav­ing a blast as the loose can­non of a police cap­tain.  The guest stars are also fun to watch, includ­ing Gina Gershon as a t.v. star deal­ing with a stalk­er and most notably Kathleen Wilhoite, who is excel­lent as a drug addict mom try­ing to escape her life’s vicious cycle.  Wilhoite not only deliv­ers an appro­pri­ate­ly edgy per­for­mance but shows for­mi­da­ble vocal chops in the three songs she gets: one of the­se, a trag­ic lul­laby called “Sandman’s Coming,” is the best song of the series.

Simply put, Cop Rock man­ages to stay aloft despite its prob­lems because Bochco and com­pa­ny were sim­ply too good at mak­ing tele­vi­sion to fail com­plete­ly.  No mat­ter how awry the music goes, Cop Show man­ages to jug­gle its plot threads with dex­ter­i­ty and main­tain a fast pace spiced up with plen­ty of good per­for­mances.  If you’re fas­ci­nat­ed by the more eccen­tric cor­ners of tele­vi­sion his­to­ry, Cop Rock is an odd­i­ty worth explor­ing.

DVDCopRock-05 Notes: About two and a half decades after its orig­i­nal broad­cast, Cop Rock has final­ly made it onto DVD via a 3-disc set from Shout! Factory.  This show was part of a breed of tele­vi­sion shows that were shot on film and edit­ed on video so the trans­fers pre­serve the vin­tage SD tele­vi­sion look: a lit­tle soft but still plen­ty watch­able.  The orig­i­nal stereo mix­es are used and they offer a solid blend of ele­ments.

Shout! Factory has also added a few extras.  On disc 1, there is a text com­men­tary from pop cul­ture his­to­ri­an Russell Dyball.  It’s as good as his com­men­tary for The Gong Show Movie, fir­ing off an array of facts about the cast and crew, crit­i­cal analy­sis and even a guide to high­lights in oth­er episodes.  The oth­er extra on this disc is a vin­tage press kit that can be accessed as a PDF via a com­put­er DVD dri­ve.

CopRock-06Disc 3 offers a cou­ple of extend­ed inter­views.  One sit­down fea­tures Anne Bobby (31:07), who shows great fond­ness for the expe­ri­ence as she dis­cuss­es her musi­cal back­ground and the chal­lenges of mak­ing such a com­plex pro­duc­tion on a t.v. sched­ule.  She also relives sev­er­al key num­bers from the show in a charm­ing way.

The oth­er chat is with show cre­ator Steven Bochco (38:43): it’s an expan­sive chat in which he explains the gen­e­sis of the idea, the hur­dles he had to over­come to make it hap­pen, how he dealt with the script­ing and song­writ­ing chal­lenges and a frank assess­ment of the show’s qual­i­ty and why it end­ed so soon.  Any fan of ‘80s prime­time t.v. will love hear­ing his take on this still-con­tro­ver­sial show.