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 unsuccessful 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 after 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.
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 fly/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 complex 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.
DVD 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.
Disc 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.