Cop Rock

Never was a television show more unfairly maligned than Cop Rock, the 1990 musical cop drama. It's now on nearly every list you'll ever find of Bad TV Shows. And it doesn't belong there. Sure, sometimes its songs didn't totally work, but series creator Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, LA Law, NYPD Blue) was making something truly new, a weekly musical drama series. It had never been done before. Or since. Until Smash.

I started thinking about Cop Rock again when I was creating New Line's very cool (if I do say so myself) YouTube History of Musical Theatre (in two parts, 1904-2000 and 2001-present), using about 250 YouTube videos to chronicle the history of the art form, so now students (and people like me) can actually see these classic performances that we could only read about before. And I thought I ought to include a couple clips from Cop Rock. I had taped most of the episodes and had transferred them to DVD, but I was missing a few. So I went online and found someone who was selling the whole series on DVD (recorded off of TV). When I watched it again, I remembered why I loved it so much.

When Cop Rock debuted, people laughed at the very premise of the show, but it really wasn't a bad idea. After all, in 1990 we had already seen Sweeney Todd, Little Shop of Horrors, and Assassins. We already knew that musicals could handle any subject matter.

So what was the big deal?

Young writers often ask me how to know if a story would make a good musical. I tell them the measure is whether or not the story is primarily about emotion (usually love, but also other emotions). If it is, it can be a musical; if not, it shouldn't be. Because music is an abstract language, it conveys emotions better than words can. But I don't agree with the old Rodgers & Hammerstein rule that when emotions become "too big for words," then the character breaks into song. That negates much of modern musical theatre. They don't have to be big emotions -- just emotions. Like confusion and fear of rejection in "Barcelona" in Company, or unease in "A Weekend in the Country" in A Little Night Music, or scapegoating (and fear of the Other) in "Another Dead Cow" in Bat Boy, or steely resolve in "The Gun Song" in Assassins.  Even when our lives get lonely or boring, we still have emotion -- after all, "It's Hot Up Here" in Sunday in the Park with George is about boredom, and "The Last Real Record Store on Earth" in High Fidelity is about stagnation...

Why is prime time TV always bursting with cop shows and medical shows? Because the emotional stakes are so high -- literally life and death. And that's the same reason why a cop show should be a musical. Here's the first song in the first episode of Cop Rock. Not only are these intense emotions, they're also emotions we never see represented in musicals...

I remember being thrilled by this as a 26-year-old musical theatre lover. And then just a few months later, I couldn't believe the show was being canceled after only eleven episodes. The story goes that ABC went to Bochco and said they didn't like the show and if he would turn it into a normal cop drama, he could keep it on the air, but if it stayed a musical, they would cancel it. Apparently, he told them to fuck off and he finished the series his way.

What went wrong? Well, on top of the fact that it was a musical TV police drama (which probably would have been enough), it was obvious, even at the time, that the grind of essentially cranking out a new one-act rock musical every week made it tough to keep the quality consistent. Randy Newman couldn't write all those songs -- but imagine if he had. So over those eleven episodes, a few of the songs fell flat, some were more amateurish lyrically than they should have been, a little heavy on cliche, but so many of the songs were really outstanding and original, and remarkably true to character. And they were all in the musical language of that moment in America.

With 20/20 hindsight, I wonder if it would have helped to use more underscoring, under dialogue and leading into and out of songs the way film musicals do. After all, cop movies use underscoring, even if Bochco's naturalistic cop shows didn't. And I think that would have helped the songs flow more naturally in and out of dialogue, and it would have made the songs seem less sore-thumby for viewers who don't see many musicals. Bochco made the mistake (like Rodgers & Hammerstein did before him) of thinking musicals can be naturalistic. They can't.

This next clip is maybe the best song of the series, the "finale," so to speak, of the first episode. The set up is that this heroin addict is arrested in the opening drug bust and a female cop helps get her released and helps her get her baby back. In the final moments of the episode, when we think all the threads are tried up, we get this...

Notice how Rodgers & Hammerstein this is. Hundreds of American theatre songs have an instrumental section in the middle which underscores either dialogue or action, and then the character sings one more verse. And scene. In the best theatre songs, that dialogue in the middle alters the circumstances, which alters the meaning of the lyric when it's repeated in the last verse, bringing ambiguity or irony to the ideas in the first part of the song. Here, the first verses are darkly ironic to begin with, but the last verse adds even more irony on top of that. Randy Newman's writing here is every bit as good, as artful, as complicated as the best stage musicals. This song later found its way into a similar situation in Newman's stage musical Faust (which also was unfairly maligned), only this time the action in the middle was the singer drowning her baby. Nice, huh?

Unfortunately, Cop Rock has never been released on DVD or even on VHS. I have to wonder, in this age of the New American Musical, in this age of American Idiot, Next to Normal, and Love Kills, if Cop Rock might be better received. And I admit it, I'd love to turn the first few episodes into a stage musical...!

People dismissed Cop Rock the same way they dismissed High Fidelity and bare -- without any rational thought, often without even seeing it. There was a hostility to the show that baffled me. What were people so upset about? Why did it bother them so deeply? Why did people feel compelled to reassure their friends that they thought Cop Rock was shitty? It wasn't. Even with its admitted flaws, it was better than much of what is put on television. And it foreshadowed an increasing use of musical numbers in other TV shows, like Allie McBeal, The Drew Carey Show, The Simpsons, South Park, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and others. Today, with both Glee and Smash on the air, might Cop Rock do better...? It's hard to know.

I know a big part of the reluctance to accept Cop Rock was a general bias against musicals in general (which may be getting better now, thanks to Glee and Smash), a mindset that New Line Theatre was founded (just a year after Cop Rock) to combat. Maybe subconsciously Cop Rock gave me the vision to create New Line, to focus exclusively on issue-driven musical theatre. Watching that show was certainly one of those seminal moments in my life (like seeing Grease, Rocky Horror, Hair, and The Fantasticks for the first time) when everything I thought I knew about my art form was challenged. These are the moments that shaped me as an artist and also that shaped New Line Theatre. And Cop Rock was a part of that.

I'll leave you with one more...

As in many of the series' musical numbers, here Cop Rock becomes a meta-musical. From the moment the court clerk's desk opens to reveal a rock organ, this number is commenting on itself, on Cop Rock, and on the conventions of musicals. While "Sandman" works like a Rodgers & Hammerstein song, "He's Guilty" works more like a musical comedy song. Reality is suspended (usually without explanation, other than that this is a musical). A contemporary audience accepts this in an ironic way -- they recognize both the absurdity of it and the fact that the show is operating in the audience's reality as much as in its own reality. It's incredibly Brechtian. That's something Rodgers & Hammerstein shows (or the "well-made play" model that R&H fetishized) never did. (Okay, purists, yes, R&H's show Allegro was more experimental, but it was also bad, it was a flop, and it's the exception that proves the rule. So there.)

But "He's Guilty" also makes another commentary, this one outward rather than inward, literally turning our justice system into show business. A trial is theatre, after all. Just as the two attorneys have put on "performances" for the jury, just as the defendant has "performed" his innocence, now too his sentence -- his fate (talk about high stakes!) -- will be a performance too. It's about surface versus reality. It's about the manipulation of the system, about the lie of impartiality. And it too is very Brechtian.

I've been writing a lot lately about the Neo Rock Musical (Next to Normal, American Idiot, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, bare, Love Kills) and the Neo Musical Comedy (Bat Boy, Urinetown, Lysistrata Jones, Bukowsical), and these Cop Rock clips are three great early examples. Now that rock is the primary language of the American musical, hip-hop is also finally becoming a legitimate language in musical theatre (Bomb-itty of Errors, Lysistrata Jones) -- but Cop Rock and "We Got the Power" were already there twenty-two years ago. The Neo Rock Musical usually follows (generally speaking) the R&H rules, but with a great deal more irony, and (obviously) using the vocabulary of pop and rock -- exactly like "Sandman" does. And any Neo Musical Comedy character would be at home in "He's Guilty" -- the height of expression, the depth of sincerity, as the Bat Boy writers would put it. In other words, stylistically outrageous, but utterly honest emotionally.

Cop Rock wasn't just ahead of network TV; it was ahead of the musical theatre. You gotta love this shit!

Long Live the Musical! Even on TV!

P.S. In the process of writing this blog, I was looking for Cop Rock clips on YouTube and found quite a few. So I've collected them into a Cop Rock Playlist on New Line's YouTube channel.


Gary Digital Williams | February 12, 2016 at 7:09 AM

Your wish has been granted! Cop Rock is now on DVD!!