Decades before shows like Glee, Smash, Galavant and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend brought musical storytelling to TV, or shows like Nashville and Empire integrated regular musical performances into weekly television, ABC took a chance on a bold new concept from acclaimed TV producer Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Hooperman, and Doogie Howser, M.D.). The 1990 television series Cop Rock set out to do something unique by bringing the Broadway musical to the police procedural drama. The idea sounded crazy—would audiences watch, and could you even create such a show on a TV-series production schedule and budget?! While Bochco managed to pull off the latter, sadly the ratings were abysmal right out of the gate, and only got worse as the weeks went along. And in the end the only 7 of the 11 episodes produced even made it air. Was this a bad show, or were audiences just not ready for musical television?
I only saw an episode or two of Cop Rock when the series first aired, and so Shout! Factory’s new DVD release of the complete series was my first opportunity to see the show in its entirety, and I was quite impressed. The series is a creative blend of gritty cop drama and musical storytelling. I believe the series was just too ahead of its time and tried to implement a concept that TV audiences just weren’t ready for…yet. While Glee utilized popular, familiar songs, all of the music on Cop Rock is original, and these songs are much better-integrated into the narrative because the lyrics are written specifically to help tell the story—much like what more recent shows like Galavant and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have done.
Cop Rock centers around a group of Los Angeles Police Department officers who are trying to clean up the streets while they are also dealing with personal issues and political bureaucracy. The series was also ahead of its time in some of the topics it covered—from homelessness, police brutality and racial profiling (even before the O.J. trial brought this to the forefront), drug dealing and addiction, stalkers, campus rape, and more. Many of these same issues are still on the daily news even today. I was actually surprised that some of these topics and some of the language used in these episodes were allowed on TV back when this first aired (this was before NYPD Blue really pushed the boundaries). In one episode, they burn a cross and even drop the N word several times.
Much of Cop Rock‘s first/only season follows the story of Detective Vincent LaRusso (Peter Onorati, Civil Wars), a loose cannon who will cross the line if he needs to in order to meter out his form of justice. After shooting an unarmed criminal, LaRusso finds himself under investigation for murder. And while LaRusso has some vocal supporters in the public, Captain John Hollander (Larry Joshua, NYPD Blue) is tired of his antics and wants to take him down once and for all. So he begins to put the pressure on Larusso’s partner, Officer Franklin Rose (James McDaniel, NYPD Blue), to come clean as to what really happened. But this puts Franklin into an impossible situation, which stirs up controversy with hate groups as well as with his fellow officers.
Mayor Louise Plank (Barbara Bosson, Hill Street Blues, Hooperman, Murder One) is planning to run for Senate, and doesn’t want the incident to ruin her chances, so she also puts pressure on Chief Roger Kendrick (Ronny Cox, St. Elsewhere) to resolve the issue. Meanwhile, young Officer Vicki Quinn (Anne Bobby), who has been with the force for three years, tries to help a drug-addicted single mother (guest star Kathleen Wilhoite, ER, Gilmore Girls) clean up her act and try to get her baby back. At the same time, Vicki’s personal life starts to invade her work life when her much-older husband, crime scene investigator Ralph Ruskin (Ron McLarty, Spenser: For Hire), is afraid she is having an affair with her partner, Officer Any Campo (David Gianopoulos, The Division, Queer as Folk).
The rest of the main characters include the chief’s right hand man, Commander Warren Osborne (Vondie Curtis-Hall, Chicago Hope; Ernie Hudson in pilot); fresh-faced, always-optimistic rookie Officer Joseph Gaines (Mick Murray); and the more-hardened Detective Robert McIntyre (Paul McCrane, ER). There are also some great guest appearances by Sheryl Crow, Gina Gershon, David Paymer, Loretta Devine and CCH Pounder, plus some fun cameos by some Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law characters.
The series tells some interesting stories over the course of the eleven episodes. While there are some case-of-the-week type procedural elements, the series also has several ongoing story arcs, most of which do get resolved by the end of the series. A lot of the drama on the series is that of a gritty cop show, but the series also manages to work in moments of humor to lighten the mood. There are many fun tongue-in-cheek songs, and a few of the characters are on the wacky side. The relationship between the Mayor and the Chief is a lot of fun. The mayor starts off as this tough Iron Lady, but we soon learn that’s all on the exterior and that inside she is just a little girl who wants to be loved. And out to rescue her is the cowboy-like Chief who lives by the gentlemanly code of the old west—he even has a saloon-style shooting range built into his office closet.
Each episode of the series features around five musical numbers—at least two of which are full-on productions with dancing and choreography, while the others are usually a little simpler. The writers found some creative ways to integrate the music into the episodes—a gospel choir singing a trial verdict with “He’s Guilty”, a woman singing about comforting her baby as she sells it for drugs, a rapping police lineup, female cops singing about going undercover as prostitutes, and that’s just mentioning a few. Overall I found the musical numbers quite impressive, especially given the short time they had to create each episode, and the fact that the performances were recorded live on-set and not in a studio.
The music ranges from rock to rap to gospel to ballads to do-wop and everything in-between. The creators of the series have assembled a talented cast who can really pull these songs off. Some of the music is quite catchy, and I found it stuck in my head for days afterwords. This was especially true of the show’s theme song, “Under the Gun”, which was written by Randy Newman. Newman wrote five songs for the pilot episode, one of which sounds a lot like “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2. After that he passed the baton to a talented group of songwriters who came up with a whole mix of styles. Some of the songs I really enjoyed were Vicki’s ballad “If That Isn’t Love” when she’s wondering why her husband is questioning her fidelity; the captain’s “Let’s Be Careful Out There”, as he’s giving his morning briefing; the Joan Jett style “Gimme a Cop Who Doesn’t Shoot Blanks” , which a female cop sings as she hits on her new partner; and the “We’re Heroes All” number sung by a bung of uniformed cops felt like a major Broadway act- or show-closing number. While the series was cut short, that didn’t stop the producers from putting together one last hilarious musical number that breaks the fourth wall and cops (no pun intended) to the fact that their ratings weren’t great.
Shout! Factory has put together a really nice DVD release. While the show does show it’s age occasionally—for the most part the picture quality is quite good, just a bit grainy or muted at times, and the pilot looks a little worse than the other episodes. However, after watching a couple episodes, I was enjoying the show so much that I didn’t even really notice any picture imperfections. I also found the stereo soundtrack to be more than sufficient for all of the dialogue and songs, but unfortunately there are no subtitles or closed-captions for those who want to sing along with the songs. Shout! has included some fantastic bonus material on this set—an interesting text commentary on the pilot, brand new interviews with series creator Steven Bochco and star Anne Bobby, and a PDF of the original press kit for the series.
- All 11 Episodes of the series:
“Pilot”, “Ill-Gotten Gaines”, “Happy Mudder’s Day”, “A Three-Corpse Meal”, “The Cocaine Mutiny”, “Oil of Ol’ Lay”, “Cop-a-Feeliac”, “Potts Don’t Fail Me Now”, “Marital Blitz”, “No Noose Is Good Noose”, “Bang the Potts Slowly”
- 480p / Full Frame 1.33:1
- Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0
- Subtitles: None
- Pilot Episode with Text Commentary (48:37)
Pop culture historian Russell Dyball provides an interesting text commentary throughout the pilot episode. In the commentary track, he talks about the genesis of the show, how it was received (or not received) by the audience, gives some behind-the-scenes stories, and points out some of the storylines and guest stars that the viewer can look forward to throughout the 11 episodes of the series.
- Singing Blues with Steven Bochco (38:45)
Series creator Steven Bochco talks about how the show came about, and the idea of bringing Broadway to a cop show—and how everyone thought it was a horrible idea and that he was nuts for wanting to do it. He discusses the challenges of making the series, writing the pilot, leading the writers room, finding actors who could sing, making a musical on TV budget and schedule, recording live performances, and getting Randy Newman to write all of the songs for the pilot. It’s evident that he still feels very strongly about this project and is proud of the work he did.
- Anne Bobby — Officer Vicki Quinn (31:09)
After 25 years, actress Anne Bobby still remembers the lyrics to many of the songs from the series. She talks about her musical influences, her audition for the role, the character of Officer Vicki Quinn, and how the show was ahead of its time, both in format and in subject matter. She also talks about some of her favorite moments from the series, what it was like rehearsing and recording the musical numbers, and working with the choreographer Russell Clark.
- Printable Cop Rock Press Kit
This 40-page PDF file can be found on the first disc and accessed via the DVD drive on your PC. It includes all the original press materials for the series—the show description, cast and creator bios, and the original promotional photos.
I really enjoyed watching Cop Rock in its entirety for the first time on this DVD release. It is a fun, creative and unique series that was just a bit ahead of its time. Had this series been on a network fall schedule today, I think it would have fared much better with audiences, who now seem more open to musicals on television. The series successfully blends a gritty cop drama with fun and/or dramatic musical numbers that help to expand the story. The series introduces some entertaining characters and explores some thought-provoking storylines—it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see more of them. Even though the series was cut short, it has one of my favorite series endings. Shout! Factory’s DVD release looks and sounds really good, and the set contains almost 2 hours of bonus material. This TV gem is definitely worth checking out.