In the winter of early 1991, a flyer on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill promised “Cop Rock on trial!” A group of students were going to examine the new series by Steven Bochco who was seeking to revolution police dramas beyond his previous landmark Hill Street Blues. There was an addendum to the flier written in marker, “ABC might canceled it, but we won’t let the show escape justice!” I never made it over for the trial of the primetime season. It was like kicking a corpse. The network had executed the show after 11 episodes and critics cackled at the failure. Many called it the worst TV show ever produced. People pondered the sanity of ABC executives who signed off on the project. There was no need for a rush to judgement since protests over the cancellation weren’t going to burn down major cities and loot the beeper store. Now with the release of Cop Rock: The Complete Series viewers can adjudicate for themselves if a singing police force was bad idea or ahead of its time.
A musical drama about police work sounds like a discarded Elvis movie proposal, but wasn’t too outlandish in the context of the times. Miami Vice had just wrapped up five seasons with its “MTV Cops” concept. The show had scenes of Crockett and Tubbs where the ‘80s pop songs such as Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues” drove the narrative instead of dialogue. Both Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas attempted musical careers during the run. Why not eliminate the middle man and let the cops belt out a song while they’re beating out a confession? At the time Steven Bochco had an amazing development deal with ABC so he took the risk.
“The Pilot” sets the tone for the series with an overwhelming police raid on a suspected drug house. The cops storm inside and nab dozens of folks including Kathleen Wilhoite (Bad Influence) and her baby. In the midst of getting people in the paddy wagon, the protests of the arrested becomes the first song. The show seems natural going from gritty cop drama to Broadway musical moment because of the visual power of the scene and the tone of the action. Wilhoite’s character evolves into being a key part about a black market baby adoption scam. There’s a major incident at the end of the episode when Detective LaRusso (Peter Onorati) decides to kill a kingpin suspect rather than let him get out of jail again. Will his partner cover up the crime scene? These two are the meaty storylines dominate the early episodes. There are weaker tales with characters that are more fluff than grit. Chief Roger Kendrick (Deliverance’s Ronny Cox) is a cowboy loving guy with a wild west motif in his office. This allows him to break out a few country western croons instead of the pop and rap that dominates. He’s not a fan of his boss. Mayor Louise Plank (Hill Street Blues’s Barbara Bosson) has big political aspirations except she’s a rather old and stern looking. Her advisors put her under the knife to get her an extreme makeover. Thus ugly duckling turning into a swan element makes the Chief feel a pitter patter in his heart for the now alluring mayor. This means plenty of romantic songs between the duo as they question their HR taboo emotions. Officer Vicky Quinn (Nightbreed’s Anne Bobby) is the young female cop who gets to expose her complicated feelings about being a cop in song.
The biggest problem in Cop Rock isn’t that the cops sing. They don’t sing enough. There’s way too many just talk scenes that it becomes a shock when a song graces the screen. Instead of enjoying the show, you’re constantly wondering if a dramatic moment is going to inspire someone to break out in song as it elevates. Often it doesn’t happen. There’s a lot of melodramatic scenes that get way too many notes. Why so many solo moments from the medical examiner who needs to lose weight? The best songs came from power and resistance. Fierce duets elevate the action instead and create dangerous tone. The hard edge moments get a bit deflated by the lighter romantic moments. Perhaps the tone issues would have been worked out if the show hadn’t been canceled after 11 episodes? Although that’s all guessing since Cop Rock was put to death by the line up judge at ABC.
What judgement should be passed on Cop Rock? This is not the worst TV show ever aired. That infamous honor belongs to a series that you completely forgot existed. A show so boring, uninventive and beige all over. A series that nobody on the internet has started a petition to have it put on DVD. There’s no need to even name it. Cop Rock dared to alter police dramas by going beyond the norms of a cop show. It brought a little of Broadway magic to the gritty cop drama world. How many police shows get canned early each TV season? Cop Rock remains a buzz title after all these years. Getting chance to fully review the series on Cop Rock: The Complete Series proves it has been sentenced too harsh. Ultimately the cancellation of Cop Rock made Bochco was able to deliver NYPD Blue.
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The series was shot on film, but edited on standard definition video. This limits the resolution. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The songs and gritty cop action mix well.
Pilot Episode with Text Commentary features insight from pop culture historian Russell Dyball. This allows you to watch the episode and read his factoids. He points out that Bochco got the idea when he was approached to adapt Hill Street Blues into a Broadway musical.
Singing the Blues with Steven Bochco (38:43) allows the producer to defend his ambitious series. He points out that every person he told about the show thought it was a horrible idea. But he had a sweet deal with ABC that wouldn’t stop his vision.
Anne Bobby Office Vicki Quinn (31:07) catches her being surprised that she gets to talk about Cop Rock after all these years. She does not have fond memories of the hair extensions used in the pilot.
Printable Cop Rock Press Kit is just what we got at the student newspaper back in 1990.
Shout! Factory presents Cop Rock: The Complete Series. Starring: Ronny Cox, Vondie Curtis-Hall, & Anne Bobby. Boxset Contents: 11 episodes on 3 DVDs. Released: May 17, 2016.
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