The last time Steven Bochco appeared at the TV critics’ press tour was in January, 2014, to introduce his series Murder in the First. The series, which airs on TNT in the United States and Bravo in Canada, is a middling-good cop drama, driven largely by the energy and skill of Canadian Kathleen Robertson in the lead role.
Bochco, who died on Sunday, is a legend in television. As a writer and producer, he was responsible for Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and a string of other Emmy-winning series. A few failures, too, but Bochco’s work on a handful of ground-breaking series mean he can be considered the begetter of what became a golden age of TV drama.
Thing is, Bochco’s distinctive style − the sprawling ensemble casts, the messy realism and multiple storylines spilling out in a seemingly jumbled manner − had, by 2014, been surpassed and transcended in cable dramas that made Bochco’s best work look callow. He was a lynchpin figure in the history of TV drama, but overtaken by the triumph of cable and streaming services that are unconstrained by the limits placed on network shows. Network TV was Bochco’s arena and he certainly triumphed there.
In that January four years ago, he was asked if he felt “in some way like the spiritual father of this golden age” and if, back when Hill Street Blues was airing, he could ever have conceived of a time when television would supplant the movies as the place where a lot of the most talented writers, directors and actors go.
“The answer is yes,” Bochco said. “I think what we did with Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s, and then when we saw the shows that its success spawned, including a few more of my own, it just opened up the world, and it became very clear to us when we survived the first year of that show that we were showing an audience of viewers a different way to watch and appreciate television. And for those of us involved in it at the time, it really was the first time, at least in my career, that people were proud to say, ‘I’m a writer in television.’ I think all of us who were intimately involved with the show, David Milch, Tony Yerkovich and all of us, did have the sense, I don’t want to say we were pioneering, but we were certainly aware of advancing the agenda.”
It was a modest reply from man who could be fierce. At the height of NYPD Blue’s popularity and critical acclaim, a request to Bochco for a brief chat would bring the question: “What’s your circulation?” He was interested in talking to a mass audience. He didn’t do small-scale or niche. And corralling a mass audience to watch series that were radically different became his greatest achievement.
When Hill Street Blues first aired on NBC in January, 1981, it ranked 87th out of the 96 series measured in the Nielsen ratings. Eventually, it accrued 98 Emmy awards during its 146-episode run. NBC was then in last place among the U.S. networks and Bochco was certain that, if it was given a chance, the show could change television forever and become a huge hit.
As with so much in the history of TV, the creative shift that was embodied in Hill Street Blues was as much propelled by economics and technology as it was by artistic vision. NBC was in dire straits and looking for a way to stand out. Thus, the series had latitude. Hand-held cameras were unusual on TV dramas then, but had become much cheaper and easier to use. Bochco and his creative partner Michael Kozoll were heavily influenced by the documentary The Police Tapes, a landmark work that chronicled the daily grind at a New York police precinct in the South Bronx. Because it was made for public television, the budget was tiny and only the cheapest equipment used. The resulting rawness of the look gave the doc – an Emmy and Peabody winner – an authenticity that Bochco wanted.
Mostly, however, it was the sheer sprawl of characters and overlapping storylines that made the series startlingly unique. As Bochco said about it years later, “It was messy, barely controlled chaos. We were really inventing it as we went along. There has never been anything like it before in terms of size and sloppiness. Words were tumbling out in the background, the frame was teeming with characters.” The series was both drama and comedy, and as Bochco said, “chaos,” but it was deeply humane and the tone was unique for mainstream TV. The casualness of the way key character Captain Frank Furillo (DanielTravanti) was revealed as a recovering alcoholic was, for its time, stunning. Conversations wandered hither and thither, melodrama was drained out of it and the result was deeply compelling. Before HBO and other premium cable services came to dominate, Hill Street Blues was the most influential of TV dramas.
NYPD Blue, airing in 1993, which Bochco co-created with Milch (who would go on to crate the classic Deadwood for HBO) was, from the start, intended as an “R-rated” prime-time drama. There would be swearing, sex and nudity. It was a challenge for ABC to fit the storylines and action inside the regulations about about what could be shown, but that was part of the tension in the show. At the time, networks were feeling the impact of competition from more adventurous cable series and one-hour TV dramas were getting more rare and expensive to make. A lot was riding on NYPD Blue.
It worked. The coarseness was thrilling, the jerky camerawork established on Hill Street Blues was used even more extensively and in Dennis Franz as the rumpled, angry and occasionally racist Detective Andy Sipowicz, a formidable character was launched. In retrospect, the situation of Franz’s co-star David Caruso had a deep irony. He was brilliant as Detective John Kelly. But Caruso wanted out of network TV and aimed to be a movie star. He left acrimoniously during the second season, made bad movies and eventually returned to television. His attitude and ambitions were wrongheaded – TV was becoming the more mature, sophisticated medium.
Bochco’s success, at a time when network TV was the primary populist storytelling medium, meant he was given lavish development deals. He could do anything he wanted, in order to deliver material, and he did. With L.A. Law, which ran 1986-94, he went for the surreal and sometimes satiric. The setting, in an upscale Los Angeles law firm, meant the storylines could veer from operatic tales of rich lawyers entangled with super-rich clients to the simmering racial anger on the streets. But its lack of focus meant it spiralled out of control and three of its major stars, Jimmy Smits, Harry Hamlin and Susan Dey, left the series.
His most famous disaster was Cop Rock, a cop drama/musical, in 1990. It was, in artistic terms, far from a disaster. Clever and absurd, it was Bochco trying emulate the style of English TV auteur Dennis Potter in Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. As such, it was an admirable stab at broadening the scope of U.S TV drama.
The problem was that network TV expected series to run for 22 or 24 episodes a season and for each episode to dominate its timeslot. Nothing as ambitious as Cop Rock could achieve that. In fact, what bedevilled Bochco, for all his skill and success, was the network model of week-in, week-out production and slavish attention to ratings. He was a fine TV writer and creator who started in the 1970s on such shows as Columbo, learned a great deal from the genre-busting work being done in Britain, but was obliged to adhere to formats and a formula that, today, are all too obviously broken. The premium cable model of ad-free, 10 to 12 episodes, is the anchor to this golden age of TV. Even when Bochco truly pushed limits, as he did with Murder One in 1997, a series about a single law firm handling a single case, the serial nature of the story, lacking weekly closure, dismayed viewers and repelled the network.
Bochco was ahead of his time, achieving so much inside the borders of network TV. He paved the way for everything from The Wire to True Detective. He was a radical force, no matter how tame some of the work appears now, in the rear-view mirror. He entertained and educated viewers and changed American TV for the better.