Steven Bochco, one of the most influential creators and producers in TV history, died Sunday in his sleep. He was 74. (No official cause of death has been released, but Bochco had been battling leukemia for several years.)
As a TV writer in the late 1960s and ’70s, Bochco worked on everything from Columbo to McMillan & Wife, cranking out sharp scripts for the well-oiled TV machines of the time. But it was when he joined the then-powerful MTM Productions (the company behind classic sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show) to help the company jump-start its drama division that he became someone who must be acknowledged in even the most cursory summaries of TV’s history.
His first show with MTM, Paris, which ran for 13 episodes in 1979 and 1980, was groundbreaking for the time, starring James Earl Jones as a police captain whose relationships with the officers working under him were satisfyingly complex. What’s more, the show actually followed him home to see how he interacted with his wife, something few police dramas had done before. In its interest in contemporary issues and the protagonist’s personal life, Paris served as a cursory blueprint for what was to come.
But it was Bochco’s next show that would change everything. Co-created with Michael Kozoll, Hill Street Blues would debut in 1981 on NBC and run for 144 episodes that altered television forever. From its storytelling style to its visuals, Hill Street rewrote the rules of what a TV drama could be, and made possible the boom in great drama that followed in the ’90s and 2000s.
Here, then, are Hill Street Blues and four other TV shows that will help you understand why Steven Bochco is one of the all-time greatest TV producers.
If you were to watch just one series to understand how dramatically Bochco changed the game, make it this one. Even better, take a look at one of the great dramas of the ’70s — like The Rockford Files, for instance — then look at this one to see just how differently it approached its storytelling.
Hill Street Blues, which debuted in 1981 and ran until 1987, is often incorrectly cited as the first serialized TV drama. Daytime and primetime soaps had, of course, been telling continuing stories for decades at that point. But what Hill Street did was wed this storytelling model, which was written off by many critics of the time as disreputable, to the slightly more prestigious cop drama.
The show bears some similarities to Paris. The police officers of Hill Street Station (in an unnamed city somewhere east of the Mississippi) dealt with major social issues they encountered throughout their neighborhood, some of which walked right through the door and into their station. The camera followed the officers home to see what their personal lives were like, and the series was interested in how those personal lives affected their professional ones.
But it was Bochco and Kozoll’s interest in merging serialization and case-of-the-week storytelling that proved most revolutionary. Hill Street didn’t push the reset button at the end of every episode. Events that happened in one episode affected the next, and over the series’ 144 episodes, viewers learned so much about the show’s characters from how they were affected by the cases they took on.
The two also brought a bolder cinematic language to the series, using documentary-style techniques that made it feel as if viewers were just dropping in on some real station somewhere, unannounced, enhancing the feel that everything in the show was really happening somewhere.
MTM pushed Bochco off the series in its fifth season, and while the show ran until season seven without him (under the tutelage of his protege David Milch, himself a major TV influence), it never quite recaptured the glories of its early days, when it looked radically different from everything else on TV. To watch Hill Street in 2018 is to find it a little quaint — TV drama has evolved considerably since then — but it’s impossible to imagine almost any drama on the air now without nodding toward the influence of this one series.
Typically, a glance at Bochco’s work would go from Hill Street to the other drama series he co-created that won four Emmys for Best Drama — 1986’s LA Law. But while that series has its charms, its reliance on sensationalism that no longer seems as sensational has made it age the most poorly of Bochco’s well-known series.
Instead, take a look at this 1989 to 1993 series, co-created with David E. Kelley (another Bochco protege who went on to great things in his own right). Following a whiz kid teenager who is already in his second year of residency as a surgeon at the age of 16, Doogie is not a particularly great television show, but it’s useful for looking at a form Bochco was interested in but never quite cracked: the dramedy. (His other good series in this form is the even more obscure John Ritter vehicle Hooperman.)
Doogie and Hooperman were part of a late ’80s movement toward comedies that were filmed more like movies and not in front of live studio audiences. As such, they didn’t feature the sounds of audience laughter and were often less reliant on punchlines and more reliant on a kind of soft-focus drama — too light to have the sharper edges of a Hill Street but darker than something like contemporary comedy Cheers. And if you’re thinking that sounds a lot like many comedies on the air right now, you wouldn’t be wrong.
These days, Doogie is better known for its high-concept premise and launching the career of its star, Neil Patrick Harris, but it’s worth checking out to see yet another TV form in its early days, with Bochco right there helping it along.
Doogie was produced as part of a six-year, 10-series deal with ABC that Bochco signed in 1987. It was a deal that would go on to produce many of his most memorable series. But it was also a deal that would produce his most infamous flop.
3) Cop Rock
No list of bizarre TV flops is complete without 1990’s Cop Rock, a one-season weirdo that was co-created with William M. Finkelstein, which wedded Bochco’s beloved cop show format to original songs written by Randy Newman. This means that, yes, Cop Rock was a musical, something wildly original at the time but also so out there that nobody was quite ready for it.
That can sometimes mean a series that was ahead of its time, but Cop Rock isn’t quite that. It has its moments (as a recent DVD release by Shout Factory makes clear), but it’s also clear that no one involved has quite thought through what the series will look like beyond, “I guess the cops will sing every once in a while?” Discussing the serious social issues that animated a lot of Bochco’s work via song and dance ended up feeling as if it was trivializing them, unfortunately.
But it’s still worth checking out an episode of the show (or, really, just a few clips on YouTube) to see a series so far ahead of its time that TV is only really just now figuring out what a musical drama might look like. And it’s also worth remembering that for all his hits, Bochco had a lot of flops too — though few as memorable as this one.
4) NYPD Blue
Bochco’s biggest success with ABC (where he made his home for almost 20 years, going beyond his original six-year deal) was this 1993 debut, co-created with Milch, which ran for 12 seasons and 261 episodes, following the officers of a New York police precinct as they worked cases, dealt with personal problems, and confronted social issues of the day. If that sounds a lot like Hill Street, well, you’re not wrong. But while NYPD was nowhere near as influential as that earlier show, it changed TV in more subtle ways.
The one that seemed most important at the time was the show’s embrace of rawer language and sexual content than other series of the time. (Famously, ABC put several warnings about nudity on the broadcast of the series’ pilot — but all that was shown were a couple of bare butts, rather than the much more salacious images the warnings seemed to promise.)
Watching the series in 2018 will probably lead you to wonder why anybody was so upset, but several local ABC affiliates refused to air NYPD Blue when it debuted. That it no longer seems all that coarse in 2018 is probably a sign of how it really did change television.
But a more lasting legacy stems from the series’ protagonist, Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz, a racist cop who didn’t always play by the rules but got results, darn it. He feels, at many turns, heavily modeled on Popeye Doyle, the cop played by Gene Hackman in the Oscar-winning 1971 film The French Connection. But Bochco and Milch (who wrote the operatic scripts for the series’ first seven seasons) used television to dig deeper into what made Sipowicz the man he was, changing and even softening him over time.
If you don’t particularly feel like watching a racist cop antihero in 2018, that more than makes sense. But Sipowicz is an important step in TV’s embrace of the antihero. He’s not as revolutionary as All in the Family’s Archie Bunker (who came to TV in 1971) or Tony Soprano (who debuted in 1999), but he comfortably straddles the gap between the two. He was a dark and complicated character at a time when TV was sorely lacking for such a thing.
And if you do feel like checking NYPD Blue out, you’re in luck. The entire series was just added to Hulu.
5) Murder One
Here’s another Bochco series (co-created with Charles H. Eglee and Channing Gibson) that didn’t work out, running for just two seasons between 1995 and 1997. But the storytelling model it used ended up being hugely influential around a decade later. It just took a move to cable to do so.
The idea behind Murder One was that every season of the show would follow one murder trial from start to finish, as a team of lawyers tried to defend their client and, along the way, figure out who really did it, all the better to exonerate him. And the first season, which followed the investigation of the murder of 15-year-old Jessica Costello, stuck to that core idea, with numerous twists and turns and several memorable performances (most notably from Stanley Tucci as a possibly sociopathic philanthropist whose path intersected with Jessica’s).
The problem was that a traditional 22-episode broadcast TV season was a little too much for a story like this, leading to some serious dead weight in the middle (though both the first two and last two hours are excellent). In season two, Murder One went from one case to a handful, which played out over the course of the season, but that, weirdly, wasn’t as gripping. The show was canceled.
The producers of the later series 24, which took some cues from Murder One, would solve this by piling story arcs on top of each other across their 24-episode seasons. But it took the cable drama, with its 10- and 13-episode seasons, to really solve the problem. On a cable show, the “case of the season” had enough space to really allow time to dig into all of the suspects, but not so much space that the writers had to vamp for time (at least when it was done well).
This means that, weirdly, in the Netflix era, Murder One is the show of Bochco’s that perhaps looks the most influential. But that was the man’s career in a nutshell. Even when he was producing a series that didn’t work, he was reinventing television.