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Cop Rock: The Complete Series
It's finally happened- "Cop Rock" on DVD. Although it's questionable til now how many have actually seen this show, the name is well-recognized amongst other huge TV disasters such as Supertrain, My Mother the Car, and Pink Lady and Jeff. Premiering in the fall of 1990 before such things as internet buzz existed, "Cop Rock" still got a bit of mention in printed outlets before it aired which at least interested me enough to watch (and record) its first episode. It was billed there as a "musical cop show" (something I had to re-read when I first saw it just to make sure I had read it right) and to many people it had the word "failure" written all over it. (I even remember a sitcom that aired that month where a girl innocently asked "How come nobody's singing?" when she visited a police station, a clear jab at the show.) Created by Steven Bochco who was best known at the time for "Hill Street Blues", "Cop Rock" was a similar police drama mostly played out straight and serious, but had the characters break out into song at least four times per episode- these ranged anywhere from full-blown song-and-dance numbers to music videos to simply having just one character sing in a normal setting as if people did that every day. Despite the title, "Cop Rock"'s music covered a variety of styles as well, including gospel, country and rap.
The show centers on a police department in Los Angeles (because that was obviously the most convenient place to shoot this) and covers a few storylines during its 11-episode run. The largest of these involves Detective Vincent LaRusso (Peter Onorati), a rather arrogant hot-shot who in the first episode shoots and kills a bad guy in cold blood who had just gotten away with killing another officer. His partner William Potts was the only witness to LaRusso's action and is promptly told "you're not here", but inevitably he and others at the department end up having to keep making up stories to cover it up as an act of self-defense, while Captain John Hollander (Larry Joshua), sticking beside the law, still suspects it was a deliberate murder and puts LaRusso on trial. This was the main plot point that likely kept whatever viewers were out there tuning in for the next episode, but other subplots include the city's mayor (Bochco's wife at the time, Barbara Bosson) aspiring to run for Senate and realizing she needs a facelift to win votes, Lt. Ralph Ruskin (Ron McLarty) developing an intense jealousy of his wife Vicki Quinn's (Anne Bobby) work partner Andy Campo (David Gianopoulos) and suspecting the two of them are doing more together than just patrolling the streets, and a street junkie (Kathleen Wilhoite) who Quinn tries to help back onto the straight and narrow.
How does music fit into any of this? As best as it can! A lot of the songs work, while others don't. The premiere episode has some of the best, as Randy Newman wrote all of the songs for that one- most remembered is a courtroom number where the judge (played by Carl Anderson of Jesus Christ Superstar) asks if the jury has a verdict, then after saying "hit it" the dramatic scene completely shifts gears as the lighting style changes, a stenographer opens up a desk revealing a piano, and the jury's regular outfits switch to choral robes as they break out singing "He's guillll-ty!" gospel-style. More subdued is where Lt. Ruskin sits in the dark at home and sings "She Chose Me", a ballad that expresses his thankfulness for his wife that sounds a lot like Newman's later song "When She Loved Me" for Toy Story 2.
Newman unfortunately wasn't able to provide the songs for the remaining episodes, so a "stable" of other songwriters (including TV-theme writers Stephen Geyer and Greg Edmonson, led by Mike Post) were brought in to take up the slack in that department. Even when the show first aired I figured that coming up with original songs every week would be no easy task, and as expected there are some hits and misses throughout. Some work pretty well such as a camp of homeless people singing and dancing about having "nowhere to go and nothing to eat", others are a bit jaw-dropping such as one sung by a psychopath alone in his apartment as he plans out his night of stalking a celebrity (Gina Gershon) and making her love him. Chief Roger Kendrick (Ronny Cox) dresses up as a cowboy and rides on horseback through Los Angeles past curious onlookers as he sings about wanting to revisit the old west (this doesn't have anything to do with the episode's plot, but showcases the musical elements quite well for those who've bought into it), and a true "what WERE they thinking?" moment is when Quinn and Campo go undercover to nab a guy selling babies for cash- they meet him at a park, posing as an interested couple and he covertly goes into an up-tempo song proclaiming himself as the "Baby Merchant" with cheap keyboard backup. An homage to "Hill Street Blues" where the sergeant begins the day by singing "Let's be careful out there" might elicit similar reactions, but it definitely captures what the show was ultimately going for. There are a few "cheats" here as well where the songs are done under more plausible settings- a few are onstage which they could have gotten away with doing on a more traditional show, and a couple others are during dream sequences where almost anything can already happen.
I've had the belief for a long time that although traditional musicals are about bright and happy stuff, you can still make a good musical out of literally anything- Andrew Lloyd Webber has pulled off a number of darker-themed musicals, and even longtime favorite The Sound of Music had some scary stuff going on while Maria was teaching the kids about "Do-Re-Mi" as the hills were alive. (A musical version of Stephen King's "Carrie" was even done on the stage for a brief moment, I sure wish that someone were brave enough to made a movie version of that!) What many will see as the main problem with "Cop Rock," and precisely why I laughed out loud at it, was that it's more of a police drama and musical crashing head-on into each other, rather than how a musical about police officers might have been done more traditionally. When the songs aren't going on, the acting is serious and straight as it is in countless other TV police shows- of course they aren't allowed to swear so you get some rather hokey dialogue like "Don't freaking move!" although they were able to say "ass" on TV by then, and when people get shot they don't bleed- mainly why I've never been able to get into TV material as much as movies where there's a lot less self-censorship. Still, in most musicals even when the cast isn't singing the manner in which they speak and act as well as the overall production design fits into a style where breaking into song doesn't seem unusual, but "Cop Rock" often goes from straight drama to musical theatre in a split-second. There isn't even any musical score under any of the dialogue scenes, so when you do hear music you know someone is feeling a song coming on. Most of this is because the scripts were written rather traditionally, then the songwriters basically went through the nearly-finished stories and found places where they could fit in their songs. I've laughed about doing this with existing movie scripts (placing musical numbers into Friday the 13th or Robocop for example), so it must have been fun for at least some of the songwriters here to get to actually carry that out.
In 1990 I was just beginning to appreciate camp and laughing at serious attempts that ended up ridiculous, as well as appreciating good musicals for what they were (before I had often thought they were just "stupid" as nobody sings like that in real life situations, but am now a big fan of them.) I thought that "Cop Rock" could have gone either way, but it likely was not going to be around for very long so I made sure to record the first episode for posterity. I had meant to at least watch the rest of them, but being that it was my senior year of high school I had a few other distractions and haven't seen the rest of the show until this DVD release. I should say here that I've always believed the late 80s to early 90s to be when broadcast TV was at its peak in terms of both technical and presentation quality. Almost all prime-time shows were in stereo by this time (some even with Dolby Surround for the few who were equipped for that then) and although high definition was still a few years away, picture quality was usually excellent provided you were able to get perfect analog reception of your local stations. Shows that were shot on film prior to the mid-80s often appeared washed-out over the air (as did many early home video movie transfers) with some even having dirt and scratches despite being brand-new, but by this time they looked nearly pristine. Commercial time had broken the ten-minute mark by 1990 (the episodes here run about 48 minutes each without them; shows produced in recent years are about five minutes shorter than that and of course in the 70s network shows had just under ten minutes of commercials per hour altogether) but breaks were still usually placed tastefully and short enough that you could actually remember where the show left off when it came back. Networks also were not keeping their logos constantly at the bottom of the screen (ABC was the last of the "big 3" networks to do this in 1998), which for me made it impossible to enjoy shows any longer as it was a continuous breaking of the fourth wall, reminding me that I was only watching a TV show and not able to be drawn any further into it. Other than commercials, the most a network would intrude on a show would be to announce upcoming attractions over the end credits, which bugged the hell out of me but I would gladly take that back if it meant having no graphics onscreen during the rest of the show and no more than ten minutes of commercials per hour.
Although nobody else I knew watched "Cop Rock" and I was a bit embarrassed to bring it up in conversation (as I was both overly concerned with what others thought about my tastes and also had not yet learned the term "guilty pleasure" which I believe sets you free to enjoy everything), I do remember a co-worker who was involved with local musical theatre mentioning that the vocals for its songs were recorded live during filming, rather than being studio-dubbed later. While I thought the vocals here sounded too good for that to be possible, Steven Bochco confirms in a recent interview done for this disc that a sound truck was parked right outside the studio during shooting and actually did record the singing as it happened- which likely saved a bit of time given how fast the show had to be done and ready for air. All of this came at a price however- the average cost per episode was significantly more than that of other shows at the time, and with the premiere show's ratings described as "dismal" and only declining more every week ABC pulled the plug after eleven episodes- which was actually quite generous given how many shows have lasted far shorter than that even though the standard number at the time was 13. Bochco was actually given the option to continue the show without musical numbers going forward, but wisely declined and instead came up with other non-musical series such as "NYPD Blue" (although I can't help thinking how much better that show would've been with songs!) "Cop Rock" had time to resolve most of its main storylines, and enough notice of its cancellation was given so that the last episode could end with a proper send-off. (The menu on the third disc plays the song done for the finale, which spoiled it a bit for me- I would suggest not letting that play out when watching for the first time!)
"Cop Rock" was shot on 35mm film and post-produced on video; the quality of the analog masters used for these DVDs appear slightly below how I remember the original broadcast and that of other TV material I've seen on disc, but it looks good for the most part. Quality is inconsistent between episodes as some have noticeable analog video noise while others do not, and the amount of compression artifacts also varies.
The 2-channel Dolby Digital track preserves how the show was heard originally in stereo- while it isn't clear whether it was meant to be played with surround decoding or not, it sounds quite good with it on (although it is quite odd 26 years later that we still don't have a clear indication of when we're supposed to play anything in straight 2-channel stereo. I usually just keep surround decoding on as I feel leaving it off when it's supposed to be on would spoil the sound more than the opposite). Much of the dialogue does not stay centered however, leaking into both the left and right channels. Ambient sounds and effects approach the quality of movies made at that time, and the musical segments are well-recorded with good separation of any background singers. The only nit-pick when playing this at a high volume was a bit of "print-through" where some loud sounds can be faintly heard in the background before and after they occur, which I remember from live TV at that time. (While sound on TV had infinitely improved from what it was just ten years prior, it still wasn't quite 100% perfect and improved sound systems for TV viewing at home magnified that.)
Although the show aired with closed captions, they aren't included on these discs for some reason. This is strange as Shout has released older shows that aired before closed-captions existed with ones that were done more recently. Although ABC's "In Stereo" graphics which appeared at the beginning of each show are not included here and of course none of the commercials are, each episode does retain a short title card with a cast member stating "Cop Rock will continue in a moment," which aired around the half-hour point where local stations would go to their own breaks for a minute or two.
As indicated on the back cover, the set includes new interviews with creator Steven Bochco and actress Anne Bobby who played Officer Vicki Quinn. Bochco gets 38 minutes and gives us a good idea of what it was like to work on the show. He says that he got the idea for "Cop Rock" when he was once approached by a Broadway producer with an idea for a stage musical based on "Hill Street Blues"- Bochco was game but nobody else involved with the show was, so it never happened. When ABC later gave him a deal to develop ten series, he decided that was the time to try out a musical. While many people had their doubts about whether or not it would work, it ultimately made it to air if only for a short time as we've just seen. He does say that by the time the ratings numbers for the fourth episode came in he pretty much knew the show was a failure, and already having a higher than average production cost certainly didn't help matters. He says the average time to finish each episode was eight days, so there likely weren't many days off to be had while it was running.
Anne Bobby talks for 31 minutes and has mostly good memories of working on "Cop Rock". She talks a bit about her previous experience in musical theater (all of the main cast members had at least some prior singing experience) and remembers her favorite songs, again mentioning the tight production schedule. The first episode of the show includes a subtitle commentary from Russell Dyball, "Pop Culture Historian." It reads much like a spoken commentary and only refers a few times to what's actually happening onscreen, but includes a lot of useful information including more background on the cast and what they ended up doing afterwards. It also mentions that the number of viewers the first episode had would place it in the top 20 shows today, but was considered "dismal" for the time, which shows how overall broadcast TV viewing has declined and I could spend another article giving good reasons for that which the industry does not seem to see! Finally, disc 1 has a PDF file which is a scan of the show's press kit- typewritten pages including a brief synopsis of the show and about a page each about the main cast members along with some black and white photos. The 3-disc set comes in a clear standard-sized keepcase, with a cover that unfortunately makes it look like just another conventional TV cop show at first glance.
Some things simply need to be seen to be believed- if you missed "Cop Rock" the first time around, it's deserving of your viewing now. Even if you can't buy into the concept, just the fact that it did make it to the air is remarkable and if you have a warped sense of humor like I do you'll have plenty to laugh at. At the same time fans of musicals in general should appreciate that this ridiculous concept ever saw the light of day, and that much of it actually works even though not all of it does. The early 90s was a rather dark time for musicals overall, as Disney released Newsies a bit over a year after "Cop Rock" had ended- that was a movie I have deep affection for although mainly because I worked at a theater when it was out, seeing its trailer being laughed at by many audiences and the movie ultimately playing to empty houses- however it eventually built up a following on home video and more recently became a stage musical. I'd certainly like to see "Cop Rock" get a similar treatment, done on stage either as a self-aware parody or an honest attempt. This DVD set is Highly Recommended for those who know what they're getting into. Now can we please have a DVD release of "Supertrain" next?
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.