Cop Rock: How ABC Created the Strangest TV Musical Of All Time
By Jon O'Brien
A team of gun-toting officers storm into a drug den in the middle of the night as helicopters hover above; a young meth addict mother watches as her baby is taken away from her; a half-dozen gang members are violently placed under arrest.
The opening scene of Cop Rock, which premiered on September 26, 1990, initially resembles the gritty police procedurals co-creator Steven Bochco made his name with. Yet as the suspects are marched out of the house, the show immediately proves it’s a different beast than Hill Street Blues or L.A. Law. For the gang then breaks into an N.W.A-lite rap titled "We Got the Power."
Taking advantage of his 10-series deal with ABC, Bochco had thrown caution to the wind and released a show that was a blend of an ambitious black comedy, a weighty cop drama, and ... musical theater.
Later on in the pilot episode, a courtroom jury turns into a fully-robed gospel choir while belting out their verdict of “He’s guilty.” Elsewhere, a city mayor accepts a bribe from a property developer in the form of a ‘70s-inspired barroom rocker, and the aforementioned meth mom sings a sweet lullaby to her baby before selling the newborn for a measly $200. You can understand why TV Guide once hailed Cop Rock as “the single most bizarre TV musical of all time.”
Unfortunately, Cop Rock's strangeness didn’t pique the curiosity of enough ABC viewers and the show was canceled after just 11 episodes (although it did manage to attract 9 million viewers—a number that certainly wouldn't be sniffed at these days). Its songwriting talent seemed baffled that it ever even aired at all. Randy Newman, who penned both the theme tune and all five songs from its pilot episode, once told Bochco, “You’re crazy. It’ll never work.” Composer Michael Post, meanwhile, claimed it was the worst idea he had ever heard.
Bochco and fellow showrunner William M. Finkelstein didn’t exactly make things easy for themselves, either. The majority of actors were cast simply for their vocal abilities—hence the oft-wooden line deliveries. Conversely, those actors who were able to prop up the more dramatic scenes struggled to hold a tune. The creators also decided to forgo the typical lip-synching to pre-recorded vocals approach and capture each musical interlude live instead, which only added to the show's production complexities.
Unlike future hybrid shows such as Glee, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Empire, Cop Rock struggled to integrate its musicality into its storylines in an organic way. There’s a time and a place for a jaunty Hall & Oates pastiche, of course, but it’s probably not in the middle of a self-described "baby merchant" getting caught in a child abduction sting. Had the show sold itself as a pure comedy, such baffling set pieces might have worked. But most of the laughs Cop Rock got were of the unintentional variety.
The series may have gone down in infamy as one of the biggest misfires in network TV history, but many of the people who were involved with it still seem proud to be associated with a show that refused to play by the norms. In 2010, Bochco told the Los Angeles Times that he considered Cop Rock to be a highlight of his career. And let’s not forget that the show picked up five Emmy nominations, and won two of them: Outstanding Editing for a Series and Achievement in Music and Lyrics for Newman. (It's worth noting that The Wire, which is regularly cited as one of television's best crime dramas—and one of the greatest TV shows of all time—received just two Emmy nominations throughout its entire five-season run, both for Outstanding Writing.)
Although Cop Rock's songs may seem considerably dated today, a belated DVD release in 2016, courtesy of Shout! Factory, showed that the show's themes sadly remain all-too-timely today. Storylines included an unarmed African-American suspect being killed in cold blood by a white cop and a mother singing to her kids about Black history after racists plant a burning cross on their front lawn. Bob Iger, ABC’s former head of entertainment, even said that if the show had been a straightforward police procedural, it probably would have lasted more than a single season.
Perhaps we should consider Cop Rock as more of an admirable failure than an outright embarrassing disaster. As Bochco told The A.V. Club in 2016: "If you have the guarantee of getting that many shows on the air and you don’t do something bold and adventurous and experimental, then shame on you."