Critic's Notebook: Steven Bochco Achieved Greatness by Doing Things His Way

Hill Street Blues - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Everybody in television knows that if you create one great series, then whatever happens next — one failure, nine failures — doesn't matter. You've breathed the rare air of legends in an industry where the sheer volume of offerings inevitably results in any number of good shows — but not a lot of great ones, and even fewer that will be remembered forever. Steven Bochco, who died Sunday at 74, gets Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue on his ledger.

Hell, a lot of people would have sold a part of their soul to be the man behind 97 episodes of Doogie Howser, M.D.; others would have been proud of the before-its-time experiment of Murder One; some would defend, more than half-seriously, the big swing of Cop Rock.

Bochco had a lot of ambition. His two truly exceptional, industry-defining feats were his invention, along with co-creator Michael Kozoll, of the modern-day cop drama with 1981's Hill Street Blues and his near-perfecting of that genre with David Milch on NYPD Blue in 1993.

In the history of small-screen cop dramas, there are barely more than a handful that are going straight into the hall of fame. Bochco was responsible for two of them.

Hill Street Blues pushed the genre to be more ambitious in juggling multiple storylines and a sprawling cast, spotlighting the on- and off-duty lives of numerous engaging characters when networks wanted the initial focus to be on three or four main characters not a room full of them. But, most importantly, Hill Street Blues set a new standard of authenticity and verisimilitude in its depiction of a precinct.

That accomplishment was true genius. Bochco helped establish that frenetic feeling of being in a bustling room filled with cops not only talking cases, but talking shop — the humor undercutting the grittier aspects of the job that Bochco and Kozoll were trying to convey to the American public. Films had already aimed for this level of realism in portraying police work, but TV had shown little interest until Bochco stepped in. 

The swirl of activity on Hill Street Blues — where the audience heard the buzz of other conversations surrounding the two characters making their way through the bustle, the camera veering in a manner that seemed reckless back then —  felt new. It also served the form that Bochco and Kozoll were inventing. The duo strung together a misfit collection of uniformed cops and detectives, their lives intertwining with two or three other characters you'd met in earlier episodes, giving the overall impression that everyone in the station had lives that were important. It was a huge step for dramatic storytelling, investing viewers in a vast variety of narrative arcs that could stretch on for seasons and never bore them.

That was handy when NBC was in the dumps; the network ended up getting a game-changing cop drama partly because it wasn't in a position to stick to old patterns.

Bochco and Milch later fine-tuned the form with NYPD Blue, creating a series that pressed the limits of network standards — in terms of language, nudity and showing the rougher aspects of cop life — in an attempt to not only stand out but to achieve that verisimilitude once again. NYPD Blue on ABC and Homicide: Life on the Street over on NBC were a prelude to what would come on cable in the future (The Shield on FX, The Wire on HBO), directly inspiring a bolder push into more mature, unflinching storytelling that would eventually and jarringly illuminate the differences between cable and network television.

That's a pretty fine legacy.

Before getting there, Bochco was clearly at home in the world of television production: He was able to learn from people and hone his craft on shows like Columbo, The White Shadow, McMillan & Wife and Delvecchio, and worked with Stephen J. Cannell on Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, about a good-looking 22-year-old detective whose skills were more fake-it-till-you-make-it than, say, Columbo (another trend, by the way, still littering small screens decades later). Bochco, at an early age, had that open-to-anything faith in big ideas that would lead, years later, to both Doogie Howser and Cop Rock.

With Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue under his belt, not only was Bochco's legacy cemented, but so, too, was his bankability and his reputation for not putting up with even an ounce of anyone's bullshit. That reputation was particularly strong in the late 1990s, when he had numerous series, not all of them carrying the same heft or hit status of his more memorable work — a complication that didn't deter him.

Later, when Bochco was less involved in the industry, he seemed to have a more philosophical outlook on the vagaries of television success — easier to do when you've seen it all and are at a greater remove from it. That's a time when your legacy is firmly intact, despite the what-have-you-done-lately standards of the industry and younger studio execs' disinterest in older-school successes.

But in the later 1990s, Bochco was suffering no fools and, in a stretch marked with a string of misses, I got a glimpse of that attitude and also a lesson in why people in the business were not ready to turn their backs on him. It was 1996 and Les Moonves had recently taken over CBS and was about to jump-start his own legendary career. I was a rookie TV critic and was at my first Television Critics Association press tour, wondering how Bochco's woefully bad new sitcom for CBS, Public Morals, was lining up with the network's new "Welcome Home" brand (basically a plea for its core audience to come back to the fold after an ill-advised effort to become Fox the previous season with racy and bad fare). On Public Morals, about a vice squad where the female detectives dressed up like hookers to catch male customers, one of the commanding officers says there's a term they used to use for such a thing: the "pussy posse."

Not only was I stunned to hear it, I couldn't imagine how it fit with CBS' newest efforts (or whether it would make the censor's cut). There was an outcry about the term and Bochco, impervious to it as he sat up on stage getting grilled by critics he clearly loathed, calmly said that he was watching a CBS series recently and there was a statue of David and, he recalled, some banter about David's genitalia; so what, in the big picture, was the difference? It was like he was asking everybody to grow up, or arguing that television and the people who told the stories in it needed to be free to say what they wanted so the industry could evolve.

Bochco's attitude was that network television needed to evolve or get marginalized by cable's more open embrace of such things. The show that allegedly featured banter about David's body parts was Cybil, and that night I found Cybil Shepherd at CBS' party and asked her about the controversy, including the "pussy posse" comment. She dismissed the comparison to the scene in her show and said Bochco shouldn't have written the "pussy posse" bit in Public Morals — but added, with a laugh, that she could have. I asked why and Shepherd said, "Because I have one."

Bochco hung around TCA for another day because ABC was up next and NYPD Blue was still going strong there. This was when networks would often seat their talent or series creators with the press at lunch. Nobody really liked this setup, particularly the talent. It just so happened that Bochco sat down next to me that day. He didn't speak to any of the critics or reporters at the table and just ate his food in silence, staring down. As the table chattered on, I finally decided to address the Public Morals issue and told him that I had talked with Shepherd about his Cybil comparison and her contention that he shouldn't have used the word "pussy" but, had she wanted to do the same on her show, she could have, since, as she said, she "[has] one."

Bochco stared at me for a minute, chewing his food, then said: "That's not what I've heard."

Beyond being a fabulous introduction to the TV industry, that lunch taught me something else. At the previous CBS party, I went up to Moonves, very late in the night, listened to him hold court with critics and reporters (he was fascinating even then and more bluntly honest than anyone in the business, which is still true), finally getting him alone and asking him why CBS was doing Public Morals with Bochco. I don't know much about how TV works, I told him, but that show seemed like a terrible fit.

Listen, Moonves explained to me, Bochco is a home-run hitter — one of the most proven in the industry — and CBS desperately needed a home run. Comedy was not Bochco's strong suit, Moonves added, and Public Morals was terrible and he was going to cancel it without question; but it was part of the overall deal and Moonves was sure the show after that from Bochco was going to be a hit.

Sure enough, Public Morals lasted one episode and was yanked off the air. Bochco then made a cop show, Brooklyn South, for CBS and it had one of the most intense opening scenes of a pilot I'd ever seen (plus major pedigree with David Milch and Bill Clark from NYPD Blue as writers), and all the ingredients to be a hit. By all rights it should have been, but wasn't.

That’s just how TV goes. Good shows often don't make it. They aren't given the chance to grow into greatness. It's a difficult, unpredictable business. At the end of your time in it, few victories are there to be counted. But Bochco, an extremely talented innovator who loved to tell stories — and tell them his way, without interference — put more into the stratosphere than most people ever did or will.