Here is a partial list of stuff that happens in the first episode of Cop Rock: A police officer is killed in a shootout, and his partner screams “Why?!” over his corpse. A courtroom turns into a gospel choir that delivers a guilty verdict in a gleeful musical number. A cop tortures a suspect by pouring water down his throat. The mayor of Los Angeles and a real-estate developer break out into a duet about bribery. Randy Newman performs the theme song. A woman sings a lullaby to her baby, then sells it for $200 of meth money.
A show with that much stuff going on should be at the very least watchable, but Cop Rock, which ran for less than a season on ABC in 1990, managed to be dull in spite of its utterly batshit premise. The non-singing parts are a gritty police drama in the style of the critically acclaimed Hill Street Blues, the program that put Cop Rock creator Steven Bocchio on the map. (He went on to make NYPD Blue, among other shows.) The singing parts are often over the top, drenched in 80s schmaltz, and feature lyrics like, “She had skin like satin and a heart of stone / She left me standing in the danger zone.” But too many of the songs are overwrought ballads, and too much of the rest is bogged down by lousy acting and writing. It’s fascinating as a cultural artifact, but as a TV show it’s just bad.
That’s not to say that some songs aren’t great, like this one, sung by a self-described “baby merchant”:[embedded content]
As that tune probably indicates, the series is full of jarring tonal shifts from episode to episode and sometimes scene to scene. One running story arc is about how a rage-filled officer becomes a celebrity for murdering a black prisoner, while his partner endures racist harassment for reporting his misconduct. Another arc involves the mayor getting plastic surgery, then losing her virginity to the chief of police.
The entire series just came out on DVD thanks to Shout! Factory, and the back of the case says that it’s time for “a long-overdue reappraisal of a series that has been called one of the most unusual programs of all time.” In an interview on the DVD bonus features, Bocchio is a little bit more direct: “Every single person I told the idea to just thought it was a terrible idea,” he said. “It was a disaster. It was an absolute disaster. I think audiences rejected it before it went on the air… I think in some weird way it made people uncomfortable. It’s like your Uncle Bernie gets loaded at Thanksgiving and starts singing songs or something.”
One problem is that there’s just too much going on all the time for Cop Rock to ever cohere. Any narrative momentum earned by the police-facing-ripped-from-the-headlines-moral-dilemmas grinds to a halt as soon as the singing starts, and there isn’t enough space for all the overlapping plots. Few characters in the massive ensemble cast get a chance to stand out, the exception being Ronny Cox’s police chief, who is dangerously unbalanced, prone to fantasy sequences, and obsessed with the Old West. (Sample line: “It used to be a woman was like a horse: You could saddle ’em up, they never complained, ride ’em till they dropped, then put a bullet between their eyes and get yourself another one.”) Cox plays the chief like something out of Naked Gun, and you wish the entire show had just followed him into the deep end. Here he is singing about the “cowboy life”:[embedded content]
But mostly, Cop Rock remains stubbornly insistent that this show about singing cops is supposed to be a serious meditation on race relations, law and order, and life in American cities.
One additional problem, noted by Bocchio in the DVD interview, is that the actors sang the numbers themselves, so many of them were cast on vocal ability rather than their line readings. Combine an unwieldy concept, the aforementioned overstuffing of plots, and a few wooden performances, and you have pretty much a guaranteed failure, even if you also give Sheryl Crow an early break:[embedded content]
Except! I swear to God, there are parts of Cop Rock that almost work. It mainly deals in caricatures—crooked politicians, rage-filled cops, hypocritical wealthy liberals, criminals who are evil incarnate—but the musical format gives space to figures who are usually pushed to the margins of police programs. Do the songs performed by homeless people, a celebrity stalker, an abusive couple, and crack dealers give those characters more depth and force us to live in their worlds for a few minutes? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but you can at least see how those bits could give Cop Rock more depth than your average procedural.
The show’s racial politics can feel dated from a 2016 vantage, but it was actually ahead of its time in many ways. The plot where a brutal, play-by-his-own-rules police officer ignites a media firestorm by shooting a black suspect, then employs crooked lawyers who manipulate the press, spookily predates both the Rodney King incident and the OJ Simpson trial. A lot of the songs are sung by people of color, including one explicitly about black history. It’s not exactly a subtle moment—the song is performed by a mother to her children while a cross burns on their lawn—but nuance was never Cop Rock‘s thing. At least it was trying.[embedded content]
The show is remembered as the biggest disaster of Bocchio’s legendary career, but though he admits everyone hated Cop Rock, he’s not willing to completely disown it. “I think it’s a show you could probably pitch and sell today,” he said in the DVD interview, and he’s not entirely wrong. Glee and Empire have proved you can make a serial musical program, though both those shows do a better job of integrating music into the plot—and not even Empire has plunged into full-on here’s-a-song-about-selling-a-baby-for-meth lunacy. And the excellent Buffy episode “Once More, with Feeling” showed that it was possible to merge songs and emotionally satisfying drama on TV.
If audiences are willing to accept shows as experimental as, say, Louie, and if Netflix is desperate enough for content to reboot Full House and Mad TV, there’s no reason a musical cop show couldn’t work. And if anyone tries it again, they’ll have an easy elevator pitch: It’ll be like Cop Rock, only not a complete disaster.
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Cop Rock is available now, from Shout! Factory.