May 1, 2020
Cop Rock: The all-singing, all-dancing cops of the world
In honor of the long-awaited release of Cop Rock on DVD, I’m recapping every episode of this short-lived series. Read on to find out if it lives up to its reputation as one of the worst shows in TV history…
We open on several LAPD units on their way to execute a drug bust. They break down the door of a crackhouse and arrest all the assorted junkies and dealers they encounter inside. As the dealers are led out in handcuffs, they boast about how they’ll be back on the street by morning.
Aaaand then a drum machine kicks in, and the dealers and bystanders all perform a rap song while the cops just smirk and shake their heads like perps breaking out into an impromptu musical number while being arrested is a totally normal thing. Such is the world of Cop Rock, the ill-fated 1990 attempt by ABC and producer Steven Bochco (L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, Doogie Howser, M.D.) to fuse the police drama and musical genres.
After the credits (set to “Under the Gun”, written and performed by Oscar-winning songwriter Randy Newman), we meet the members of the Los Angeles police force who comprise our main cast. There’s Officer Vicki Quinn (Anne Bobby) and her partner Andy Campo (David Gianopoulos). The two are in love, which is a problem because Quinn is already married to forensics investigator Ralph Ruskin (Ron McLarty), a man twenty years her senior. One night after Quinn comes home and goes to bed, Ruskin sits alone at his desk and sings the Newman-penned (actually, all the songs here are written by Randy Newman, but for the pilot only) ballad “Since She Chose Me”, which is more or less about how lucky he is to have a hot young wife.
Then we meet Det. Vincent LaRusso (Peter Onorati), a loose cannon who recklessly breaks laws, roughs up suspects, and otherwise plays by his own rules. We see him fake a broken arm for sympathy as he testifies at the trial of a drug dealer (while being cross examined by an ADA played by future Deep Space Nine star Armin Shimerman).
This trial never gets mentioned again, and seems to only exist for the purpose of inserting one of the show’s more notorious musical numbers, where the jury suddenly has on choir robes as it musically renders its verdict in a gospel number titled “Guilty”.
We next meet Officer Rose (James McDaniel, who would later play Lt. Fancy on Bochco’s NYPD Blue), as his partner is murdered in the line of duty. Det. LaRusso arrests an accomplice and uses enhanced interrogation techniques involving hot coffee to learn the cop killer’s name: Tyrone Weeks, who also happens to be one of the crack dealers arrested in the cold open. LaRusso secures a warrant to arrest Weeks, but rookie officer Gaines (Mick Murray) bungles the arrest by prematurely (and illegally) entering and searching Weeks’ house.
LaRusso, knowing that a cop killer is about to go free, decides to shoot Weeks point blank in the chest, right in front of his partner Det. Donny Potts (William Thomas Jr). LaRusso’s official story is that he killed Weeks in self-defense, and the other cops back up his story, but Capt. John Hollander (the extremely intense Larry Joshua) smells a rat and is determined to find out the truth.
We’re also introduced to the Chief of Police, Roger Kendrick (played by legendary character actor Ronny Cox), and his deputy chief Cmdr. Osborne (played for one episode only by legendary character actor Ernie Hudson), and we learn Kendrick is a bit of a cowboy-obsessed oddball who does target practice in his office against mannequins dressed as Old West outlaws.
Chief Kendrick appears before reporters to pay tribute to the slain officer, and is joined by Mayor Louise Plank (Barbara Bosson, former Hill Street Blues regular, and Bochco’s wife at the time), who announces that the city is building a new jail to be named after the officer. Later, we find out Plank is on the take, accepting a suitcase full of cash (that… glows at one point?) in exchange for a contract to build the jail. This is all revealed during an upbeat musical number titled “She’s the One” that shamelessly copies the bass line from Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and also features stunning choreography like this:
Also, Bosson has on an obvious prosthetic nose and chin in this scene that she wasn’t wearing in the opening credits, so be prepared for a plastic surgery plotline coming up later in this abbreviated season.
Finally, there’s a subplot involving Patty Spence (guest star Kathleen Wilhoite), one of the junkies picked up in the crackhouse raid. Patty has an infant daughter, and Officer Quinn desperately tries to get Patty into rehab for the sake of her baby, but Patty only cares about getting enough money to score her next hit. The police turn down her offer to work as an informant, so in desperation, Patty sells her baby to a random guy in a tie for $200 cash, right after singing a heartbreaking lullaby to her daughter titled “Sandman’s Coming” that provides an unexpectedly emotional finish to this rather silly pilot.
26 years ago, ABC cancelled Cop Rock after eleven episodes, and (outside of rare cable TV marathons) it was never seen again. That is, until this year, when Shout Factory finally released the entire series on DVD (though I can’t say the picture quality is much better than bootlegs of those same cable marathons), and now the world finally has the chance to see if this truly is one of the worst TV shows ever made.
Well, it is, and it isn’t. That’s because Cop Rock, at least as evidenced by the pilot, is two different shows: The first is a raw cop drama in the style of Bochco’s other, successful efforts like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. The second, much more unfortunate show is a cringe-worthy musical featuring hastily written (with the exception of a few of Randy Newman’s contributions) original songs, clumsy choreography, and uninspired camerawork: “Since She Chose Me” is performed entirely in a long zoom-in on McLarty’s face, “Sandman’s Coming” consists solely of Wilhoite sitting on a bus stop bench, and most other musical numbers in this series tend to feature the cast simply standing around and blankly staring at whoever happens to be singing.
I can’t find much fault with the first show; for a cop drama, the acting and scripting are solid, at least as far as 1990 network TV goes (in fact, the head of ABC at the time floated the idea of ditching the musical numbers and retooling Cop Rock as a conventional police drama—Bochco declined). Unfortunately, the second show completely undercuts the first: Yes, as hard as this may be to believe, whimsical musical numbers really are incompatible with a gritty cop show.
The idea was initially conceived of when Bochco was approached about turning Hill Street Blues into a Broadway musical. Which, honestly, might have worked. A lot of good, or at least mildly okay musicals have been produced from more unlikely source material. The Hill Street Blues musical never materialized, but it did inspire Bochco to make Cop Rock.
Musicals on series television have been hit or miss, and that’s being pretty generous, going all the way back to The Monkees and The Partridge Family and continuing on through stuff like Hull High (which premiered the same season as Cop Rock, and was cancelled even quicker) to the utter abomination that was Viva Laughlin. Network TV musicals seem to have finally caught on in recent years, with the likes of Glee and Empire and Nashville and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Galavant all finding an audience. So it’s possible Cop Rock failed because it was simply ahead of its time; but more likely, it’s because it just wasn’t very good.
One thing I didn’t know until the release of this DVD set is that most of the musical numbers on Cop Rock were sung live on the set to prerecorded musical tracks. You really have to wonder why, on top of the substantial challenge of writing and recording and choreographing five original songs every week, they had to complicate matters by having all the vocals performed live, when most viewers would likely assume everybody was just lip-synching anyway.
But this would explain so many of the performances on this show are off-key and lackluster, and therein lies Cop Rock’s fatal flaw: In an actual live musical theater setting, the odds of the audience getting up and leaving due to one bad note or one bad performance are pretty slim; it’s a much different situation when that same audience is at home alone on their couches, remotes in hand, looking for any excuse to flip over to Hunter.
Songs performed in this episode:
[*DISCLAIMER: For the most part, Cop Rock didn’t credit its musical numbers, so some song titles are best guesses based on the lyrics.]
- “In These Streets” performed by Art Kimbro, Glenn Plummer, et al
- “Under the Gun” (main theme song) performed by Randy Newman
- “Since She Chose Me” performed by Ron McLarty
- “Guilty” performed by Carl Anderson, Louis Price, et al
- “She’s the One”* performed by Barbara Bosson, Jeffrey Allan Chandler, et al
- “Sandman’s Coming” performed by Kathleen Wilhoite (Fun fact: This song was good enough for Randy Newman to repurpose for his limited-run musical Faust, where Wilhoite performed it again—as one of the background singers.)
Next up: The fallout from LaRusso’s shooting of Tyrone Weeks continues, becoming one of only a handful of story arcs this show managed to pull off before getting cancelled.