Los Angeles -- The guard at the front gate of the 20th Century Fox studio lot here is giving directions to the offices of television producer Steven Bochco, but they also lead straight to the heart of American popular culture.
"OK, now to get to Mr. Bochco's office," he says, "you hang a left at Darth Vader, go past 'The Sound of Music' and then 'The Simpsons' until you dead end. Then it's all the way back to the Darryl F. Zanuck Theatre. Got that?"
Darth Vader, "The Sound of Music" and "The Simpsons" are references to huge murals from hit films and TV shows that blanket the walls of various sound stages and offices at Fox.
There are no icons on the outer walls of the quiet, whitewashed, mission-style buildings that house Steven Bochco Productions. But inside is the man who for 30 years has done more than any other writer to shape the pictures in our heads of cops and robbers, lawyers and courtrooms, crime and life in urban America.
He was a staff writer on "The Name of the Game" in the 1960s, "McMillan and Wife" and "Columbo" in the '70s, with such stops as "Banacek," "Delvecchio" and "Paris" along the way.
In 1981, Bochco broke through as a producer with "Hill Street Blues" and has followed with such landmark series as "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue." "Hill Street" and "L.A. Law" still hold the record for most Emmys won as Best Drama Series, while Bochco is second on the all-time list of Emmy nominations with 31, and fifth in Emmys won with 10.
In taking the shopworn cop and lawyer show formulas and re-imagining them as quality drama during the 1980s, Bochco paved the way for what has been called the Second Golden Age of Television Drama. The number of weekly drama series will reach a record 36 this month as the networks roll out their fall schedules. Two of the new dramas are from Bochco.
"Total Security," an ABC series starring Jim Belushi as a private security operative, is nothing special and probably will be canceled by the end of the season. Bochco's had his share of ratings failures, most notably "Cop Rock" in 1990 and "Murder One" in 1996.
But the other Bochco production, "Brooklyn South," a CBS cop-shop drama about life in Brooklyn's 74th Precinct, is the most important new series of the year. It is vintage Bochco with strong echoes of "Hill Street."
It is also controversial. The pilot opens on a black crack addict with a gun going berserk on the street outside the precinct house. Several people -- including a cop whose head is shown exploding from a bullet -- are killed before the gunman is dragged into the police station, bleeding from chest wounds. There he is kicked, punched and cursed at by angry white cops as he lies dying and handcuffed on the bloody floor.
The scene connects with major themes about police, violence and society that resonate through much of Bochco's vast body of work. It is also racially loaded on its own, and guaranteed to light you up emotionally the way "NYPD Blue" does when Detectives Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) dole out a little behind-closed-doors justice against one of the "bad guys."
It's all the more charged by the real-life case last month involving a Haitian security guard who says that he was beaten and sexually assaulted by white police officers in Brooklyn's 73rd Precinct.
Going to the wall
Bochco starts talking about the opening scene almost as soon as the interview begins.
"Look, you have a traumatic event. A guy goes berserk in the streets, shoots at civilians, murders four cops or whatever it is.
"Cops come rushing out of the precinct house and engage in a horrible, horrifying, brutal shootout with this guy. They shoot him twice in the chest and finally apprehend him. The guy, it turns out, happens to be black, African-American.
"But, in an event like that, you don't see black, and you don't see white. All you see is red."
That's not the way some others saw it. In July, ABC screened the pilot for critics before a news conference featuring stars of the show and Bochco's partner, co-creator David Milch.
Under questioning about the racial implications of that scene -- all the cops except for one female officer are white -- Milch told critics the pilot would be re-edited to include a black, male police officer.
For his part, Bochco says he still doesn't think adding the black cop is necessary. The cop's arrival was scheduled for the second episode, and from Bochco's point of view, it would have "framed race as a major theme" to have brought him in then, after the fact.
But, either way, it's not worth going to the wall over, says Bochco, who has gone to the wall more than any other producer in Hollywood during the last decade.
One of the most memorable cases involved the pilot of "NYPD Blue" and the controversy about sex, violence and nudity, with Sipowicz shot at point-blank range in the bed of a prostitute.
In fact, Bochco says, ABC sat on "NYPD Blue" for a year before putting it on the air in 1993, because of its controversial subject matter, which he refused to soften. When it comes to buying and selling TV shows, the relationship between producer and
network doesn't get any more intense.
Talking to the 53-year-old Bochco is its own kind of intense
Part of it is his history of confrontation, which is nearly legendary in Hollywood.
After co-creating "Hill Street Blues" and turning it into a series that set a record for Emmys, Bochco was fired in 1985 by MTM, the production company that owned the show. Arthur Price, the bean-counting chairman of MTM, wanted the show made cheaper. Bochco refused.
Bochco has since formed his own production company, Steven Bochco Productions -- Fox gave him $43 million along with the real estate for the rights to distribute his series -- to avoid such a replay. But there hasn't been a single Bochco series -- from Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris) losing his virginity on network television, to attorney Sydney Guilford (Mariel Hemingway) posing nude on "Civil Wars" -- that hasn't involved a fight between Bochco and somebody in a suit.
There's also Bochco's personal style. During the interview, he appears casual in blue jeans, sneakers and a gray polo shirt. He smiles a lot and speaks in a soft voice. But there's a candor, intellectual edge and sense of challenge in his answers that makes the office air crackle at times with a sense of impending combat. And several times during the interview, he pointedly uses the "f" word.
Ask him if he feels a sense of social responsibility in creating scenes that stir such strong feelings in viewers, and he says without hesitation: "I don't feel any social responsibility. That is not to say that I feel I am irresponsible, which is a different issue. But I don't feel my primary chore as a writer is to be socially responsible or politically correct. My chore is to tell terrific stories that ask compelling questions."
Ask him about television and ethnicity, and he fires back with, "Ethnicity is very complicated, and it's a very serious matter. We know that. But David [Milch] and I also like to have fun with ethnicity, and that's not politically correct, and it almost always gets us into trouble.
"But I don't care. You know, I'm Jewish and I'm as apt to make fun of a Jewish character as a black character as a whatever character.
"You know, on 'Hill Street,' we used to offend everybody. I thought, boy, if I didn't get 10 angry letters per show about whatever it is we were doing, I thought I hadn't done my job properly.
"It's just very complicated. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't discuss it, shouldn't try to tell stories that raise compelling questions about ethnicity -- complicated or not."
'Complicated' dark vision
"Complicated" is a word that proves to be at the center of almost every answer Bochco gives about his work in the two-hour interview.
To this critic, the vision in Bochco's shows has always seemed dark. In "Hill Street Blues," the image that comes to mind: Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) and Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) in bed late at night, rain against the window, when the phone rings to inform them that one of Furillo's men has been killed "out there on The Hill." From "NYPD Blue": Sipowicz sitting alone on a bar stool pounding down the booze after the death of his son.
Even on a sunnier Bochco series, such as "Doogie Howser, M.D.," the darkness was always there. The pilot ends with Doogie late at night writing on his PC. "Had my first kiss today. Saw my first patient die. I think life will never be the same." In that television moment, love and death are as inextricably linked as in the poetry of John Donne.
"It is always raining in 'Hill Street,' " says Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University and author of "Television's Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER."
"I watched 142 episodes, and, in about 130 of them, it's pouring down rain, with thunder in the background. The series is literally dark in the way it was lighted. It's urban Gothic. 'Hill Street' told this kind of Dickensian, almost existential story throughout with some pretty grim things happening."
But Bochco says that's not a dark vision, just a "complicated" one. "It's a grayer vision," he says. "I say the word 'gray' to define a lack of clarity. Things just aren't simple. Life is complicated and layered. Things almost always aren't what they appear to be."
Bochco sits sideways, legs draped over the arm of a sleek leather chair. He stares at the ceiling as he talks, almost like a patient discussing problems with his therapist.
"For instance," Bochco continues, "you turn on your television set, and on the news you see a heartbreaking story. A mother is in absolute tears because her two little children were kidnapped and she fears for their lives.
"As a parent, you say, 'That's the most horrendous thing I've ever seen in my life.' Then, 48 hours later, you learn that she drowned her two children by letting her car roll into a lake.
"Now that's complicated, kids," he says, referring to the Susan Smith case. "Your 'A' impression was the clear and simple one. The 'B' impression, which is the truth, is horrendously complicated.
"The thing I've always said to writers, particularly on a show like 'L.A. Law' or 'Murder One,' is that, if you're halfway into a story and all you're interested in is finding out if the guy did it or not, we've screwed up.
"It's very hard to be complicated in a form that's structured the way an hour of television is in 43 minutes. A complicated vision is very atypical of most people working in our medium. I think maybe that makes my work somewhat different."
'He reinvented television'
Thompson says Bochco and the work he's produced with key collaborators like Milch is more than somewhat different, it's revolutionary.
"Certainly, he revolutionized the cop show and the lawyer show, but he completely reinvented television at the same time," Thompson says. "I don't think there is a single good dramatic show on the air right now that doesn't owe a strong cultural debt to Bochco."
Thompson's praise is echoed by David Mills, co-producer of "ER," who has written for "NYPD Blue," earning Emmy nominations for two of its episodes.
"Bochco is almost single-handedly responsible for the mature TV drama of today, the TV drama that's grounded in social realism and the procedural reality of the worlds they're based in," he says.
"And Bochco's contribution to quality drama transcends the world of cops and the cop show. The same sensibility now applies to dramas like 'ER.' Any show you're now going to do that aspires to be a quality drama, you must steep yourself in the reality of that world."
Cops are a favorite kind of Bochco hero, and he celebrates them on several levels.
In "Brooklyn South," the music that plays over the opening
credits as police officers arrive on screen is straight out of a Hollywood western. This is the cavalry riding onto the '90s frontier of urban America.
"Yeah, it's western music. We're talking about American heroes, and that's the idea behind the theme," Bochco says. "I've always loved cops and cop shows, because they are so visceral and they involve matters of life and death."
There's also a sociological aspect, he says: "Police departments in big cities are barometers of community sentiment. So, to that extent, cop shows are always vivid and contemporary and legitimate paradigms for where we are in society at any given time."
As for his personal heroes, Bochco says they are ethical and -- guess what -- complicated.
"Most of my heroes, whether in life or in the shows, have a fundamental moral center, a real ethical base. That's the anchor. But, again, even this is complicated," Bochco says.
"The best 'Hill Street' we ever did I think is an episode [titled] 'Trial by Fury.' The primary story in it is about a guy we had arrested for the rape/murder of a nun. Davenport is the public defender, defending the guy, and we just couldn't get him to confess.
"So, to force a confession, Furillo threatened to release him to the mob outside, telling him he's safer on the inside.
"Furillo, the lapsed Catholic, had to wrestle with what's right, what's wrong, all sorts of legal and ethical and moral issues, and, finally, he's setting himself up as the arbiter of law in this case of a nun being raped and murdered.
"The episode framed such a wonderful debate between Furillo and Davenport, and then he goes to confession. It ends with Furillo, the lapsed Catholic, going to confession.
"Now, that's not a dark view of the world. It's just complicated, and the hero has to wrestle with all those complications."
There was one last question I wanted to ask Bochco about his canon of cop drama. It involved my reaction the first time I heard and saw the videotape of the LAPD officers beating Rodney King with their batons.
I thought at the time how much they sounded like Bochco cops with all their cynical talk of "hitting home runs" and contempt for the "bad guy." I asked him if he thought there was a connection.
"If you portray cops as heroes in popular culture, then real cops are going to identify with that and feel good about themselves. So, to some extent, clearly it's going to have an impact on how they see themselves and their profession," Bochco says.
"You know, it's not an accident that, in the wake of the success of 'L.A. Law,' applications to law school skyrocketed. So, clearly, there is some sort of influence.
"But, again, that's not my responsibility. My primary chore is to tell terrific stories and ask compelling questions."
Pub Date: 9/14/97