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Tom Shales: How Steven Bochco Cut the Bull and Reinvented the Cop Show

Longtime television critic explains how honesty was crucial to everything Bochco did

A common though dubious assumption about television these days is that it’s taken a great leap upward in quality, attracting a better class of creative writers, directors and producers. There is less mediocrity and more excellence, it is said; less monotony and more diversity.

In other words, one might say, there are more writers and producers like Steven Bochco — even though Steven Bochco himself is, sadly, gone. The brilliant, iconoclastic writer died of leukemia on Sunday, and television lost one of its bravest independent thinkers. Bochco was a man bustling with ideas; over the years, he used many of those ideas to shake television up and polish it to a new glow, sometimes a new brilliance.

Even in his apprenticeship, before he created new series of his own, he served time on the best of the old crime shows: “Columbo,” with its quirky cocky hero and an almost complete absence of violence; “Rockford Files,” with its rumpled anti-hero; and “Ironside,” about a crimesolver in a wheelchair, tailor-made for Raymond Burr who’d gained so much weight over the run of “Perry Mason” that he needed a role for which he could sit down.

Then came Bochco’s most significant triumph, created with collaborators but to a great degree his baby. “Hill Street Blues” reinvented the cop show and gave it a new, grubby credibility, with characters full of flaws and freakiness, doing battle against the system as well as the criminals who kept trying to topple it. It’s a cliché whenever one says it — that television or movies or books or music “would never be the same” after this or that trailblazer – but TV cop shows really would never be the same after “Hill Street Blues,” and the old nonsense about cops in shining armor got an overdue retirement.

Not all of Bochco’s ideas were pure gold, but many of them shook up corny old formulas and made viewers pay attention. It’s arguably better to try something outrageous and fail than to cobble old ideas together and hope for a “hit” that might put the producers’ kids through college. When Bochco went out on a limb, at least it was a new limb. With “Cop Rock,” he attempted a weekly cop musical, and though it didn’t work, some of us will always remember the jury on one episode jumping to its feet to sing “Guilty, guilty, guilty!” It was nutty, but we hadn’t seen it before.

Even Bochco’s first show on his own, “Paris,” broke new ground by featuring an African-American detective (played by James Earl Jones). Bochco’s shows stood out from the crowd, whatever the crowd was wearing that year; his crime dramas had texture, character and style of their own. Like the first TV crime classic, Jack Webb’s “Dragnet,” Bochco’s shows were the distinctive influential creations of a stubborn auteur.

Many of the alleged innovators whose “video noir” creations seem daringly dark and grubby today owe a great deal to the trails blazed by Stephen Bochco, who wanted to succeed in prime-time episodic television (his interlinked episodes forming into “arcs” that kept viewers returning) but to succeed with honor. He approached TV as an art form, not a junk shop. His company logo was not incidentally an animated homage to his father, a distinguished classic violinist. Stephen was saying that a cop show could be as artistic as a recital, if done with conscientious originality.

I got to spend a tiny bit of quality time with Bochco during his heyday (his later work showed less innovative brass than his early ones) and visited him in his funky offices at 20th Century-Fox Television down where the old Fox movie lot used to be. The unisex bathrooms were definitely not left over from the Darryl Zanuck days, but the place had an irreverent energy that Zanuck might have appreciated.

I also ran into Bochco once at a big Beverly Hills department store on Wilshire Boulevard. He kept following me around the men’s wear department, as if he were a cop and I was a suspect; we hadn’t run into each other in a few years, and obviously he couldn’t place me. Finally I just reminded him of my name and he pretended to have remembered it all along. Then he went into a kind of gentle diatribe about how much weight I appeared to have gained. The appearance was not deceiving.

“My God,” he kept saying. “No wonder I didn’t recognize you.” I was absolutely not offended. I enjoyed his candor on many other subjects, why draw the line at this? Most people would have avoided the subject of my weight, or lied and said I looked thinner. Steven Bochco was not about bull or baloney. He knew that life was too short for that stuff; thus even his TV fictions had painful dins of truth.

He brought new dignity and class to television, but without taking the fun out of it.

Tom Shales served as TV critic of The Washington Post for 25 years, winning the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1989. Shales also spent two decades reviewing movies for NPR's "Morning Edition" and is the coauthor of two best-sellers: "Live from New York," on "Saturday Night Live," and "Those Guys Have All the Fun," on ESPN.