Steven Bochco, 1943–2018
The cop show pioneer who shook up TV drama
Until the 1980s, TV police shows were mostly one-dimensional affairs. They tended to focus on only one detective—think Columbo or Kojak—and rarely delved into characters’ personal lives. Steven Bochco changed that. With hits such as Hill Street Blues (1981–1987) and NYPD Blue (1993–2005), the prolific producer brought realism to cop dramas. His shows had ensemble casts of fully fleshed-out main characters, flaws and all; investigations that spread across several episodes, not just one; and plenty of violence, swearing, and nudity. Viewers loved Bochco’s approach, which would inspire bingeable TV dramas such as ER, The Sopranos, and The Wire. “The idea of almost every other cop show was that the private lives of these folks was what happened the other 23 hours of the day that you weren’t watching them,” Bochco said. “We turned that inside out.”
Born in New York City, Bochco studied theater in college, said CNN.com. He started his career as a writer at Universal Studios—he helped write the script for the introductory episode of Columbo—before switching to production. His big break came at NBC with Hill Street Blues, set in a police station in a large unnamed city. After a slow start, the show became a massive hit, winning a “slew of Emmys.” In 1986, Bochco “applied his trademark method to courtrooms” with the legal drama L.A. Law, said The New York Times. The following year, ABC “lured him away” with an unprecedented $50 million, 10-series deal. Of those shows, the biggest success was NYPD Blue, which “pushed the boundaries of onscreen vulgarity and nudity.” Its first episode was boycotted by most major advertisers and more than a quarter of ABC’s affiliates. But NYPD Blue “survived the backlash” and became the network’s longest-running drama. Bochco’s other ABC hits included Doogie Howser, M.D., a comedy-drama about a teenage doctor, and the legal drama Murder One.
Bochco was “an innovator even in failure,” said the Los Angeles Times. Cop Rock, a short-lived 1990 musical series featuring singing and dancing LAPD officers, proved a “precursor to shows such as Glee.” Bochco was proud of his impact on TV. Hill Street Blues “expanded the drama form and the medium,” he said. “Lots of shows that came behind us might not have had the same success if we had not broken through.”