DVD Review– Cop Rock: The Complete Series
The short-lived series Cop Rock has provoked a wide variety of opinions among viewers. Is it Steven Bochco’s great folly? Is it a misunderstood and original commentary of our troubled society? Is it flawed but fun? Should it be acclaimed as a risk-taking triumph? Ought it to be dismissed as a bad idea, unevenly executed? Does it defy easy evaluation and categorization? Whatever your thoughts on this memorable series, you’re probably right.
Cop Rock is both a police procedural and a musical. As the first episode opens, a police team raids a drug den, and as the criminals are led away in handcuffs, they defiantly shout a song proclaiming their power on the streets. We see some ordinary scenes of police work, and then a young female officer politely– perhaps reluctantly– declines her partner’s amorous advances and returns home to her husband, older than she is and painfully aware of the potential threats to his marriage as he sings a song of love and worry over the fate of his relationship with his wife. Soon, a judge’s ruling on prison overcrowding results in the release of the recently arrested, which leads to a terrible act of violence. As City Hall responds to the tragedy, the mayor meets with a contractor, and she and her aides sing and dance as they accept a bribe in exchange for a contract. A hotheaded cop uses strong-arm tactics to get information from a suspect, and the officer later testifies in court, inspiring a choir to sing out its verdict. The angry detective tracks down a violent criminal, but the situation escalates, culminating in a shooting that will shape the trajectory of the rest of the series. The episode ends with a drug addict crooning a haunting lullaby to her baby daughter before making a gut-wrenching decision.
When the series works, it’s terrific. Sometimes the show bites off more than it can chew, and it falls disappointingly flat. For starters, the series has a fairly large credited cast, and not every character is given enough time to shine. Some talented performers only get one song in eleven episodes. Paul McCrane, for example, has one major storyline in a single episode and one well-delivered musical scene, then remains a background character for the rest of the series. One would think that the main characters would get a chance to show off their singing chops, but one-off drug users, gang members, reporters, a plastic surgeon, and other cameo characters wind up taking a plurality of the musical numbers. Sometimes this works, like when the fantastic Loretta Devine sways a jury with a song and only three minutes of screen time, or when grieving mothers call for an end to violence, but in other cases, it makes little dramatic sense to devote precious time to a character we’ll never see again.
Cop Rock seems to go out of its way to be socially conscious, but as is often the case, social consciousness is wielded like a club to render the viewer to the point of unconsciousness from the heavy-handedness of it all. Race issues are always on the show’s mind, as central characters are accused of bigotry. Several of the songs revolve around racial themes. One mother’s defiant response to an act of white supremacist intimidation resonates, whereas a dream sequence featuring a white man being lynched by angry African-Americans comes across as a very poor idea, clumsily executed. In another scene, Hispanic individuals perform an elaborate dance number in a police line-up as they complain about racial profiling.
Of course, the musical scenes only shine if the songs work, and the tunes are unfortunately a mixed bag. The two best songs are in the first episode, written by Randy Newman (other musicians would write the later songs). The heartbreakingly disturbing farewell lullaby by the addict to her baby serves as the pinnacle of just how moving Cop Rock can be, and my favorite scene is the much-acclaimed gospel number where the jury dons choir robes and belts out their verdict, “He’s guilllllllllllllllltttttttyyyyyyyyy!” Another memorable number is a deliberate homage to Bochco’s great triumph Hill Street Blues, which turns the tagline “Let’s Be Careful Out There” into a tuneful refrain, culminating in a wordless cameo by an old friend, which made my heart leap up more than beholding any rainbow in the sky ever has.
Other songs just don’t work. A couple of song-and-dance numbers are meant for titillation purposes and come across as trashy. A wannabe girl-power anthem stumbles, especially when one notes that the central character is not being wholly honest about her relationship with her partner. Other sad songs are more annoying and treacly than conducive to producing empathy for the characters.
Another problem is that the musical interludes are not always used when you think they will be. Sometimes there’s an intense scene that seems to be building toward a power ballad, but instead there’s a cut to a commercial, and the viewer is left thinking, “Where’s the song? Shouldn’t there have been a song?”
If it were not for the songs, Cop Rock (it’d shave a different name, of course) would be a deeply gritty and dark show, with violence, intense musings into the effects that violence and drugs have on communities, illustrations of how jealousy can poison relationships, and other unsettling themes. Peter Onorati’s indelible performance is at the heart of the series– a violent police officer who decides which rules to follow– definitely not a hero, but much more than just a definite villain.
TV Guide ranked Cop Rock as one of the worst television shows ever, but this is unfair. Cop Rock is often really good– and sometimes very campy bad– frequently over the course of the same episode. In the final scene, where the cast breaks character and joins together for one last song mourning the show’s cancellation, there is a definite sense of what might have been. With a little more focus and more consistent musical quality, Cop Rock might have been great. As it stands, Cop Rock is a curate’s egg of a series, an experiment that succeeds more often than it fails.
Cop Rock: The Complete Series