The Passing of One of TV’s Great Icons
The world of television is now one great genius smaller. A man who was a creative force in TV for more than thirty years has left us too soon, as this Sunday, Steven Bochco, a pillar of TV’s Second Golden Age, passed away at the age of 74.
Considering where television has been, particularly in the last fifteen years, it is hard to imagine what it was like before Bochco. There had been some bright lights in the TV world before, but when he created Hill Street Blues in 1980, he completed reinvented what the police drama could be, and what it was. With serialized storylines that could stretch on for half a season, some of the most memorable characters in the history of the medium (who will ever forget Frank Furillo, Mack Belker or Howard Hunter?), and some truly incredible talent, Bochco revolutionized the police procedural, and made it dirtier. The 23 Emmy nominations and 8 wins it got in its inaugural season were records that would stand for quite some time — many of which would be broken by Bochco’s other series. Hill Street’s win would be the first of four consecutive Best Drama awards the show would win, and the first of nine Emmys Bochco would receive for producing.
A few years later, Bochco helped created L.A. Law, a series which would do for the legal drama what Hill Street Blue did for the police procedural. Set in a completely different world than Hill Street, L A Law was one of the most timely and relevant series that had ever emerged. Possessed with some of the most photogenic actors in the medium, the series would launch the careers of Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Corbin Bernsen, Blair Underwood, would revitalize the career of Partridge Family actress Susan Dey, and introduce such great character actors as Alan Rachins, Larry Drake, and John Spencer to a wide spread audience. It was extremely engaging, and some of the most memorable storyline in the history of TV (very few viewers can forget the fate of Rosalind Shays), and would be nearly as prodigious a winner at the Emmys as Hill Street was, winning Best Drama four times in its first five years on the air.
But the series that probably lingers the most in this generation’s mind when it comes to Bochco is NYPD Blue. A lightning bolt to the world of television, when it debuted on ABC in 1993, mainly because of how addressed language and nudity in ways that network television hadn’t even considered back then. Never doing quite as well in the Emmys as it should, it launched the careers of David Caruso, Amy Brenneman, Sharon Lawrence, and Kim Delaney, and would later play a vital role in reenergizing the careers of Ricky Schroeder and Mark-Paul Gosellaar from their world as child stars. I never cared for A lightning bolt to the world of television, when it debuted on ABC in 1993, mainly because of how addressed language and nudity in ways that network television hadn’t even considered back then. Never doing quite as well in the Emmys as it should, it launched the careers of David Caruso, Dennis Franz, Amy Brenneman, Sharon Lawrence, and Kim Delaney, and would later play a vital role in reenergizing the careers of Ricky Schroeder and Mark-Paul Gosellaar from their world as child stars. I never cared for Blue as much as Homicide (or for that matter, Law and Order), but I can’t ignore the fact that many of the better series to come out of the new golden age wouldn’t be possible without Blue.
Perhaps even more important than Bochco’s considerable work as a producer-writer was his ability to find fellow travelers. He would eventually leave Hill Street and NYPD Blue, in the able hands of David Milch, and L A Law would eventually become the property of David E. Kelley. It’s no exaggeration without Bochco we wouldn’t have gotten Deadwood, Picket Fences, The Practice, and Ally McBeal, and those were just Milch’s and Kelley’s contributions to the TV landscape.
Even Bochco’s failures (and he had so many that eventually other comedy shows would satirize them) had a level of effort absent from far too many network shows of today. Cop Rock is basically considered a complete failure, but considering that other series have tried musical-based episodes in the past, one would could argue foresight there. And Murder One, a 1995–1997 series that dared to try to follow a single storyline — in this case, a murder trial from crime to final verdict, was radical daring, even if it did come up short, and probably paved the way for series like 24.
Like so many writers who had trouble later in their careers, Bochco turned to cable. His last series, Murder in the First for TNT, was an intriguing mix of the police and the legal dramas he had once mastered. Following a single case, involving the same set of detectives and prosecutors, it had a bit more polish to it than so many of the TNT dramas that existed then. It seemed something of a shame when it was canceled two years ago.
Bochco has not been nearly as successful in this century than he was in the last, but it seems pretty clear that, without him, not only would we not have much of a Second Golden Age of television, the current one might not shine nearly as brightly. His influence was going to linger far longer than he was, but for him to pass away before he had turned 75 was a great loss that will truly be missed. So as a final salute to the man, I will quote his creation Phil Esterhaus (played by another actor who, like Bochco, was taken from us much too soon) and say Steven, “Let’s be careful out there.”