First published in audio form on Plotpoints Podcast, Episode 161
Before he passed away in 2018, Steven Bochco had the type of career that most of us can only dream of.
Bochco was born and raised in New York and attended Carnegie Mellon University as a theater major. After graduation, he drove cross country to California with actor Michael Tucker and went to work for Universal Pictures as a writer and then story editor on legendary television shows like Ironside, Columbo, and McMillan & Wife.
One of his Columbo episodes, "Murder by the Book" (in 1971), was directed by another young budding superstar, Steven Spielberg.
Actor Michael Tucker, Bochco’s moving partner would find success as a character actor and especially as attorney Stuart Markowitz in L.A. Law, a later Bochco production.
In 1978 Bochco went from Universal to MTM Enterprises which was at the time a major television player.
Bochco had middling success at MTM until Hill Street Blues which started a trend in television that has lasted and grown until today of gritty, street-wise police dramas. Hill Street Blues’ 1st episode caused a stir when two likable characters, patrol cops Renko and Hill, played by Charles Haid and Michael Warren, were killed at the end of the episode.
Or so we thought.
The coarse street stories, worn and dirty sets, and ambush assassination attempts sent a clear signal that Bochco had a vision for episodic police procedurals and it wasn’t like anyone else’s.
Hill Street Blues (inspired by Fort Apache, the Bronx starring Paul Newman) became Bochco’s calling card, lasting seven seasons during which a rotating cast became stars while working as detectives, pimps, drug dealers, and street cops. Several actors also followed Bochco to NYPD Blues continuing the trend he started in 1981.
Bochco had some missteps. Cop Rock probably tops the list. A police show with cast members who sang may have been unique but it tanked instantly.
Doogie Howser M.D. (Created with David E. Kelley) started the career of Neil Patrick Harris who played a genius 14-yr-old doctor in a residency program in a hospital. Although critics were lukewarm on it, it lasted a respectable four seasons and garnered some awards for technical excellence.
L.A. Law created with Terry Louise Fisher put Bochco firmly on top again with its sometimes wacky but always interesting and compelling characters and story arcs. Its eight season run was filled with unusual legal situations and characters you just couldn’t get enough of. LA Law’s offices and courtrooms reflected the 80's like nothing else.
Bochco returned to cops with NYPD Blue. With David Milch as co-creator, and over an amazing 12 season run, NYPD Blue took everything Bochco had created in his career and elevated it to an almost perfect ensemble piece of swirling conflicts and shifting alliances among the characters in the 15th Precinct in New York. Like many Bochco shows, it pushed the envelope of what was considered acceptable in network TV using foul language, very challenging story lines, and nudity that was unprecedented for its time.
Jimmy Smits and Kim Delaney’s romance burned up the screen. Gordon Clapp’s sad sack cop made us laugh and cry in equal measure.
Dennis Franz’s Sippowitz character, angry, drunk, violent and never happy, was nominated for or won multiple Emmys, Golden Globes, and Screen Actor Awards.
The entire show was celebrated and awarded multiple times. In all, NYPD Blue had 285 award nominations, winning 84.
Nothing Bochco did subsequent to NYPD Blue had the impact or success. Before he died of leukemia in 2018, shows like Blind Justice, Over There, and Murder in the First only achieved marginal traction.
But Bochco had started and rode a trend that we see today of raw and honest television. As they used to call it: Must See TV.
Shows like Bosch, Justified, Deadwood, Sopranos, and Ray Donovan owe much of what they are to Bochco and his collaborators.
At the age of 74, a geniuses’ life was cut much too short but his impact will live forever.
Image credit: Variety