IT IS CLEAR from the premiere of ABC's "Cop Rock" tha Steve Bochco can still produce powerful police drama as he did in "Hill Street Blues." So, why did he have to go put it to music?
Well, why not? Just as "Hill Street" challenged audience assumptions about the look and content of a weekly series, so "Cop Rock" asks you to expand your expectations, to let songs convey dramatic ideas on television as they have for centuries on stage.
And when it works, there is brilliance in "Cop Rock," never more evident than in the closing scene tonight as a drug addict mother, about to give up the baby daughter she loves for $200, sits on a bus stop bench and sings a wonderful Randy Newman song. There is no better way to convey the tragic poignancy of that moment.
Or when a jury, as it hands down a guilty verdict against a drug pusher, turns into a gospel choir as the courtroom is changed into a rollicking church, not only providing an entertaining musical interlude, but also a comment on the inherent theatricality of the trial and the sacred place it occupies in our society.
But when it doesn't work, its flaws are all too evident, as in the sore thumb that is the pilot's other production number, a song about the mayor taking a bribe.
One problem here is that Barbara Bosson is again turning up in hubbie Bochco's show. She long overstayed her welcome as Faye Furillo on "Hill Street," brought proceedings to a halt as the police chief in "Hooperman," and, even under a ton of makeup, is woefully miscast as the mayor in "Cop Rock." The song she sings does nothing to move along the story; it just showcases the producer's wife.
But, in this first episode, which will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) tonight at 10 o'clock, the music works far more often than it doesn't -- meaning that "Cop Rock" is on the verge of brilliance, the best new hour of the new season.
The transitions to song would have been smoother if the show was rollicking and light-hearted -- as in NBC's "Hull High" -- but Bochco turned out a dark, dramatic hour that puts pressure on the music to maintain that depth.
The theme is set in the opening sequence when a drug suspect, being led away in handcuffs, leads spectators in a strident rap, claiming that on the streets he and his kind have the power, not the cops. Among the police, the fight is between those who see their job as enforcing the law and those who want to fight a war on the streets.
Capt. John Hollander, played by Larry Joshua, tries to walk the straight and narrow, while Det. Vincent Larusso, played by Peter Onorati, wants to throw out the rule book. Ronny Cox, as a rather caricatured police chief, is the most familiar face in the cast, which includes strong performances by James McDaniel as hTC officer Frank Rose and Anne Bobby as officer Vicki Quinn.
There are a lot of question marks in "Cop Rock's" future, the biggest of which is whether the audience will suspend its disbelief as the cast breaks into song; they will if the songs are good enough, but how good can the songs be when Randy Newman is only around to sing the theme and not to write the rest of the music, as he does for tonight's episode?
But if you watch tonight, you'll want to watch next week to see if they can pull it off again. If they do, you'll want to tune in a week later. And before you know it, you will accept this daring convention and Bochco will once again have a show firmly anchored on newly broken ground.
*** A variety of cops break into song as they try to figure out ho they're supposed to deal with the war on the streets, even as their mayor takes bribes and their chief worries only about public relations in this inventive new hour from producer Steven Bochco.
CAST: Ronny Cox, Barbara Bosson
TIME: Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)