Hit Man Nonconformist Steven Bochco again displays his badge of courage with his new 'Brooklyn South,' a real-life drama in the tradition of his 'Hill Street Blues,' 'L.A. Law' and 'NYPD Blue.'

September 14, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Los Angeles -- The guard at the front gate of the 20th Century Fox studio lot here is giving directions to the offices of television producer Steven Bochco, but they also lead straight to the heart of American popular culture.

"OK, now to get to Mr. Bochco's office," he says, "you hang a left at Darth Vader, go past 'The Sound of Music' and then 'The Simpsons' until you dead end. Then it's all the way back to the Darryl F. Zanuck Theatre. Got that?"

Darth Vader, "The Sound of Music" and "The Simpsons" are references to huge murals from hit films and TV shows that blanket the walls of various sound stages and offices at Fox.

There are no icons on the outer walls of the quiet, whitewashed, mission-style buildings that house Steven Bochco Productions. But inside is the man who for 30 years has done more than any other writer to shape the pictures in our heads of cops and robbers, lawyers and courtrooms, crime and life in urban America.

He was a staff writer on "The Name of the Game" in the 1960s, "McMillan and Wife" and "Columbo" in the '70s, with such stops as "Banacek," "Delvecchio" and "Paris" along the way.

In 1981, Bochco broke through as a producer with "Hill Street Blues" and has followed with such landmark series as "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue." "Hill Street" and "L.A. Law" still hold the record for most Emmys won as Best Drama Series, while Bochco is second on the all-time list of Emmy nominations with 31, and fifth in Emmys won with 10.

In taking the shopworn cop and lawyer show formulas and re-imagining them as quality drama during the 1980s, Bochco paved the way for what has been called the Second Golden Age of Television Drama. The number of weekly drama series will reach a record 36 this month as the networks roll out their fall schedules. Two of the new dramas are from Bochco.

"Total Security," an ABC series starring Jim Belushi as a private security operative, is nothing special and probably will be canceled by the end of the season. Bochco's had his share of ratings failures, most notably "Cop Rock" in 1990 and "Murder One" in 1996.

But the other Bochco production, "Brooklyn South," a CBS cop-shop drama about life in Brooklyn's 74th Precinct, is the most important new series of the year. It is vintage Bochco with strong echoes of "Hill Street."

It is also controversial. The pilot opens on a black crack addict with a gun going berserk on the street outside the precinct house. Several people -- including a cop whose head is shown exploding from a bullet -- are killed before the gunman is dragged into the police station, bleeding from chest wounds. There he is kicked, punched and cursed at by angry white cops as he lies dying and handcuffed on the bloody floor.

The scene connects with major themes about police, violence and society that resonate through much of Bochco's vast body of work. It is also racially loaded on its own, and guaranteed to light you up emotionally the way "NYPD Blue" does when Detectives Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) dole out a little behind-closed-doors justice against one of the "bad guys."

It's all the more charged by the real-life case last month involving a Haitian security guard who says that he was beaten and sexually assaulted by white police officers in Brooklyn's 73rd Precinct.

Going to the wall

Bochco starts talking about the opening scene almost as soon as the interview begins.

"Look, you have a traumatic event. A guy goes berserk in the streets, shoots at civilians, murders four cops or whatever it is.

"Cops come rushing out of the precinct house and engage in a horrible, horrifying, brutal shootout with this guy. They shoot him twice in the chest and finally apprehend him. The guy, it turns out, happens to be black, African-American.

"But, in an event like that, you don't see black, and you don't see white. All you see is red."

That's not the way some others saw it. In July, ABC screened the pilot for critics before a news conference featuring stars of the show and Bochco's partner, co-creator David Milch.

Under questioning about the racial implications of that scene -- all the cops except for one female officer are white -- Milch told critics the pilot would be re-edited to include a black, male police officer.

For his part, Bochco says he still doesn't think adding the black cop is necessary. The cop's arrival was scheduled for the second episode, and from Bochco's point of view, it would have "framed race as a major theme" to have brought him in then, after the fact.

But, either way, it's not worth going to the wall over, says Bochco, who has gone to the wall more than any other producer in Hollywood during the last decade.

One of the most memorable cases involved the pilot of "NYPD Blue" and the controversy about sex, violence and nudity, with Sipowicz shot at point-blank range in the bed of a prostitute.

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