Steven Bochco, R.I.P.

Steven Bochco, whose active years came just a bit too early for him to pick up the accolades he deserved for setting the stage for modern TV drama, has passed away. It’s easy to forget now just how different Hill Street Blues was when it first showed up on our screens:

By conveying the sheer jostle and bustle of a modern police department, with multiple officers wrestling with typewriters, shouting down phones or at each other, trying to conduct police business under-resourced and time-skint in the face of a tide of criminality, Bochco challenged the viewer to accept a new form of dramatic overload as well as a more realistic depiction of crime fighting and the human beings who wore the badge. Hill Street Blues “starred” Daniel J Travanti as Frank Furillo, a recovering alcoholic ably maintaining a stable keel in a difficult Chicago precinct. But Hill Street Blues was studded with strong and vivid characters, all of them major regardless of rank, from growling undercover detective Mick Belker to idealistic lieutenant Henry Goldblume. From its strongly multicultural cast, to the hip and witty swagger of its dialogue, there was a funkiness, a rhythm about Hill Street Blues that spoke about modern urban America like no other show at the time.

Very possibly the best ensemble cast ever.

Like all long-running shows, Hill Street Blues stayed on the air for too long, but those first few seasons changed TV drama forever by showing everyone else how it could be done. Then Bochco did it again with LA Law, then yet again with NYPD Blue and once more with Murder One. We will not speak of Doogie Howser, M.D. or Cop Rock. 1

I’ve no doubt that there are modern TV dramas that are better than an of Bochco’s work. (Just to name one that isn’t as famous as it should be Homicide: Life On The Street. Many articles about Bochco’s passing mention The Wire, but I can’t get past the show that gave the world Andre Braugher’s performance as Frank Pembleton.) The thing is, there might not have been any appetite for those shows without Bochco’s work paving the way.

  1. The former because I was barely aware of it, the latter because I don’t think it ever showed up in the UK so I’ve never seen it.