Bochco, Steven (1943—)

views updated

Bochco, Steven (1943—)

Although he wrote feature film screenplays early in his career, Steven Bochco has made his mark as the creator and producer of successful television series, thus having an impact upon a larger audience than most filmmakers can claim. With such groundbreaking series as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and N.Y.P.D. Blue, Bochco has managed to up the ante on televised social realism and, at the same time, he has pushed the envelope on the broadcast treatment of sexuality. Bochco's series are noted for well-written scripts featuring a variety of characters portrayed by an expert ensemble cast. The storylines and subplots, overlapping many individual episodes, feature sharp twists and quirky mood swings, from gritty confrontation and sexual banter to unexpected acts of violence. A moment of macabre humor may be juxtaposed with a tender exchange between two characters, followed by the sudden demise of another character. In a medium rife with programming of a bland, repetitious, and formulaic nature, Bochco has distinguished himself by experimenting with fresh concepts. Although, inevitably, some of these ventures—Cop Rock, for example—have not proven as successful as others, Bochco's successes have put him at the top of his field. Clear-eyed about the reality that television is a medium whose primary purpose is to advertise, Bochco has nonetheless done work of considerable sophistication which, in turn, has helped pave the way for other producers of adventuresome programming.

Born Steven Ronald Bochco in New York City on December 16, 1943, he was the son of a Russian immigrant who had been a child prodigy on the violin. Growing up with his sister in a tough West Side neighborhood left its mark on young Bochco. In a sense, the violence around him both provided Bochco with a drive to succeed and, ultimately, provided him with the inspiration for the art and craft with which he would do so. An indifferent student, he nevertheless obtained a scholarship at New York University. Within a year, however, he had transferred to the distinguished theater department at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University). The winner of an MCA writing fellowship, Bochco eventually secured a summer job at Universal Studios, where he was in charge of other budding screenwriters. This led, following his 1966 graduation from college, to a job assisting the head of Universal's story department. Although Bochco's name would eventually appear in the credits of a respected science fiction film, Silent Running (1972), he has focused most of his energies, and earned his greatest rewards, toiling in the vineyards of television. After a variegated apprenticeship, Bochco began writing scripts for the NBC series The Name of the Game in 1968. Within a few years, he was made story editor on the highly popular Peter Falk series Columbo.

After Columbo Bochco was associated with a number of series and projects which were nowhere near as successful as the Falk mysteries had been. But on one of these shows—Vampire (1979)—Bochco served as executive producer and co-writer with Michael Kozoll, who would soon prove to be a most significant collaborator. The following year, the two men were invited by Fred Silverman, president of NBC, to create a police show. The pair accepted the challenge, provided they would be allowed to devise something other than just another run-of-the-mill cop program. Taking as their inspiration a piece of public television cinema verité called The Police Tapes, Bochco and Kozoll came up with Hill Street Blues, one of the most groundbreaking and successful shows in television history. The main concept, as Bochco later explained to one reporter, was for Hill Street Blues "to be a show about people who happen to be cops, as opposed to cops who, in some small corner of their lives, happen to be people." Furthermore, the co-creators saw their show as an expression of their "strong belief in the cop as hero … in the sense of an individual performing a thankless task under extreme physical and emotional stress, with no reward to speak of—social, psychological, or financial…."

In casting the new series, Bochco called upon talented troupers he had known in his days at college, such as Charles Haid, Bruce Weitz, and Barbara Bosson (then Mrs. Bochco). Although the show would make stars out of some of its leading players, such as Daniel J. Travanti, Hill Street Blues was an ensemble piece roaming from character to character and from plot to plot—most of them overlapping several episodes. In addition to this sense of a free-floating slice of life, what distinguished Hill Street Blues from other cop shows—and set the mold for future Bochco enterprises—was an edgy, off-beat tone, a mixture of quirky characters, raw social realism, gallows humor, and frank sexuality (at least, the verbal expression thereof). At the climax of the opening episode, a moment of comedy is followed immediately by the shocking and vicious gunning-down of two of the leading characters.

Hill Street Blues, an MTM production, soared in the ratings and cleaned up at the Emmys for years. It set a high standard for television series drama, and developed a gritty, quirky tone which is still in evidence not only on the tube but in the big-screen projects of Quentin Tarantino and other filmmakers. In 1985, Bochco left MTM under a cloud, though it was not clear whether his differences with the production company had been budgetary—as MTM claimed—or personal, as Bochco asserted. In any event, Bochco re-emerged at Twentieth-Century Fox with a new collaborator, Terry Louise Fisher, a former deputy district attorney and a writer-producer for Cagney and Lacey. The result of their creativity was L.A. Law, which debuted on NBC in 1986. Although a series about a law firm was by its nature less prone to portray violence than one about a police precinct, L.A. Law displayed all the Bochco hallmarks, from an ensemble cast (including Michael Tucker, another old college buddy) and sophisticated dialogue, to high drama and low black comedy. In the opening moments of the premiere episode, a recently deceased lawyer lies face down in his take-out dinner, while the surviving attorneys argue over who shall inherit his office. Once again, a controversial but highly successful, award-winning series was born.

Whatever one's assessment of his products, credit must be given to Bochco for following up Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law with series concepts that could not be accused of being just more doctor or cop shows. Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989), about a teenage surgeon, was inspired by Bochco's father's early years as a child prodigy. Doogie ran successfully for several seasons, but the fate of Cop Rock, a serious police show with musical numbers, was another story. This 1990s drama was short-lived and, for once, it seemed that Bochco had finally gone too far … out. Nevertheless, he has continued to stretch himself and experiment with the conventions of television. Much controversy was aroused when it was announced that Bochco's newest series, N.Y.P.D. Blue —created with David Milch—would attempt to reclaim for network television some of the large audience lost to cable by purposefully pushing the envelope of language, sex (i.e., partial nudity), and violence past the commonly accepted broadcast norms and closer to the look and feel of R-rated movies. When it finally debuted on ABC, N.Y.P.D. Blue proved to be exactly as advertised, and it has weathered the initial storm of protests to prove itself another durable Bochco success.

—Preston Neal Jones

Further Reading:

Moritz, Charles. Current Biography Yearbook, 1991. New York, H.W. Wilson Co., 1991.