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Nussbaum: An Ode to Cop Rock, TV’s Unsung Procedural (and Glee’s Secret Sauce)

During these icy final days of the fall TV season, I spend my DVR-surfing hours looking for patterns, like some OCD detective pressing pushpins into my TV guide. Among my current obsessions: procedurals good (Terriers, The Good Wife), procedurals bad (Hawaii 5-0), and procedurals gone pear-shaped (Dexter). Also, wrestling with my season-long ambivalence about the highly original and frequently incoherent Fox hit show Glee — and rewatching old clips of Schoolhouse Rock, a pleasant seasonal habit I recommend you pick up.

Anyway, this morning, my obsession with television musicals and the omnipresent cop procedural led me down some internet rabbit hole to old Youtube clips of Cop Rock. Remember Cop Rock? The Ishtar of television history, the Steven Bochco series might as well have been conceived in some Tea and Sympathy-like coupling between The Good Wife's Alicia Florrick and Glee's Kurt, resulting in an ungainly experimental procedural that was half cops-and-lawyers, half karaoke songfest. (When you think of this show, be kind.)

But though Cop Rock turns up on every worst-TV list, I’ve always viewed it fondly, and not in an ironic way. It's TV created by a person who was confident enough to fail or to look ridiculous (and who succeeded at both those things).

Even in 1990, when the series aired and was promptly canceled, I was privately on its side. I liked that it didn’t mind looking stupid. I myself was a musical-theater geek, and in those pre–American Idol days, I secretly hoped my tiny gay candy aesthetic would find its way onto network television. And there was something a little disturbing by how big a belly flop it made — it wasn't just a failure, it was a warning: Look upon my expensive failed TV series, ye mighty, and despair.

But really, Bochco — whose Hill Street Blues rewrote the rules for not just cop shows, but all adult dramas — was onto something admirable, even prescient, with Cop Rock. He was doing what ambitious TV-makers always try to do: take a familiar format (the sitcom, say) and explode or invert or otherwise apply some strange solvent to its structures (as 30 Rock, The Office, Community, and Louie have done so brilliantly). Or blend genres like the teen/goth/soap/myth masterpiece Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or push the limits of realism, like Ugly Betty or United States of Tara or Glee or Dexter at its early best. Or do something that alienates as many viewers as it charms, like Dollhouse or Treme. Even when a show like this doesn't work, it pushes the form forward.

Watching these odd Cop Rock clips made me wonder about the TV experiments we haven’t seen yet. A show that is mostly visual, say, with very little dialogue. A series in which a marriage begins happily and ends in divorce, three seasons later. Any drama about the current generation of technological young people that doesn’t devolve into gimmicky vlogging! A show about children. An opera. A circus. Everyone says that this is not the economic environment for innovation, and yet even one small space on the wall means someone, somewhere, can throw spaghetti.

Here’s a typical number from Cop Rock, featuring a street full of coke-purchasing yuppies—and if you're looking for something a little more Lea Michelle, check out this genuinely lovely solo from the terrific Kathleen Wilhoite.

Is there a ridiculous and/or amazing TV experiment you wish someone would try?