My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
It’s remarkable that I’ve somehow gone eight years (factoring in a two-year hiatus) writing a column about famous failures in pop culture without ever covering 1990’s Cop Rock, a debacle so legendary that the show’s name has joined Ishtar and Gigli as shorthand for surreally misconceived projects. There are good reasons for that. For starters, the show has never been legally available on home video for various reasons (the screaming lack of demand for a Cop Rock box set chief among them). And I only started covering television in this column in 2011, but like one of the show’s renegade cops, I was willing to venture into murky waters of illegality for the sake of doing my job better. So I tracked down a copy on the black market and decided to see for myself if the show lived up to its notoriety. Spoiler: holy fucking Jesus Christ on a cracker does it ever.
Cop Rock is the television equivalent of a tuna salad and chocolate ice cream sandwich; the ingredients might be tasty and palatable on their own, but combine them in violent disregard of the laws of nature and you end up with something singularly disgusting and untenable. Yet despite the show’s awfulness it nevertheless emits an unmistakable train-wreck fascination. I binge-watched all 11 episodes in a frenzy, partially because I found the show’s world so fascinatingly off and partially because I wanted to see how crazy and awful it would get. It did not disappoint.
Like so many of the epic boondoggles I have covered for this column, Cop Rock’s colossal failure was born of phenomenal success. As a cop-show auteur, Steven Bochco is a recognized master; as the co-creator of a musical cop show, he was thoroughly incompetent. Bochco was so successful as one of the primary minds behind Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, he was able to launch a cop show with a premise so idiotic, it’s doubtful anybody could have pulled it off. After watching all of its episodes, I’m still not entirely convinced the show isn’t a crazy joke that went too far and somehow became real.
The show’s hook and fatal flaw is right there in its title, which sounds like a caveman grunting Cop Rock’s premise. As a tradition-driven genre, cop shows invariably invite certain expectations: for instance, at no point in their law-enforcement efforts will police officers spontaneously break out into tightly choreographed song and dance. At least, that was true before Cop Rock: In Cop Rock, police officers are always breaking into song and dance. That’s true even of minor characters like black-market dealer the Baby Merchant (baby-selling bizarrely figures prominently in the series), who swans his way through an elaborate song-and-dance number about how much he loves buying babies from desperate mothers, then selling them to desperate couples at a steep mark-up.
A good indication of the show’s identity crisis can be found in its bewildering opening credit sequence. Instead of focusing on cops in action, or providing a sense of what audiences were in for, beloved singer-songwriter Randy Newman performs the show’s theme song in a studio while the cast looks on lovingly, smiling beatifically and giggling to each other.
This raises more questions than it answers. What the fuck is going on? Are the actors in character or are they playing themselves? Why are they watching Randy Newman perform? Is this some early, abandoned pilot for VH1’s Storytellers inexplicably populated by undistinguished character actors? And why, for the love of God, do they appear to be so goddamned pleased with themselves? And who thought this would be a good way to introduce audiences to a ridiculously expensive show with a premise destined to chase much of the audience away? It’s painfully ironic that a show that began each week with people staring worshipfully at Randy Newman would then be largely devoted to terrible music and abysmal variations on the kinds of story-songs Newman pulls off so brilliantly (when he’s not writing for a doomed musical cop show).
The series then opens with a set piece where the L.A.P.D. descends upon a house with great ferocity. The sequence is an illustration of what Bochco does best, cultivating a live-wire sense of excitement, danger, and electricity—which is almost immediately broken when the black men the cops are busting launch into a clumsy and stilted rap about how they run the streets and are the real power in society. This opening suggests that even if the show’s radical combination of police procedural and splashy pop musical doesn’t work, at least audiences will have the consolation of another top-notch cop show from Bochco. That turns out to be a false promise, as that opening set piece is the show’s first impressive action sequence as well as the last.
Though the songs involve characters articulating their thoughts, desires, and needs, the “rock” sequences seem to belong not just in a different show but in a different universe than the “cop” parts. A perverse disconnect exists between the show’s two sides, with no integration between these two violently clashing genres. The “cop” part of the show takes itself very, very seriously. Audiences flipping through channels who only caught part of Cop Rock could easily mistake it for a generic, non-musical cop show from the Bochco school. But as soon as the music sets in and cops and criminals begin singing, the tone shifts radically and nonsensically into a realm of pure kitsch. The show shoehorns clumsy, ill-conceived musical numbers into a straight-faced cop drama that neither needs, nor can support, regular influxes of song, dance, and comical sassafras.
Bochco tries to use the show to comment insightfully on racism, sexism, homophobia, and the tense relationship between police officers and the communities they protect and serve. But he also reserves the right to be as sassy, cartoonish, and over-the-top as The Apple or Rocky Horror Picture Show at least twice an episode. Cop Rock feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch that someone at the network mistook for a proper pilot script. But the show is so immersed in self-parody that it’s immune to outside spoofery. How could a parody come up with a shift as disconcerting as the moment in Cop Rock where a scene in which a woman recounts being raped is immediately followed by a splashy hair-metal production number about the police’s eagerness to track down and punish the rapist? A television show that involves exploration of crimes like rape and murder should not coexist alongside campy production numbers involving a lusty policewoman crooning a chorus about wanting to go “bumpy bumpy” and “woo woo woo” with her hunky new partner, yet both of those scenes and moments somehow exist within Cop Rock.
The characters and conflicts here will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched one of Bochco’s shows. They include a mismatched, interracial team of partners that squabble over race and professionalism, Dirty Harry-style renegade cop LaRusso (played by Peter Onorati) who kills a black man early in the season and goes to trial for it, and a bigoted cowboy of a chief (Ronny Cox channeling Daryl Gates). Cop Rock makes a woman the mayor of Los Angeles (played by Bochco’s real-life wife Barbara Bosson), then immediately undercuts that progressiveness by making her a hideously ugly virgin whose primary concern seems to be becoming pretty through extensive cosmetic surgery and losing her virginity to Cox’s character.
The show’s female characters are seen primarily through the prism of their romantic relationships or their gender; another female officer is the middle in a love triangle involving her older, insecure husband and her hunky younger partner. LaRusso’s murderous action makes him a hero to a racist right-wing faction for whom any white police officer who kills a black man is a hero, and the black man in question invariably a villain. Despite an intriguing element of ambiguity when LaRusso refuses the hero role, ultimately Cop Rock has little to say about race, except that there sure was a lot of racial tension in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, particularly where the police were concerned.
Cop Rock is not only a generic, brown-bag title—for a show that, for all its faults, was neither—but also wildly inaccurate. Oh sure, there are cops aplenty, but at no point does the show, or its music, ever “rock.” Cop Rock pointlessly explores the full spectrum of terrible music, from awful boy-band knockoffs to lumbering political rap, but its primary musical genre is the ballad—the wimpier and more watered-down the better. A better title would have been Police Treacly Ballad, but that would have scared audiences away even more effectively than Cop Rock did. This lazy reliance on ballads further slows the momentum of a show that moves at such a glacial pace that if it were any slower, it would begin moving backwards and its characters would all grow progressively younger, Benjamin Button style.
If you look past the pacing problems, whiplash-inducing tonal shifts, the fundamental impossibility of the format, the weak characterization, and overly familiar dialogue, well, there’s not really anything left. The downside to making a cop show that’s also a musical is that every moment a cop is not rocking seems like a wasted opportunity. Watching Cop Rock wind its way through to the usual gauntlet of subplots and clichés, I found myself impatiently waiting for the stock characters to shut up and sing.
In a few scattered moments, the show pushes its premise so far that it becomes borderline hallucinatory, like a number where Cox’s redneck cowboy sings a country song bemoaning the loss of the good old days, while riding a horse through the black ghetto of Los Angeles. If the rest of the show were pitched at this level of kaleidoscopic insanity, Cop Rock might have succeeded in pushing the medium forward instead of representing perhaps the biggest dead end in television history. The production numbers—with the exceptions of the sly “He’s Guilty,” which helped win Newman an Emmy (how respected is Newman within show business? Motherfucker won an Emmy for Cop Rock), and the one with Cox on his horse—are notable primarily for being terrible. But at least they’re terrible in a distinctive, memorable, and original way, which is more than can be said of the cop-show elements.
At the close of 11 episodes of utter insanity, Cop Rock remarkably manages to conclude on a note as audacious and unique as the one it came in on. After wrapping up the season’s plot lines, we cut to cast member Vondie Curtis-Hall and Ronny Cox, now out of character and playing meta versions of themselves, talking about the show being canceled and wistfully bemoaning that they didn’t have more opportunities to sing. The fourth wall tumbles down and this bizarre, failed experiment doesn’t just acknowledge its failure: It downright celebrates it by having the entire cast croon a rousing, defiant anthem about how it ain’t over until the fat lady sings and how they’ll ride again, someway and somehow. Just when it appears that the show could not get any crazier, an enormous black woman in a giant sequined hot pink dress begins singing to signal that, literally and metaphorically, it’s all over for Cop Rock.
So the finale of Cop Rock opens with a straight-faced account of an ugly rape and concludes with a tongue-in-cheek sing-along about the show’s cancellation. That kind of says everything about the kind of show it was. After trying and failing to reconcile two not at all complementary faux-realities (the reality of cop shows and the reality of musicals) for 11 hours, the show giddily embraces its own preposterous artificiality and failure. It was one thing for critics and analysts to compare the show to Heaven’s Gate; it’s quite another to have the actors make that comparison themselves, as they do in the series finale.
This ending is a weirdly perfect bookend to the opening credits, which likewise saw the cast out of character, grooving in the moment and excited about the strange adventure they found themselves in. The finale is one-half unearned victory lap more focused more on the tremendous effort the cast put forth in an innately doomed endeavor than on their actual achievements, and one-half ironic pity party from a bunch of folks who just lost their jobs but not, however, their will to sing.
Cop Rock ends so brazenly and boldly that I was tempted to bump it up from a fiasco to a secret success on the basis of its final sequence alone. But it ultimately feels like a true, quintessential, pure fiasco. If the show couldn’t succeed—and I cannot even imagine a bizarro alternate universe where Cop Rock could triumph—then it could at least fail as spectacularly, flamboyantly, and completely as possible. In a strange way, the show’s historic failure represents its own warped version of success. Like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue (which Bochco ran not long after Cop Rock died), Cop Rock will always be remembered, but not for the reasons its creators intended.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success? Fiasco