Unless you watched it during its original run, you’ve probably never seen Cop Rock. Save for the occasional airing on a “can you believe this ever got made?”-themed marathon on a few cable channels every decade or so, it was pulled off the air after 11 episodes in 1990. It is legendary, but for the wrong reasons. It’s synonymous with bad television, although the press release for Cop Rock: The Complete Series on DVD calls it a “short-lived cult series.”
Regardless of why, Cop Rock is undeniably a landmark of television. It’s one of the most high profile disasters ever, the kind of bomb where everyone behind it is astonishingly unaware of how bad it is, but how literally everyone else in the world could tell. Kind of like how NBC thought five nights of Jay Leno in primetime was a good idea, or how Mitt Romney’s internal research showed he was going to win the 2012 election in a landslide. Cop Rock is that rare, fascinating place where artistic hubris and delusion go hand in hand. You simply must watch Cop Rock, now available on DVD thanks to the tireless, nonjudgmental archivists at Shout! Factory, who earlier this year brought to home video Manimal, the benchmark of high concept/poor execution TV prior to Cop Rock.
The elevator pitch for Cop Rock: It’s a police procedural drama but with musical numbers. Think if Cagney and Lacey and all of their friends took a break from their deadly serious, nuanced police work to dance around like their big hair and giant blouses always suggested they would. That’s Cop Rock. The musical can and does work on television; Glee and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are examples of how to do it right. And like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Cop Rock relied on multiple, original songs in each episode, which is no small feat. The songs aren’t objectively bad, and they comprise lots of genres, from synth pop to rock to gospel to rap to traditional show tune, and they’re primarily written by Randy Newman. He even an Emmy for his work on the theme song.
But the actual experience of watching Cop Rock is singular and compelling—but not because characters break into song. This is a backhanded compliment of the highest order, and hear me out, but when the stars of Cop Rock (including Ronny Cox, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Anne Bobby) burst into song, it’s incredibly jarring every single time. This is because the police procedural portions of Cop Rock are actually quite good, almost as good as those on Hill Street Blues, a show that, like Cop Rock, was headed up by super-producer Steven Bochco. But then all of the momentum, drama, and subtlety is destroyed when a jury turns into a gospel choir to sing “He’s guilty! He’s guilty!” or when a gang starts singing and dancing about how racism is bad.
The one thing Cop Rock is supposed to do well, then, are those musical numbers. They’re ambitious and well produced (especially for 1990 and with a TV budget), but there’s something about them that just feels…off. Perhaps it’s because the songs are the work of Randy Newman. He’s not a musical theater guy, he’s a quirky singer-songwriter who works best when he can be wry and sarcastic. Musical theater usually has a place for humor, but Cop Rock doesn’t because its songs are required to be as deadly serious and socially relevant as its police drama. That said, if you took out all of the musical numbers, Cop Rock would be a pretty good cop show. And if you took out all of the musical numbers, you’d have a bunch of variations of Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” video.
It’s unfair and wrong to fault ambition and trying something new, especially in the extremely staid world of late ‘80s/early ‘90s television. But the end product just doesn’t work; it would be nearly two decades before a major network tried to put another musical series on the air, forever stung by the failure of Cop Rock. CBS’s Viva Laughlin lasted two episodes in 2007; Fox’s Glee premiered in 2009, making TV safe for the musical again. But if you’re into musicals, and musical television, you’ve got to check out Cop Rock. It’s something to behold. Well, it’s definitely…something.