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Steven Bochco: The Dean Of Television Crime Writing

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When you heard the last name Bochco, you instantly thought television.

Not mindless television–no, this was television you watched when you wanted to be challenged, maybe drink a glass of wine, then laugh a little, even cry a little.

But the thing about Bochco was, he made you think.

The New York-born Bochco started off writing episodic television at first: Name of the Game, Columbo, Rockford Files, and McMillian and Wife. He then created short-lived shows of his own: Gemini Man, Turnabout, and Richie Brockman, Private Eye. Yet it wasn’t until MTM productions came calling that he got his first big hit with Hill Street Blues.

Although it was never a ratings winner, it always left you wanting more.

Of course, it wasn’t easy. Who would want to watch a TV show about an inner-city police station? Who would want to watch a recovering alcoholic dealing with day-to-day red tape, his officers who may or may not have done the right thing in an investigation? Who would imagine that the desk sergeant who was dating a seventeen-year-old (he was fifty-one) would become the most beloved character on the show? Who would think this sleazy guy who flirted with any woman wearing a skirt then would later hold a rape victim’s hand when she identified her rapist? Who knew that the guy who was known to growl and bite if anyone crossed him also called his parents several times a day?

Bochco did.

He created characters that were incredibly flawed yet incredibly lovable.

The episodes usually took place in one workday, starting off with roll call with Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) giving assignments and letting the officers know of any crime waves and events going on with the station (basketball game, a fundraising party for a fellow officer). He ended each briefing with the wise words: “Let’s be careful out there.”

Out there was the world, the streets–the places where it was possible you wouldn’t come back to clock out.

Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) was the police captain and he was firm yet kind to his officers. If you screwed up, he would tear you apart. Yet when it came down to it, he would defend you to everyone else. He also had time to deal with daily visits from his ex-wife Fay (Barbara Bosson, Bochco’s real-life wife at the time) and bicker with public defender Joyce Davenport (Victoria Hamel), but little did anyone know they were seeing each other outside of work.

They later married on the show in 1983.

Hill Street Blues was never a ratings hit, yet during the 1981 Emmys broadcast the theme song was broadcast repeatedly because they kept winning: Best supporting actor, Best Actor, Best Writing, Best Directing, on and on and on. At the time NBC was a joke in TVLand; it was ranked third out of three networks. Slowly but surely the Emmy wins marked a new day was coming for the Peacock network, a winning streak that continued on with Family Ties, Cheers, St. Elsewhere, Cosby Show, and Night Court.

Yet tragedy lurked on the sidelines.

In 1983 actor Michael Conrad was diagnosed with urethral cancer. He worked as long as he could but died on November 22, 1983. Knowing the character could never be replaced, they wrote the death of Esterhaus in the show. Goldblume (Joe Spano) was doing announcements when Furillo came downstairs and addressed the officers by telling it to them straight: Phil Esterhaus died of a heart attack. People looked stunned. “If you’d like to take a moment,” he said, then bowed his head. The camera then panned to all the characters’ reactions of shock and sadness. After Furillo told them to be careful out there, JD Larue (Kiel Martin) whispered, “Son of a bitch.”

We all knew how J.D. felt.

Bochco left the show in 1985, then created LA Law, which had the same character archetypes (wise older statesman, the playboy who never grew up, insecure bureaucrat), only they wore suspenders and ties, and they weren’t in the gritty city, but in Los Angeles, where dreams really do come true with a little luck and maybe a big jury settlement. He also created Doogie Howser MD, then Cop Rock, a musical drama (think Glee but with police officers).

Then there was NYPD Blue, which had bad language, nudity, and sex. It became his longest-running show, lasting twelve seasons.

Bochco was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014. Thanks to a stem cell transplant, it prolonged his life.

But it didn’t prolong it enough.

One wishes he could’ve lived so we could have seen his take on Trump, #MeToo, Times Up, and God knows what else is lurking around in the corner.

Maybe he would’ve written brilliant shows that addressed all of these topics and more.

And maybe he would have reminded us of one simple thing:

Let’s be careful out there.