Bochco’s New Beat : Television: ‘Cop Rock’ invigorates the new season by combining the grit of ‘Hill Street Blues’ with a musical score that’s fresh every week.

It opens fast and raw with a drug bust, as cops roll up to a crack house at night, break down the door and haul out the inhabitants. Once outside, however, it’s the drug dealers and coke heads who angrily take the offensive.

With song.

We have the power, we have the power!

In these streets, we have the power!

Actually, it’s tonight’s premiere of “Cop Rock” that has the power, as it pushes against the walls of TV conventionality in introducing the most daring new series of the fall season.

“Cop Rock” is not quite a pioneer. The weekly musical has its TV roots in “That’s Life,” an hour comedy that lasted one season on ABC in 1968-69. Occasional other series have adopted at least semimusical formats, and the current new season has also seen the emergence of a weekly music-oriented comedy in NBC’s “Hull High.”


But a police drama that is not only every bit as tough as “Hill Street Blues” but also a musical ranging from rap to rock to gospel to ballads?

No wonder that when executives from ABC’s affiliated stations were shown “Cop Rock” on a big screen in Los Angeles last spring, many were shocked by what they perceived as a profit-devouring Godzilla visiting them in a panoramic, stereophonic nightmare. To many in this myopic industry crowd--who define outrageous as a sitcom with no laugh track--Steven Bochco’s exciting newcomer, premiering at 10 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, seemed like the Series from Hell.

Instead, it’s fresh, invigorating and one of the true highlights of the new season.

In a year that so far has been marked by prime-time change--from the continued brashness of Fox to ABC’s stylishly dark, foreboding, mysterious and satirical “Twin Peaks"--"Cop Rock” is one of the biggest changes of all.

Each episode weaves five musical numbers into a serious plot. How serious? Well, in tonight’s premiere (which will be repeated at 10 p.m. Saturday), a cop is killed, a suspect is beaten and tortured and another suspect is murdered by a cop. The story was directed by co-executive producer Gregory Hoblit and written by Bochco and co-creator/supervising producer William M. Finkelstein.

Even without the score and choreography, “Cop Rock” is a compelling, well-acted police series that indeed does (as some of its critics charge) echo Bochco’s late, great “Hill Street Blues,” almost as if he meant it as a homage to his own work.

The setting is again an urban precinct, this time in Los Angeles. In command is Capt. John Hollander (Larry Joshua), who shares the integrity and toughness of “Hill Street’s” Capt. Frank Furillo. Under him are an eclectic group of cops, a few of whom also strikingly resemble their “Hill Street” predecessors.

An officer whose early death is the story’s catalyst is a ringer for the folksy Andy Renko character played by Charles Haid (a “Cop Rock” producer) on “Hill Street.” And big, curly haired David Gianopoulos, the actor who plays officer Andy Campo, is very reminiscent of Ed Marinaro, who played “Hill Street’s” Officer Joe Coffey. And like the handsome, good-natured Coffey, the handsome, good-natured Campo seems destined for romance with his partner, the married Officer Vicki Quinn (Anne Bobby).

Also like “Hill Street Blues, “Cop Rock” is punctuated by political corruption, nervous humor and caricatures, most prominently Pattonesque police chief Roger Kendrick (Ronny Cox), who wears six-shooters and vents his frustrations by plugging a mechanical outlaw he keeps in his office. In the second episode, he uses a shotgun to blast a cardboard replica of his bitter enemy, the corrupt and tyrannical Mayor Louise Plank (Barbara Bosson, wearing a false nose that makes her look like Margaret Thatcher).

The pivotal character in initial episodes is a ruthless detective named Vincent La Russo (Peter Onorati), a loose cannon of a good cop and bad cop rolled into one.

It’s the juxtaposition of music that gives “Cop Rock” its special quality, however.

The theme and initial five songs were written by Randy Newman. Not everything works, but the only real clunker is a moribund ballad sung by forensics expert Ralph Ruskin (Ron McClarty), who is Officer Quinn’s husband.

In contrast, the opening rap number at the drug bust has a throbbing anger that snaps you to attention. There’s lots of fun in a tongue-in-cheek production number showing Mayor Plank accepting dirty money (although Bosson needs to work on her finger snapping). A gospel number that ends a criminal trial (“He’s guilty, judge, he’s guilty,” the jury sings) becomes a show-stopper. And a tender ballad sung by a pathetic drug addict (Kathleen Wilhoite) to her infant is truly moving.

Written by Mike Post and others, the score for the second episode is an equally interesting mix, beginning with a eulogy for the slain cop delivered from a church pulpit by his grieving partner, officer Franklin Rose (James McDaniel). Suddenly, a saxophone wails, and Rose’s words (“You were my brother, that can never be denied . . . ") become a bluesy musical lament.

There’s also an excitingly explosive number at a police lineup where Latinos charge discrimination (“We’re the local color with the copper-tone skin!”) The rest of the numbers in the episode range from forgettable to bad.

The failures are an acceptable risk.

An advance criticism of “Cop Rock” has been that its transitions to music from straight dialogue are jolting, and that the music seems to “come out of nowhere.” Some of that is valid. Yet it’s these sharp curves and unpredictable U-turns that give “Cop Rock” much of its unpredictability. Moreover, because the notion of someone suddenly breaking into song is itself a fantasy, all musicals, whether “Cop Rock” or “South Pacific,” demand a certain suspension of belief. Either you buy the premise or you don’t.

Other critics of “Cop Rock” have charged that treating serious themes musically is foolish. The charge is foolish. The concept of merging serious drama and musical production is radical only on commercial TV, and in fact has a long history, a la “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita” and infinite other stage and screen musicals.

The big question is not the form, but how consistently it can be executed over the course of a grueling TV season. Whether Bochco and his associates can succeed, week after week, is questionable. That ABC even would give them a chance to try, however, is encouraging.