Before ‘Glee,’ there was ‘Cop Rock’ and ‘That’s Life’

Audiences and critics have sung the praises of “Glee,” which closes its season Tuesday. In addition to being one of the season’s biggest pop culture hits, the comedy- drama about a high school glee club has succeeded where other shows that attempted to weave music into their storylines have failed.

“Viva Laughlin,” “Cop Rock” and “Hull High” were among the TV series in the last several years that were soundly rejected by audiences who didn’t accept characters breaking out into song, often with full orchestration, in the middle of dramatic scenes.

Still, the triumph of “Glee” has prompted a few of the key forces behind those failures to stand up for their vision, contending their shows also hit high notes despite their low ratings. Veteran producer Steven Bochco called “Cop Rock,” the innovative 1990 ABC series that mixed gritty police action with production numbers, one of the high points of a career distinguished by several groundbreaking programs, including " NYPD Blue” and “Hill Street Blues.”

“I’m really sorry it tanked the way it did,” Bochco said. “It made me the butt of jokes. But I loved doing that show. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.”

Broadway and film star Robert Morse, who is currently costarring in AMC’s " Mad Men,” said he still has fans who talk to him about “That’s Life,” a short-lived ABC series from 1968 that traced the courtship and marriage of a young couple through comedy sketches and musical numbers. The show, in which Morse starred with E.J. Peaker, was staged like a Broadway musical in front of a live audience.

“That show is something that still thrills me all through my soul,” Morse said. “It was so refreshing and wonderful.”

He and Peaker are scheduled to participate in a tribute to “That’s Life” June 18 at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, and Peaker said she has been exploring ways to have episodes of the series, which only lasted one season, to be available on DVD.

Morse, who came to prominence in musicals such as “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” said he was inspired at how audiences have embraced “Glee.”

“Before ‘Glee,’ musicals on television just had a lot of trouble,” he said. “ ‘Glee’ hit it just right. I’m not sure what they did right that we and others didn’t get right. If a person had the answer to that, they would be the head of a network.”

Still, both “Cop Rock” and “That’s Life” displayed a vision and ambition that at least rivaled “Glee.” While many critics have applauded the Fox series, others have complained the show is diluted by lip-syncing, canned music and, at times, forced or awkward choreography. Further, other critics have lamented that the music has eclipsed character in the show as it has been transformed into a marketing machine.

Unlike those in much of “Glee,” the performers in “Cop Rock” and “That’s Life” sang live. Both shows also had songwriting staffs that turned out original numbers each week while working alongside the writers. Randy Newman wrote and performed the “Cop Rock” theme, “Under the Gun,” and wrote five original songs for the pilot.

Said Bochco, “It was unbelievably demanding and remarkably difficult, which is one of the things we were most proud of. There was no dubbing. We had five songs per hour. The music had to further the storytelling, and it was virtually impossible to find preexisting music that could accomplish that feat.”

But “Cop Rock” was perhaps too ambitious. “We were soundly rejected by the audience,” Bochco said. “We premiered to a terribly low number, and it went downhill from there. Fundamentally, the audience wanted nothing to do with it.”

There’s little chance the show, which was produced by 20th Century Fox Television, will show up anytime soon on DVD, Bochco said. “Fox never seemed to have much interest in doing it.” Still, the show does have its fans.

“Very few people bring it up with me, but those that do bring it up with much affection,” he said.