'What Is The Music In Cop Rock?'

At the midpoint of the series 'run,' Adam and Sarah discuss episode titles, guest stars, and treacly ballads.

Our Players

Hello, I'm East Coast Editor Sarah D. Bunting.
Hello, I'm Previously.TV contributor Adam Grosswirth.

The Talk

The AV Club recently ran an oral history of Cop Rock that I found very informative, not least because you could almost hear Paul McCrane straining not to snark on it, but also because Steven Bochco commented that, in order to get good singers, they didn't get quite the level of acting they'd hoped for. Do you think anyone has ever tried to point out very gently that the singing was also substandard?

That was one of many fascinating tidbits in there. (Another, and our second Randy Newman-related correction in a row: Newman only wrote the songs for the pilot! Which means we've been hating on Newman sound-alikes. Which means someone did that on purpose!) In musical theatre, with exceptions, I'd generally rather watch a good actor who can only sort of sing than a good singer who can only sort of act, but there's a whole lot of "neither" here. It's especially strange, as we noted last week, with the folks whose only job is to sing one song.

Though I wonder if in both cases it's a question if the material they're stuck with. McCrane rightly points out in that interview that no one seems to know anything about musical theatre and how it should be structured. I'd go further and argue that no one could make most of these songs or dialogue sound good. Also, apparently Mike Post was the music director for the whole thing and while I admire the man as a TV composer that's not the same skill set at all.

Yeah, one of my notes from Episode 5, "The Cocaine Mutiny" -- and I'll add in passing that I find these punny episode titles profoundly tiresome; must every SINGLE aspect of the production try so very VERY hard? -- is that the mournful ballad McCrane is tasked with towards the end is pretty wretched across the board, between the intrusive sax and what I'm coming to see as the writers' trademark second-grade lyricisms. But as both you and he have noted, at least the song has a reason to exist in that "the character simply must sing, versus speaking" sense -- and if anyone's going to be anywhere even in the neighborhood of selling it, it's McCrane.

My actual note: "Thank god for Paul McCrane." He really gets it. Anne Bobby has real musical theatre chops too but she's given some of the worst material in the show. And then they waste the likes of Carl Anderson (the judge in the pilot), and Gina Gershon (who is actually quite good all things considered but doesn't get a song). I assume it was a practical consideration of time or expense but I'm struck by how many of the songs are solos. There's the occasional big production number (which we should come back to) and lots of "I'm sad, let me sing about it," but hardly any duets or trios where I dramatically want them, in either the romantic plots or the fights. I love a good musical argument!

Right? I'm put in mind of "I'll Never Tell" from the Buffy musical ep; Emma Caulfield could sing, Nicholas Brendon was able to get it done, and part of the charm of the duet is the contrast. And also that it's not yet another wan melody assayed by a tertiary character nobody cares about.

This is perhaps the central issue of the show -- not the chocolate/tuna salad nature of the pairing of a cop procedural and a musical, as Nathan Rabin described it in HIS coverage of the show as one of his Flops, but that even with two sets of strengths to choose from, the showrunners never choose correctly. Like, I disagree pretty strongly that Gershon is worth a damn here, thanks primarily to the inappropriate "I executed a cartwheel!" face she pulls after shooting her stalker...but any time we spend with her is a welcome respite from LaRusso and his attorney. Onorati's a grating enough C-plus on his own, but Teri Austin isn't even bad enough to be interesting.

Related: it's called a hot oil, literally everyone on the set.

Heh. Fair enough. Gershon also has the benefit of being paired with McCrane and you know what? I'm just gonna pop in my Fame DVD and cry for a while when we're done here. Their bit (about an actress who's fearful of her stalker) is also a good example of a problem that's shared by a lot of shows that mix ongoing stories with one-offs, but that Cop Rock suffers from to excess: I find the cases of the week SO much more interesting. What IS specific to Cop Rock is how they botch the musicalization of it. For once it makes dramaturgical sense for this character we'll never see again (the stalker) to sing (even if I'd rather hear McCrane and Gershon), but he's not the character we care about, and the song -- apart from being objectively terrible -- doesn't make us care bout him. It's creepy...we know he's creepy! HE doesn't think he's creepy! Give us some "Unworthy Of Your Love" here, guys. Also, I'm assuming this wasn't written for the actor, or before the actor was cast, and all the high notes are JUST out of his range.

A song I thought I might enjoy, the campaign song at the luncheon, got cut away from after 18 bars; not that I cared who the show thought should become the next governor of California, but at least it wasn't soppy -- or a "topical" investigation into the homeless problem, which is what we had to sit through in the next episode. I had higher hopes for "Oil Of Ol' Lay" (...fuck's sake), but despite their putting Vondie Curtis-Hall in a Four-Topsy rig for my enjoyment, it too sucked. Starting with the fact that Quinn gets shot but doesn't die.

I definitely want to come back to the homeless number (and that episode title, because poor Barbara Bosson), but both the other songs you mention bring up a question that's been bugging me since the beginning here: What IS the music in Cop Rock? My view of musicals typically is that songs are a storytelling device, just like a film score, or lighting, or what have you. We're not meant to believe that these people are ACTUALLY singing. Every once in a while a scene is set at a dance or a concert and the rules change, or in rare cases we're actually in a world in which people sing, and that fact is acknowledged, usually for laughs.

We've had several instances in Cop Rock now where characters seem to be cuing their own musical numbers. The gubenatorial candidate is speaking in front of a band, and could plausibly be breaking into song for real. Curtis-Hall pushes the button on the Chief's desk that opens his shooting gallery (sure, why not?) to release his backup singers. And of course there was the judge's "Hit it!" in "He's Guilty." I don't necessarily mind this approach but it's completely inconsistent, and it makes it impossible to take anything seriously. You mentioned Buffy, and this is what happens when your precinct has been taken over by a wacky dancing demon, not when you're trying to get across some hard-hitting social commentary.

Well, and not to get too reliant on oral histories to make my points for me, but I just read New York's oral history of Rent, and while that show is one I could probably permanently do without for a host of reasons, 1) the characters had reasons to sing and dance, 2) it made sense FOR their characters that they would do this, and 3) the show understands its genre and isn't doing this weird revue thing Cop Rock seems to be where it seems to try to bring in all kinds of styles -- doo-wop, big band, cabaret, rock -- that only end up feeling obligatory and...not insincere, but checklist-y.

Like, even within the musical-theatre part of itself it has an identity problem, so what you end up with is high-school poetry, because most high-schoolers who write poetry write poetry in order to...have written poetry, and that's why most of it is, while possibly helpful to the younguns, utter garbage, and I speak with firsthand authority.

And speaking of garbage, let's talk about that homeless production number, shall we?

I suppose we have to.

For all we've complained about the tedious ballads, I think Cop Rock is at its worst when it's aiming for social commentary/consciousness. I'm a fan of a lot of bad '80s rock, so I kind of prefer these musically because they have a beat that...some homeless people or white-collar cocaine users can dance to? But the lyrics are sledgehammery and while I do admire the logistics involved in shooting these big dance sequences on location, they come off as the goofiest of goofy, even to someone who loves musicals, and big dance numbers most of all.

That was a gorgeous couple of minutes in which I wasn't being asked to care about Quinn's sad sack of a husband going through her shit to find evidence that she cheated on him; or Sad Sack and Lieutenant Bob Costas Noo-Yawk-accenting at each other for some reason on a show about THE LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT, or Ronny Cox getting an even bigger woody about the fact that the Mayor is a virgin. I swear to God, when she told him to "be gentle with" her I ran out of my office with my hands over my ears.

It's true, they do have that in their favor. But I spent the whole white-collar-drugs one thinking, "Is this really how rich people buy their coke? Seems like they'd have access to better dealers." Which probably wasn't the intention. And the homeless plot is hampered, like the domestic abuse story a few episodes ago, by the rookie cop being too big an idiot to be remotely sympathetic. Gee, do you think that guy might be mentally ill? You don't say! (Also I was confused that David Paymer was homeless because I was convinced he was already on the show as someone else because all the white guys over 35 look identical. Plus he hasn't aged a day.)

And Episode 6 is the midway point of the proceedings, but they're already resorting to montages (Quinn's partner's lovelorn whatever) and recycling song ideas. The "No Problem" PR song is basically the baby-merchant song, but even more like a karaoke track.

I want to give them credit for writing these original songs and all that, which isn't easy, but Smash did it. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does it. Granted both telling stories which more naturally suit the medium, but also with smaller teams. I don't want to get too into this until we're done but I wonder what this might have been if the songwriters had been theatre people. They seem to be going for an MTV thing, which is great, I loved MTV, but nothing is serving the story. ...and neither am I now, I'm beating this horse more than the show beats up on poor Barbara Bosson.

Episodes Watched
Episodes Remaining
Paul McCrane
The episode titles

For 1991 Week we ask:

What songs would we have been "treated" to if Cop Rock had been renewed into 1991?

  • "Baby Merchant 2: Electric Toddling"
  • "Color Me Badd Cop, Color Me Good Cop"
  • "The Mayor Is Ugly And Also Fat And Also Mean And I Don't Love Her Anymore (No This Isn't About My Personal Life Why Would You Think That?) (Remix)"
  • "He's Guilty Reprise (The Appeal)"
  • "Everything I Do (I Do Because I'm A Terrible Police Officer)"
  • "Eating My Feelings"
  • "Justify My Badge"
  • "Losing My Religion (Religion Is What I Named My Gun, Which I Lost Because I'm A Terrible Police Officer)"
  • "Sensitivity Training Ballet"
  • "I Touch Myself (But Not The Mayor, Never The Mayor)"