Tributes keep coming in for Steven Bochco, who passed away April 1. One of the most prolific and influential writers and producers in television, what we see on TV today owes quite a bit to how he approached doing a series. Much of what we expect in a show, such as overriding story arcs and a large and varied cast that can come in and out of main thread of the story with their own side narratives, was made popular in his TV series from the 1980s onward, changing the face of television along the way. We would not have a Lost or a Game of Thrones as we know them had he not given us the shows he did, changing what we expect from TV the way Frank Lloyd Wright made us expect new things in architecture.
Bochco, however, did not pop out of nowhere with a full plan to revolutionize the medium. He too had to pay his dues, a script here and there, a chance to produce and oversee a writers’ room when he got the opportunity, learning from his efforts and mistakes. Having received a fellowship from MCA (Universal Pictures’ parent company at the time) while getting his BFA from Carnegie Mellon in 1966, Bochco made the most of his internship to work at the studio, which at the time was putting more of its focus into television than film production, and proved to be a situation he could learn from and thrive in.
What’s particularly interesting is how, before he became better known for focusing on cops and lawyers, how many genre projects he actually came into touch with. Had he had a few successes when he otherwise didn’t, he might have been better known for working on fantastic properties, much like J. Michael Straczynski or Gene Roddenberry.
Bochco’s having been at the edge of genre work was foreshadowed very early on in his career, when he wrote the script for the first regularly televised outing for Colombo, “Murder By the Book.” The plot itself is fairly straightforward, which has mystery writer Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) murder his writing partner Jim Ferris (Martin Milner) for the insurance money, watching Franklin commit the crime before Lieutenant Colombo figures it out. Ironically, the director of the episode was also just starting out at Universal, Steven Spielberg. And while the two would not work together again, they maintained a deep friendship that lasted until Bochco’s death.
Soon after putting Peter Falk to work, Bochco was brought in by the studio to punch up the script for an SF theatrical property they had, Silent Running. The story tells of a time when Earth decided to send its biomes out into space until such time as they can come back to reforest the world. When the powers that be decided instead, nah, let’s just chuck this old crap out, one of the keepers of the plants, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), decides the plants are more important than his crewmates, and murders the men while he diverts the ship to the other side of Saturn.
Bochco worked on the script with Deric Washburn and Michael Cimino, both of whom received their first professional credits for this, which suggests that he was offering his guidance to make the script work better. While some of the bigger glaring issues with the story (a botanist that forgets to give his plants sunlight, for example) may have been unavoidable, one can see Bochco’s hand in some of the exchanges between Lowell and his soon-to-be-killed crewmates:
Whereas films directed by Douglas Trumbull tend per force be visual spectacles, Bochco’s next genre project went with less to see. Literally:
Bochco served as producer on The Invisible Man in 1975, a series created by Harve Bennett that had Dr. Daniel Westin (David McCallum) turn the lab accident that made him invisible into an asset. Using his condition to snoop around unseen made him an effective force for good; however, all his powers could not keep the series on NBC beyond 12 episodes, and soon the show was as unable to be seen as he was.
Bochco, seeing something in this gimmick that audience didn’t, tried again in 1976, creating the series Gemini Man:
This time, secret agent Sam Casey (Ben Murphy) is the man we can’t see, thanks to an accident with a Soviet satellite he was retrieving. This gift was useable for only 15 minutes per day lest his condition be permanent, which apparently happened soon into the run, as NBC only aired five episodes.
The next time Bochco gets involved with genre work is indirectly, when a pilot he oversaw, Richie Brockelman: The Missing 24 Hours, did not get a series pick-up. The focus of the pilot was the titular character (Dennis Dugan), who uses his youth to talk his way into and out of situations. (Whether the whole “so young in that line of work” concept he used here inspired his later Doogie Howser, M.D., is up for speculation.)
Not entirely done with the character, he loans him out to colleague Steven J. Cannell for use in an episode of The Rockford Files, entitled “The House on Willis Avenue,” where Brockelman teams up with Jim Rockford (James Garner) to help Al Steever (Howard Hessman) take down Garth McGregor (Jackie Cooper), whose plan includes building a computer network that gathers information on everyone to sell to likely customers:
The use of computers to peel away privacy in 1978 to sell to the highest bidder certainly would seem very sci-fi to viewers then. To modern viewers receiving information daily about the work of Cambridge Analytica and getting the full extent with each drip and drab as to how deeply the plot thickens, there may be a little less “gee whiz” in exchange for “oh crap!”
While the episode did not make Americans more vigilant about their data in the pre-Facebook days to keep that disaster from happening, it did result in a five episode try-out for Bochco’s series, Richie Brockelman, Private Eye:
While a lot of good was done for the clients we saw onscreen, Bochco’s young dick did not get further episodes despite his best efforts at protecting the Digital Future…
Which may explain, having not gotten anywhere with young subjects, Bochco tried a project with someone older. Or, more precisely, something older, about 700 years old and, to be honest, undead…
Vampire, a made-for-TV film shown on ABC in 1979, told the story of Prince Anton Voytec (Richard Lynch), whose 40 year rest underneath the ground in San Francisco is interrupted by a housing project designed by John Rawlings (Jason Miller) being built atop his lair. Not happy with his digs or his sleep being disrupted, Voytec has his revenge when he claims John’s wife Leslie (Kathryn Harrold) before trying to take him as well, a plan that’s disrupted by retired cop Harry Kilcoyne (E. G. Marshall).
Soon, the hunted turn into hunters, tracking down Voytec in the hope of ending his existence, which when you go up against so ancient a vampire ain’t that easy…
In the end, Voytec is still on the loose and ready to cause more grief. This, of course, was by design, as Bochco envisaged that the film might make a good pilot and lead to a regular series; however, ABC was not happy enough with the results of the screening, and Bochco went on to the next project, hoping it might do better.
That next project was Hill Street Blues, and from there Bochco graduates to icon and pioneer.
Bochco would still take a few other stabs at genre even amidst doing his other groundbreaking work. In addition to the fantastic elements implied in his animated series Capital Critters, he would contribute the script for “Quarantine” for the first The Twilight Zone revival, and put together a pilot for Fox in 2004 called NYPD 2069, about a cop who is in suspended animation for 66 years and then tries to get back on the force in the future.
And maybe, if it had gone on beyond the eleven episodes that aired, we might have had a genre-based explanation for Cop Rock…