The Loss of a TV Giant

In the clip above, an interview for the Archive of American Television, Steven Bochco talks about the casting of L.A. Law, one of the seminal TV shows of the 1980s, and one of my personal favorites. Bochco was also the revolutionary guy behind Hill Street Blues, one of my earliest TV memories. He was probably the first person I heard about as a kid who was a creative force behind a TV series. At an early age I learned that actors are not the only ones to look for when you’re curious about a new TV show – there was such a thing as a person writing the stuff. Yesterday we lost Steven Bochco at the age of 74.

Born in New York City, Steven Bochco studied playwriting and theater before finding a job at Universal in Los Angeles as a writer on several TV series, including Columbo. His first script for that show was directed by a young Steven Spielberg. He learned the craft at Universal, but in the late 1970s he left them for MTM where he created his first TV series, Paris, a police drama that only ran for a few months.

Bochco’s next endeavor, Hill Street Blues, was different. Praised by critics and showered with Emmys, the show became a classic and inspired many others; among the writers were future talents who would go on to create their own TV series, employing what they learned while working with Steven Bochco. Stories spanning over several episodes became a more frequently used template.

After moving to 20th Century Fox, Bochco created L.A. Law, which followed the same template as Hill Street Blues but in a radically different environment; the show was also praised and richly rewarded with Emmys, but also became a huge hit for NBC. The clip above shows one of TV history’s most absurd, memorable ways to kill off a character, Diana Muldaur’s fall down an elevator shaft.

When I was a teenager, I liked the medical comedy-drama Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-1993), which became a breakthrough for Neil Patrick Harris as a teenage doctor. In 1993, Bochco created another cop drama, NYPD Blue, which ran for 12 years and tried to match grittier cable shows. Starring among others Dennis Franz (from Hill Street Blues) and Jimmy Smits (from L.A. Law), NYPD Blue became another celebrated hit for Bochco. But it became his last.

Among the shows Steven Bochco created in later years, Murder One (1995-1997) stood out because of its ambition, but audiences failed to show up. It was clear that Bochco’s disciples had taken over and that the old master had trouble finding new ideas. In a 2007 interview with The Boston Globe, Bochco acknowledged that he was feeling older while TV executives remained the same age, which was creating a gulf.

But his impact is undeniable, and Hollywood acknowledged that fact yesterday, especially those whose career began under Bochco’s wing:

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