“I’ve always tried to console myself,” writes Steven Bochco, “that if you’re a baseball player, and over the course of a twenty-five year career you fail to get a hit six or seven times out of ten, you’re still a sure shot to get elected to the Hall of Fame.” He will be remembered as the co-creator of a run of television serials from 1981-2005 that transformed the nature of television, particularly Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and NYPD Blue. His memoir, Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television, gives ample space to his hits, but also to his misses, including the police musical Cop Rock and the animated satire Capitol Critters. He alludes, smartly, to “the distinction I have always made between failing and not succeeding.”
Truth is a Total Defense is framed by the experience of the older, semi-retired Bochco, experiencing a heart attack and a leukaemia diagnosis in quick succession. It is openly intended as a message to his children, an account of who he was and how he got there, to be set down before his inevitable death. As such, it contains an degree of score-settling, ranging from the entertaining attack on the man who boffed his first wife (“Hey Barry, how’ve you been?… Wherever you are – if you’re alive – go fuck yourself!”) to an embarrassing diatribe against the sister who refused to be screened for a bone marrow match.
Bochco saw himself on both sides of the precinct desk, as both the maverick cop who doesn’t play by the book, and the hard-pressed captain trying to keep a lid on trouble. Twice, in his book, he mentions middle management with “crushing responsibilities and not enough authority” – it’s the empathy he had, not just for the crime-busters on the street, but those Suits in City Hall, that allowed him to pursue so many unexplored elements of the life of police and lawyers.
He seems to have been unable to avoid trolling his superiors. When he titled one episode of Hill Street Blues “Moon Over Uranus”, he started a month-long fight with the censors. Episode titles were never shown onscreen, but higher-ups objected to the fact that titles were often included in TV Guide listings. Although he eventually won, he pushed them further by writing subsequent episodes called “Moon Over Uranus: The Sequel”, and “Moon Over Uranus: The Final Chapter.” In order to avoid vetting from a real-life police station, he never specified which city Hill Street Blues was set in, but still ran into trouble from executives. An episode featuring a man caught in a hotel room with a sheep was the source of constant bickering with his boss, Brandon Tartikoff, who demanded to be reassured that it was, at least, not a gay sheep. His biggest score surely came after he discovered that the Fox network was refusing to take bids for syndication on NYPD Blue, hoping thereby to sell it to one of its own affiliates at a knock-down price. Bochco was barred from the studio canteen after having the company owner, Rupert Murdoch, served with a subpoena there, but when the company settled out of court, he insisted not only on being reinstated, but having the table next to Murdoch’s.
His memories of the making of Silent Running clearly still wound him after 40 years; he was paid $1500 for a week’s work writing the script, but never worked in film again, choosing instead to work in television, where he could control his own material. He blames Bruce Dern, specifically, for adding dialogue to the film that was sure to date it, and is unforgiving, thereafter of any badly-behaved actor. He is brutal towards David Caruso, who nearly wrecked NYPD Blue before its second season, and Sharon Stone, whose attitude was unappreciated on the set of Bay City Blues.
His account of Daniel Benzali’s behaviour on the set of Murder One, demanding to take a morning dump in a specific Malibu toilet, verges on the unbelieveable. Actors largely seem to get Bochco’s attention when they are difficult. He has kind words to say about Dennis Franz, who clung on for all twelve seasons of NYPD Blue, and speaks for all mankind on the divine beauty of Hill Street Blues’ Veronica Hamel, but is usually focussed on what’s going on behind the camera, not in front of it. Included in such stories is a hymn to his lawyer, The Doberman, who secured him the sweetest of exit deals on Hill Street Blues. Fired from his own show with two seasons still to be made, Bochco could put his feet up and enjoy $75,000 per episode as creator, effectively “paid not to come to work.”
But his book also presents fascinating glimpses of the workings of television, including a masterclass in story-editing as he cuts down the pilot of Hill Street Blues from its original, bloated length to something that can be broadcast. Around about the time of the publication of his one and only novel, Death by Hollywood, Bochco gave an interview in which he suggested that his time had passed. He felt outnumbered by young executives, and marginalised by a TV industry that didn’t care about drama any more. I was one of his greatest fans, and the author of an entire Judge Dredd script in homage to his work, but even I could see that he had been left behind. NYPD Blue with its shakey-cam edginess and its studied theatricality, was very much a 1990s show. The last series of Bochco’s that I bought sight-unseen, Over There, was an ill-judged attempt to cram the Gulf War into the modes of his police and legal procedurals.
There are moments in Bochco’s book where you can see attitudes that would never play today. He boldly states he is “all for nepotism”, simply observing with very white, very male blinkers on that nobody stays in the business unless they’ve got what it takes. This swiftly neutralises any criticism that he might have got where he was through the exercise of privilege and connections, but undermines much of the modern diversity and equality that his shows helped to foster in the popular imagination.
Bochco gets to dump in long screeds of his emails from hospital, in which he chronicles the indignities and inanities of chemotherapy. The attentive reader might also notice a distinct change in tone between the emails he sends his friends and family, and the writing in the rest of the book. Being self-published, Truth is a Total Defense lacks front matter and indicia, and it’s only after the epilogue that he acknowledges the assistance of an amanuensis. There would have been no shame in publishing this as a book of interviews – indeed, framing it in such terms would have given Rich Eisen a chance to impose a stronger mode of emplotment. For posterity’s sake, Eisen could have pressed Bochco a little more on big-picture issues, such as whether Hill Street Blues ever earned back the money in syndication that its backers hoped it would. But that’s another legacy that Bochco has left the TV world – TV shows like Mad Men, with tiny audiences but huge award-winning profiles, monetising for their makers in marketing and subscriptions, rather than ratings.
Bochco finished his career barnacled with Emmy awards, and recalls the moment when he received his first, and accidentally stabbed himself in the thigh with its sharp tines. He has a modest proposal for the Emmys today, suggesting that nobody is ever allowed to win more than once in the same category for the same job. “Once you’ve been acknowledged by your peers,” he suggests “it’s time to get off the stage and let someone else have a turn.”
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.