A couple of weeks back I had the opportunity along with a few other online media outlets to ask questions of Steven Bochco, the guy behind previous hits like NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues and Doogie Howser, M.D., about his new show coming to TNT, Raising the Bar. It stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar (NYPD Blue), Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle), and Gloria Reuben (ER) and is produced by Bochco.
Below you will find the entire transcript, minus the hellos, thank yous, moderator intros and such. I was actually first up, so the first two questions are mine. I had one further question, but we ran out of time before I could ask it. Yet, the final questioner ended up asking pretty much the same question I was going to ask, so it worked out really well.
Question: You’ve been a part of lots of TV shows over the years. I was wondering what it is for you that keeps bringing you back to cop shows and courtroom drama.
Steven Bochco: Well, for me, cop shows and legal dramas are sort of opposite ends of the same pole. They’re all about the criminal justice system and I think that’s a fascinating mirror of society.
The laws that we pass, the laws that we enforce, the way in which changing social values impact on the way law is interpreted. Those are really, really interesting elements to storytelling. And of course, any time you’re in a court room or in a police drama, the stakes are very high for people. Their very lives are – the family impacted by what happens in those courtrooms or in those police stations. So any time you’re telling stories where the human stakes are high, you have an opportunity to really tell complex character-driven stories. So, just as a writer, that’s the kind of stuff that’s always appealed to me.
Q: OK, and could you talk a little bit about the development process of Raising the Bar and how the show came about?
Bochco: Sure. I co-created it with a fellow named David Feige. And David was a public defender in the Bronx for 12 or 15 years. And he wrote a book, for some reason I’m just blank on the title of the book, but it doesn’t matter. There was some interest in it being developed as a TV series. It’s called Indefensible. And David got a hold of me through some mutual friends because he felt that if his book was going to be turned into a television show, he wanted to get involved with me. And I read the book, and it’s a terrific book, very interesting and very entertaining. But I told him that I didn’t want to do a series about public defenders for a variety of reasons.
I had done a show that was not dissimilar some years ago called Philly with Kim Delany about a criminal defense attorney. But in our conversations back and forth, he was so passionate about his work and the court system that I said well, If you want to start from scratch and develop a show that’s not exclusively about public defenders but is about the entire criminal justice system, with a point of view that it’s an essentially busted system, that its flaws sort of profoundly subvert what the system in theory is supposed to do, then I’m interested. And so that’s where we started and I was very fortunate to gain the interest of Michael Wright at TNT and they bought it and then we just went from there.
Question: I saw the pilot and I enjoyed it. Given all that you know and all that you’ve learned about the justice system and how it works and how it doesn’t work, are you a cynic or might you still choose to have at least a little faith in the system.
Bochco: Well they say a cynic is a betrayed idealist. I think I have a high level of idealism in me as well. I’m not that cynical about it. I think that the system, as flawed as it is, gets it right more often than it gets it wrong.
Q: Like in the pilot, the right thing happens, maybe not necessarily for the right reasons but it still happens.
Bochco: Exactly. And that was a carefully constructed story to convey that notion that when you have people on both sides who are really dedicated to the system and trying to get it right, that one way or another more often than not it’ll work. And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there are very sad terrible injustices that get committed.
But by the same token, very often, no matter how passionately you advocate on a client’s behalf, they did the crime. And they’re going to get convicted and that’s a right outcome, too. And I think that’s a point of view that we want to represent as strongly as we represent the defense point of view.
Q: Mark-Paul is very impressive in the premiere. What do you think of him as an actor and as a person?
Bochco: I love him and I don’t say that loosely. I really adore this guy. Such a special guy. When we worked together on NYPD Blue for, I think it was five years. I really came to have enormous regard for him personally as well as artistically. He’s passionate about the work. He really invests himself in the work, and yet he’s not a prima donna, he’s just a wonderful person to work with. You just couldn’t have a better guy on your team.
Q: And last for me, and then I’ll let some other people talk. Given all the work that you’ve done as a writer and as producer over the years, I don’t think you have anything left to prove to anyone. What drives you?
Bochco: Well, I still love telling these kinds of stories. And what’s interesting about it, is that if you do a cop show or a legal drama roughly every generation, every 10 to 15 years, something like that, those – the criminal justice system is a reflection of the society that it serves. And as social morals, social values shift with the passage of time, those shifts are reflected in the way the system works.
And so you can take a story that you told in 1983 on Hill Street Blues, and when you tell that story in 1995, it’s a different story because it’s in a different generation. And then if you take that story of – one of the stories we did on Raising the Bar this season was the inside-out version of a story that we did on NYPD Blue, 15 years ago.
But what we did, instead of telling that story from the point of view of a cop who was prosecuting a guy who committed a terrible crime, we told that story, not exactly, but a similar story, but we told it from the point of view from the lawyer charged with the responsibility of defending him. And because of the shift in the point of view, it’s a completely different story. So that’s fun for me. And as long as I have a high level of enthusiasm of doing this work , that I still have, and if there’s somebody willing to let me do it, I’m showing up to my desk every day.
Question: So you’re talking a lot about these social and moral shifts, and obviously in television we’ve seen a lot of that happen over the past few years. I’m wondering if your decisions to go the cable route gives you more freedom and how much of the FCC’s developments over the past few years contributed to that.
Bochco: Well I think there’s somewhat more freedom in cable, and certainly a ton more freedom if you’re talking about HBO or Showtime because those are not advertiser-driven services. But for me, the issue, or the appeal of cable over broadcast these days is less about FCC stuff as it is just about pure content stuff.
It seems to me that there’s been a real shift in broadcast television away from the kinds of shows that I like to do. And so for me to continue to do these kinds of shows that are not fantastical, they’re not about superheroes or vampires or guys that live 800 years, or whatever. Which is fine, they’re entertaining, they do well.
I’ve got no problem with that. But it’s just not what I do. And so as a practical matter, for me to still do the kinds of things I like to do, it requires that I do that stuff in the cable world, which, by the way, I’m happy to do because it’s a very, very respectful environment from a creative point of view. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder, nobody’s micromanaging you. Everyone is so respectful of what we do. And in return it generates a lot of respect that we have for them.
Q: And what do you think about the state of broadcast TV? Could you still do something on broadcast TV right now?
Bochco: I suppose, I mean I could. If somebody was interested in something that I wanted to do, was passionate about doing. It just doesn’t seem these days – I mean it’s not – if somebody from a network came to me and said we’d love to do a show with you and let’s talk about something you’re passionate about, I would have that conversation in a minute. I just don’t’ think generally speaking these days, that the kind of programming that broadcast networks are interested in is the kind of stuff I do.
Question: Over the years, it’s such a stellar resume of shows that you’ve created.
Bochco: You haven’t seen some of my stinkers.
Q: Well the ones that stand out, and even some of the ones that don’t, but the unifying thread amongst all of them is this cast that goes three, four, five major characters deep, that each character could almost have their own show. When you set out to create a new show, is that something as a benchmark for yourself, to meet the demand of a cast of a show of yours?
Bochco: Well, the kinds of shows that t I’m attracted to generally have a large population If you’re doing a show about the criminal justice system, you’re looking at prosecutors and public defenders and judges and legal secretaries. I mean, there’s a world there. And so what you try to do is you populate the world, is to get very specific about who these people are. And how do you service – from a storytelling point of view, how do you service their needs in a medium that really confines you to about 43 minutes of storytelling.
And to the extent that necessity is the mother of invention, you figure out ways to arc stories over multiple episodes so that you can tell complex stories about secondary characters. And when you start thinking of telling your stories that way, you wind up giving everybody in the mix meaningful story time. And it’s sort of something that evolved over the years, and because I feel like I know how to do that, I’m never intimidated by the size of the cast. In Raising the Bar, I think we have nine regulars.
Q: And that’s what struck me about Raising the Bar, was the cast is that deep. And I would also still think it would lend itself to being able to create compelling drama over that magic number, 100 episodes …
Bochco: You’re right. Obviously, when you have a significant ensemble it just gives you so many storytelling opportunities. We did – we had a slightly shorter order, this year, this first season. We only made 10 of them. And I feel like we could have made 20 more, or 10 more without breathing that hard because they’re all such good characters and they all have such specific lives. I feel like we haven’t even begun to sort of touch on any of those stories as we can. So in success, if we’re lucky enough to have some success with this show, I think that we’ll be able to really sustain ourselves for a good long time.
Q: It’s just so rich. And lastly, to ask because I may be one in a million, but I enjoyed Cop Rock. And frankly, I don’t’ know if it scared you away or anything, but any desire before you pull a curtain on your career to revisit the musical genre?
Bochco: I don’t think so. And certainly that’s not because that show failed. I mean, I’ve had shows that failed, I’ve had cop shows that have failed, I’ve had legal shows that have failed. You dust yourself off and you keep going. I’m not sure that in the context of a drama you can – I’m just not sure that works. I loved doing it. I had one of the best times, actually, that I’ve ever had doing the show because it was so challenging to sort of marry the storytelling to the music. And just the production challenge of figuring out how to do it on a television budget was really fun and interesting.
But I think fundamentally, there was some level of embarrassment with the audience. They just didn’t want to look at it. It made them uncomfortable in some kind of primal way. It’s like when your stupid uncle Louie gets drunk at thanksgiving and decides to belt out (U Beldie) or something. I ‘m just not sure it works. I don’t know that I want to go down that road again.
Question: Steven. Thanks for answering all our questions today. Thanks for also filling us in on your move to cable and what it means to you.
Perhaps you could let us know what you find inspiring currently, in terms of programming out there, if it’s a particular person, or show, or space.
Bochco: Well, what I’m sort of inspired by, generally, is how diverse the cable universe is in terms of the kind of shows that are out there. Everything from Nip/Tuck, or Damages, or Closer or Mad Men. Obviously, shows like The Sopranos, and Larry David’s show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. I mean, you’re looking at such a rich tapestry of stuff. It’s enormously encouraging. For everybody who says broadcast television is really the pits and whatever, it’s – it does what it does, and cable does what it does, and HBO and Showtime does what it does.
And when you lump it all in there, there’s this incredible menu of stuff to pick and choose from to the point where it’s – I mean if you’re a really ((inaudible)) television watcher, you’re going to have a hard time watching everything that’s worth looking it. There’s just so many good things out there. It’s not so much that I think less people are watching television. It’s that they’re watching in so many different venues that the gross numbers tend to go down.
Q: And they have things like Hulu and those other places to watch programming again that maybe isn’t being counted.
Bochco: Sure, absolutely.
Question: I wanted to ask you a little bit, you’ve obviously done mostly kind of, legal, cop, courtroom related stuff. But you’ve also gone into the medical field a little bit and I was talking to Gloria Reuben yesterday about this. I was wondering what it is about those two in particular and how they’re similar and different.
Bochco: Well if I could be completely candid here, I’m not as attracted to medical dramas as I am to the legal dramas. I didn’t enjoy doing that as much as these shows which I keep coming back to because I think that just for me, they’re richer. There’s more and varied storytelling that I can access than in a medical drama.
That said, I really loved what I always thought was a somewhat underrated show that I did, called Doogie Howser, with Neil Patrick Harris. But that was less a medical show, and more a show about a fish out of water, if you know. A prodigy and what it’s like to grow up being a prodigy in a world where everybody looks at you like you’re a freak. So I really loved doing that show.
Q: Cool. And actually, since you mentioned Neil. You know he and Mark-Paul have sort of been able to successfully evolve from the child TV star, Teen TV star to adulthood. Are there any sort of similarities you’ve seen in the way they handle things that maybe made them sort of more capable of handling that transition or anything like that?
Bochco: Well you know what’s interesting is that both those actors are amongst the most professional I’ve ever worked with in terms of just their work ethic and they’re behavior. And I think it’s because they had so much early success that it kind of just came with their territory. It’s not like they struggled and struggled and struggled and struggled and by the time they got successful they had so much angst and so many resentments that they misbehave and act out. I mean, these guys, since they were kids they’ve just shown up and done their jobs. They’re both wonderful, bright, and wonderfully committed workers.
Question: I wanted to know particularly about anything about Raising the Bar. How much will the episodes focus on a particular case versus the character stories and their character development? It seemed in the pilot anyway that it’s somewhat focused on the characters, and so I wondered if that’s going to continue throughout the series.
Bochco: We’ve made 10 episodes and your job is always tough because it’s sort of being asked to review a book based on reading one chapter, which is hard. But I think over the course of our 10 episodes, there’s a really good mix of caseload and personal stuff. What I’ve always tried to do in these shows is to make the cases as much about the lawyers as about the defendant so that you put the lawyer or lawyers into sort of complicated damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations. So that compelling aspects of the story aren’t just, gee, the defendant going to be found guilty or innocent.
So we put a lot of time and effort into the cases. As the shows evolved, we’re doing two and sometimes three cases in every episode. So there’s a lot of good courtroom legal stuff. And I hope that people over the course of the show will become connected to the characters.
Q: And it’s kind of surprising because you ((inaudible)) sort of been working on the show. And I know that every show must have unexpected. The things that you don’t quite plan on that sort of turn things in a different direction or enlighten you as to maybe things you weren’t anticipating including in the show.
Bochco: Well you know that happens a lot. And it’s a function of chemistry. When you do a pilot for television series, it’s a little bit like a shotgun marriage. You’re sort of imposing elements on each other under the gun, if you will. And then what happens as you begin to see how your actors interact with each other, what kind of chemistry there is between certain actors and other actors, and when you see that stuff, sometimes it’s revelatory. Like, oh my gosh, there’s something to really write to that I hadn’t anticipated in the pilot.
This cast, in particular, they’re are wonderful, gifted group of people and it’s been so much fun sort of discovering who they are, who their characters are, because no matter what you give them to do, they just embrace it so heartily. There are some complicated characters in these things. Secrets that they have, ((inaudible)) and they have ambitions. And because they’re young, the lawyers are young, they’re still in their formative years in terms of character. Who they are today isn’t necessarily who they’ll be in five years or eight years or 10 years. So capturing that complexity in that time in their lives is really, it’s wonderful. Particularly with a group of actor who just seem to sparkle with each other, so I think we’re really blessed with the group.
Raising the Bar premieres on Labor Day, Monday, September 1st after a new episode of The Closer. Look for an interview with Mark-Paul Gosselaar next Monday.