Writer-producer Steven Bochco

The groundbreaking producer explains the premise of his upcoming TNT Originals drama series, Murder in the First.

Stephen Bochco creates daring and compelling TV shows and is called by some the father of the medium's second "golden age." In addition to the landmark series NYPD Blue, in which he helped pioneer the concept of "story arcs," his credits include Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Doogie Howser, M.D., City of Angels and his latest, Murder in the First, set to premiere in summer 2014 on TNT. A New York native, Bochco studied to be a playwright. After graduating from college, he started with Universal Studios, where he worked his way up from writer to story editor and laid the foundation for the multi-series production deals that would follow.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: There have been only a handful of series that can legitimately lay claim to changing the television landscape for the better. Three of them – “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” and “L.A. Law” came from the fertile imagination of producer Steven Bochco.

Now this 10-time Emmy winner is about to return to TV with a new series for TNT called “Murder in the First,” which follows one single case over an entire season. Novel concept, Mr. Bochco.

Steven Bochco: This is my – at least I’m stealing from myself.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s good, that’s good. When I at the top of the show a moment ago referenced your being, as some critics have called you, the father of TV’s second golden era, given all the good stuff that you gave us, I wondered whether or not you wear that easily, because on the one hand, you put a lot of good stuff out there.

On the other hand, you push the envelope a little bit. Your pushing the envelope then now has it completely off the table. You ever feel bad about this process that you started of pushing us to the edge of what network television can and will do?

Bochco: Not at all. In fact, I don’t think network television really has changed that much in terms of what you can or can’t do. I’d always thought that “NYPD Blue” really would open those doors.

While I think it created a much broader template for cable, I don’t think it really did that much for network television.

Tavis: You don’t think so? I’m surprised to hear you say that, only because there are certain words you cannot use still on network television. But the language is more saucy and more spicy; the sexual innuendo is more in your face now than ever before. You don’t think TV has changed that much since that era?

Bochco: Sexually – remember “Three’s Company?”

Tavis: Yeah.

Bochco: That’s a long time ago.

Tavis: That was silly, that was silliness.

Bochco: Yeah, but it was wall-to-wall sexual innuendo. That kind of stuff has been a staple of television for a long time. What I always thought “NYPD Blue” would accomplish was not just in terms of a more realistic approach to language when appropriate, given the kind of show you’re doing, but also in terms of sexuality and the sort of legitimate portrayal of how people relate to each other on those levels. That, I don’t think really happened.

Tavis: There have always, of course, always have been, I suspect always will be, cop shows. But the preponderance now of cop shows on TV, how do you read that?

Bochco: Well, cop shows are by definition melodramatic, they’re larger than life. They create very stark contrasts and conflicts emotionally. They’re provocative, assuming they grapple with – to the extent that cop shows are mirrors of the culture.

They really provoke thought and conversation and I think people have always liked the sort of certainty of good guys and bad guys. One of the things I always tried to do in the cop shows I did was to blur those lines and be a little more ambiguous, whether it was a cop show or a lawyer show.

To sort of examine the way in which the system, whether it’s criminal justice system or just the legal system, is much more situational in its morality than most people think of it as being.

Tavis: I could – I suspect you and I could trade lawyer jokes all night if we wanted to. (Laughter) I’m going to leave the lawyers alone for the time being, but to your point about the cops and you as a writer, as a producer, would deliberately blur the lines between the good guys and the bad guys.

You don’t have to write that stuff these days because, and I say this with all due respect to those who protect and serve us who do it honorably and do it righteously, but we see these news stories every day.

It could be stop-and-frisk in New York City, or a million other examples I could cite you if we had the time of where that line between good cop and bad cop has been not just blurred -

Bochco: Absolutely.

Tavis: – but obliterated.

Bochco: Yup.

Tavis: What does that do long-term for cop dramas if we have to believe in the goodness of the cop for the storyline to work?

Bochco: Well, some stories will work very well without that element.

Tavis: Right.

Bochco: “The Shield” was a perfect example of a very successful show that had a deeply flawed -

Tavis: Michael Chiklis?

Bochco: That’s correct.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Bochco: A deeply flawed main character. So those boundaries have really stretched significantly, and that has a lot to do with cable and cable’s embrace of deeply flawed, in many instances almost sociopathic, “antiheroes.”

That said, social media has so completely altered everybody’s exposure to the minutia of politics, law enforcement, you name it, if you say it, it’s out there 30 seconds later.

There are just no, there’s no privacy anymore, particularly the younger generation, younger than we are, have sort of given up on the concept of privacy as a goal, as a right.

So everything is out there, and when everything is out there, it becomes almost quaint to do the kinds of stories that we grew up with. You have to sort of re-imagine the genre a little bit, and that task, I think, understandably falls to younger creators than I.

Tavis: Yeah. But it’s not just – and I’m working my way to your new project here. But your being a long-distance runner gives you some perspective on this that I’m always fascinated to kind of unpack and dig into.

It’s not just though, Steven, that there is a loss of privacy in our society. Along with that loss of privacy has come a loss of innocence. There are some who would argue that that loss of innocence happened, as we now commemorate 50 years since JFK’s assassination.

For a lot of Americans, that was the moment that the country kind of lost its innocence. But the point is that in a culture, in a society where the innocence has been lost, it seems to me that it becomes more difficult to write storylines – pardon the phrase here – that shock and awe the viewer.

So I’m trying to figure out how one approaches the writing when anything you put on paper pales in comparison to what happens in the real world.

Bochco: Well, the thing that has always interested me in the kinds of shows that I do have more to do with the consequences of behavior than the behavior itself. Pulling a trigger and shooting somebody, or dismembering somebody.

We’re all exposed to the most gruesome kinds of realities out there, particularly in the media. Which if you’re walking along the street and you get mugged, that’s a shocking event. It doesn’t require somebody to cut your ear off or – it’s scary when it actually happens to you.

So the thing that always interests me from a storytelling point of view is how that moment of trauma, whatever the trauma is, even divorce, your dog dies, whatever it is, the consequence, in terms of people’s emotional lives and the way it resonates behaviorally for a long time is really the stuff that interests me.

In the first season of “Hill Street Blues” when we Andy Renko, Charlie Haid’s character, we spent the better part of the whole first season – that was a scene in the pilot that was over in 10 seconds, 12 seconds, and we spent the better part of a season watching these two characters grapple with that trauma. That, to me, is more interesting than trying to accomplish shock and awe.

Tavis: To your point now about your work really being about the consequences of behavior, and I don’t want to over-state this, but just play with me for a second here – so we’ve lost our privacy, we’ve lost our innocence, and I would argue that human depravity is more prevalent now than ever before.

Part of what again has to work whether it’s a TV show or movie, for me, at least, and I think for most viewers, part of what has to work is that we have to connect to the humanity of the character in a world where there’s less and less respect for people’s humanity.

In a world where there is greater and greater contestation of people’s humanity, is it possible that we will get to a point where your job is going to be really, really tough, trying to get us to revel in the humanity of the character, because we live in a world where the way we treat human beings is so -

Bochco: Well, I hope not. The entertainment world, television, movies, social media, YouTube stuff, we’re so bombarded with so much imagery and such a great sense of inhumanity, and there is a coarseness, a coarsening of interaction.

Just look at this Richie Incognito, Jon Martin business, and 20 years ago that probably would have never come out. Yet 20 minutes after it happens, boom, now it’s part of the social conversation.

I actually think part of that’s a good thing. It is what it is. I think ultimately people who tell stories, people who try to make sense of all that stuff, are always going to attempt to locate a moral center in anything that’s going on.

You’re right; it gets harder and harder to do it in a world in which there is so much visible depravity. I’m not sure that there’s more depravity than there was a hundred years ago.

Tavis: Just more visible.

Bochco: I just think it’s instantaneous now. I think as writers, as entertainers, you try to locate the essential, moral center that I think most people really strive for.

Tavis: Since you mentioned this Miami Dolphins, this ugly situation with Mr. Incognito and Mr. Martin, I think it was Earl Warren who said many years ago that he would read the sports pages first because it told a man’s accomplishment, what man could do.

So he’d always want to get right to the sports pages. Nowadays, not always the case.

Bochco: That ship has sailed. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, that ship has sailed, yeah. Sports pages could tell you what’s wrong with our society on any given day. But since you raised it and since we’re talking about humanity and privacy and innocence and et cetera, et cetera, what has been, at least to this moment, your read?

I’m always – your eye is – we all look at things critically, but you have a real critical eye. What do you make of that story today between these -?

Bochco: Well, I suppose you could accuse me of a certain level of hypocrisy, because I’m a big football fan, and I have been for my adult life.

Tavis: That’s why I’m asking, yeah.

Bochco: But I think the level of violence that that culture exalts – and I’m not just talking about physical violence, but emotional violence – it’s horrendous. It’s disgusting. As I’ve been reading this stuff, I’ve really been asking myself is that an activity – I don’t even know if it’s a sport, really, when you start looking at it.

You look at the New Orleans Saints episode a couple of years back. There have been so many problems associated with the culture of violence, which I think to a greater or lesser degree exists in hockey and basketball.

But in football particularly, I think there’s a racial component to it that I don’t see as much in other sports. For me personally, as a fan, I’m having some real second thoughts about whether I can support that part of our culture with my television viewing and my time.

Tavis: Do you think it’s possible – and I know this is heresy, so don’t tell the NFL that I said this – do you think it’s possible that maybe not in our lifetime, Steven, but into the future, that football might be a thing of the past?

I ask that because beyond all the issues you’ve just raised, if these head injuries continue, and they can’t figure out a way to make a helmet or to play the game with the proper equipment and the right style that avoids these kinds of long-term – I’m a huge football fan too.

Have been for years, and for better or for worse – it’s been lean lately. I’ve been a Cowboys fan most of my life. But my heart was broken the other night when I saw Tony Dorsett on “SportsCenter.”

I just couldn’t take it. I’ve seen this happen to a lot of players, but this was my guy on my team, and to see Dorsett telling this story of how he – it was just, it just broke my heart.

Bochco: I think -

Tavis: So I wonder if this sport is, if the days for football are numbered in our society. Again, I know that’s heresy to a lot of fans.

Bochco: You know what, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball. I suspect that if you really take the long view, aggressive behavior has always been channeled into competitive situations of one kind or another. I think it’s so hard-wired, I think it’s in our DNA. That is football’s days numbered? I doubt it.

Tavis: Too much money, huh?

Bochco: Well, it’s too much money, but it’s too much – I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but there’s a degree -

Tavis: But you are Steven Bochco, though.

Bochco: Yeah, there’s a – (laughter) thank you. There’s a degree of blood lust that’s just built into all of us, and we love watching those games, we love watching the sport. If it’s not football, it’s going to be something else.

Tavis: So what’s happening to these players isn’t quite murder, unless you want to be really literal about what happens to these players when this completely falls apart on them.

But this new TV series that you have called “Murder in the First,” it’s fascinating for me, and when I saw you do the original series, where you decided to take a crime and follow it for an entire season -

Bochco: “Murder One.”

Tavis: – “Murder One,” I couldn’t quite follow that, and I couldn’t quite follow it because I’m always trying to track your brilliance, and you’re a visionary, you’re an artistic genius, but you’re also a businessman.

So my mind immediately, and maybe this, I’ve been in this chair too long, I’ve been in the business too long, because my mind immediately went right past the series to how’s he going to amortize this? How’s he going to make money off of this? (Laughter)

Because the thing about “Law and Order” and all these other shows is one episode and you can play it over and over and over again because you’ve got a beginning, middle, and an end.

If you’re following a story line for the entire season, I’m thinking about repurposing and where the money is. I shouldn’t be, maybe I shouldn’t be, but where did this idea come from to, like, follow this through-line for the entire season?

Bochco: Well, that – I think “Murder One,” which is almost 10 years ago – oh, closer to 20 years ago – really was at the time innovative. People didn’t know how to watch it; American viewers in particular were not going to watch every episode of any hit show.

I think I remember studies saying that the average viewer watched about six episodes a season of a hit show, and then they would maybe catch up with more of them in reruns.

But the way the business has changed, the way technology has afforded us the opportunity to watch television in ways that we couldn’t have even imagined 20 years ago allows for shows to really track a single story, not just for one season, but for multiple seasons. I came late to “Breaking Bad.” I started watching it about -

Tavis: Everybody did, truth of the matter is.

Bochco: Yeah, well, I came really late. I started watching it about six weeks ago, and I’ll finish watching it this week.

Tavis: Wow. Yeah, you really are late.

Bochco: So I’m a binge watcher, so I’ve been – I’ll watch two, three hours of it a night and I can track six years of that story in that way, and it’s like reading a great, big, fat novel.

Tavis: Does that mean that you think Netflix is on to something there?

Bochco: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. They all are. Everything’s out there, everything’s out there now, and you can sit down and architect your own viewing habits in a way that allows you to enjoy those kinds of shows in very concentrated bursts.

So the idea of one storyline – and by the way, “Murder in the First” has a first season arc that’s only 10 episodes long. So in theory, if you didn’t watch it week to week to week, when it was over you could go on Netflix or TNT I suppose has its own site, and you can just order it up and watch the whole thing in four or five nights.

Tavis: Has that reality made – the reality that you’re doing 10 episodes now versus when you got in the business 26 for, like, a full season – does that make things easier, more difficult? Given the role that you play.

Bochco: Well, creatively it’s a luxury, because you just have more time to do what you do. You get to cook it longer. You get to think about it more. You’re not tasked with having to bang out the 19th script of the season in four days or three days. You really can be a little more thoughtful.

So on that level it’s easier. On another level it’s harder, because the economics of a 10 or 12-episode season are much more constraining than if you’re doing a typical network show, or you’ve got 22 shows to make.

Even though that’s a very hectic pace, there’s more money to spend. You really can, at least to a certain extent, throw money at the problems that arise from that kind of a production schedule.

Tavis: Well, those challenges notwithstanding, he’s still doing it because he must love it.

Bochco: I do.

Tavis: He’s certainly awfully good at it. So the new series from Steven Bochco is called “Murder in the First.” It will be on TNT, and TNT does a really good job of letting you know what’s on their air.

Bochco: Yes.

Tavis: So trust me, (laughs) when this series premieres, you won’t need me to tell you about it. It’ll be on billboards and buses and on television everywhere.

Bochco: Yeah. (Unintelligible) June sometime.

Tavis: It’ll be in June, so you’ll see it. Always glad to have you here, man.

Bochco: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to see you, Steven.

Bochco: Great.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Nona Spitzer Bernard

    Yay, Steven. This was a fine interview and I look forward to his new TV series, Murder in the 1st. We were friends at Carnegie Tech back in the day. I’ve always admired him as a person and later as a writer, and artist. I would love to know how I could contact him directly now that we’re in our golden years…hahaha.

Last modified: November 27, 2013 at 11:57 am