If Steven Bochco had done nothing else with his career, he would still deserve a weighty footnote in any history of US television for writing the first episode of Columbo. Directed by a young Steven Spielberg in 1971, Murder by the Book launched one of the greatest series in the medium's history.
Bochco, who has died in New York at 74, did a great deal more. Complex, busy shows such as Hill Street Blues and LA Law brought wit, substance and intelligence to a medium that was in danger of slipping into complacent middle age.
The networks did not always heed his lessons. But the forces at HBO and rising rival cable networks were paying attention. Long before the current funeral obsequies, Bochco was being justly hailed as godfather of the golden age that brought us The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. He also created Doogie Howser MD. Never mind. Paul McCartney worked with the Frog Chorus and he's still Paul McCartney.
Bochco was born in New York to an artistic Jewish family. His father was a painter, and his mother a concert pianist. He graduated with a degree in theatre from what is now Carnegie Mellon University and, still in his 20s, got a job with Universal as writer on such well-remembered shows as Ironside, McMillan & Wife and Columbo.
Not everything he worked on has become a classic. You will find Bochco credits on The Man from Atlantis (Patrick Duffy is an amphibian) and The Invisible Man (David McCallum is not all there). But he did also find time to work on Douglas Trumbull’s wonderful Silent Running, an ecological science fiction flick whose reputation has soared over succeeding decades.
There were continuing arcs that bound together entire series of Hill Street Blues. The "box set" ethos was already in train
The Bochco legend began to properly from when, in 1978, he signed up with MTM Enterprises. Named for co-creator Mary Tyler Moore, the independent production company was prepared to take risks. Paris, starring James Earl Jones as an LA police captain, was cancelled after 13 episodes. Then, in 1981, came the era-defining Hill Street Blues.
To that point, mainstream, primetime shows had rarely allowed the narrative to bleed across episodes. That was the stuff of soap operas. Networks wanted viewers to feel comfortable dropping into a series at any point in its run.
Bochco didn’t completely ditch the episodic format. Many episodes of Hill Street Blues – the words “Let’s be careful out there” coming just before the credits – took the urban police force through a working day. Individual stories were closed off within the 49 minutes. There were, however, continuing arcs that bound together entire series. The “box set” ethos was already in train.
The show also dealt with issues that made networks nervy: police brutality, racism, inner-city decay. Bochco and his team, learning from 1970s cinema, used handheld cameras to bring us closer to the action and heighten the sense of jeopardy.
A hint of Mike Post’s famous theme will send fans back to the era of legwarmers and the Strategic Defence Initiative. Yet the show was never a substantial hit. Four of the seven seasons failed to register in the top 30 of the Nielsen Ratings. Hill Street Blues never got higher than number 21. A staggering 98 Emmy nominations surely helped keep the show on the air.
I suppose I was naive. I thought NYPD Blue would open a door to more adult, mainstream programming
Bochco had his ups and downs – who remembers Hooperman with John Ritter? – but he finally managed to combine critical and commercial success with LA Law in 1986. Always funny, stuffed with strong characters and nuanced themes, the series unpacked the aftermath of the Reagan years with great charm. LA Law was sufficiently successful to secure Bochco a green light on his greatest folly: the bizarre musical police series Cop Rock. (There is still speculation that Cop Rock was some sort of high-concept joke on Bochco’s part.)
Launched in 1993, NYPD Blue, a tough New York show starring Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz, found larger audiences than Hill Street a decade earlier. The series, which screened for 12 years, was ABC's longest running until Grey's Anatomy passed it out in 2016. More boundaries were pushed. The future for TV came into tighter focus. But that future was to play out on cable (and later on streaming services). "I suppose I was naive," Bochco told Variety. "I thought NYPD Blue would open a door to more adult, mainstream programming."
Bochco was married to Barbara Bosson, well remembered as Fay Furillo in Hill Street Blues, from 1970 until 1997. They had two children including the prolific TV director Jess Bochco.
He was diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia in 2014 and underwent a bone marrow transplant in the same year. He won the Emmy on 10 occasions and picked up four Peabody Awards.
The series he created in the decades before and after the millennium will continue to play online and in all corners of the satellite menu. He helped television mature. His influence is everywhere.