After four decades, 10 Emmys, and more than a few flops, Steven Bochco still hasn't figured out what makes a hit television show.
"Every show by definition is a shotgun marriage," the producer of "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law" said recently. "You're putting a gun to people's heads and you say, 'OK, you're marrying this material, now learn to love it.' "
His latest wedding, “Raising the Bar," will debut Monday on TNT. A legal drama set in the Bronx, the 10-episode series is based on "Indefensible," a book by public defender David Feige. The ensemble show features Mark-Paul Gosselaar ("Commander in Chief," "NYPD Blue") as a young, idealistic public defender doing daily battle with a corrupt judicial system, Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm in the Middle") as an arrogant judge and Melissa Sagemiller ("Sleeper Cell") as an equally idealistic assistant district attorney. Bochco's son Jesse directed the pilot.
By the time shooting was almost finished, Bochco said the series had "evolved stylistically to the point where we all love it. We're devoted to it."
At 65, the trim and silvery Bochco appeared mild-mannered and matter-of-factly confident about his own talent for multilevel storytelling and character development. (He taught Feige, co-creator and writer, the screenwriting craft from scratch over the course of a year. "It was tough, but he's a wonderful student," Bochco said. "I can't imagine having done this show without him.")
And he's done enough cop, hospital and law shows to know the lay of the land.
"I've always been attracted to shows in which people get corrupted by one thing or another, or fight against being corrupted morally or ethically" as those are the things that shape character, he said.
Still, considering social, cultural and business shifts since his heyday, he's curious to see whether "there's still a significant enough audience out there for this show to survive."
Over the last 20 years, Bochco and his signature style have steadily aged beyond the average core audience and the average network president. He has publicly lamented broadcast television's drift from the socially and culturally significant dramas that he fought to make in the late 1960s and '70s. A mockingly self-described "dinosaur," Bochco believes "Raising the Bar" might test his own relevance in a changed world. He recalls that before the rise of cable studios, in conjunction with networks, controlled every aspect of the work process. "In order to wrest some creative independence from these people you had to fight like hell. We did and we won that battle," he said. "I probably got more belligerent than I should have been," he added.
He is generally credited with creating complicated narratives, multiple story lines and ensemble casts that became the norm. His shows pushed envelopes for more realistic language and sexual behavior. Before Bochco's "L.A. Law," the dominant legal show of the 1980s, law shows were more like murder mysteries played out in court. "L.A. Law" was more about legal issues, ethics, office politics -- and beautiful, rich, sexy lawyers.
In the late 1990s corporate mergers turned the tables again, he said. "These days, show runners are being micromanaged to an extraordinary degree. You see seasonal turnover of personnel at unprecedented rates. Network executives dictate script changes to producers on the telephone. It's a very difficult environment to work in," Bochco said.
Many of his series since then have died early deaths. ABC dropped 1995's "Murder One," a critically praised noir series, before the end of its second season; CBS canceled 1997's "Brooklyn South" and 2000's "City of Angels" after one season each.
Moving to cable, Bochco's 2005 Iraq war series "Over There" was also dropped by FX after one season. And in 2006 he quit ABC's "Commander in Chief" over conflicts with management just before the show was canceled.
Bochco heard about "Raising the Bar" when Feige sent him a copy of his book. Bochco called him to say he loved the book but wasn't interested in doing a show just about public defenders. "It's hard for people to identify with attorneys who represent defendants who, the vast majority of whom, have done what they're accused of doing," he said.
His 2001 show "Philly," starring Kim Delaney as a criminal defense attorney, had also been canceled after one season.
However, in a casual meeting with Michael Wright, senior vice president in charge of the content-creation group for TNT, TBS and TCM, Bochco happened to mention that he would be interested in doing a show about the larger world of the criminal justice system.
Bochco, whose Bochco Media is producing the show with ABC Studios, said he's happy to be on TNT, even though cable pays less than broadcast and generally orders fewer episodes. "Many of the crew are taking pay cuts to come and work with us because they believe in what we're doing," he said.
Bochco has periodically considered quitting the business, he said, but then gets a chance to work unhindered and realizes how much he still loves to make shows that are "about something."
What that something may be shifts every 10 years or so, he said. "The pressures of society create different points of view and attitudes about things. The second the points of view change, the whole environment of your storytelling changes, and that's what makes it fresh again.
"We do a law show today, we're living in a different world where the distinctions between the haves and have-nots are worse than it's ever been. ["Raising the Bar"] is a show that is uniquely about class warfare, and that's an extremely relevant issue in America today."