"Cop Rock" and "WIOU," two of the most promising network series of the new fall season, are ambitious, intelligent hour-long dramas from two widely admired and deeply respected producers. The similarities don't end there. They also share the same time slot.
Come fall, "Cop Rock" will air Wednesday nights at 10 on ABC (Channel 7). "WIOU" will air Wednesday nights at 10 on CBS (Channel 9).
What's a viewer to do? Dilemmas like this are one reason VCRs were invented. The networks can't be blamed for being competitive, for putting such exceptional attractions up against each other.
On the other hand, everybody who's watched more than 30 minutes of TV in his life knows that this fall, as in every season of television, there'll be many time slots
during the week when nobody will be airing anything of value.
C'est la vie-deo.
Neither of these two shows, it should be noted, is on NBC, which clings to its new-found reputation as the least innovative network. NBC's programming tends to be slick and assured but not generally electric.
Of the two pilots -- which were made available for preview by the production companies -- "Cop Rock" is the more unusual, to put it mildly, and is already the most talked-about new show. It's another slam-bang police drama from executive producer Steven Bochco ("Hill Street Blues") that differs in one particular, spectacular way from every other slam-banger. People sing in it. Cops, crooks and cronies croon, trill and warble.
All of a sudden their hearts sing. And their mouths too.
"Has the jury reached a verdict?" asks the judge from his bench. "We have, your honor," the foreman replies. The judge shouts, "Hit it!" the lights go down, the music comes up, the jury turns into a gospel choir and leaps to its feet, singing, "He's guilty, judge, he's guilty."
Young men being led out of a crack house after a nighttime bust erupt in rap. The dumpy older husband of a young female cop sings a plaintive ballad after she kisses him good night. And a cocaine-addicted mother quiets her infant daughter with a lullaby on a park bench, then sells the baby into adoption for drug money.
The brilliant musical sequences are not the show's only distinction. Its view of the urban crimescape is even bleaker than that of "Hill Street Blues" -- an outlook so steeped in pessimism that some viewers will be scared off. But then, one often finds horror and tragedy in opera.
Bochco's casting people have done their by-now-usual magic in assembling a cast that includes many arresting new faces. It also includes an old one: Bochco's wife, Barbara Bosson, under several layers of makeup, though arguably not enough. She plays the corrupt mayor.
Nepotistic indulgences aside, this is a series that demands attention and rewards it. "Cop Rock" is shocking and thrilling and, like "Twin Peaks," bravely strange.
"WIOU," the new CBS ensemble drama about an embattled local TV news operation, is certain to restore luster to the name of producer Grant Tinker, now in his third life as an entertainment eminence. In the first, he ran MTM Productions through the golden years of "Mary Tyler Moore." In the second, he was chairman of NBC, bringing the network from last place to first.
But as an independent producer with his own new company, he's had less than auspicious success: the syndicated "USA Today" and NBC's beach banquet "Baywatch," both kaput.
"WIOU," happily, is a high-gloss, quality show with a fresh, flashy cast, including John Shea as the station's new news director, Helen Shaver as an idealistic reporter and Jayne Brook as an up-and-coming young knockout who unfortunately hyperventilates on the air when given a chance to anchor a news break.
Best of all is Harris Yulin, painfully hilarious as Neal, the lecherous gray-haired anchorman whose grope exceeds his grasp.
"Neal, I'll tell you all about it as soon as you take your hand off my thigh," Shaver informs him during a live newscast. When this fails to daunt the dirty old man, she grabs him under the desk and says, "I'll let go when you do."
A veteran producer who's seen the "WIOU" pilot was told that shenanigans like these are exactly what the public thinks is going on in TV news. "And they're right," he said. He found the whole thing highly plausible, but wondered if the show would turn out to be too "in" for the general audience.
Tinker is returning to the newsroom setting of both "Moore" and "Lou Grant." But "WIOU" isn't a sitcom, as "Moore" was, and apparently won't be big-issue-oriented like "Grant," which was about life at a major urban daily.
"Capital News," the ABC series that was also about a news-gathering operation, failed resoundingly last season, and no one knows exactly why. One reason might be that the viewing public has no interest whatever in what goes on behind the scenes with reporters. Another might be that too many of the characters were sanctimonious do-gooders out to right the world's wrongs.
On "WIOU," the characters are more believable -- rascals, rowdies, losers and paranoids scrambling for success in a maniacally competitive world. When one old anchorman drops dead while delivering the news, a young would-be anchor pries the copy out of his hand so he can volunteer to continue the newscast.
He tells viewers that the dead anchor "has the rest of the night off."
In its annual forecast of the fall season, the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency gives "WIOU" a better-than-average shot at becoming a hit. Betsy Frank, who wrote the report, liked the dramatic scenes of "Cop Rock" but hated the songs, and gives it less chance of succeeding.
Judging from the first episode, "WIOU" looks to be a snappy, crackling, richly entertaining hour in the tradition of "L.A. Law," "St. Elsewhere" and other shows the networks can be proud to have put on the air. Come October, there will be at least two more of those.