Bochco Makes It Real

Jul 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Although the stunningly realistic, controversial and politically charged one-hour drama “Over There” is the first scripted Hollywood series set in a current U.S. military conflict, über-producer Steven Bochco didn’t bother calling the Pentagon for cooperation.

“I just didn’t want to have to deal with a bureaucracy that at that level would almost predictably want something that was less realistic on certain levels,” Mr. Bochco explained last week. “The military, I don’t think, would ever want to approve a script where you saw a soldier in uniform smoking dope.”

Instead, Mr. Bochco used independent military advisers to help him craft the initial 13 episodes of his first original drama for cable television, which premieres July 27 on FX. It was a typical sign of his feisty independence, earned over nearly four decades in which he created “L.A. Law” and some of the finest television ever made, including the classic cop sagas “Hill Street Blues” on NBC and “NYPD Blue” on ABC.

With 10 Emmys and legendary success, Mr. Bochco is at a career crossroads. His last few shows, including “Blind Justice,” “Philly” and “Total Security,” may have been artistic successes but they were ratings losers.

His venture into cable means producing on a lower budget but also gives Mr. Bochco the creative freedom to paint his electronic canvas with his unique and valuable artistic vision without artificial restraints from broadcast network standards and practices.

He is co-producing “Over There” with 20th Century Fox Television. Mr. Bochco’s studio and network deals have expired. “I’d love to have a home,” he admitted. “There’s a certain security in having a home. On the other hand, we’re enjoying very much the freedom of being able to pitch to everybody, and make different deals with different folks. We have a pilot at ABC and one at Fox, and we’re doing this for FX. That’s fun.”

Mr. Bochco was outspoken last year about concerns that there would be a creative chill on broadcast TV in the wake of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl flash. “I think it always hurts the creative process,” Mr. Bochco said. “Anytime there’s a writer, producer, creator, you’re constantly thinking about the things you ‘can’t’ do. …. That said, people do wonderful work and always have.”

In his first cable foray, the gloves are off in terms of language and imagery, and Mr. Bochco makes the most of it. “Over There” is an ensemble drama about an ethnically diverse Army unit, mostly men but some women too, on its first tour of duty in Iraq. It also includes scenes set back home and at a military hospital in Germany. It faces head-on the physical, emotional and cultural issues confronting newbie Army “grunts” without polemic or preaching.

The conflict in Iraq isn’t like any other war, and this show illustrates that. In the first episode, for example, the platoon is pinned down in a desert firefight across from a mosque. The soldiers can’t move because an Arab satellite TV news crew, ensconced with the insurgents, is broadcasting the scene live across the Arab world. The bitter platoon leader explains that a U.S. general stationed 75 miles away is worried about the public relations problem this poses. As a viewer and an American, your heart breaks for soldiers whose fate may be linked to PR value.

Mr. Bochco said he and his fellow executive producer Chris Gerolmo, who wrote the Oscar-nominated script for the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning,” were not politically motivated. “A lot of people seem interested in rooting out some sort of secret political agenda, [but] we don’t have one,” Mr. Bochco said.

That may be the case, but the truth is also that the subtext, the impact of what we are watching, makes it a powerful political statement. The proof that “Over There” is good is that each viewer sees his or her own thoughts reflected in it. “People fundamentally opposed to this war or to any war on principle will find some degree of kinship in this show,” Mr. Bochco said. “I also think people who are for this war or don’t necessarily object across the board will also find things to support in this show. I really think what you take from the show is pretty much dependent on what you bring to it.”

Mr. Bochco almost passed on the project. He remembers when “Over There” was first offered by John Landgraf, president of FX: “My first impulse was to turn them down.”

“I’ll tell you my concerns,” he continued. “First, I had never been in the military, and John Landgraf said, ‘Well, you were never a cop either.’ So that’s fair. But my real concern was that this war generates such powerful political points of view, I was afraid that [being seen as political] might be unavoidable.”

Then he decided that was silly. “It’s not about this war necessarily,” he explained. “The fundamental thematics about war are really the common denominators of any war. Once you started thinking about it in purely human terms, young men and women in uniform, suddenly you’ve got a rich tapestry of individual human dramas that really, I think, at its core is what the human interest in war is about. … Other people can bring their political agenda to it, but we’re not in the business of presenting one.”

Maybe it could be any war, but it is this war in Iraq that is being fought live on TV every night. Nonetheless, TV news barely prepares you for the images in “Over There,” which are graphic and sometimes violent. “We thought a lot about that stuff because you don’t want to be accused of being gratuitous,” Mr. Bochco said. “On the other hand, I can’t think of any show that I’ve ever done where the graphic depiction of violence is more legitimate than in a show like this, particularly when we’re committed, on a story level, to spending an entire year, if not an entire series, dealing with the consequences of that graphic violence.”

“This is the first war in which we as civilians and the civilian population worldwide is experiencing the war in real time,” Mr. Bochco said. “And for that reason alone, it’s a really interesting war to dramatize.”

What about concerns that soldiers’ morale might be hurt or that the show could be painful for relatives to watch? “That’s something you would think about no matter what kind of show you were doing,” Mr. Bochco responded. “If you’re doing a cop show, you are thinking about a wife who sends a guy off to his job every day not knowing whether or not he’s going to come home at night. That’s a real thing.”

The recent London bombings intensified feelings about the war and terrorism, but Mr. Bochco doesn’t foresee it having an impact on the launch of his series. “It is what it is,” he explained. “The war is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere you look. It’s in the hearts and minds of every American, either consciously or unconsciously. It’s just sort of in the ether.”

And soon, “Over There” will be part of the dialogue.