From 'Cop Rock' to 'Atlanta': How Music TV Shows Went From Punch Lines to Prestige Programs

Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles.
Matthias Clamer/FX

Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles in Atlanta. 

The genre known as the musical TV show died its first death in 1990. That death was called Cop Rock, and it was as terrible and amazing as it sounds: a police procedural, for some reason co-created by Hill Street Blues co-creator Steven Bochco, in which characters occasionally break out into song. Somehow this show got onto ABC without anyone there second-guessing the idea, but once it got on the air, the ridiculousness was apparent to anyone who watched. It ran for 11 episodes before the network finally surrendered. Cop Rock became one of those grand, notorious flops, ranking No. 8 on TV Guide’s 2002 list of worst TV shows of all time and turning into an instant TV industry punch line.

Of course, Cop Rock was hardly the first music-driven television show; it was simply the flop that put a bullet in the genre for the next decade and a half. The Monkees had brought Beatlemania to TV in the 1960s, making an instant sensation out of the fictional band. The Partridge Family hit TV and record charts in the ‘70s, Fame in the ‘80s.

But after Cop Rock tanked so laughably, few went near the genre for the rest of the ‘90s and early 2000s, aside from a few cult blips such as Tenacious D. England embraced the bizarre murder-musical show Blackpool in 2004; an American remake starring Hugh Jackman, Viva Laughlin, tanked laughably three years later, with Cop Rock often invoked in its obituaries. It wasn’t until Glee became a surprise phenomenon in 2009 that the floodgates reopened, allowing for the unprecedented wave of music-driven shows that’s currently peaking: Nashville, Empire, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Atlanta and The Get Down -- not to mention the current craze for TV musicals, like the upcoming Rocky Horror Picture Show -- all have rabid fan bases and move tons of digital singles.

So how did TV finally get over its Cop Rock-induced gun shyness? In short, the music and TV industries both changed quickly and dramatically thanks to technology, and the changes drove them right into each other’s arms.

The MP3 was, coincidentally, invented the same year Cop Rock bombed. Of course, it didn’t begin to dismantle the traditional music industry until the turn of the millennium with the rise of Napster, and then iTunes. At the same time, the TV industry was going through its own changes. With shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, 24, and Sex and the City, the medium suddenly had cool cachet, a prestige previously reserved for film.

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The newly burnished glow of the TV screen began to attract confused music label executives, desperate for any new way to reach listeners. At first, the shows pioneering the new music-as-radio model were a few steps removed from the series leading the new Golden Age of TV. Teen shows, especially, became conduits for new music thanks to their young audiences and two particularly music savvy creator/executive producers: The O.C.’s Josh Schwartz and One Tree Hill’s Mark Schwahn. Whether you liked the melodramatics on screen, you had to respect them bringing the likes of Joseph Arthur, Death Cab for Cutie, Against Me!, and Andrew Bird to wider audiences. They became forces for shooting songs to the top of iTunes charts, as did the surprise smash American Idol, which launched in 2002. Suddenly music seemed more at home on television, beyond the confines of MTV, even if it hadn’t yet insinuated itself into the actual performances of scripted series.

Meanwhile, as high-quality, original programming began to expand across the cable dial -- and, eventually, streaming services -- television began to go through its own Napster-size shift. As great series proliferated, TV executives started looking for more creative approaches to cut through the cluttered landscape. The music and TV industries’ unique challenges came together with the breakthrough hit Glee in 2009. Until 2015, Fox’s show choir dramedy churned out harmonized covers of hits and spawned summer concert tours while making overwrought points about social issues. It made stars of Lea Michele and Jane Lynch and sold 45 million downloads throughout its run. Because networks always want their own versions of what’s working, musical shows started popping up everywhere. Not all were as successful as Glee, but even the worst among them -- like NBC’s 2012 cheesefest about a Broadway musical, Smash -- garnered attention and sold soundtracks (Smash’s first-season soundtrack debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and inspired a concert staging).

Soon TV producers saw that the music industry itself was ripe for soap opera treatment. And thanks to the anxieties swirling about the business (now the nightmare had turned from Napster to streaming) -- as well as the undeniable prestige that TV had earned over the past decade -- shows about the industry could attract top-notch guest stars for cameos and songwriting talent to make its characters’ songs sound like legit hits. Music industry soap Nashville debuted in 2012 to great promise; it settled down into a groove of so-so scripts and superior songwriting that maintained a rabid following, fueled two concert tours, and got it picked up by CMT when ABC canceled it this past spring. High-powered cameos included Christina Aguilera, Elton John, and Steven Tyler, while featured songs were written by Kacey Musgraves, Elvis Costello, and Gillian Welch. Empire, meanwhile, became a breakout hit in 2015 with good songwriting and the absolutely bonkers plotlines soap operas thrive on. Jennifer Hudson, Rita Ora, Courtney Love, and Snoop Dogg were among the many musicians who guest starred, and the show employed the songwriting talents of Jim Beanz, Hudson, and Mary J. Blige, with Timbaland serving as music supervisor until hitmaker Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins took over this year.

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Despite the washout that was this year’s Vinyl on HBO -- most notable for making drug use, group sex, and murder in the 1970s music biz look boring -- the trend shows no signs of weakening. The Get Down, a Netflix drama about hip-hop’s beginnings in 1970s New York City, and Atlanta, a contemporary FX dramedy about an aspiring rapper, premiered in the past few months to warm receptions. The CW’s critically adored Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- a more “traditional” musical in which characters break out into (great) songs despite zero affiliation with the music business -- returns for a second season Oct. 21, and it won a Golden Globe for its co-creator and star, Rachel Bloom. Fox airs its production of Rocky Horror Picture Show Oct. 20, and NBC goes live with Hairspray in December.

At this rate, even a reboot of Cop Rock doesn’t seem that farfetched.