Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hill Street Blues: Still a TV Standout

It still holds up. Nearly 30 years after the groundbreaking series Hill Street Blues revolutionized and reinvigorated a moribund, sanitized and dull American TV landscape, the indispensable cop show is as impressive as it was when it debuted as a mid season entry on NBC in early 1981. Much has been made about how the drama, created by Steven Bochco and set in a precinct situated in a decaying and unidentified U.S. city, likely Chicago, influenced future television dramas for the better, chiefly because of its gritty, handheld look, overlapping dialogue and complex characterization. But that’s not its chief attribute; after all Robert Altman had pioneered much of Hill Street’s innovations ten years earlier with M*A*S*H (1970). Hill Street Blues stood out because it forthrightly tackled social issues that were rarely dealt with on TV cop shows before but have become a staple of quality TV dramas since its seven year run ended in 1987. The ethnic and racial tensions underlying day to day life in Hill Street precinct were a constant focus of The Shield. The bureaucratic obstacles facing Hill Street’s street cops and brass were part and parcel of the plotlines in The Wire. And the strong ensemble performances, and the varied personalities on view each week, were what distinguished everything from St. Elsewhere (which did for hospitals and the medical drama what Hill Street Blues did for the cop show genre) to ER, The Sopranos and Deadwood. That’s high praise indeed but it’s warranted.

Season One’s 17 episodes set the template for what was to unfold over the series’ seven seasons; they offered a deft mix of comedy and drama, flawed characters dealing with issues like alcoholism, loneliness, divorce and prejudice, and an encompassing portrait of an American city fully as rich as any offered on television – or in any other medium for that matter. Hill Street Blues also boasted one of TV ‘s best theme songs, in the days when those were standard on all shows, in Mike Post’s melancholy and bouncy concoction.

One can quibble with a few flawed scenarios on the show, such as the mostly too cutesy West Side Story - like gang members, including a very young David Caruso (CSI: Miami) as the head of the Irish contingent on the Hill. And James B. Sikking’s portrait of Howard Hunter, the right wing gung ho and trigger happy SWAT leader (Emergency Action Team, in Hill Street’s parlance) is still too cartoonish - it improved in later seasons - but the show also takes shots at Joyce Davenport, the ultra liberal lawyer (portrayed by Veronica Hamel) who constantly berates the “fascist” cops for mistreating the criminals they have to deal with everyday. Other performances, Bruce Weitz as the growling, biting and very non – stereotypical Jewish cop Mick Belker; Joe Spano as the idealistic Henry Goldblume; Michael Conrad as the urbane, gentle Sergeant Esterhaus, whose signature admonishment “Let’s Be Careful Out There” set the tone for each episode’s opening; Trinidad Silva as the sarcastic gang leader Jesus Martinez; Charles Haid as the bombastic beat cop Andy Renko; Jon Cypher as the sleazy, manipulative Chief Fletcher Daniels; and, of course, Daniel J. Travanti as the beleaguered but charismatic precinct Captain Frank Furillo, are still as fresh as the day they first aired. (Oddly enough, Travanti is missing in action on the two episode specific commentary tracks from the show’s first season DVD release (Bochco, Sikking and Spano share the observations there) and in the featurette from 2001, wherein eight of the living regular cast members - Conrad and Silva are among the deceased - talk about how much they loved doing the series.

Only the first two seasons have been released on DVD thus far; ostensibly the others won’t follow because of poor sales, which would be a shame, because season three, when writer David Milch (Deadwood) joined the series is fully as good as the first two seasons. (After its stellar first three seasons, the show became somewhat calcified and mostly backed away from taking chances with its characters but it never became uninteresting.) The show was also unique in what it did with its myriad characters in terms of its sharp storylines, which often ventured where no cop show had gone before. African American cop Bobby Hill (Robert Warren) had to deal with his partner’s Renko’s prejudicial attitudes when he dated a white woman; later on Hill got involved in police politics when he took on the role of union representative for his fellow black cops, who had specific grievances related to their race and their 'place' in the precinct's pecking order. In one key episode, and pretty much the only one where Lieutenant Ray Calletano ( the late René Enríquez) was featured so prominently, Calletano lambasted the audience at an awards dinner in his honour for lumping him in with his fellow Latins, assuming he was Puerto Rican or Mexican when he was actually Columbian. In another episode, early in season one, Belker had to deal with an anti – Semitic cop who had it in for him. And one groundbreaking episode dealt with a cop, who was witness to a mass murder in a gay bar and had to decide if the price of fingering the killers was worth coming out and essentially destroying his career, not to mention losing his wife and son. I can’t recall, until The Shield aired, any show before Hill Street Blues, which was so aware of its characters’ racial, ethnic and religious differences, even within groups. That’s something that plays a larger role in American life, even post – Barack Obama, than is commonly admitted.

The show was also notable for its distinctly adult flavour; from its almost salacious slang - Belker was fond of the word “dirt bag” - to the frankly sexy relationship between precinct adversaries Frank Furillo and Joyce Davenport, who kept their intimacy a secret from the outside world and loved to unwind in the tub after a hard day’s work. The show’s action sequences were realistic without being over the top, unless they were being played for laughs – Belker had one suspect he was perpetually booking – and the series’ epic scale was unique for commercial television, especially when compared to the mostly bland, forgettable offerings of the 70s, shows like The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon and even Kojak, which though well acted didn’t allow anyone but its star Telly Savalas to shine. (Kojak, like The Fonz on Happy Days, quickly turned into a pop cultural archetype – a lollipop chewing baldie – rather than a flesh and blood creation.) Hill Street's opening scene, each episode, taking place early in the morning when the cops were just having their morning coffee, smoking a cigarette, and getting ready to begin their day, as Sgt. Esterhaus laid out the issues and crimes that needed to be dealt with during their shifts, were a unique reminder (for TV) that these cops were working stiffs, blue collar employees, in fact, and not just the people who showed up when someone was killed or a bank was robbed. The fact that Hill Street station was a building in constant need of repair functioned as a further, stark, example of how these employees' concerns could be ignored by their (white collar) highers - up in the mayor's office and state legislature.

Hill Street Blues also offered some terrific actors a chance to shine in the series, including Jennifer Tilly as a gangster’s moll, Ally Sheedy as a sexy schoolgirl and Jeffrey Tambor as a cross dressing judge. (It was in later in the show’s run that Dennis Franz guested on the show, in two very different cop roles, a prelude to his famous turn as Andy Sipowicz on Steve Bochco’s overly flashy and less impressive follow up cop series NYPD Blue.) .

Hill Street Blues, which became a bona fide hit in its second season is also one of the most honored TV series in Emmy Awards history, receiving 98 nominations over its seven year run and tying with L.A. Law and The West Wing for most cast nominations in a single year, grabbing nine of those for the 1981 – 82 season, its second. My favorite category that year was the Outstanding Actor in a Dramatic Series, where all five nominations went to actors from, you guessed it, Hill Street Blues. (For the record, Michael Conrad beat out Robert Warren, Charles Haid, Bruce Weitz and Taurean Blauque, who played tough undercover cop Neal Washington. That’s the only time an Emmy category has ever been dominated by just one show.)

The show’s critical acclaim is also one reason that NBC renewed the low rated series for a second season  and a timely reminder that, back in 1981, ratings were not the be all and end all of things, unlike today where shows get yanked after one or two episodes if the numbers are not deemed high enough by the network suits. In fact, Hill Street Blues was not only the lowest rated pilot episode ever picked up by a network to that date, it was renewed for a second season even after finishing 89th out of 99 shows, mainly because NBC head Fred Silverman liked the show. Today it wouldn’t stand a chance.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.


  1. Couldn't agree with you more! HSB was a rule breaker and a trendsetter! It is the benchmark for quality television. It was rich with quirky characters. It was filled with pathos and tragedy and sprinkled with black comedy- much like real life! That's what sets it apart from the others and why it was superior to its sister NYPD Blue. HSB was REAL whereas NYPD came off as superficial. HSB was and still is a great show.