The Case for Bingeing Hill Street Blues

"Let's be careful out there!"

It is often proclaimed that we live in a new golden age of television, one in which storytelling has been raised to a high art. An age of sophisticated, serious dramas unafraid of moral ambiguity and darker themes, of long story arcs and complex characters, and production values rivaling high-budget prestige cinema. The age of Game of Thrones and The Americans and Mad Men and Lost and Person of Interest and so many others.

Have you ever wondered where it all got started? Opinions vary, of course, but I submit that the birth of the modern television drama occurred on January 15, 1981, with the broadcast of the first episode of Hill Street Blues.

In order to fully appreciate just how different Hill Street Blues was at the time, watch any random episode of any pre-Hill Street crime-of-the-week procedural: Charlie's Angels, Hawaii Five-O, Starsky & Hutch, Cannon, Ironside, Kojak, The Streets of San Francisco, doesn't matter which one, they were all more or less the same. The protagonists were always competent and composed and very well-dressed, they all got along with each other, and none of them had personal issues that got in the way of their crime-busting. All scenes were shot with a static or dolly-mounted camera, interior lighting was flat, and overall production values were firmly low-budget. You could watch the episodes in any order because (except for the odd two-parter) there were no multi-episode plot arcs. Each stand-alone episode followed a predictable outline, in which the crime was inevitably solved and justice done right before the last commercial break.

Sergeant Esterhaus
If you were expecting something like that when you tuned in to NBC on that particular wintry Thursday night, well, you were in for a surprise. The cold open dropped you right into the middle of an inner-city precinct's roll call briefing, in a shopworn room with easily fifty or sixty uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives packed in a space not quite big enough to hold them all. We see this all in documentary-style shots from handheld cameras.

The desk sergeant, Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad), is already halfway through his agenda, and his audience is anything but quiet and attentive. He gets to the end of the list and the whole room starts to empty out in a clatter of chairs and babble of conversation, but this is interrupted by Sgt. Esterhaus suddenly shouting, "Hey! Hey-hey!" Everybody freezes in place, the room gets almost unnaturally quiet, and then he adds, "Let's be careful out there."

For the rest of the hour, we follow the patrol officers, detectives and senior staff of the Hill Street precinct through a typical day. Hill Street is set in a large city with chronically corrupt local government which looks an awful lot like Chicago. (Creator Steven Bochco said it was an amalgamation of several cities, including Chicago, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, but all the exterior scenes were filmed in Chicago.) "The Hill" is a poor neighborhood with rampant crime, the sort of place where the bad guys are so dominant that street gangs are accorded diplomatic recognition by the city government. The story is told by total immersion: no narration, no exposition in the guise of showing a new arrival around the place on her first day on the job. Instead of a string of stand-alone episodes, Hill Street is written as a series of interlaced three- to six-episode story arcs, intense drama and bitter tragedy side by side with comic relief, all overlapping and playing out simultaneously in quick-cut sequences before the hand-held cameras. (The 4:3 aspect ratio and "standard definition" cinematography look archaic today, but they were impressive at the time.) Even the music is different, anchored by a soft acoustic piano leitmotif instead of the usual brassy, fast-paced action! adventure! cop-show theme.

Captain Furillo, Officer Renko, and Sergeant Bates
The precinct captain, Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), is struggling to do an honest job and uphold the law. As if the precinct's crime rate and chronic poverty weren't challenging enough, he's constantly harangued by an ultraliberal public defender (Veronica Hamel) who refers to the police as the neighborhood's "Nazi occupation force," while simultaneously jousting with the corrupt scumbag chief of police (Jon Cypher) and enduring random unscheduled visits from his drama-queen ex-wife (Barbara Bosson). The officers mostly get along, but some get along better than others, and there are recurring points of friction between particular individuals. A few are corrupt, some are alcoholic, others have trouble maintaining an appropriate emotional distance from the job, and still others cynically bend rules to make a bust – or sometimes just for their own personal benefit. Their off-duty lives are affected by what they see and experience at work, and their personal problems sometimes spill over into their jobs. It's ultimately a thankless task for all of them, because no matter how many arrests they make, no matter how many drug shipments they seize, there will be more crimes and more drugs tomorrow, not all the crimes will be solved, the city government will still be corrupt, and too many of the bad guys will still get let off on technicalities.

Detective Belker
The critical reception for the show was enthusiastic turned up to eleven, and it was nominated for twelve Emmys, winning eight including Outstanding Drama Series. It also picked up the Humanitas Prize, and the pilot episode "Hill Street Station" scored a Director's Guild award and an EDGAR. The ratings... not so much. Hill Street Blues finished in 87th place overall for the 1980-81 TV season – not quite dead last, but you could see it from there. Nevertheless, NBC renewed the show for the fall of 1981, making Hill Street the lowest rated show renewed to that point in history.

The gamble paid off. While it never became a top ten hit, Hill Street soon caught on. It had respectable ratings in its second and later seasons and became the anchor of NBC's "Best Night of Television on Television," which also included the very popular Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court. Hill Street was enough of a "thing" that the theme music became a hit single (reaching #10 on the Billboard "Hot 100") and Sgt. Esterhaus' catchphrase popped up all over the place. (Your humble narrator used it to end teachers' union meetings.)

Officers Hill and Renko
It was the best thing on TV at the time, but was it perfect? Of course not, because nothing is. While most of the main characters were realistically drawn and developed believably over the years, Lt. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking), the precinct SWAT team commander, was a cartoony blend of M*A*S*H's Major Frank Burns and Archie Bunker that never quite came off. Steven Bochco has a gift for writing quirky and unusual characters and story arcs, but from time to time he and the other writers overindulged it and let the quirky overwhelm the the show's gritty and realistic tone.

Still, for its first four seasons, Hill Street was long-form storytelling at its finest. It won four straight Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series, a gaggle of other Emmys for acting and directing, and four straight Director's Guild awards. Many of the show's best episodes aired in this period, including Outstanding Writing Emmy winners "Freedom's Last Stand" and "Trial By Fury." Dennis Franz, the future star of NYPD Blue, appeared in season three in a memorable six-episode arc as the corrupt Detective Sal Benedetto, and he wasn't the only destined-to-be-famous actor to pass through the Hill Street precinct. Ken Olin (Detective Harry Garibaldi) went on to star in thirtysomething and EZ Streets, and is now one of the showrunners of This is Us. The cast list also included Jeffrey Tambor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alfre Woodard, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Forest Whitaker, Andy Garcia, Edward James Olmos, David Caruso, Mimi Rogers, Chris Noth, Linda Hamilton, CCH Pounder, Hector Elizondo, and Frances McDormand, to name just a few.

Detectives LaRue and Washington
In season five, the show spent less time on the day-to-day routine of the precinct and more on the off-duty lives of the characters, becoming, in Steven Bochco's words, more "soap opera-ish." Though still a good show, it was clearly past its peak, which was reflected in a sharp drop-off in Emmy nominations. Steven Bochco was fired after this season, ostensibly because of budget overruns. There was significant turnover in the cast going into season six, and the new showrunners brought Dennis Franz back in as a "different" character, Detective Norman Buntz. (His previous character, Benedetto, died at the end of season three.) The thoroughly unlikeable and uninteresting Buntz was paired with a weaselly informant known as Sid the Snitch (Peter Jurasik), and the loathsome pair began soaking up screen time at the expense of the characters everybody liked and cared about.

There was even more cast turnover at the end of season six, but the show chugged on anyway. Then, Daniel J. Travanti announced that he would not be back after season seven. Captain Furillo was the center of the show, and without him, it wouldn't really be Hill Street anymore. The final episode did end on something of a high note, as it gave Norman Buntz the chance to partially redeem himself by doing what the audience had wanted someone to do all along: punch the dirtbag chief of police in the nose!

There was a sequel of sorts in the fall of 1987, Beverly Hills Buntz, a half hour comedy in which Norman Buntz and Sid the Snitch moved to California and became private detectives. It was put out of its (and our) misery after nine episodes.

Though it stumbled a bit at the end, Hill Street Blues was still a high point in the history of television, and one of the most influential dramatic series of all time. It was the prototype for all those shows we enjoy in today's "new golden age."

Seasons 1 to 4: four out of four morning roll-calls.
Season 5: three and a half out of four.
Seasons 6 and 7: two and a half out of four.

So go get the download or the DVDs and start bingeing Hill Street Blues... And hey, hey! Let's be careful out there!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great series. I was curiosly attracted to Belker.