Exploring the Depths of the ‘Hill Street Blues’

[13 May 2014]

By J.C. Macek III

It’s nearly impossible to estimate the impact of NBC Television’s excellent Hill Street Blues. Or rather, it’s impossible to underestimate the cultural impact of Hill Street Blues. While Hill Street Blues was far from the first “police procedural” drama on television or the first ensemble cast on television, the show was the first to amalgamate these elements into an ongoing saga that broke the bonds of what television viewers consider to be “Drama” and expanded into its own strange hybrid of entertainment that included drama, tragedy, music, action, family situations, intense violence, social commentary, superheroes (yes, superheroes) and often gut-busting laughter.

To call Hill Street Blues a “drama”, “action show” or “comedy” would be to drastically limit (or completely miss) what the show really is.

The show was such a critical success (and ultimately a commercial success) that its Thursday at 10:00PM timeslot became a constant for the expectation of excellence. Hill Street Blues was the first 10PM anchor of NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday Night Lineup, to be followed by such heavy-hitters and critically acclaimed shows such as L.A. Law, Homicide: Life on the Street, ER and Southland. The streak was admittedly shattered by the ill-advised The Jay Leno Show, but that’s a conversation for another article.

Prior to Hill Street Blues’ 1981 debut, NBC’s Thursday had been reserved for a TV Movie of the Week. But with the anchor of Hill Street Blues Thursday became what it was, with shows like Cheers, Night Court, Family Ties, Taxi, The Cosby Show and Fame serving as its lead-in.

As for the show itself, after viewing the 2014 release of “The Complete Series” it is easy to see why Hill Street Blues is often considered to be one of the best television shows of all time (a reputation it continues to earn, amid many imitators and competitors). As an amalgam of what came before it, Hill Street Blues is a near perfect beast that never replicates, but builds upon its predecessors in its own quirky, occasionally surreal way. As a model, Hill Street Blues has influenced virtually every cop show (and other drama) to follow it, from NYPD Blue to The Shield to even St. Elsewhere.

One of the most striking aspects of Hill Street Blues is that the show never seemed to need to find its footing, instead hitting the ground running in the very pilot episode. The large cast of characters were presented in such a way that they proved to be instantly familiar without need for introduction and, more importantly, no stock characters to talk down to the audience. This lack of standardization extended to the atypical and iconoclastic storytelling about “The Hill”.

In the very first episode two major characters (who immediately felt established) were gunned down and apparently left for dead. Two characters on opposite sides of their parts of the law (a police captain and a court appointed defense attorney) prove to be lovers. The precinct’s resident wild man (just as likely to bite a suspect as draw his gun) proves to be among the most capable and caring cops on the force. The aging sergeant of the precinct is revealed to be such a Casanova that he is engaged to a high-school aged girl.

In addition to these quirky elements, the show (created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll for MTM Enterprises) was an immediate genre-bender that managed to keep audiences on their toes by shifting from dark tragedy and serious drama to hilarious comedy, often in the same minute. Romance, Action, family and even horror elements (a Rookie Hazing plot involves a hideous monster that lives in the sewers… and may or may not be real) also became part of the mix in the very first season.

It may be surprising for a realistic cop show to include a superhero character in the second season (when most shows are still working hard to establish themselves) but considering the fact that Hill Street Blues is a show based on iconoclastic surprises, somehow this strangeness fits perfectly and never interrupts the amazing narrative of this strong show. The Superhero in question is Captain Freedom (as portrayed by Dennis Dugan), a hilariously oblivious masked adventurer who is obviously ill-equipped to face the dangers he places himself into.

However, due to the excellence of the writing staff, Freedom becomes an incredibly sympathetic character whom the audience can actually believe in and support. As testimony to this greatness, the Captain Freedom episodes remain some of the most critically acclaimed and memorable of the entire series and in fact, in television in general (making TV Guide’s list of the 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time).

This is far from hyperbole, as there really are no “dud” shows throughout Hill Street Blues’s 146 episode run. Throughout the six year run of this inventive program, Hill Street Blues addressed such real world issues as gang violence, racism, the class divide, alcoholism, drug abuse and addiction, drug trafficking, police brutality, political assassination attempts and gambling addiction, even as the focus on close friendships (police partners become intimate friends), family relationships and criminal rehabilitation keep the show from becoming a parody of darkness.

Other standout episodes include the “Moon Over Uranus” trilogy of Season 3, revolving around the trials and tribulations of the stalwart Captain Francis “Pizza Man” Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), Season 2’s “Of Mouse and Man”, showing the softer side of the aforementioned “Wildman” Detective Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), and the hard-hitting Season 4 episode “Grace Under Pressure”, all about the death and remembrance of a major character, with each surviving major character dealing with the loss.

Also unique in the show’s storytelling is the obscurity of its location. While centering around the fictional “Hill Street Station” (the “Blues” being a slang reference to in-uniform policemen) the city surrounding Hill Street is never identified.. Although filmed in and around Los Angeles (both on set and on location), a great deal of effort was made in hiding what city or even state the setting was. Television and radio stations had the “K” or “W” of their callsigns obscured. The Los Angeles streets were contrasted with cutaway shots of Chicago while the “Metro Police” cop cars themselves are modeled after their Chicago counterparts.

And while there were hints that the setting was somewhere in the Midwest or Northeast (such as the statement that vacationing cops had to fly west toward Las Vegas), the cast was a mix of American races and cultures with officer Renko (Charles Haid) appearing to be the show’s standard Southern Boy (often referred to as a cowboy), his partner Hill (Michael Warren) seeming like the all American leading man (from any state), Lieutenant Calletano (Rene Enriquez) hailing from Columbia, Sargent Goldblume (Joe Spano) as a Jewish cop and Sargent Lucille Bates (Betty Thomas) as a previously unheard of major female cop character.

As strong as the central cast is, and it truly is, from the Captain’s ex-wife Fay (Barbara Bosson) to the dedicated but socially inept SWAT commander Lt. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) to morning rollcall sergeants Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) and Stan Jablonski (Robert Prosky) to public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), the guest, later and recurring cast is equally noteworthy. In addition to the striking performance by Dugan, Hill Street Blues, the cast also sported early performances by Alfre Woodard, Trinidad Silva, Ken Olin, Jeffrey Tambor, Dennis Franz, Jennifer Tilly, David Caruso, Danny Glover, Ally Sheedy, Barbara Babcock, Peter Jurasik, Mykelti Williamson, Jane Kaczmarek, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Tim Robbins, Ron O’Neal, Chris Noth, Ron Silver, Mimi Rogers, William Forsythe, Ken Foree and Cuba Gooding Jr. But aside from those names… very few stars.

Hill Street Blues was also groundbreaking in the area of filmmaking, eschewing standard single-camera floor models in favor of hand-held Arriflexes. The show brought viewers a documentary-style presentation without every resorting to “nausea vision” as later cinema verite style shows did. Further, each episode intertwined multiple plots for the strong ensemble cast, many of which were not resolved within a single hour of television. The “cold open” establishing the events of the show also proved to be infectiously influential on television shows that followed. Perhaps most importantly (and realistically, even when the show proved to center on its surreal elements), Hill Street Blues focused greatly on failure and the futility of crime fighting in a neighborhood where crime is omnipresent.

While Hill Street Blues remained excellent throughout its run, the show did stumble in its final years, occasionally resorting to the one thing that this groundbreaking program completely avoided in its creation: Formula. Detective J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin) was sure to fall victim to his own womanizing ways over and over (to the point of being used). Detective Neal Washington (Taurean Blacque) was repeatedly used as the model policeman who never succumbed to the temptation of bribes and avoided favoritism towards his own race (though plots repeatedly put him in both situations).

Belker was constantly being placed in the strangest situations to make use of his antisocial and loveably weird tendencies. Belker’s befriending of the Captain Freedom character and constant calls from his mother showed his heart, but by the time of the fifth season, he was chasing criminals while dressed as a giant chicken and popping out of strange locations to bite suspects into submission. Yes, this was always fun and funny, but the strangeness became almost expected toward the end of the show’s run.

This didn’t stop Hill Street Blues from earning 98 Emmy nominations throughout its run and continuing to be placed on lists of the best shows of all time. In truth, even when the show’s remarkable uniqueness dulled slightly, it still shone brighter than most shows of its ilk (and well outside of its ilk for that matter).

Extras in the Shout! Factory boxed set include four documentaries, a gag reel a booklet episode guide and four episode commentaries. While each disc proves to be entertaining (and even awe-inspiring) due to the merits of the show itself, fans and critics alike may clamor for more extras. Is four commentaries enough for one of the best and most groundbreaking programs in television history? Not really, but considering its seven season run, the boxed set’s pricetag could escalate exponentially with many more extras.

Still, the content of these discs is excellent and this boxed set proves that Hill Street Blues has earned its status as one of the best television shows of all time. With its immediately endearing characters, exciting plots, genre blending, excellent writing, groundbreaking directing and inspiring acting, Hill Street Blues is an incredible excuse for binge-watching and it is worth every second of the viewing experience.

While there have been many followers of Hill Street Blues (notably the fellow Bochco-created NYPD Blue), there has never been a true replication of this amazing television program. Even 33 years after the show’s 1981 debut, the show stands up incredibly well and hits just as hard as it ever did. Hill Street Blues is highly recommended for fans of great and addictive television. So, as the stalwart Sergeant Esterhaus said to start each episode, “Let’s be Careful Out There!”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181739-hill-street-blues-the-complete-series/