Fox // 1982 // 850 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // May 8th, 2006
"Let's roll, and let's be careful out there."
NBC has had its fingers around some very convincing police dramas over the past quarter century. Putting aside the fact that Law and Order and its various spinoffs running for a good portion of that time, the proud peacock has birthed such acclaimed cop shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and Miami Vice. At the head of this successful run stands a show that Steven Bochco created called Hill Street Blues which was groundbreaking and helped to revolutionize the genre. After a superb first season, the gang is back for season two. Does the high level of compelling drama continue?
Allow me to reacquaint you with the cast of characters from the Hill Street station. They are:
* Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), recovering alcoholic, divorced from his wife Fay (Barbara Bosson, Murder One) and seeing a Public Defender named Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel, Philly).
* Lieutenants Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking, Fever Pitch) and Ray Cayetano (René Enríquez, The Evil That Men Do). Cayetano is the firm, calming force, and Hunter is the gung-ho right-winger who is more than a little accident prone when not handling his normal function of responding to hostage situations.
* Detectives Neal Washington (Taurean Blacque, Fled) ex-football player, and his partner John LaRue (Kiel Martin, The Panic in Needle Park), recovering alcoholic and general scumbag.
* Sergeants Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano, Apollo 13), the resident squad idealist, and Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad, The Longest Yard), the desk sergeant who speaks eloquently and has an irresistible magnetism drawn to him by much younger women, and Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz, Deep Impact), who frequently works undercover and is often made fun of as the last step in evolution before present day man.
* Officer Charles Renko (Charles Haid, Altered States) the easygoing comic and general redneck, and his partner Bobby Hill (Michael Warren, Cleopatra Jones) his more sensible and black partner. The other notable pairing was Vietnam vet Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro) and his partner, Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas, Troop Beverly Hills), who pressed on despite a lingering sexual tension between them.
Fox has packaged the season rather smartly and economically, but it's still six episodes on each of three flipper discs. The episodes are:
* "Hearts and Minds"
What better a way to kick off a season than by a man who goes crazy in the holding area and grabs a gun and fires off a few rounds before the cops return fire and kill him? And Furillo wants to make peace with a supposedly reformed gang leader named Jesse John Hudson who has renounced his past (played by a young Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon), despite rumors to the contrary, and contrasted exceptionally well. In the meantime, Hill and Renko attempt to catch a purse-snatching bandit of the primate order, but find something else. And on his 40th birthday, Furillo gives Davenport an ultimatum on their relationship. Just what a good first episode does; it plants the seeds for the storylines to come.
* "Blood Money"
Hudson continues his progression to urban renewal, while possibly being linked to the theft of a large weapons cache. Furillo confronts a detective who possibly assaulted an innocent woman, and (literally) the next minute finds out Fay is getting remarried. Esterhaus breaks up with Grace (Barbara Babcock, The Lords of Discipline) and Hunter expresses interest in her. LaRue and Washington deal with an informant who turns out to be a murderer, and Furillo and Davenport have the first awkward meeting as an ex-couple at an art gallery. It's not as good as the first episode, but it wasn't that far of a fall.
* "The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue"
The weapons that were stolen were located and recovered, and as the force gets closer to Hudson, the undercover cop entrenched within his circle is found dead, and Belker blames Furillo for it. Hill and Renko try to resolve a domestic squabble, but it turns ugly, resulting in one person dead and another barricading themselves in their home. There wasn't a lot that happened during this episode, but what did was compelling.
* "The Second Oldest Profession"
As part of a department attempt to bust some prostitutes, Bates allows a woman to shoot heroin before getting arrested. A friend of Esterhaus' (and fellow ex-husband) comes onto him, and Hudson meets a violent end. Goldblume attempts to reconcile with his wife after his affair, but there's still some venom to spew, and Davenport and Furillo reconcile (with an open relationship to boot). The episode shows a little more of the quirky humor that helped make the show good, but it's a bit of a letdown.
* "Fruits of the Poisonous Tree"
LaRue continues to battle rumors of his falling off the sobriety wagon, and he and Washington catch a robber that Davenport is defending and claims police entrapment. A young girl is an accidental fatality in a gangland shooting, and tensions heightened. Note the sleazy lawyer in this episode, played in a recurring role by Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development). Watching Washington get disillusioned by the justice system isn't that bad, but it's still a little light, story wise.
* "Cranky Streets"
Some members of the squad get some trainees to chauffeur around, and Hill gets an old friend of his (and Furillo's) named Jerry Nash (Stephen McHattie, A History of Violence). He makes waves quickly, rescuing a husband and wife from a burning car, but it's apparent that he has a lot more stress than he lets on, and he uses excessive force when arresting a suspect later in the day. Coffey arrests a close friend of the family in his old neighborhood that may have gotten his hands dirty.
* "Chipped Beef"
During a traffic accident, Renko gets saved by one of the participants, but is found to have an outstanding felony warrant. At a lunch with Furillo, his ex-wife and her soon-to-be husband, the soon-to-be has a heart attack and dies at the table. Washington finds out his girlfriend has been cheating on him, and Furillo confronts the officers involved in covering up the Nash brutality incident. Way off topic, but holy crap, remember how big ATMs were?
* "The World According to Freedom"
A double homicide has struck a personal chord with Furillo, and he is willing to do whatever he can to ensure that the perpetrators are found as quickly as possible. Belker is concurrently annoyed and uplifted when he meets a latter day Don Quixote crime-fighter the department has not authorized or recognized. And in the third storyline, an undercover job results in an attempted suicide and possibly the start of a slippery slope for LaRue. Another show, another top quality keeper from Bochco and company.
* "Pestolozzi's Revenge"
Renko loses his pistol at a poker game near a wedding, and Furillo takes part in an operation to help catch a corrupt captain to thwart a corruption commission by a politically ambitious district attorney. Bates gets upset with Coffey about a lie he tells, and LaRue bumps into a former drunken rendezvous, while Captain Freedom makes his triumphant return.
* "The Spy Who Came in From Delgado"
Captain Freedom gives Belker some moments of poignant clarity in between crazy ramblings, and Hunter starts a search against possibly the greatest enemy he has faced. Though he considers himself to be innocent, Furillo shops around for a lawyer with Davenport's help, while Chief Daniels (Jon Cypher, Major Dad) gives Furillo some much-needed staff help (with some ulterior motives).
* "Freedom's Last Stand"
The resident burnout case of the Hill, Officer Art Delgado, is subpoenaed as part of the corruption commission, and Furillo and a separate police captain discuss what to do with a possible dirty cop. During his second appearance in front of the grand jury, Furillo threatens the Chief with his resignation. Coffey makes a pass at Bates after the end of the annual police poker tournament, and Captain Freedom meets his ultimate destiny.
* "Of Mouse and Man"
A fellow Public Defender and friend of Davenport's is brutally murdered, and Furillo helps to capture the people responsible. Hill is elected Vice-President of the Black Police Officers' Coalition in absentia and tries to find out why, and Goldblum attempts to rectify a dispute between a cantankerous landlord and its outspoken neighbor (played by Edward James Olmos, Stand and Deliver). And yes, that is Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek: The Next Generation) as a low-level drug dealer and not just your eyes.
* "Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement"
Hill's advanced participation in the Black Officers' Coalition continues to rile Renko, while it becomes more visible that LaRue's sobriety is fading away, to the point of showing up drunk before heading up a major drug bust. Davenport's friend's killer is released from jail on a technicality. Things get harder for Renko when he visits his father in the hospital and gets wounded in the line of duty. To see the squad oddball wax a little dramatic is a nice change of pace in the grand scheme of things.
* "The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded"
LaRue deals with the fallout surrounding his dereliction of duty, and asks for help. The Gilliam killers are arrested again for the crime, this time with some more concrete evidence, but are released again, because their witness is too good to be true. Hill's pressure as Black Officers' Coalition vice president is too much of a toll, and he no longer wants part of it. Almost every character gets some time in this episode, the storylines are advanced, all of it is top notch stuff.
* "Some Like it Hot-Wired"
Goldblume feels slighted when a minority cop gets a promotion over him, and Davenport, still smarting from the Gilliam murder, has become disenchanted with the justice system and no longer wants to be a part of it. As part of a prostitute sting, Goldblume is shot in the line of duty, and in another part of town, Washington helps bust a car chop shop and encounters a familiar face along the way. Renko still bears some tough relationship issues with his Dad, made worse by the fact that his Dad has a terminal case of cancer.
* "Personal Foul"
Goldblume and his wife decide to get a divorce. In lighter fare, the cops and gang leaders, despite some rising tensions, follow through on a previously scheduled basketball game to improve community relations. And yes, that is David Caruso (NYPD Blue) in the back as the leader of one of the gangs. A domestic dispute that Hill and Renko first moderated turns into a subsequent hostage situation. On its surface, it would appear a little flimsy, but is much more emotionally affecting that you would assume.
Two cops are shot and one is killed in a robbery, and a weapon from the evidence room is to blame for it. On the plus side, LaRue does provide a contribution that leads to the perp's capture, and Belker has a driver's license exam that's a bit on the eventful side. Renko's father's health also worsens. Not terrible by this show's standards.
* "Invasion of the Third World Body Snatchers"
The trials and tribulations of setting up a funeral for Renko's father are surreal to say the least. Before their Caribbean vacation, Davenport takes up a case that no one immediately has faith in, and Furillo doesn't immediately want LaRue back after the Board of Rights verdict. Bates gets confronted by her boyfriend, who happens to be married, while Goldblume, now playing the singles field, finds a bit of a surprise along the way. While it's a little offbeat, it doesn't have any of the cliffhanger endings that shows have today, though they give you some looks at where some characters may be headed in subsequent seasons.
There is a reason why Conrad said "Let's roll" before saying five of the most memorable words in television history. The fact is that there were so many characters, the viewer could not help but identify with at least one of them over the course of the show's life. With everyone caring about the officers in the Hill Street precinct, "Let's roll" was not only for them, but for us as well. For instance, Belker may have been a quiet, dedicated cop, but over the few moments of humanity that he expressed, everyone (and I mean everyone) had a little cry with him. And Davenport was the first smart and sexy woman that I remember watching as I grew up. There were so many great storylines and outstanding character development that was done so well, it wasn't hard to keep up with them all. Everyone could act and provide compelling drama in their sleep, which led me to write "good lord, how deep was this bench?" when I was taking some notes while watching the show.
There are several reasons behind that, but the first has to be the identifying factors of the characters. They were more than cops, they were human beings with flaws, and that's what people related to more than anything. Furillo may have been as close to a moral compass in the squad room, but he had problems. He had apparently bounced the occasional alimony check to Fay in the past, and that's alluded to here. Another thing that was amazing about the show was the continuity. The shows were mostly portrayed as single days of life on the Hill, so because of that, story and character arcs stuck around for awhile, and the attention to detail is amazing. A lost revolver in one episode shows up again (with larger ramifications) several episodes down. Coffey gets punched in the eye one episode, and the black eye is still there (albeit faded) in the next episode. Esterhaus makes plans to take a trip to Paris and announces he's practicing his French periodically, which he proceeds to do on and off for the next four episodes!
This is a credit to Bochco, who (with some help) helped write most of the first two seasons of the show. Another reason why the show was appealing was due to the dialogue working so well and sounding so eloquent. Conrad's character usually couldn't go two sentences without including a three syllable word in the dialogue (who says "progeny" on a TV show anymore?), and Davenport's character said a word that I had to look up because I never heard it before. Forget the current strategy of cramming in as many pop culture references in 44 minutes to make a show "look smart," and give them the time (48 minutes in Hill Street Blues' case) to speak to each other without a lot of grunting or posing.
Thankfully, Fox does a bit of justice to this television landmark. Separate (but too brief) looks at the show and some of its memorable characters, regular or otherwise help supplement the set. It's surprising to see the show's most "outrageous" character in Renko portrayed by someone who is so soft-spoken and intellectual, but otherwise, this quick look is nice, along with those for Captain Freedom and Belker. There are even a couple of commentaries, where a mix of the cast and crew enjoy watching these again after all these years.
What sophomore jinx? The list of awards that Hill Street Blues was nominated for in season two is something that most shows would kill for over the course of an entire run: nominations for Outstanding Dramatic Writing for three separate episodes (a fourth won). Outstanding Direction for two episodes. Outstanding Supporting Actress Nominations for Thomas and Bosson and Outstanding Supporting Actor Nominations for Weitz, Warren, Blacque and Haid. An Outstanding Lead Actress Nomination to Hamel. Outstanding Actor and Supporting Actor awards for Travanti and Conrad. And so on, and so forth.
Hill Street Blues helped change the television landscape and made things more grittier, with people who were not (or ever claimed to be) patron saints of their particular setting. Bochco revolutionized the cop drama, only to raise the bar years later in NYPD Blue. Combined shortly thereafter with another somewhat gritty show set in a hospital titled St. Elsewhere, the shows helped revitalize a network and showed the world what could be possible with new technology.
Review content copyright © 2006 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 850 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Selected Episode Commentaries
* "The Hill Street Blues Story" featurette
* "Belker Unleashed" featurette
* "Confessions of Captain Freedom" featurette
* "A Cowboy on the Hill" featurette
* Episode Previews
* Gag Reel
* Museum of Broadcast Communications: Hill Street Blues
* Boston Phoenix List of the Most Influential Television Shows in History
* Season One Review