Judge Jim Thomas wants everyone to be careful out there.
Let's be careful out there.
As the 1970s gave way to the '80s, the only thing more dependable than Reagan's polling numbers was one simple truth: NBC SUCKED! It had a couple of solid performers like Little House on the Prairie and CHiPs, but better programs such as The Rockford Files were on their last legs, and the ensuing search for new programming resulted in a veritable Bermuda Triangle of failed shows, from Hello, Larry to (*gulp*) Supertrain. Hell, even Saturday Night Live sucked.
Desperate, NBC asked MTM Productions to produce a cop show. A couple of young writers were given the assignment, but Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll were tired of writing traditional, formulaic shows such as Columbo and McMillan and Wife, and decided to experiment. They didn't just change the genre; they blew up the face of television. The resulting show, Hill Street Blues ran from 1981 through 1987, serving as the initial bookend of what was to become known as Thursday nights' "Must See TV," and very simply revolutionized series television. All of the things we now take for granted—large ensemble casts, multiple storylines, complex characterizations, serialized storylines, and above all, a greater sense of realism—came out of a show that was designed to break all the rules. Posterity—not to mention the awards—demonstrates that the show was a major success. Now let's look at Shout! Factory's Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series and see how this perp measures up.
Facts of the Case
The Hill Street precinct is inner city at its seediest, full of low life perps and hustlers, the larger sharks trying to make a name for themselves, and a bunch of regular people doing their best just to get by. Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travianti, Boss) struggles to keep order in the precinct, juggling the safety of his squad alongside the safety of the neighborhood, fighting city hall every step of the way. Furillo's straight-laced demeanor belies the fact that he is a recovering alcoholic, and that he is sleeping with public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure), a fact which the two of them have managed to keep secret. When he isn't riding herd on his squad, he's negotiating, either with his superiors or with the local gang leaders—and it's a tossup as to which group he finds more distasteful.
The Hill Street precinct roll call features…
• Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad, 1974's The Longest Yard)—Always concerned with the safety of his officers, Esterhaus also has a near legendary love life, initially splitting time with the sexually adventurous Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock, Space Cowboys) and an 18-year-old high school student. When Conrad died during the fourth season, Esterhaus was killed off while having sex with Grace. Esterhaus was eventually replaced by Sgt. Stan Jablonski (Robert Prosky, Dead Man Walking).
• Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson, Murder One)—Furillo's ex-wife, who frequently shows up at the station.
• Lt. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking, Doogie Howser, M.D.)—The officious leader of the precinct's Emergency Actions Team (SWAT, but here with an intentionally dorkier name…the EATers). Hunter is frequently used for comic-relief, but despite his condescending manner, he's a decent guy at heart.
• Lt. Ray Calletano (René Enriquez, Harry and Tonto)—One of the few Latino commanders in the police department, he has a chip on his shoulder.
• Sgt. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano, NCIS)—The community affairs officer, Goldblume is deeply dedicated, letting cases get to him. He often has to insist on being involved in more dangerous assignments.
• Officer Andy Renko (Charles Haid, Altered States)—A bit of a redneck, Renko acts first and thinks later, which often gets him into trouble. Renko was killed in the pilot, but the character tested so well that they decided to keep him, and reshot the sequence.
• Officer Bobby Hill (Michael Warren, Lincoln Heights)—Renko's partner. Warren played for two championship basketball teams at UCLA (alongside a fellow name of Lew Alcindor).
• Detective Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz, Deep Impact)—An undercover officer, Belker's something of a loose cannon, being infamous for once biting off someone's finger in a fight.
• Detective JD LaRue (Kiel Martin, Moonrunners)—A detective, LaRue's struggles with alcohol play a big part in early storylines. Behind the scenes, Martin's own struggles with addiction often caused production problems. At one point, Ken Olin (thirtysomething) was brought in as a temporary replacement while Martin entered rehab.
• Detective Neal Washington (Taurean Blacque, Deep Star Six)—LaRue's partner, laid back and streetwise, with particularly good perception.
• Sgt. Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas, Used Cars)—A tough cop who struggles to keep her gender from becoming an issue.
• Officer Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro, Blue Mountain State)—Bates' partner.
• Police Chief Fletcher Daniels (Jon Cypher, Major Dad)—The consummate politician, Daniels has few scruples beyond his own sense of self-preservation.
On top of that already large cast is assembled a stable of recurring players: fellow police officers, habitual offenders, gangbangers, DAs, police chiefs, and mayors. Bochco had initially planned to only have eight regulars—which was still a lot—but he kept finding actors or characters that he wanted to keep around, and the cast quickly ballooned. Future NYPD Blue star Dennis Franz played a corrupt cop in the third season; the character met a bad end, but Bochco was impressed with Franz' work, and when he had to bring in some new blood in the final season, he created a new character for Franz, Lt. Norman Buntz, who even got a short-lived spinoff, Beverly Hills Buntz.
The city containing "The Hill" is never specified, not even on the police cars, which lends a more universal quality to the series; this could be ANY inner city neighborhood. That said, the bulk of the second unit establishing shots are clearly from Chicago.
Trivia: The Season 6 episode "Scales of Justice" brings a smoking ban to the Hill Street Station. Some fifteen years earlier, on 1 January 1971, the last cigarette ad was shown on American television—a Virgina Slims ad featuring Veronica Hamel!
Bochco and Kozoll's writing experiences prior to Hill Street Blues were on standard cop shows—Columbo, Mannix—all fairly traditional crime dramas. This resembled none of them. In fact, if any existing show served as a model, it might have been Barney Miller, a sitcom finishing its eight-year run the same year that Hill Street Blues debuted, and a show that had been praised for its realistic presentation of police work. Both shows have the same dingy look, a straight-laced captain performing a high-wire juggling act, the same sort of diverse, sharply drawn characters, the same sense that anything could happen at any moment (and often did)—but above all, a sense of verisimilitude that has rarely been matched on television before or since. Many of the storylines could easily have happened in Barney Miller's 12th Precinct, such as when the van carrying Renko's recently deceased father to the funeral home is stolen. There was frequently a touch of the absurd to the show—witness a multi-episode arc about the kidnapping of the governor's wife's dog—but such episodes always serve a larger purpose. That was because the core of the show was never the crimes, but the characters affected by the crimes—these were real people, struggling to get by. For my money, Furillo and Davenport comprised one of the truly great television couples—committed, passionate, playful, and at the same time, fiercely independent. And Davenport's affectionate nickname for Furillo, "Pizza Man," is instantly endearing.
Hill Street Blues didn't exist in a vacuum, nor in stasis; characters grow, develop, and change over the course of the series. Officers get promoted, married, divorced, various officials get elected. Politics becomes an underlying theme in many storylines, as people jockey for position in upcoming elections, or disrupt police activity to try and score a few extra votes. While the characters were thinly drawn at first, the size of the cast allowed the writers and actors to flesh out the characters gradually. These weren't just cops; they were everyday people who happened to be cops. And it wasn't just the people who changed, the Hill itself changed. It's heavily inner city to begin with, but it suffers the ravages of urban decay as the series progresses, and various storylines are built around that progression.
The sharp writing was combined with an insane array of talent. Let me drop just a partial list of guest stars: Michael Biehn, Don Cheadle, James Cromwell, Lindsay Crouse, Timothy Daly, Robert Davi, Laurence Fishburne, William Forsythe, Jonathan Frakes, Andy Garcia, Cuba Gooding Jr, Danny Glover, Linda Hamilton, Michael Ironside, Yaphet Kotto, Frances McDormand, Edward James Olmos, Chazz Palminteri, CCH Pounder, Tim Robbins, Mimi Rogers, Ally Sheedy, Brent Spiner, Jennifer Tilly, Meg Tilly, Forest Whitaker, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Lynn Whitfield, and Alfre Woodard. There was some serious talent behind the camera as well; Bochco's legacy is clear, but others went on to distinguish themselves? Anthony Yankovic, one of the producers in the first few seasons, went on to create Miami Vice. The third season saw the addition of a new writer, David Milch, who created NYPD Blue with Bochco, and later Deadwood. Milch's first script, the Season 3 opener "Trial by Fury," won an Emmy, a Writer's Guild award, and a Humanitas prize. You also had John Mankiewicz, member of the Mankiewicz writing dynasty and producer of Netflix's House of Cards. Another regular on the writing staff was Mark Frost, who several years later teamed up with David Lynch to create Twin Peaks. Other writers included Bob Woodward, Dick Wolf (Law and Order), and David Mamet. You get the point: a lot of great, creative writers in the formative stages of their careers.
Trivia: Bochco and the other writers took diabolical glee in confounding Standards & Practices, always looking for double entendres that they wouldn't catch. A hands-down favorite: Belker is undercover in a butcher shop, and an older woman (played by Night Court's Florence Halop, btw) is complaining about a chicken he's given her. She opens the bird's cavity and blows into it. "See! It's not fresh!" Belker looks at her asking, "Lady, do you think you could pass that test?"
Many people point to Michael Conrad's death in Season 4 as a major turning point in the show, and while Sgt. Esterhaus was in many ways the heart and soul of the station house, some changes had already started to filter in. The free-wheeling, anything goes vibe of the earlier seasons gave way to more traditional storytelling. While the writers were still doing multiple storylines, they weren't quite as multiple. But the changes were relatively minor until Season 5: plots became more traditional, almost soap opera in nature. Then, between Seasons 5 and 6, as MTM looked to reduce production costs, Bochco was fired, along with several supporting players. The changes began in earnest at that point—episodes no longer began with the morning roll call that had been the show's trademark. Also missing were the large, sweeping tableaus in the station, with hordes of supporting players carrying out multiple conversations, gone in favor of tight, static shots that were much cheaper to shoot. Pacing became more predictable; without Bochco's guiding hand, the show had stopped trying to continually push the envelope. Even the tone of the show had changed by the final season, becoming seedier. Part of that was the increased presence of Lt. Buntz, done primarily to set up the spinoff series. But you also had the introduction of Megan Gallagher (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) as Officer Tina Russo; too many of her plot lines focused on her using sex as a tool. On a more basic level, the show was…more cynical. Previously, despite the inner city trappings, there was always an air of hope; yes, things are bad, but the police are making a difference. Instead, the public defenders are getting burned out, racial tensions escalate, and the police in many instances become the problem. Travanti decided to leave the show at the end of the seventh season, and the producers decided to go ahead and end the show. A good thing, too. While clearly in decline, the show was still solid entertainment, but dragging a few additional seasons out of the show would have undoubtedly tarnished its legacy.
20th Century Fox released the first two seasons way back in 2006; this set retains the mastering for those two discs, with Shout! Factory taking up the mastering for subsequent seasons. Technically, this is a solid if unspectacular set. Minor film damage is evident (some episodes are worse than others), contrast is inconsistent, particularly between seasons, black crush is rampant. But overall, the standard def 1.33:1 full frame transfers have excellent detail, and the later seasons have well saturated color. The original Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix is retained, but back then, TV shows didn't put a whole lot of effort into stereo recording, so there's not a lot of channel separation. Dialog is clear and easy to follow—a good thing, given the chaos of some of the precinct sequences. Occasionally the video and audio tracks aren't quite in sync, and the audio levels in general are far too low, forcing you to turn the volume way up.
Extras are somewhat slim, particularly for such a seminal show. Extras from the two Fox releases are carried over, featuring some good commentary tracks, particularly for the pilot. There is also a separate disc that has some features including a 40+ minute retrospective featuring Bochco, along with other writers, producers, and actors covering the initial development of the show. There's a set of interviews with several of the actors: Sikking, Haid, and Dennis Duggan (Can't Buy Me Love), who had a brief but memorable turn as "Captain Freedom" in Season 2. There's also a good roundtable retrospective, filmed in 2005, with a large chunk of the ensemble. (Travanti is nowhere to be found; over the years, he's expressed a certain amount of bitterness towards the show, though he's never gone into any detail.) There's also something labeled a Gag Reel, which is in fact about 25 seconds of footage. Funny, but still, it takes a certain amount of nerve to label that little footage as an extra, unless it's lost footage from The Magnificent Ambersons.
Trivia: At the 34th Primetime Emmy Awards (1982), all five nominees for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series were from Hill Street Blues: Conrad (won), Blacque, Haid, Warren, and Weitz. The series won Best Drama, while Best Comedy went to Barney Miller.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hill Street Blues was trying to do a lot of things that had never been done before; not everything worked. At times the comedy gets a little too broad, particularly when Renko is involved; Renko himself is painted a bit too broadly. But the most problematic character is easily Fay Furillo. The character was intended as an audience surrogate, someone outside the department and the legal system. An interesting conceit, to be sure, but the problem was that the writers had to keep creating reasons for her to be in the precinct week in, week out. In the first few seasons, the result was a character to whom terrible things were constantly happening (problems with her and Furillo's son, trouble with her boyfriends, muggings, break-ins, the odd arrest or two) resulting in a shrill character who bordered on becoming a harbinger of doom, or at the least, chaos. Once they had fashioned a legitimate reason for Fay's presence—a job with Victims' Services—the character became infinitely less annoying. Bochco mentions in the commentary for the pilot that the only two people who initially liked the character was NBC exec Fred Silverman and himself; at the time, Barbara Bosson and Bochco were married.
After one season, Hill Street Blues ranked something like 80th out of 89 primetime shows. But because he believed in the show—and quite possibly because he didn't have anything with which to replace it?—BC exec Fred Silverman decided to renew the show for a second season, and to move it to Thursdays. Several months afterwards it all but swept the Emmys, and established itself as a hit. Though dated by its technology, Hill Street Blues remains an engrossing and entertaining show. In many respects, it's still the standard by which all other dramas are measured. Shout! Factory's presentation is pretty good, but a show of this importance deserves better.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
Review content copyright © 2014 Jim Thomas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.