Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger went up to Hill Street to score a few rocks of crack. After a stern talking to, he came back down with some bruises and a gnawed ankle.
"Let's be careful out there."—Sgt. Phil Esterhaus
Pre-'80s era police procedurals like Car 54, Where Are You? and Dragnet were stylized, static, and episodic affairs that used formalism in their depiction of cops and robbers. Criminals and their crimes were abstract concepts, while the police were stoic machines of law enforcement. The nineties were characterized by sprawling, gritty, and starkly realistic serials like NYPD Blue and Law and Order, with the humanity of cops and criminals equally exposed. The square line that delineated good from bad was all but obliterated; with it fell the episodic restraint of the cop show. Something distinct and powerful happened in the years between: Hill Street Blues.
Facts of the Case
Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel Travanti, Millennium) and Sgt. Phil Esterhaus
(Michael Conrad, Hawaii Five-O) lead an overworked precinct in the middle
of a gang-torn urban jungle known as "The Hill." Frank tries to divvy
his free time between gang leaders, the city brass, his officers, his ex-wife
Faye (Barbara Bosson, The Last
Starfighter), and the fiery Public Defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel,
Lost). Sgt. Esterhaus simply tries to maintain order among the blues and
see that they come back from their beats in one piece. Nothing goes easy on Hill
Street, so they take things one day at a time:
Hill Street Blues was never fully embraced by the general American audience. How could it be? The show was a downer. It was up front about death, corruption, alcoholism, divorce, and a host of other nasty—but real—issues. Yet it was magic, "lightning in a bottle," according to creator Steven Bochco.
Lots of names are missing from that season summary up there. This ensemble
cast is extensive. In fact, there were no fewer than fifteen regulars that
graced Season One, and most of them were either nominated for or won Emmys over
the run of the series:
I want to talk about all of them, single out the powerful moments these actors summoned from their characters. Yet those moments are so numerous and so memorable that it could take more time than you have to read. It also wouldn't do justice to an ensemble that thrives off of each other's energies and personalities. Hill Street Blues is the very definition of a group effort.
Not just in acting, either. The list of Emmys for this series extends out the door, down the hall, out the front door, and into the street. One or two awards is one thing, and arguably not worth much, but this is different. From writing to directing to sound to cinematography, Hill Street Blues was recognized by critics and peers. I could go on about how its multiple threads of dialogue and handheld camera redefined realism in television, or discuss the profound impact of crafting the first drama in a serial format. We could talk about how Steven Bochco, through Hill Street Blues and subsequent groundbreakers like NYPD Blue, single-handedly reinvented the police officer on television. But the Museum of Broadcast Communications will tell you all that (link in sidebar).
The real story here is that Hill Street Blues inspired such a fundamental shift in television that we're still seeing the ramifications today. Bochco collaborator David Milch went on to reinvent the Western with Deadwood. Director David Anspaugh would parlay his Emmy-winning experience on Hill Street into Miami (Vice, that is,) and St. Elsewhere. Dick Wolf would go on to create a little series called Law & Order. Producer Scott Brazil would go on to produce The Shield. What do they all have in common? Their careers essentially began with this series. The sheer momentum of Hill Street Blues has spread out from this one point like a creative wildfire, leaving a path of golden television in its wake that has yet to abate.
Now that you're suitably impressed with the pedigree of the show, how well does Hill Street Blues withstand the modern eye? Pretty damn well.
In the commentary, one of the actors (Joe Spano if I'm not mistaken, but I surely could be) points out that the technology in the show is all that pulls you out of it. The scene in question is when Detective Goldblume is putting a dime into a bulky, rotary-dial pay phone to make a call. If he'd whipped out a cell phone instead, the show could have been written yesterday. The writers, producers, and directors succeeded in their focus on the humanity behind the action. We aren't watching crack SWAT teams blow up buildings with advanced urban weaponry. Instead, we're seeing people in lousy situations try to make it through their lives. Hill Street Blues tells stories that never get old.
Indeed, I had a lump in my throat or a flutter in my pulse more than once during the course of this season. Whether it is the shocking reveal of personal details (usually involving Frank Furillo's private life) or simple moments of quiet pain, the show provokes our emotions with a deft touch. There are not-so-subtle moments of action, too, such as when officers are gunned down in slow motion, or the station erupts into massive brawls (I'm trying to be vague to preserve the surprise for viewers witnessing this show for the first time on DVD). The writers savor the secrets they're going to spill, and the actors deliver those secrets with aplomb.
Speaking of lumps in the throat, Hill Street Blues has the most effective theme song in the history of television. Is that claim too lofty? At least the point is arguable, which makes it one hell of a theme. Mike Post's notes are so melancholy, so enduring, that they seem to echo around in the hollow place left in my gut after the show has had its way with me.
How has Fox treated this seminal drama on this DVD release? Not too shabbily, though you might not think it at first when you see the list of extras: a featurette and two commentaries. The commentaries are interesting because the commentators are absolutely sure of the place this show has in television history (or even television present, for that matter). They fawn, but it isn't the least bit pompous. This show perceptibly redefined certain aspects of television and kicked off a few innovations of its own. If the commentators seem to be having too much fun reminiscing, we can wholeheartedly embrace their enthusiasm as valid.
The real story among the extras is a featurette that pulls together practically every surviving cast member, puts them on a stage together, and lets them run loose with their recollections. Fox could have opted for critical retrospectives, photo galleries, and other filler, but they put all their money squarely on the winning horse. Watching the cast's honest chemistry (that is still strong today) and listening to their fervent, funny recollections is all a fan could ask for. When a stage full of actors tells you that this one show is the most powerful experience of their careers, it says more than ten featurettes could ever say.
The groundbreaking sound of Hill Street Blues is mostly intact, as is most of the video. The show was famous for simultaneous streams of conversation, and somehow the mono track makes them perceptible. I can't say enough good things about the soundtrack, either. Put it all together and you get one hell of an aural presentation. I wish I could say it's in pristine shape, but the volume fluctuates noticeably (especially during my beloved theme song). There are even dropouts and distortion. But overall the audio is pleasing. The video is about the same. It is a little faded, there is print damage, and I'm not sure the original had great contrast or saturation to begin with. Though the video transfer is not flawless, I didn't have any major reservations about it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though Hill Street Blues does withstand the modern eye, even a passing glance will tell you that the show is dated. This is both good and bad. On one hand, there's lots of real blood and real dialogue that make the violence shocking. They got away with things that might not fly today. On the other had, much of the dialogue feels like clever workarounds or odd euphemisms. It wasn't until NYPD Blue that Bochco was able to speak plainly. Situations that would be gritty find themselves quaint.
This "quaint" vibe extends to things like sexism, racism, and other isms. Michael Warren will tell you he's pleased to have portrayed an intelligent, positive black character—just as quickly as he'll point out the racial stereotypes baldly advanced in the show. Fay Furillo is often placated with a cup of coffee and a gossipy chat with Sergeant Esterhaus. You have to twist the sympathy you extend to these characters.
Fox may have done right by the extras, and I love the cover art, but I'm less pleased by the three double-sided discs with 6-point font in the hub to tell you what's what. If Anchor Bay can give individual slip cases and single-sided discs to the cop show tour-de-force Silk Stalkings, why can't Fox do the same for one of the most influential television shows in history? Speaking of font sizes, the asterisk footnote that tells you the alternate languages only apply to selected episodes is about 1 mm high.
Hill Street Blues fundamentally altered television, and is largely responsible for the grittier, more intelligent fare that you watch today. It isn't always enjoyable, but Hill Street Blues summons powerful emotions and navigates complicated situations over the course of this season. Its technical and stylistic innovations seem fresher and more organic here at the source than they do in most of the imitators. Strong writing, acting, and direction give it dramatic potency. If you like density and grit in your TV diet and you can put up with some hokey holdovers from the '80s, Hill Street Blues will reward you.
The officers of the Hill Street precinct are guilty of emotional battery. They are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• "Roll Call: Looking Back at Hill Street Blues" Featurette
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