Despite Michael Conrad's wishes, Judge Ryan Keefer is running with scissors and diving into a swimming pool less than 30 minutes after eating.
"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?
Facts of the Case
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"
• "Blood Money"
• "The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue"
• "The Second Oldest Profession"
• "Fruits of the Poisonous Tree"
• "Cranky Streets"
• "Chipped Beef"
• "The World According to Freedom"
• "Pestolozzi's Revenge"
• "The Spy Who Came in From Delgado"
• "Freedom's Last Stand"
• "Of Mouse and Man"
• "Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement"
• "The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded"
• "Some Like it Hot-Wired"
• "Personal Foul"
• "Invasion of the Third World Body Snatchers"
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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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