Unfortunately, I’ve been restricted to the couch for much of this winter after surgery for a torn tendon in my ankle. One of the things that saved me from boredom was Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series.
This 34-disc box set, released last month, contains not only all the episodes but numerous bonus features, especially episode commentary (most notably on the pilot), a discussion by the show’s writers and a cast reunion. But even without all bells and whistles, it would likely be worth the investment. (It goes for $199.99 retail, though Amazon has it currently discounted to $139.99)
Why should geeks care about a police procedural series than ran back in the 1980s?
Because it changed television. It jump-started the careers of Mark Frost (Twin Peaks), Anthony Yerkovich (Miami Vice), David Milch (Deadwood), Dick Wolf (Law & Order), and novelist Robert Crais. As David Nevins, the President of Showtime Television, said in a recent New York Times interview:
“It was a new form of narrative storytelling for television, a more novelistic storytelling that obviously had great influence on shows that I went on to work on, like ER and then even 24. The idea that you don’t have to follow one story; you can cut back and forth between multiple story lines that may touch each other or may never touch each other in the course of an episode. Audiences have obviously grown so narratively sophisticated, but this was the first one to fracture a linear story.”
My favorite story from the bonus features is when Bochco talks about the audience testing for the show’s pilot. The reaction was not positive. “It tested through the floor,” he says. But NBC head Fred Silverman liked the show and (possibly just as important) had nothing else to put on the air in its place.
Here are my reasons you should binge watch, even if you’re not stuck on the couch all winter.
1. Hill Street Blues was revolutionary in its use of hand-held cameras, multi-part storylines, sprawling cast and realistic situations. What does that mean to the modern viewer? It means that other than the lack of cell phones, the show remains as fresh as when it aired.
2. The diverse cast was also ahead of its time, featuring two very different African-American characters, Latinos who were both gang members and police lieutenants, and supporting cast members that were as diverse as the inner city neighborhood where Hill Street station was located. Even today, few shows are as diverse.
3. A nuanced treatment of racism is still hard to find on television today. Not only does Hill Street acknowledge tensions between some of the white officers and the African-American and Latino neighborhoods they serve, there’s also tension between the black and white (“salt and pepper”) cops who are partnered together. I even counted several uses of the “n” word, once by an African-American resident to a cop, and twice more as insults against African-American characters. That would likely never be allowed on network television today. But this show isn’t interested in downplaying the issues. It’s interested in hitting them head on.
4. You won’t find a traditional handsome/beautiful lead in this show, though Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) and Capt. Francis Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) come the closest. They’re surrounded by Belker the biter, Renko the Cowboy, LaRue the schemer who can’t catch a break, Bobby the voice of reason who develops a gambling problem, the sometimes bizarre SWAT Commander, and The Mother Hen precinct Seargent who’s dating a (of age) teenager. None of them are types. They’re all people and they’re all fascinating.
5. The dialogue is perfect. “Let’s be careful out there” is famous as the show’s catch-phrase but Michael Conrad’s Sgt. Esterhaus tended to chose his words carefully and well, and erudite image which contrasted with his six foot four frame. Even Fay Furillo’s rants have a distinctive pattern.
6. By accident, each episode takes place over one day. Bochco says in the bonus features that he and co-creator MIchael Kozoll realized they’d accidentally structured it to take place over one 24-hour period. This led to the show’s signature police briefing opening and provided a great framework for the entire series.
7. Catch the big stars before they became big. Look, there’s CSI sunglasses himself (David Caruso) as an Irish gang leader. There’s Danny Glover as a supposedly reformed community activist. There’s Michael Biehn (The Terminator) as a rookie cop. Linda Hamilton also appeared on the show. Frances McDormand was in six episodes in 1985. James Cromwell is in here as a handler for a bear called Officer McBear. There’s Richie Brockelman, Private Eye (Dennis Dugan) as Captain Freedom! (Duggan went onto higher fame as a director.)
8. The women in this show get to be lots of things. They’re lawyers, mothers, beat cops, ex-wives, and everything in between. In other words, they are allowed roles as varied as the men.
Go watch. And let’s be careful out there.