HILL STREET BLUES

U.S. Police Procedural/Melodrama

Hill Street Blues, one of the most innovative and critically acclaimed series in recent television history, aired on NBC from 1981 to 1987. Although never highly rated, NBC continued to renew Hill Street for its "prestige value" as well as the demographic profile of its fiercely loyal audience. Indeed, Hill Street is perhaps the consummate example of the complex equation in U.S. network television between "quality programming" and "quality demographics." Hill Street Blues revolutionized the TV "cop show," combining with it elements from the sitcom, soap opera, and cinema verite-style documentary. In the process, it established the paradigm for the hour-long ensemble drama: intense, fast-paced, and hyper-realistic, set in a densely populated urban workplace, and distinctly "Dickensian" in terms of character and plot development.

Hill Street's key antecedents actually were sitcoms, and particularly the half-hour ensemble workplace comedies of the 1970s such as M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Barney Miller. M*A*S*H was influential not only as a medical series set in a literal "war zone" (versus the urban war zone of Hill Street), but also for the aggressive cinematic style adapted from Robert Altman's original movie version. The Mary Tyler Moore Show's influence had to do primarily with its "domesticated workplace," a function of Mary's role as nurturer as well as the focus on the personal as well as the professional lives of the principals. The influence of Barney Miller, an ensemble sitcom set in a police precinct, was more direct. In fact the genesis of Hill Street resulted from NBC's Fred Silverman suggesting that the network develop an hour-long drama blending Barney Miller and the documentary-style anthology drama, Police Story.

To develop the series, NBC turned to Grant Tinker's MTM Enterprises, which in the early 1970s had specialized in ensemble sitcoms (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, and others) before turning to the hour-long ensemble drama in 1977 with Lou Grant. Hill Street was created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, two veteran TV series writers with extensive experience on various crime series. The two had collaborated on the short-lived police drama Delvecchio in 1976-77 before joining MTM, and they had little interest in doing another cop show without considerable leeway to vary the form. NBC agreed, and Hill Street debuted as a mid-season replacement in January 1981.

The basic Hill Street Blues formula was simple enough. The series was set in the Hill Street station, a haven of controlled chaos in a crime-infested, racially torn ghetto within an unnamed industrial metropolis. Each episode invariably charted a "day in the life" on the Hill, from the early-morning "roll call" to a late-night rehash of the day's events.

In the hands of Bochco and Kozoll, who teamed for much of the writing in the first two seasons, this formula provided the framework for a remarkably complex and innovative series--qualities which were evident from the opening roll call. This daybreak ritual was conducted "below decks" in the precinct house by the desk sergeant--most memorably Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad from 1981 until his death in 1984), who always closed with the trademark line: "Let's be careful out there."

A deft expositional stroke, the roll call served a range of narrative functions. It initiated the day-long trajectory; it provided an inventory not only of the current precinct "case load" but also the potential plot lines for the episode; it reintroduced most of the principal characters, whose commentary on the cases reestablished their individual personalities and professional attitudes. And technically, it set Hill Street's distinctive verite tone with its hand-held camera, continual reframing instead of cutting, multi-track sound recording, and edgy, improvisational feel.

After the roll call the cops filed upstairs to begin their assignments, which set the episode's multiple crime-related plot lines in motion. Most of the series regulars who worked "out there" on the streets were partners: Hill and Renko (Michael Warren and Charles Haid), Coffee and Bates (Ed Marinaro and Betty Thomas), LaRue and Washington (Kiel Martin and Taurean Blacque). Other notable street cops were Lt. Howard Hunter (James Sikking), the precinct's SWAT team leader; Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), a gnarling, perpetually unkempt undercover detective; and Norm Buntz (Dennis Franz), an experienced, cynical, street-wise detective prone to head-strong, rule-bending tactics.

With the episode thus set in motion, the focus shifted to Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel Travanti), the professional touchstone and indisputable patriarch of the precinct work-family, and the moral center of Hill Street's narrative universe. Furillo adroitly orchestrated his precinct's ceaseless battle with the criminal element. He also did battle with bureaucrats and self-serving superiors, principally in the character of Chief Fletcher Daniels (Jon Cypher). And on a more personal level, he battled his own demons (alcoholism, a failed marriage) and the human limitations of his officers, ever vigilant of the day-to-day toll of police work in a cesspool of urban blight whose citizenry, for the most part, was actively hostile toward the "police presence."

Furillo also battled Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), a capable, contentious lawyer from the Public Defender's office. Their professional antagonism was countered, however, by an intimate personal relationship--the two were lovers. Their affair remained clandestine until the third season, when they went public and were wed. And through all this, Furillo also maintained a troubled but affectionate rapport with his ex-wife, Fay (Barbara Bosson).

The Furillo-Davenport relationship was Hill Street's most obvious and effective serial plot, while also giving a dramatic focus to individual episodes. As professional adversaries, they endlessly wrangled over the process of law and order; as lovers they examined these same conflicts--and their own lives--in a very different light. Most episodes ended, in fact, with the two of them together late at night, away from the precinct, mulling over the day's events. This interplay of professional and personal conflicts--and of episodic and serial plot lines--was crucial to Hill Street's basic narrative strategy. Ever aware of its "franchise" as a cop show, the series relied on a crime-solution formula to structure and dramatize individual episodes, while the long-term personal conflicts and stakes fueled the serial dimension of the series.

Hill Street's narrative complexity was reinforced by its distinctive cinematic technique. As Todd Gitlin suggests, "Hill Street's achievement was, first of all, a matter of style." Essential to that style was the "density of look and sound" as well as its interwoven ("knitted") plot lines, which created Hill Street's distinctive ambience: "Quick cuts, a furious pace, a nervous camera made for complexity and congestion, a sense of entanglement and continuous crisis that matched the actual density and convolution of city life." Hill Street's realism also extended to controversial social issues and a range of television taboos, particularly in terms of language and sexuality.

This realism was offset, however, by the idealized portrayal of the principal characters and the professional work-family. Whatever their failings and vulnerabilities, Furillo and his charges were heroic--even tragic, given their fierce commitment to a personal and professional "code" in the face of an insensitive bureaucracy, an uncaring public, and an unrelenting criminal assault on their community. But the Hill Street cops found solace in their work and in one another--which, in a sense, was all they had, since the nature of their work precluded anything resembling a "real life."

Not surprisingly, considering its narrative complexity, uncompromising realism, and relatively downbeat worldview, Hill Street fared better with critics than with mainstream viewers. In fact, it was among TV's lowest-rated series during its first season but was renewed due to its tremendous critical impact and its six Emmy awards, including Outstanding Drama Series. Hill Street went on to win four straight Emmy's in that category, while establishing a strong constituency among upscale urban viewers. It also climbed to a respectable rating, peaking in its third season at number 21; but its strength was always the demographic profile rather than the sheer size of its audience. Thus Hill Street paid off handsomely for NBC, and its long-term impact on TV programming has been equally impressive. In a 1985 TV Guide piece, novelist Joyce Carol Oates stated that the series was as "intellectually and emotionally provocative as a good book," and was positively "Dickensian in its superb character studies, its energy, its variety; above all, its audacity." Critics a decade later would be praising series like NYPD Blue, Homicide, ER, Chicago Hope, and Law and Order in precisely the same terms, heralding a "new golden age" of television drama--a golden age whose roots are planted firmly in Hill Street Blues.

-Thomas Schatz

 


Hill Street Blues

CAST

Capt. Frank Furillo ..........................Daniel J. Travanti Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (1981-84)............ Michael Conrad Officer Bobby Hill .............................Michael Warren Officer Andy Renko ..............................Charles Haid Joyce Davenport.............................. Veronica Hamel Det. Mick Belker................................... Bruce Weitz Lt. Ray Calletano............................... Rene Enriquez Det. Johnny (J.D.) LaRue......................... Kiel Martin Det. Neal Washington....................... Taurean Blaque Lt. Howard Hunter.............................. James Sikking Sgt./Lt. Henry Goldblume......................... Joe Spano Officer/Sgt. Lucille Bates..................... Betty Thomas Grace Gardner (1981-85)................. Barbara Babcock Fay Furillo (1981-86) .........................Barbara Bosson Capt. Jerry Fuchs (1981-84)............ Vincent Lucchesi Det./Lt. Alf Chesley (1981-82) .................Gerry Black Officer Leo Schnitz (1981-85)......... Robert Hirschfield Officer Joe Coffey (1981-86)................... Ed Marinaro Chief Fletcher P. Daniels......................... Jon Cypher Officer Robin Tataglia (1983-87)............... Lisa Sutton Asst. D.A. Irwin Bernstein (1982-87).... George Wyner Jesus Martinez ....................................Trinidad Silva Judge Alan Wachtel ...........................Jeffrey Tambor Det. Harry Garibaldi (1984-85)...................... Ken Olin Det. Patricia Mayo (1984-85) ...................Mimi Kuzyk Mayor Ozzie Cleveland (1982-85) ............J.A. Preston Sgt. Stanislaus Jablonski (1984-87)..... Robert Prosky Lt. Norman Buntz (1985-87).................. Dennis Franz Celeste Patterson (1985-86) ................Judith Hansen Sidney (The Snitch) Thurston (1985-87) ..Peter Jurasik Officer Pagtrick Flaherty (1986-87)... Robert Clohessy Officer Tina Russo (1986-87)........... Megan Gallagher Officer Raymond (1987)....................... David Selburg

PRODUCERS

Steven Bochco, Michael Kozoll, Gregory Hoblit, David Anspaugh, Anthony Yerkovich, Scott Brazil, Jeffrey Lewis, Sascha Schneider, David Latt, David Milch, Michael Vittes, Walon Green, Penny Adams

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
J
anuary 1981              Thursday/Saturday 10:00-11:00 January 1981-April 1981             Saturday 10:00-11:00 April 1981-August 1981                Tuesday 9:00-10:00 October 1981-November 1986    Thursday 10:00-11:00 December 1986-February 1987     Tuesday 9;00-10:00 March 1987-May 1987                Tuesday 10:00-11:00

FURTHER READING

Bedell, Sally. Up the Tube: Prime-Time TV and the Silverman Years. New York: Viking, 1983.

Deming, Caren J. "Hill Street Blues as Narrative." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), March 1985.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, editors. MTM: 'Quality Television.' London: British Film Institute, 1984.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Marc, David. "MTM's Past and Future." Atlantic Monthly (New York), November 1984.

Newcomb, Horace, and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Oates, Joyce Carol. "For Its Audacity, Its Defiantly Bad Taste and Its Superb Character Studies." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 1 June 1985.

 

See also Bochco, Steven; Police Programs