Hill Street Blues: When Television Grew Up

hillstreetbluesI remember one night in the mid-1980s when I was a kid, my dad allowed me to stay up later than usual to watch an episode of Hill Street Blues. I was a bit surprised, because I hadn’t really been following that show, but I recognized it as a rare opportunity to watch something intended for grown-ups. I didn’t get everything that was going on, but a decade later I did take the opportunity to catch up on this groundbreaking classic when reruns started airing. It is no exaggeration to point out that most modern drama series owe their existence to Hill Street Blues.

Looking at the list of writers, one recognizes people who would go on and create great shows like Miami ViceLaw & Order and Deadwood. Co-creator Steven Bochco, now considered the dean of the modern drama series concept, was in the beginning of his own successful career.

Every episode of Hill Street Blues would open and close the same way; early in the morning there was the roll call at the precinct and later that evening there would be some kind of closure to the dramatic events of the day, or possibly a cliffhanger that would be followed up the next day/episode. Bochco and Michael Kozoll serialized the classic drama show and viewers were required to follow stories spanning several episodes. We were introduced to a great number of people working at a police station in an unidentified city (say Chicago). Some of the most memorable characters included the reliable Captain Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) who was having a secret romance with a public defender, Joyce (Veronica Hamel); Sergeant Easterhaus (Michael Conrad) who would end every roll call with the words “Hey, let’s be careful out there”; beat cops Renko and Hill (Charles Haid, Michal Warren) who were both shot in the pilot, but survived and went on to become almost like a married couple; undercover cop Belker (Bruce Weitz) who actually gnarled at suspects during interrogations; and SWAT team leader Hunter (James Sikking) who always looked for reasons to engage his men, even though he did have sensitive sides as well.

Roll calls were always a mess
The cast didn’t change all that much over the years, with one notable exception. Conrad passed away and so did his character. His death stunned everyone at the precinct but the successor filled his shoes; Jablonsky (Robert Prosky) did not have Esterhaus’s height, but he did have his paternal touch and toughness as well as a catch-phrase of his own. 

Hill Street Blues lost some of its touch over the years, but the showrunners stayed true to the visual concept. Every episode looked a little like a Robert Altman movie; there would be overlapping dialogue and the cinematography always had a dirty feel. One would get the impression that it was always winter in that city, even though the precinct scenes were shot in a studio in Hollywood. The roll calls were always a mess, the camera nervously flinging back and forth between the sergeant and the cops. The show dealt with many serious topics (one of the first to address gang violence), but also had its humorous and warm moments.

Like so many subsequent cop shows, it went out of its way to challenge the moral views of both the characters and the audience, underlining the fact that not every problem can be solved without getting one’s hands dirty.

The show ended when Travanti told the producers that he wanted out. No wonder. Furillo remained the constant, a likable, sensible center all the other crazy folks at the station relied upon, even his superior. How could the show go on and not turn into a sitcom without Travanti?

Hill Street Blues 1981-1987:U.S. Made for TV. 146 episodes. Color. Created by Steven Bochco, Michael Kozoll. Theme: Mike Post. Cast: Daniel J. Travanti (Frank Furillo), Michael Conrad (Phil Esterhaus, 81-84), Robert Prosky (Stan Jablonsky, 84-87), Michael Warren, Charles Haid, Veronica Hamel, James Sikking, Joe Spano, Bruce Weitz, Rene Enriquez, Kiel Martin, Taurean Blacque, Betty Thomas, Barbara Bosson, Ed Marinaro (81-86), Barbara Babcock (81-85), Dennis Franz (85-87), Ken Olin (84-85), Mimi Kuzyk (84-85).

Trivia: Followed by a spin-off, Beverly Hills Buntz (1987-1988).

Emmys: Outstanding Drama Series 81-82, 82-83, 83-84, 84-85; Directing 81-82, 83-84, 84-85; Writing 81-82, 82-83, 83-84; Actor (Travanti) 81-82, 82-83; Actress (Babcock) 81-82; Supporting Actor (Conrad) 81-82, 82-83 (Weitz) 84-85; Supporting Actress (Alfre Woodard) 84-85; (Thomas) 85-86. Golden Globes: Best Drama Series 82, 83; Actor (Travanti) 82.

Quote: “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.” (Prosky).

Last word: “First of all, it’s not a cop show. It’s a complex, satirical, social commentary: an entertaining, goofy, serious, suspenseful, funny, wrenching series of tales about complex individuals of varying personalities, some of whom have heroic qualities– all of whom have flaws of one sort or another, greater or smaller, who happen to be in police work. Who do their best to do that difficult work of apprehending suspects and punishing the guilty while being fair and honest, or trying to be, and avoiding corruption. It’s about people, complex people, embroiled in complex emotional relationships and tough, tough work, who happen to be in uniform. That’s all. And it has what almost no other American series has ever had: satire. It deliberately makes fun of social problems in order to call attention to them by way of suggesting improvement.” (Travanti, Archive of American Television)

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