Late in the DVD commentary for the pilot episode of “Hill Street Blues,” actor Joe Spano marvels at the show’s impact on the medium.
“It’s extraordinary,” he says, “the repercussions of this 48 minutes of television.”
The cop drama’s co-creator Steven Bochco follows by suggesting, “It’s sort of a family tree, and if you look at the branches of the tree, you’ll see 25 years of television.”
Bochco is, if anything, underselling the importance of “Hill Street,” which is on the short list of the most influential TV shows ever made. Whether through shared actors, writers, directors or through stylistic and thematic complexity, its DNA can be found in nearly every great drama produced in the 30-plus years since it debuted. The show was only occasionally interested in the legal trials of the criminals in its unnamed fictional city, but the complete series DVD set (it arrives in stores on Tuesday, for a listed price of $199, though of course you can find many sales) makes an airtight case for the show’s place in television history, as well as for its role as a grand piece of entertainment.
And the box set doesn’t especially need the sparse special features (a handful of commentary tracks and a single bonus disc with a few retrospective interview segments) to make that argument. The show itself is that good, even all these decades later, and its groundbreaking elements still stand out as ideas that remain vital in so many of the great dramas we have today.
In the prologue to my book, I compared the show to a widely-imitated movie like “Casablanca,” where if you come to see it for the first time after a lifetime of watching the copies, it could be at risk of playing like a bundle of clichés – even though it invented those clichés. Curious to see how the show would be received by a younger viewer of today who had been raised on the great post-“Sopranos” dramas, I asked twentysomething TV scholar Myles McNutt (who had previously only seen clips from the show) for his take on the pilot. And, indeed, he said he had a hard time letting go of the strange feeling that it had been reverse-engineered from all the contemporary dramas that used many of the tropes it invented. But, he added, “once it and I got calibrated to the same wavelength, I very much enjoyed it.”
My old partner Matt Zoller Seitz used to use another movie as the point of comparison: “Citizen Kane,” both for its enormous influence and for the way that it took a bunch of individual stylistic devices that weren’t original on their own and turned them into something new and different by putting them all together in one place. There were elements of documentaries, daytime soap operas, black comedy and more mixed in with the cop show tropes Bochco and co-creator Michael Kozoll(**) had learned in their work in the ’70s. The combination felt like nothing that had ever aired on television before, and it would be quickly appropriated by some of the great series of the ’80s (“St. Elsewhere”), ’90s (“ER” and “Homicide”) and the revolutionary cable dramas of the 21st Century.
(**) Kozoll (who also wrote the “First Blood” screenplay) left the show after its first two seasons, and essentially disappeared from show business. Bochco – who has long had a gift for picking talented partners – is very complimentary of Kozoll on the bonus features, but the man’s absence from them is striking.
Bochco, Kozoll and pilot director Robert Butler wanted to bring a real sense of formal chaos to the proceedings. We open with what would become one of the show’s trademarks: the boisterous daily roll call conducted by Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad, who left a gaping hole when he died midway through the series’ run), a big gorilla of a man who conducts himself more as a philosopher than the tough guy he appears to be. (At the end of each roll call he warns his charges, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”) There’s no clear sense of who’s an important character and who’s just an extra with interesting facial hair, and the show’s actual lead, precinct captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is introduced with zero fanfare after we’ve already seen the show’s iconic opening credit sequence (accompanied by the beautifully melancholy theme song by Mike Post). Much of the series is shot with hand-held cameras to approximate the look of a documentary, and even the steadier shots will frequently follow one subset of characters on their way out of a scene, then reverse course to follow a different subset that has just entered. Each episode featured at least four or five overlapping stories, most of which would run for at least the next three to four episodes (unheard of at the time), mixed in with isolated vignettes about life on the job, like patrol cops Hill (Michael Warren) and Renko (Charles Haid) trying to cool down a domestic beef, or sleazy detective J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin) trying to use his badge to scam a date or a free meal. The larger story arcs dealt with basic policework, but also with police corruption, urban decay, political neglect, and all of it suffused with the same sense of despair that “The Wire” would make its stock in trade a couple of decades later.
The stories were always presented as secondary to the characters, and what characters the show had! It was a mix of high and lowbrow types – occasionally with both extremes in the same person, like erudite fascist cartoon Lt. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) – ranging from the growling, perp-biting undercover cop Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz) on up to Furillo himself, a blend of the archetypal sensitive Alan Alda-style ’70s hero with something angrier.
In the show’s best episode, season 3’s “Trial By Fury” – the first script ever written by David Milch, who would go on to co-create “NYPD Blue” with Bochco and then to weave the incredible tapestry that was HBO’s “Deadwood” – a vengeful Furillo uses the threat of a lynch mob to bully two men into admitting to raping and murdering a nun; afterwards, he goes to the local church to make his own confession. Later that season, Milch introduced Sal Bennedetto, a profane, corrupt cop played by Dennis Franz, who would be imitated many many times over the years by other shows – including this one, which brought Franz back in the sixth season as Norm Buntz, a slightly cuddlier version of the same character.
The talent behind the scenes was just as impressive, and cast a long shadow over what would come later. In addition to Bochco (who also gave the ’80s “LA Law,” which has unfortunately not aged as gracefully, based on its own recent DVD release) and Milch, there were Anthony Yerkovich, who would go on to create “Miami Vice” (after first field-testing the name “Sonny Crockett” on a violent biker character in a season 3 arc here); Dick Wolf, who would give us the “Law & Order” franchise; Mark Frost, who would co-create perhaps the weirdest show that was ever briefly a hit in “Twin Peaks”; and Robert Crais, who would go on to write a series of best-selling novels about private eyes Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Milch and Jeffrey Lewis took over the show when Bochco was fired after the fifth season, and Milch was able to rope in playwright David Mamet to write an episode in the final season that’s among the stranger outlier episodes ever of any mainstream drama series. (You won’t need to look at the credits to figure out which one is his.)
Now, there are many ways in which the show has not aged gracefully, or doesn’t hold up well compared to later shows that built on the revolutionary things that Bochco, Kozoll, Butler, et al came up with. There’s an early episode called “Fruits of the Poisonous Tree” that spends forever and a day explaining the legal concept to a dumbfounded Furillo; as a result, the “Law & Order”s of the world were able to dispense with the idea in a line or two going forward. Jonathan Banks (later to co-star in “Wiseguy” and then “Breaking Bad”) plays a killer with multiple personalities in a few episodes; he’s great, but the device seems overdone now. Bochco’s beloved shock humor doesn’t hold up especially well, and some of the broader characters like Hunter or LaRue tend to function best in retrospect in those moments when they’re allowed to be serious.(***) (On the other hand – and your mileage may vary – I never tire of the vaudevillian interactions between Belker and the pickpocket of many names, whom he always seems to be booking right when his aging mother calls with a problem.)
(***) Kiel Martin was, like the character he played, a raging alcoholic, and Bochco says he forced him to seek treatment after the second season. (He stayed sober, and the role of Arnie Becker on “LA Law” was written for him, but other health problems prevented it.) In a cast full of heavyweight actors, I’ve always found his work underrated, but it’s clear watching the DVD set that the creative team knew what he was capable of and went to him for the hard stuff. In the episode where the precinct finds out that Esterhaus has died, it’s LaRue’s devastated reaction that kicks us into the opening credits, and when another cop dies early in the sixth season, it’s LaRue whose response draws the hour (“Seoul On Ice,” for those intending to skip around) to a heartbreaking close.
The gender politics can be very shaky when viewed through a modern lens, though the show did provide an incredibly strong female character in Veronica Hamel’s public defender Joyce Davenport, Furillo’s frequent opponent at work and secret partner in the bedroom, and could also be very progressive for the period about gender, race and class. On the other hand, most of the show’s ethnic gang characters – including a young David Caruso as leader of the Irish one – were cartoons who seemed inspired by Bochco and Kozoll spending too much time re-watching “The Warriors.” And if I could give one piece of advice to newcomers, it would be to fast forward through most scenes involving Bochco’s then-wife Barbara Bosson as Furillo’s shrill ex-wife Faye, forever barging into the precinct in the middle of a crimewave to complain about late alimony payments or Frank Jr’s emotional development. (Even back then, when the hero having to constantly deal with his ex-wife was somewhat novel, nobody much liked the character save for Bochco and NBC executive Fred Silverman, who greenlit the series and allegedly told Bochco to promote her from guest star to regular.)
But even though it was a formula-busting show that could develop its own formulas, like the way that Mick Belker was constantly getting close to strange characters who would then be gunned down in the street(****), and even though in many ways it feels like an artifact of its time, man oh man does most of it hold up incredibly well. I’ve seen every episode at least once, most of them twice, and some even more than that (especially since Hulu made the first three seasons available a while back), and felt I knew the show well enough that I wasn’t going to have to do more than the most cursory of viewing to review the DVD set. Instead, I found myself unable to stop watching – not just the episodes that won Emmys, or broke taboos, or featured the deaths of major characters, but run of the mill episodes where I just wanted to watch the roll call, or see Officer Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas) call LaRue a pig, or see Hill and Renko deal with the latest catastrophe for their patrol car. And I found myself laughing, and getting angry and, on occasion, feeling like the room had gotten very dusty in the exact way that Bochco and company would have wanted me to 30 years ago.
(****) The first time I interviewed Milch in 1996, I was mostly able to resist going hardcore “Hill Street” fanboy on him, but I couldn’t resist asking about Belker’s status as angel of death to those he would come to care about. The interview recording and the exact answer have been lost to history and/or my organizational skills, but I can still hear the evil laugh he gave as he admitted that there were certain characters (Howard Hunter was another) whom the writers found great amusement in tormenting.
Is it the world-altering piece of work it was in 1981? Of course not. But nor does it feel like a musty relic of some bygone age. “Hill Street Blues” (especially its first three seasons) remains, all these decades later, a gripping, funny, touching, horrifying panorama of urban life, and of the struggles of the men and women tasked with the never-ending job of keeping a terrible situation from getting even worse.
So watch it. And hey, hey, hey! Be careful out there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org