Hill Street Blues: A Cop Show for the Ages
Noel Holston - 4/29/2014
On Hill Street Blues, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus’ roll-call watchwords —“Hey, let’s be careful out there” – became a catch phrase for the nation. Luckily for viewers, the show’s creators paid no attention whatsoever to the caution. And by refusing to follow TV’s rulebook, by tossing it out the window, they altered the course of prime-time TV entertainment and provided a blueprint for more adult, emotionally complex drama that is still being put to productive use.
With the April 29 release of a new boxed DVD set, “Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series,” a reassessment of this Peabody Award winner is in order.
Hill Street’s characterizations remain vivid if, in some instances, broad. Its jokes still amuse. Its whipsaw juxtapositions of silliness and tragedy still shock. There is a notorious violent twist in the pilot episode that, even though I knew full well it was coming when I rewatched it recently, still rattled me more than all the gore I’ve seen in cable shows like Dexter or True Blood. Nothing accentuates horror like a little humanism—and vice versa.
To appreciate fully how radical Hill Street Blues was in 1981, and how strong its influence remains, it helps to hark back to what police dramas had been like for the previous 30 years. The robotic cops of Dragnet had given way to the swaggering, bullet-headed Theo Kojak and the rumpled and deceptively dense Lt. Columbo, but not much else had changed. It’s no coincidence that Police Squad! —a lampoon of TV cops that begat the Naked Gun movies—arrived in prime time not long after Hill Street. The genre was as ripe for spoofing as it was for reinvention.
A situation comedy such as the Peabody-winning Barney Miller might highlight the oddball side of police life, and anthologies such as Joseph Wambaugh’s Police Story might remind viewers that cops aren’t choirboys. But at the time of Hill Street’s arrival, the focus in law-enforcement dramas was still on the work, the track-down, the bust. There was little hint of what effect constant exposure to the ugly side of humanity might have on the mind and soul of the investigator. That was one of the TV-cop conventions that creators of Hill Street Blues stood on its head.
Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll were veterans of Universal Studios’ cop-show mill. Their collective writing credits included episodes of Kojak, Columbo, McCloud and Griff. In 1976, they’d both worked on the moderately unconventional Delvecchio, starring Judd Hirsch as a police detective with, of all things, a law degree. Both had moved over to MTM Productions when, in 1979, NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff asked them to develop a new, urban cop show. They initially said no, but they warmed to the suggestion when they were told they could delve into the cops’ personal lives. Still, they agreed to write a pilot only if they could have free rein. NBC, in last place and with nothing to lose, conceded.
The actors they cast, most of whom had been around the block a few times, knew from the script that Hill Street Station, as the project was originally called, was different.
“I’d done acres of crap,” said James B. Sikking, the veteran character actor who played Lt. Howard Hunter, the comically militaristic leader of the precinct’s Emergency Action Team (EAT), once told me. “This was special.”
The finished pilot, directed by Robert Butler in a style influenced by Robert Altman’s films and cinema verite documentaries, particularly Susan and Alan Raymond’s The Police Tapes, impressed the actors even more. Charles Haid, who played boisterous officer Andy Renko, told me he that he originally had signed on for just a one-time appearance. “And then Steven showed us the pilot, and I signed on. I saw the show, and I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ “
Bochco has said that what he and Kozoll aimed for “was a show that was true to the spirit of police work without getting hung up on the rules and regulations of it. No show had really ever done anything to dramatically illustrate the emotional consequences of police work. You had good guys and bad guys, and you caught the bad guys, and that was the end of it. And all this stuff that affected their personal lives happened the other six days of the week, when you weren’t watching. We just sort of turned that equation inside out. Every cop who came to work each morning brought his life with him.”
Its shadow is long, its legacy undeniable. Whether it’s HBO’s acclaimed new police drama True Detective or Fox’s station-house farce Brooklyn Nine-Nine, there’s not a good show about cops today that doesn’t have some Hill Street DNA.
About the author: Noel Holston, the Peabody Awards’ public relations coordinator, spent three decades writing about television and popular culture for The Orlando Sentinel, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and New York’s Newsday. His critiques, profiles and feature articles have appeared in more than 100 newspapers and magazines.