Surveillance Summer Watch: Hill Street Blues, “Hill Street Station”
This is the next post in 2011’s Surveillance Summer Watch series featuring Cheers and Hill Street Blues. For the next couple of months, I’ll be writing weekly reviews of episodes from each series’ first seasons, with Cheers on Tuesdays and Hill Street Blues on Thursdays. For more information, see this post.
Just a quick house-keeping thing: I had originally thought the pilot episode of Hill Street Blues was 90 minutes+, but that’s only because Hulu randomly smashed the first two episodes together under the “Hill Street Station” title and yet still has the second episode available individually as well. There’s some confusion as to how these episodes work together, as they didn’t air on the same night but were considered as a two-parter when the series won a few awards, but oh well. So anyway, this post will cover just the one 45ish minute pilot episode, “Hill Street Station.”
As craft, the first season of Hill Street was as good as series television has gotten. It goes without saying that American commercial television is hostile to the nuance and resonance of art, but Hill Street demonstrated that the instinct for craftsmanship does not automatically disqualify a show from noticeable, if not epoch-making, popularity.
In 1983, writer/scholar Todd Gitlin wrote the above high praise for NBC’s police drama Hill Street Blues. At the time, Hill Street Blues appeared to be a welcome revolution in the world of broadcast television. After years of cop-centric series that featured very little character development and a whole lot of open-and-shut cases, Hill Street served as a purposefully disjointed, slightly depressing reprieve from the static, formulaic conventions of mainstream television.
The MTM Enterprises-produced, Steven Bochco/Michael Kozoll-created series could be looked at as television’s first “great,” “quality” drama series. In the years since its premiere, more complex and buzzworthy dramas have replaced Hill Street atop most critics’ all-time lists, but there’s always this sense that without Hill Street Blues, Homicide, NYPD: Blue, The X-Files, ER, The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost or dozens of other “great” series wouldn’t have existed to begin with. In his 2007 list of the 100 greatest television series of all-time, TIME’s James Poniewozik attributes Hill Street for popularizing the serialized story arcs that extend past the running time of one episode, a storytelling technique that has regularly defined the best television of the last 25 years.
It is this kind of hefty praise (and free streaming on Hulu, honestly) that spurred me to dive into the first season of Hill Street Blues over the next few months. I haven’t seen all of television’s best dramas of recent memory, but it seemed prudent to start at the proverbial beginning. Of course, watching a television series that was identified as innovative and groundbreaking in its time 30 years after its debut presents all sorts of problems – especially for someone who is only 23 years old. Approaches and techniques that were fresh and new in 1981 aren’t generally going to have the same impact on someone in 2011, especially when that person has seen multiple series that built upon the things that Hill Street Blues pioneered.
I think I am smart enough to make connections between Hill Street and series that came after it, but my admitted lack of experience with the series that came before it might be somewhat problematic. But I’m doing my research and I hope that initial recognition of my personal shortcomings and blank-spots will serve me well. Instead of discuss Hill Street Blues entirely within its own context, I hope to re-situate it into today’s television landscape and explore the series’ lasting impact. Along the way, I might pull in specific comparisons to specific episodes of more recent television and similarly consider how television – specifically broadcast television – has or has not changed since Hill Street Blues went off the air in 1987. I have a number of different ideas percolating in my head right now and let’s just say that I will probably play it by ear over the next few months as I make my way through these 17 episodes.
But in my discussion of the series’ pilot episode, “Hill Street Station,” I want to consider a few large and probably obvious questions: How does the series hold up? And similarly, what are obvious and identifiable markers of “quality?” These questions will open up various tangents and lead to larger questions, but it seems useful to start with a discussion of the episode’s specifics.
In general, “Hill Street Station” is enjoyable. From the opening moments of the roll call sequence, the episode stakes a claim for a natural, realistic and gritty tone. The cast of characters (and not just the regulars, the extras and non-speaking roles as well) is surprisingly diverse for a 1981 broadcast television series, which is something that I’ll discuss as these posts move forward. The opening credits are simple, but effective in expressing what the series is really all about. The music is melodic, but slightly melancholy, while the police cars move through the raining, overcast streets (of Chicago, according to Gitlin).
Despite what we typically see on television, even today, being a cop isn’t a glamorous life: It can be exciting and chaotic, but it’s also often depressing and messy in a way that wears on you. Hill Street Blues taps into that through all of its characters and shows us how different personalities deal with the stresses of the job and use it as a platform to express their personal beliefs and ideologies: Belker is a man unhinged, clearly scarred from his relationship with his mother; LaRue is a barely functioning alcoholic and generally a creep; Renko is a flat-out racist; Hunter is an aggressive oddball.
To go along with that, there is a real sense of attitude here. I’m not sure if it is just the difference in eras or what, but I found most of the characters to be generally abrasive and sometimes offensive, but not in a particularly bad way. Some are racists, most are sexists and political ideologies are more front-and-center. Kozoll told Gitlin that he initially didn’t want to do another cop series because he was tired of the heroic depiction of the profession on television and he and Bochco certainly avoided those pitfalls here.
Outside of Bobby Hill, there are few characters that are overwhelmingly likable in the traditional sense. I mentioned Belker, Renko, LaRue and Hunter as the most obvious transgressors, but the issues don’t stop there. Esterhaus is the oldest lead character and dating a high school girl and Capitan Furillo can’t afford to pay his child support and is willing to loan out police vehicles to a gang leader for information on the hostage situation. These are severely flawed characters who have no problem speaking their mind or doing what they want, consequences be (slightly) damned – and they’re the police! No one is as crooked as Vic Mackey of The Shield, but I have to imagine that for 1981, these representations of law enforcement ruffled some feathers.
On that note, one of the more obvious connections Hill Street Blues has to more recent sprawling drama series is how its swath of characters is represented in the initial offering: Rapidly and confusing. In this 45 minute episode, the audience is introduced to somewhere near a dozen characters that morph in and out of the precinct with frantic energy and speed, which was certainly original and innovative at the time and still looks interesting and “different” now (more on that in a second). But with so many characters and a surprising amount of plot threads to anchor those characters to (a heist situation and officer shootings both occur in the episode’s one day timeline), it is difficult to keep track of who is who and what their relationship is to one another.
This is not unlike watching the first episode of any HBO drama series, as recent examples like Treme and Boardwalk Empire quickly pop to mind. As someone who has watched enough cable television to understand that I have to be patient with this kind of pilot storytelling, I am more than willing to be patient with how Hill Street integrates all the characters together and develops them more properly. But if I were watching this series in 1981 and I was used to something like Delvecchio, I can only imagine the confusion.
Enacting that kind of strategy to introduce the characters brings us to one of the episode’s other strengths: world-building. There is a real sense of depth and life to the police station. The location’s “vibe” was developed by Bochco, Kozoll, the series’ line producer Gregory Hoblit and pilot director Robert Butler. Gitlin’s chapter in Inside Primetime is titled “Make it messy” because that’s what Butler wanted the series to look like. He wanted full, busy scenes, full of extras walking in and out of the frame and abrupt, sometimes jarring editing that discarded the traditional two-shot, close-up, over-the-shoulder, close-up, cut framework.
That messy-ness also applies to the episode’s narrative, which is completely chaotic and sprawling, even though it takes place across just one, apparently very busy, day. Poniewozik’s point about the story arcs is already on display, both on a character and plot level. The characters we do learn things about (like LaRue with his drinking problem) aren’t given so much time that their beats are introduced, complicated and resolved within one episode. Additionally, the episode’s biggest plot point (Renko and Hill being shot) is left up in the air. We learn that they have been hospitalized, but never actually see them, which add an extra layer of fear and uncomfortability to the proceedings. Bochco and Kozoll originally planned for the two characters to be dead, but network testing feedback suggested otherwise. Nevertheless, that sort of open-ended, sober approach to storytelling would still stand out on broadcast television today.
And while that kind of shooting, editing and storytelling can make for a confusing read on whom the characters are on even the most basic of levels, it does give this series a very specific edge to it, even from my 2011 perspective. Even something with a sprawling cast of regulars and extras such as Lost didn’t use them in the suffocating, confusing ways that Hill Street Blues does here. Hill Street Station feels like a real place populated by real people, not just a home-base for the characters to check into so that they can spitball ideas on the latest murder or robbery. It takes some series full seasons or even longer before they figure out their sense of space and what their world is really “about,” but I was surprised to see how easily Hill Street Blues figures a lot of that out within this initial episode.
To answer the obvious questions I posed up front, I think that this pilot episode does, in fact, hold up 30 years later. Even with my high expectations (unlike with Cheers), I was quickly compelled by what Hill Street Blues had to offer. Similarly, the episode does actually have some of the markers of quality we expect from our modern greats, with its deep ensemble, its complicated depiction of a profession usually glamorized (both then and now) and its sense of place. Those aren’t the only things that make a television series great, but having them in play certainly goes a long way in getting there.
Television audiences are creatures of comfort. They want something easy and recognizable. Maybe the biggest problem with Hill Street, in terms of popular success, is that it is a show that demands to be watched. And most people do not watch television. They simply are in its presence.
Steven Bochco said this to Gitlin during one of their many interviews for Gitlin’s book, and I think for the most part, what he said in the early 1980s still holds true today. Every season, there is talk about the audience just wanting to enjoy the escapist pleasures of the television medium, even in a post-Sopranos era where television is supposedly closing in, or depending on who you ask, has already surpassed, film has the place for the best kind of storytelling. For better or for worse and no matter how slowly the seas are changing, the television is still the idiot box. The popularity of Jersey Shore and Teen Mom may or may not be a primary cause for this.
In any event, what is so compelling about the case of Hill Street Blues to me is that for all its markers of quality, its boatload of Emmys, its place on countless “Best of” lists and its influence on more recent programs, it was supremely popular. Maybe not at first, as its was well-known as the lowest-rated program to ever be renewed for a second season (it was 83rd out of a possible 97 series that season), but by the second season, Hill Street Blues was one of the most popular series on television, in both the important demographics and general viewers.*
*Interestingly, you might be able to make an argument for the series playing a major role in the increased emphasis on the 18-49 (particularly male) demographic. Hill Street‘s success in that demo in that first season was one of the primary reasons NBC kept it around.
Obviously this was a different time, one before cable had really taken off and there were therefore far few choices for audiences. However, when I think about all the quote-unquote “great” television dramas that followed and were at least somewhat inspired by Hill Street Blues, most of them are on cable (where they’re freed from the expectations of broadcast ratings) and of those that are on broadcast, some flamed out or had to rely on slightly more “traditional” storytelling methodology to survive (The X-Files, ER and NYPD: Blue come to mind). The dearth of “great” drama on broadcast television, especially over the last decade or so, has become old hat, an accepted reality given the industrial, technological and audience circumstances of the post-network era of television. There are exceptions to this presumption, most notably Lost, but we’ve been conditioned over the last few years to recognize that “there will never be another Lost.” And that doesn’t apply just to the way Lost told stories, it also applies to the way it captivated mass audiences while still mostly staying true to its complex, quality television roots and framework.
At this point, it is almost as if something that is “great” can’t be “popular” or “mainstream.” “Great” implies complexity, implies complications and implies all sorts of things that betray the general assumptions that are made about television and television audiences. Complexity and complication aren’t usually part of the recipe for success on the broadcast networks, wherein the least objectionable product often becomes the most obvious successful. And yet, arguably the series that birthed “great” or “quality” dramatic television was also tremendously popular with mainstream audiences. This contradiction between greatness and popularity is something that I want to further explore as I move forward through the series’ first season, which by all accounts, is the most-respected. In the closing of his chapter on Hill Street Blues, Gitlin notes that from the second season on, the series had more problems and “had lost its novelty.” Is it a coincidence that the series’ lowest rated season is also its “best?” Were seeds for this losing of novelty planted in the first season? And just how novel were the origins of Hill Street Blues to begin with, even back in 1981? These are just some of the questions I’ll be considering in coming weeks. The series’ first season is on Hulu, join me why don’t you?
- I was genuinely shocked that Furillo and Joyce Davenport were in some form of relationship together. Huh.
- Despite its shooting inventions, the slow motion during the shooting of Renko and Hill is predictably cheesy. One of the only moments that I felt like I was watching a dated/traditional police series.
- If you want another in-depth look at Hill Street Blues, especially the early seasons, do check out Todd Gitlin’s book, Inside Primetime. As you can see, it was, and will continue to be, an invaluable resource for me here. I will also be pulling from the Jane Feurer-edited collection on MTM as we move forward.
- Like I mentioned in the Cheers piece, please do send me your feedback/tweets/comments. I’m certainly open to try different and new things as this series progresses.