Quality up the Wazoo: ‘Hill Street Blues’

[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1981]

If my editor hadn’t called my attention to it, the premiere episode of Hill Street Blues would very probably have come and gone without my notice. Hundreds of television series have. But he knew I liked Lou Grant, and this show “from the producers of Lou Grant” (the hypesters’ phrase) was, on the basis of preview, similarly successful in “being funny when it wants to be funny, and dramatic when it wants to be dramatic” (his phrase), and maybe I should take a look. It was getting a modified miniseries sendoff as part of NBC president Fred Silverman’s last desperate bid to turn around his network’s ever-worsening ratings drift and save his job. Who could say whether, if the numbers failed to materialize, Silverman wouldn’t replace it with a jiggle epic, or his successors ashcan it in a combined spirit of slate-cleaning and revenge?

So I took the look. Hill Street Blues: Cop show. Thirteen series regulars identified up front, most of them unfamiliar and most of them frozen in slantwise TV grin. Handheld camera, Action News editing, and overlapping mutters on the soundtrack during the morning briefing that opens the show—manneristic bad signs for the jaundiced viewer, though they did seem to make for an appropriate grab-shot naturalism here. What the hell, give it a chance.

The characters are introduced. No one is new to the precinct, Hill Street, except the viewer. Everyone lands running at full shtick: Furillo, the beleaguered precinct commander, compassionate, but with credible limits to his patience (Daniel J. Travanti, a warmer version of Roy Scheider); Esterhaus, the commandant’s eternal sergeant, abrasive, avuncular, and tenderly in thrall to a high-school cheerleader (Michael Conrad, remembered as proudly Polish uncle to All in the Family‘s Mike Stivic); shirt-sleeved cops, uniformed cops, plainclothes cops; sweet-smiling black cop, hip black cop, simpatico Chicano cop, weary long-faced lady cop; plus a tanned, leggy beauty from the Public Defenders’ office, Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), who opens and closes her mouth a lot; and Furillo’s ex-wife Fay (Barbara Bosson), with no other departmental affiliation, who opens and closes her mouth a lot to shout her protest of inadequate alimony payments.

All right, so they have to get identified; even Lou Grant needed half an hour of his first show to get settled in at the Trib. And by the time that much of Hill Street Blues‘ first episode has gone by, all suspicion of ethnic and cuteness quotas have dissolved, a community has been defined, and these people are simply who they are, neither more nor less “on” than they need to be to lead their professional and personal lives.

That’s something many TV series—indeed, many feature films—never manage to do. Hand in hand with this achievement goes the series’ amazing success at finding a narrative rhythm to accommodate its need to develop shaped dramatic events and at the same time honor the institutional imperative that the precinct’s story, and the stories of the individuals in occupational orbit there, must be ongoing, beyond resolution. Over the five episodes televised as of this writing, interest has never flagged; yet I have never encountered another TV program that betrayed less sign of anticipating commercial breaks or straining to tie off tonight’s episode.

“From the producers of Lou Grant” is true in a corporate sense merely: Both programs issue from the sterling MTM organization, but none of the key personnel responsible for the newspaper show are involved in Hill Street Blues. The series is the creation of its executive producers, Michael Kozoll and Steven Bochco, who have also written all episodes to date. Director is the veteran Robert Butler. Together they generate a density that not only puts standard over-lighted, emptied-out, programmatically written television drama to shame, but can hold its own against most recent movies.

***

As the denizens of Hill Street might put it in their verbally unfettered fashion, Hill Street Blues has texture up the wazoo. Any given space in the precinct house contains more bodies than should humanely be expected to occupy the same vicinity, and the flow of action and movement refuses to respect the conventional television inviolability of the fourth wall. Even the comparative sanctum of the Commander’s office is open to invasion and congestion, and the panes of glass separating it from the general work area reflect additional offscreen hustle more often than they turn obligingly transparent for unhindered observation.

Butler’s camera covers this and the endlessly various urban-ghetto milieux with an intricacy and agility that never tips over into visual complication for its own self-displaying sake. We see clearly what we need to see, and at the same time see it in the context of the living flux—social, political, professional, interpersonal—which surrounds and defines it. The backs of shots are often as intriguing as the foregrounds, and there’s no predicting when a background element is going to insinuate itself into the foreground. Likewise, the principals in one episode may serve as little more than occupational color, glorified extras, in the next, while an apparent walk-on may unexpectedly become a major focus of dramatic intensification.

Michael Warren, Ed Marinaro, Charles Haid, and the Hill Street squad

There’s no telling, either, where the action may lead, or when the comic and the dramatic are going to bleed into each other. In the premiere episode, Officers Hill (Michael Warren) and Renko (Charles Haid) answer a call to settle a violent family squabble. A black couple are feuding over the husband’s attention to the wife’s barely adolescent daughter by a previous liaison. Hill talks soul-brother sense to the couple and warns them that “cohabitation” of this sort often leads to trouble. (“It ain’t a habit,” the husband protests, in a typically loopy scriptoral throwaway, “it only happened the one time.”) The family unit settles down to the business of getting on with their lives, and the patrolmen depart, chewing over this latest manifestation of urban lunacy. The viewer is still marveling over the matter-of-factness with which incest has wafted into range and out again, when Hill and Renko arrive back at curbside to find their brand new squad car missing. It isn’t the first time the cops have been in this absurd position and, the nearby call box having been ripped off as well, they mosey toward a semi-derelict building across the street in search of a public phone. They step through the door, the angle shifts to a dope pusher in the act of making a sale at the rear of the lobby, and before we or the cops can adjust to the surprise, the dealer has pulled a gun and shot both men down.

As it happens, the gunning-down of Hill and Renko (who survive to become the emotional center of a drama of readjustment, mutual estrangement, and rapprochement in subsequent episodes) and the Emergency Action Team shootup of a street-gang siege elsewhere in the same program account for the only shots fired thus far in the series. Neither, mercifully, has there been a single car chase. Instead, Hill Street Blues has mostly concerned itself with the continuing, volatile complexities of urban peacekeeping, the bureaucratic infighting of various law-enforcement and other governmental agencies, and, above all, the lives and evolving characterizations of the regulars.

***

A few of these regulars are still waiting rounding-out at this point in the series. Belker (Bruce Weitz), the scurvy undercover officer who can out-growl vicious dogs and surly felons, has yet to transcend his role as house geek. (He can’t live down the memory of having bitten the nose off a suspect—”One lousy nose!”—in the over-enthusiastic performance of his duty. ) But even he has a mother, and may be humanized further by contact with the tender sex if he can just stop saving things like “I know ya must get dates up the wazoo.” If EAT (disapproved acronym of Emergency Action Team) Commander Howard Hunter seems unlikely to advance even that far, James B. Sikking’s hilarious stone-jawed performance nevertheless makes him welcome as the satiric joy of the season. Karate-chopping his way out of a jammed washroom cubicle to offer a chumly “Comment ca-va?” (pipe-stem raised in salute) and the advice that the streets are full of “environmentally handicapped types,” Hunter represents a devastating fusion of sociopolitical Neanderthalism and polysyllabic fluency.

The show has a superb ensemble going for it, but it’s still possible to isolate stellar presences. Charles Haid (the rampaging skeptic in Altered States) can turn the buying of a candy bar into a fierce transaction; his barrel-chested Renko might readily have rigidified at the level of caricature, but he articulates this macho strutter in ways that suggest an ironical and vulnerable character who could become the heart of the show. That would mean eclipsing Travanti’s Francis Furillo, of course; but Travanti not only wears quiet authority like one of Furillo’s three-piece suits, he also has the delicious advantage of getting to conduct a clandestine, frankly observed affair with the lawyer lady who tilts with him during the daylight hours. Not all the warmth Hill Street Blues gives off is communal: any episode that fails to wend its way to Veronica Hamel’s bed or bath is going to leave habitual viewers feeling erotically deprived.

Whether we’re to be deprived in another way is uncertain as this article goes to press. Have I written a rave or an obit? The numbers didn’t materialize in the opening weeks and, although NBC did agree to pick up all of MTM’s first twelve installments, Hill Street Blues is slotted into the infamous 10 p.m. Saturday graveyard. To be sure, Lou Grant took time to build an audience; also All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, and (to plunge to another level of reference) the present national craze, Dallas. They were fortunate enough to be berthed at CBS, which has a tradition of nurturing quality and idiosyncrasy. Can Silverman and NBC afford to do as much for a program that is already one of the best series ever developed for television?

Film Comment, March-April 1981

Copyright © 1981 by Richard T. Jameson

2018 addendum: In an almost simultaneous appreciation of the new show in The Weekly, I rather preciously posited, “The title is a bit of a pun: ‘Hill Street’—the location of the precinct house—insinuating a nice sense of precarious order, and ‘blues’ tipping us to both the subject of police and the tone and texture of the narrative style.” I wish I’d known then that Steven Bochco (along with several future colleagues on this and other TV shows) was an alumnus of Carnegie Tech’s theater department. The campuses of Carnegie Tech and Pitt, the University of Pittsburgh, were separated from downtown Pittsburgh by the Hill District—“the Hill” in local parlance—a dirty and decaying zone best avoided by upstanding citizens. At least, that’s how it was in the mid-Sixties, when I traipsed through it one afternoon, preferring to walk off the tensions of a graduate record exam I’d just taken at Pitt. The magic-hour light was golden; the scenery, not so much. But I’ve never forgotten “the Hill.” Surely Steven Bochco didn’t, either. —RTJ

Daniel J. Travanti and Veronica Hamel in ‘Hill Street Blues’