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Steven Bochco

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.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 6

“The stories also share common thematic concerns, regarding jealousy, marital fidelity, interpersonal power dynamics, and shifting loyalties across triangular relationships – often there is a Charles and a Hélène (Audran played four different Hélènes), whose relationship is disrupted by a complicating Paul. Bourgeoisie rituals come under anthropological interrogation; domestic geography is surgically precise (dwellings, simple and palatial, are meticulously designed); and there is Chabrol’s signature delight in lingering over meals, especially at crucial junctures. Almost invariably, there is murder, always, there is guilt, the weight of which is shared by more than one character.” Jonathan Kirshner runs through the dozen films of what he dubs Chabrol’s “second wave,” from Les Biches to Innocents with Dirty Hands, to signaled the director’s return to prominence after some years of indifferent work for hire. Via David Hudson.

“Clarke may have prefigured the reaction of audiences when, with the film still two long years from completion, he described 2001’s making as “a wonderful experience streaked with agony.” It was all that, and more: a feat of sustained innovation, even improvisation, led by one of the most controlling and obsessive directors in movie history. That MGM, traditionally the stodgiest of studios, gave Kubrick the freedom to set off toward an end point even he wasn’t entirely sure of—and this was half a decade before Hollywood would make a thing of indulging visionary young directors—is almost as astonishing as the film that resulted.” Bruce Handy recounts the years of rewriting, research, and overruns that resulted in Kubrick’s 2001.

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