Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #13

Series Title: Hill Street Blues | Years: 1981-1987, NBC | Starring: Daniel J. Travanti, Bruce Weitz, Betty Thomas, Michael Warren, Taurean Blacque, Kiel Martin, Charles Haid, Veronica Hamel, James B. Sikking, Joe Spano, Barbara Bosson, René Enríquez, Ed Marinaro, Robert Hirschfeld, Michael Conrad, Robert Prosky, Dennis Franz | Theme Music: Mike Post

Just typing out the names of those ensemble cast members from Hill Street Blues reminds me of how different this show was from others we’ve considered in our series. That it succeeded in making viewers connect with such a large contingent of characters testifies to the quality of its writing, as well as the skills of the actors and actresses who filled those roles. Some shows have trouble dealing with only a handful of players, giving them all something substantive to do; Hill Street Blues had an army to command.

This program is said to have been born in NBC president Fred Silverman’s suggestion that his network create an hour-long drama synthesizing the workplace dynamics and ethnic mix of Barney Miller with the documentary-style cinematography characteristic of Joseph Wambaugh’s well-regarded anthology crime serial, Police Story. Explains an article on the Museum of Broadcast Communications site:
To develop the series, NBC turned to Grant Tinker’s MTM Enterprises, which in the early 1970s had specialized in ensemble sitcoms (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, and others) before turning to the hour-long ensemble drama in 1977 with Lou Grant. Hill Street was created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, two veteran TV series writers with extensive experience on various crime series. The two had collaborated on the short-lived police drama Delvecchio in 1976-77 before joining MTM, and they had little interest in doing another cop show without considerable leeway to vary the form. NBC agreed, and Hill Street debuted as a mid-season replacement in January 1981.
The action was set in the fictional Metro Police Department’s Hill Street Station (really Chicago’s 7th District Police Station), located in a never-identified U.S. industrial metropolis, probably in the Northeast or Upper Midwest. Scripts were built around a single day’s events within that troubled precinct, beginning with an early morning roll call, led by Sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Conrad), during which current cases were quickly reviewed--introducing the plot lines to be followed for the rest of the episode--and characters shared a flavor of their personalities via wisecracks and other responses to the bearlike sergeant. After Esterhaus delivered some variation of his signature caution--“Let’s be careful out there”--the male and female officers filed out with their respective partners, preparing to tackle assignments that would be poignant or amusing, or both.

The cast strove for eccentricity and outward confidence, suffused with personal complexities and weaknesses. They were a well-delineated bunch, including Mick Belker (Weitz), the habitually disheveled undercover detective; gun-obsessed, right-wing Lieutenant Howard Hunter (Sikking), who commanded the precinct’s SWAT team; quick-to-anger redneck Officer Andy Renko (Haid), who sought to regain his self-esteem after being shot; recovering alcoholic Detective Johnny “J.D.” LaRue (Martin); and streetwise but gentle Sergeant Lucille Bates (Thomas). Other characters came and went, including Lieutenant Norman Buntz, played by Dennis Franz, a headstrong, rules-breaking veteran cop not so unlike the character Franz would play in a later Steven Bochco series, NYPD Blue.

Their superiors and the outsiders with whom they dealt on a regular basis were no less memorable: Captain Francis Xavier “Frank” Furillo (Travanti), who kept the Hill Street precinct from regularly blowing apart, and was engaged in his own unfair fight with drink; self-protective Chief of Police Fletcher P. Daniels (Jon Cypher); and feisty but undeniably fetching attorney Joyce Davenport (Hamel) of the Public Defender’s office, who became Furillo’s lover and eventually his wife--a situation that could well have depressed Furillo’s ex-spouse, Fay (Bosson), who believed that she and Frank would one day get back together, but somehow, through the miracle of astute scriptwriting, actually made Fay stronger.

“The Furillo-Davenport relationship was Hill Street’s most obvious and effective serial plot, while also giving a dramatic focus to individual episodes,” reads the Museum of Broadcast Communications piece. “As professional adversaries, they endlessly wrangled over the process of law and order; as lovers they examined these same conflicts--and their own lives--in a very different light. Most episodes ended, in fact, with the two of them together late at night, away from the precinct, mulling over the day’s events. This interplay of professional and personal conflicts--and of episodic and serial plot lines--was crucial to Hill Street’s basic narrative strategy.”

Hill Street Blues was blessedly unlike most every other cop show on the boob tube. For one thing, notes The Hill Street Blues Web Site, “Episodes were not written on their own, but in blocks of four, to allow the interwoven multiple story lines. The effect of all this was to make the series hard to follow for the ‘occasional’ viewer.” Furthermore, Bochco employed hand-held cameras, something that hadn’t been tried before on American television, and which gave the series a gritty, cinema verité atmosphere. The show’s dialogue was smartly composed, thick with levels of meaning and peppered with cultural references. And story lines were far from simplistic, observes Irish academic Helena Sheehan in an intriguing essay on the Web. They often dealt with controversial subjects, be they the “victimisation of a female officer after refusing a superior’s advances, impoverished public servants being given vouchers in lieu of pay cheques, behind-the-scenes manouveuring in a mayoral campaign, cutthroat competition for garbage collection contracts, [or] weapons stockpiling among survivalists ...”

Sex was another subject that Hill Street approached rather more fearlessly than was common on American television. Late-night bathtub scenes involving Joyce Davenport and Frank Furillo contributed to our intimate understanding of those figures. And then of course there was the continuing saga of Phil Esterhaus’ love life. As Sheehan recalls, “The evolution of Sgt. Esterhaus from his ‘Gidget phase with the post-pubescent pom-pom girl’ Cindy to his sexual exhaustion in the hands of the exotic, erotic and inexhaustible Grace [Gardner, the wife of deceased Chief of Detectives Sam Gardner, played by Barbara Babcock] to ‘his second coming with his Tupperware wife’ Margaret and back to Grace Gardner again, was traced with all of the attendant irony it deserved. He finally died in the act in the arms of the insatiable Grace.” (Fifty-eight-year-old Michael Conrad, who portrayed Esterhaus, died in fact in 1983, during the show’s fourth season.)

“Not surprisingly, considering its narrative complexity, uncompromising realism, and relatively downbeat worldview, Hill Street fared better with critics than with mainstream viewers,” the Museum of Broadcast Communications recalls. “In fact, it was among TV’s lowest-rated series during its first season but was renewed due to its tremendous critical impact and its six Emmy awards, including Outstanding Drama Series. Hill Street went on to win four straight Emmys in that category, while establishing a strong constituency among upscale urban viewers.” The series also weathered a number of cast changes and the departure, after Season 2, of co-creator Michael Kozoll (whose next credit looks to have been the 1991 Michael J. Fox/James Woods movie, The Hard Way). Brought in as writers at that point were Anthony Yerkovich (who would subsequently create Miami Vice and the vastly under-appreciated 1987 period gumshoe drama Private Eye) and David Milch (later a writer for NYPD Blue and the creator of HBO’s marvelous Deadwood).

Among Hill Street Blues’ many strengths must be included its main title sequence (embedded above), a powerful combination of video and music. The latter of those was the creation of composer Mike Post, whose other credits over the years have included themes for The Rockford Files, NYPD Blue, The A-Team, Magnum, P.I., and Baa Baa Black Sheep. His piano-dominated Hill Street theme captures that series’ unusually warm and tender side, so brilliantly out of character for a police procedural. This is an opening sequence designed to establish the program’s tone at the same time as it introduces its continuing players. There’s nothing especially daring about the sequence, and not much action aside from the launching of police cars onto wet city streets, their sirens wailing plaintively. (An alternative version of that opener added only the grating upswing of a police station garage door.) Yet when viewers saw the close-up of spinning red lights, heard the police radio narration (“Dispatch, we have a 9-11. Armed robbery in progress. See surplus store, corner of People’s Drive and 124th Street”), and watched those police cars weave away toward their destination, perhaps to some tragic end ... well, it could be a moving experience, let me tell you. As the main melody kicked in and clips of the stars ran by, it was as if you were about to visit with old friends. Even now, I feel myself tearing up as I watch the Hill Street Blues opener. I must acknowledge that this main title sequence is a purely sentimental choice, and add that I’ve rarely been so affected, so consistently by a TV opener as I was by this one. Perhaps the only other example of an introduction that, from the very first bar of its theme, could rivet me to my seat was that of The West Wing--again, a sequence short on high drama, but long on transporting viewers into a circle of flawed and fabulous characters.

There were 146 episodes of Hill Street Blues produced before the series finally went off the air, a cancellation that was provoked in significant part by actor Travanti’s announcement that he wouldn’t return for an eighth season. The first two years of episodes are already available on DVD, and I presume that the rest will come out sometime in the future. It’s a cliché to say that a show was groundbreaking, that it set a new standard for programming. But what the heck, Hill Street Blues really did.

FOLLOW-UP: Shortly after the 34-disc DVD set, Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series, was released in late April of 2014, National Public Radio TV critic David Bianculli went on the air with these remarks about that seven-season hit:
It’s very easy, and not at all inaccurate, to divide dramatic series television into two eras: before Hill Street Blues … and after. Before NBC televised Hill Street in 1981, most continuing drama series were presented as stand-alone, interchangeable hours starring the same characters. Every week, TV detectives Joe Mannix or Theo Kojak or Tony Baretta would investigate a crime, catch the villains and wait for next week to do it again. But Hill Street borrowed from daytime soap operas and presented sequential storylines, which carried over from week to week.

There were other innovations, too. Instead of one or two central stars, Hill Street featured a large ensemble cast. Camerawork was often hand-held and frantic, more like a documentary. Dialogue overlapped and sounded natural, as in a Robert Altman movie. Scenes of intense drama sometimes were followed by moments of broad humor. And the crimes themselves, and the solving of them, usually took a back seat to the private lives of the cops, officers and lawyers who populated the show.

In other words,
Hill Street Blues sounds like almost every excellent drama series that’s on your must-watch list today. But back then it broke new ground, although it took a year and a batch of Emmy Awards before it caught on. Before that, the show had a much tougher time getting viewers accustomed to its unusual narrative style. As series co-creator Steven Bochco says in one of the extras in this new box set, Hill Street Blues tested “through the floor.”

But from the very beginning, it was wonderful. Daniel J. Travanti starred as Capt. Frank Furillo, a recovering alcoholic who ran a squad of inner-city cops who had plenty of problems of their own. Veronica Hamel played public defender Joyce Davenport, his secret girlfriend, and theirs was one of the most mature and sexy relationships on TV at the time. The more time viewers spent with these characters, the more they liked them. And that certainly went for Michael Conrad as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, who opened that first show--and every show for a few seasons thereafter--by presiding over morning roll call at the precinct and concluding with the same sincere warning: “Let’s be careful out there.”
You can listen to all of Bianculli’s commentary here. And click here for further observations on Hill Street’s legacy from NPR’s Eric Deegans.

READ MORE:Five Reasons Hill Street Blues Is the Best Cop Show Ever,” by Corrina Lawson (Criminal Element); “Throwback Thursday: Hill Street Blues” (The Killing Times).


Anonymous said...

That intro was a dud! The music especially...what a yawn

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Hmm. What's that old adage about how if you don't have something nice to say, then ...


Dana King said...

I saw the first episode of HSB; I don't know that I missed any, between reruns and the then new and exciting VCR.

I agree with you about the opening; a similar effect was achieved with BAND OF BROTHERS. Unexpectedly calming music, with the visuals foreshadowing the action, creating tension by mixing the viewers' inputs.

Between HILL STREET and ST. ELSWHERE, I can't think of two better better shows running contemporary with each other on commercial television.

Anonymous said...

Dana, Naked City and Route 66 come to mind immediately.

Anonymous said...

Zim (UK)
HSB was possibly the best US show to hit these shores up to the end of the 80s. A great cast of characters, good scripting, interwoven plots, sharp editing, memorable intro-outro music. It knocked spots off anything previous (and had the added bonus of no canned laughter). It was a must buy when released on DVD, but a shame that only two seasons were issued. I remember it with great fondness as, to me, it stands out as a world landmark in TV production. Thank you America.