Review: 'Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series' on DVD
Late in the DVD commentary for the pilot episode of "Hill Street Blues," actor Joe Spano marvels at the show's impact on the medium.
"It's extraordinary," he says, "the repercussions of this 48 minutes of television."
The cop drama's co-creator Steven Bochco follows by suggesting, "It's sort of a family tree, and if you look at the branches of the tree, you'll see 25 years of television."
Bochco is, if anything, underselling the importance of "Hill Street," which is on the short list of the most influential TV shows ever made. Whether through shared actors, writers, directors or through stylistic and thematic complexity, its DNA can be found in nearly every great drama produced in the 30-plus years since it debuted. The show was only occasionally interested in the legal trials of the criminals in its unnamed fictional city, but the complete series DVD set (it arrives in stores on Tuesday, for a listed price of $199, though of course you can find many sales) makes an airtight case for the show's place in television history, as well as for its role as a grand piece of entertainment.
And the box set doesn't especially need the sparse special features (a handful of commentary tracks and a single bonus disc with a few retrospective interview segments) to make that argument. The show itself is that good, even all these decades later, and its groundbreaking elements still stand out as ideas that remain vital in so many of the great dramas we have today.
In the prologue to my book, I compared the show to a widely-imitated movie like "Casablanca," where if you come to see it for the first time after a lifetime of watching the copies, it could be at risk of playing like a bundle of clichés — even though it invented those clichés. Curious to see how the show would be received by a younger viewer of today who had been raised on the great post-"Sopranos" dramas, I asked twentysomething TV scholar Myles McNutt (who had previously only seen clips from the show) for his take on the pilot. And, indeed, he said he had a hard time letting go of the strange feeling that it had been reverse-engineered from all the contemporary dramas that used many of the tropes it invented. But, he added, "once it and I got calibrated to the same wavelength, I very much enjoyed it."
My old partner Matt Zoller Seitz used to use another movie as the point of comparison: "Citizen Kane," both for its enormous influence and for the way that it took a bunch of individual stylistic devices that weren't original on their own and turned them into something new and different by putting them all together in one place. There were elements of documentaries, daytime soap operas, black comedy and more mixed in with the cop show tropes Bochco and co-creator Michael Kozoll(**) had learned in their work in the '70s. The combination felt like nothing that had ever aired on television before, and it would be quickly appropriated by some of the great series of the '80s ("St. Elsewhere"), '90s ("ER" and "Homicide") and the revolutionary cable dramas of the 21st Century.
(**) Kozoll (who also wrote the "First Blood" screenplay) left the show after its first two seasons, and essentially disappeared from show business. Bochco — who has long had a gift for picking talented partners — is very complimentary of Kozoll on the bonus features, but the man's absence from them is striking.
Bochco, Kozoll and pilot director Robert Butler wanted to bring a real sense of formal chaos to the proceedings. We open with what would become one of the show's trademarks: the boisterous daily roll call conducted by Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad, who left a gaping hole when he died midway through the series' run), a big gorilla of a man who conducts himself more as a philosopher than the tough guy he appears to be. (At the end of each roll call he warns his charges, "Hey, let's be careful out there.") There's no clear sense of who's an important character and who's just an extra with interesting facial hair, and the show's actual lead, precinct captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is introduced with zero fanfare after we've already seen the show's iconic opening credit sequence (accompanied by the beautifully melancholy theme song by Mike Post). Much of the series is shot with hand-held cameras to approximate the look of a documentary, and even the steadier shots will frequently follow one subset of characters on their way out of a scene, then reverse course to follow a different subset that has just entered. Each episode featured at least four or five overlapping stories, most of which would run for at least the next three to four episodes (unheard of at the time), mixed in with isolated vignettes about life on the job, like patrol cops Hill (Michael Warren) and Renko (Charles Haid) trying to cool down a domestic beef, or sleazy detective J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin) trying to use his badge to scam a date or a free meal. The larger story arcs dealt with basic policework, but also with police corruption, urban decay, political neglect, and all of it suffused with the same sense of despair that "The Wire" would make its stock in trade a couple of decades later.
The stories were always presented as secondary to the characters, and what characters the show had! It was a mix of high and lowbrow types — occasionally with both extremes in the same person, like erudite fascist cartoon Lt. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) — ranging from the growling, perp-biting undercover cop Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz) on up to Furillo himself, a blend of the archetypal sensitive Alan Alda-style '70s hero with something angrier.
In the show's best episode, season 3's "Trial By Fury" — the first script ever written by David Milch, who would go on to co-create "NYPD Blue" with Bochco and then to weave the incredible tapestry that was HBO's "Deadwood" — a vengeful Furillo uses the threat of a lynch mob to bully two men into admitting to raping and murdering a nun; afterwards, he goes to the local church to make his own confession. Later that season, Milch introduced Sal Bennedetto, a profane, corrupt cop played by Dennis Franz, who would be imitated many many times over the years by other shows — including this one, which brought Franz back in the sixth season as Norm Buntz, a slightly cuddlier version of the same character.