Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
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Since I'm nearing the end of reading all Frost's non-Peaks books, and watching all his major non-Peaks TV/film work, I think I'm going to have to cap it off with a full rewatch of Hill Street Blues, which is long overdue. I was wondering: is there any interest in a group watch? I was contemplating an episode a day, although I'm open to different ideas, if others are interested in joining. I know the series isn't on a streaming service, which makes it tough. I think it's available for purchase on Amazon Prime, and there's a 2014 Shout! Factory complete series DVD release which is pretty easy to find online for a reasonable price given how much content you're getting--but admittedly is also objectively not cheap.

So, any takers? If not, I'll go it alone and probably just post some analyses/updates here and there at significant milestones (season beginnings/endings, major episodes like Milch's "Trial by Fury," significant Frost episodes, etc.), or whenever the mood strikes. But it would be fun if others are interested in and capable of joining in!
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I AM interested but just not able to do something like that cause of my schedule. But I've been curious to watch this show. I watched a few clips on YouTube and it seemed crazy ahead of its time.
I’ve admittedly tried hill street marathons in the past, but never could make it through the first season. Even with its narrative and character innovations, I find there’s something dated about it in a way that I can’t easily engage with.

That being said, I do *wish* I found it more interesting — I really admire it for the influence it had on everything from Babylon 5 to Alan Moore’s Top 10 to Paul Levitz’s run on Legion Superheroes in the 80s.

I think if I ever attempt to dive into HSB again, I might start in S3, or whenever it was that Frost joined the writing staff.
I’ve admittedly tried hill street marathons in the past, but never could make it through the first season. Even with its narrative and character innovations, I find there’s something dated about it in a way that I can’t easily engage with.

That being said, I do *wish* I found it more interesting — I really admire it for the influence it had on everything from Babylon 5 to Alan Moore’s Top 10 to Paul Levitz’s run on Legion Superheroes in the 80s.

I think if I ever attempt to dive into HSB again, I might start in S3, or whenever it was that Frost joined the writing staff.
Part of the tragedy of its legacy is that so many revolutionary things that it did have now become extremely commonplace, so its massive influence in a way hurts its impact. Alan Sepinwall has compared it to the way younger viewers coming to Casablanca may view it as a cliche, since it's been so often imitated.
“Hill Street Station” (pilot)
Written by: Michael Kozoll & Steven Bochco
Directed by: Robert Butler
Airdate: January 15, 1981

It’s not an exaggeration to say that television as we know it today—in particular, the prestige era that grew up in the early 2000s and has perhaps now sadly ended—would not exist as it does without Hill Street Blues. This series was a watershed moment, now largely forgotten due to the ephemeral nature of the TV industry. Writers who got their start on Hill Street went on to create Deadwood (David Milch), Law & Order (Dick Wolf), Miami Vice (Anthony Yerkovich), and of course Twin Peaks. But beyond just the résumés of the show’s alumni, the work itself redefined how stories were told on television, and this pilot is remarkable for how it immediately emerges as a fully-formed piece with a crystal-clear vision of what the show was to be.

As with many of the great pieces of art to emerge from network television (Twin Peaks included), Hill Street was the product of a desperate network deep in the doldrums of poor ratings, willing to try almost anything to gain attention. NBC was in a severe slump under the disastrous tenure of CEO Fred Silverman when they approached MTM Enterprises to produce a cop show for them.

MTM was a company formed in 1969 by Mary Tyler Moore (then best known as Laura on The Dick Van Dyke Show) and her then-husband Grant Tinker, to produce her new series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Under Tinker’s guidance, MTM went on to great success throughout the 1970s producing hits like The Bob Newhart Show and Rhoda as well as the beloved cult classic WKRP in Cincinnati. MTM also began to transition into hour-long drama with one of the best shows of the ’70s, the critically-acclaimed and much-awarded Lou Grant, which was a spinoff of Ed Asner’s Mary Tyler Moore Show character: a rare instance of an hour-long drama spinning off from a half-hour sitcom. (Years later, Hill Street would pull off this feat in reverse, with its short-lived half-hour comedy spinoff Beverly Hills Buntz, starring the Dennis Franz character from the final two seasons.) Upon receiving NBC’s request for a cop series, MTM tapped Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll to create and write the pilot.

Bochco had started his career in the 1970s at Universal Television, where he wrote for shows like Columbo and the Rock Hudson vehicle McMillan & Wife. Getting fed up with the assembly-line grind, in 1978 he moved over to MTM, feeling that he would have more creative freedom. His first major work there was to create the critically-acclaimed but short-lived show Paris, starring James Earl Jones as an LAPD captain. Upon being handed the assignment of creating a cop show for NBC, Bochco was not particularly enthusiastic, as he didn’t have much interest in revisiting the genre again. However, he accepted the gig on the condition that the network let him make the show his way, and MTM backed his play. Subsequently, anytime NBC pushed back during the course of making the pilot, Bochco coolly and evenly said that they could make the show without him and he would happily walk away. NBC backed down every time, and agreed to a hands-off approach.

The other co-creator of the show was Michael Kozoll. Kozoll also came from the Universal factory, having written for the Bochco-created Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, as well as working alongside Bochco on the Judd Hirsch-starring cop show Delvecchio and cowriting the TV movie Vampire with Bochco. After coming over to MTM, he also wrote an episode of Bochco’s Paris before co-creating Hill Street and cowriting the pilot. Kozoll effectively left Hill Street after the first season, due to creative differences with Bochco (in the second season, he took a demotion from Executive Producer to Creative Consultant—and also had a story credit on almost every episode, which was presumably part of his contractual agreement—before disappearing from the show entirely in season 3). Following his Hill Street exit, Kozoll seems to have vanished from the film and TV business almost without a trace. Although he is one of the three credited screenwriters on 1982’s First Blood, his work on that film was actually completed well before Hill Street, in 1977, prior to Sylvester Stallone coming onto the project and doing his own rewrite. Kozoll’s only other subsequent work was a story credit on the 1991 Michael J. Fox/James Woods buddy cop flick The Hard Way.

The other key piece of the puzzle in the Hill Street pilot equation is director Robert Butler. Butler was an industry workhorse with a massive résumé. Perhaps his most noteworthy claim to fame besides Hill Street is as the director of the original rejected Star Trek pilot “The Cage,” but he also directed on pretty much all of the most acclaimed and beloved shows of the 1960s and 1970s: The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, I Spy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Untouchables, Batman, The Fugitive (a favorite of Mark Frost)…the list goes on and on. He also directed the Disney Kurt Russell vehicles The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Barefoot Executive, and post-Hill Street would go on to co-create Remington Steele, as well as directing the Moonlighting pilot. Butler, in 1980, was sick and tired of the basic generic directing style that defined series television, and wanted to do something radically different. He conceived the hand-held documentary-like shooting style, and although he would exit the show after directing the first five episodes and one additional one in season 2, Butler’s style would define the gritty, raw house style of the series and would be imitated by all the directors who worked on the show after him. Butler wanted to shoot the entire show hand-held, but Bochco pushed back against this, feeling that it would be too “self-conscious” and that they should more strategically deploy that device for the chaotic opening roll call segments and other select moments in order to have more of an impact. The pseudo-documentary style was influenced by the Emmy- and Peabody-winning 1977 PBS documentary The Police Tapes, which followed the daily routine of a South Bronx precinct. Another work of fiction was also influenced by The Police Tapes: Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache, the Bronx (starring Paul Newman and Ed Asner), which is often incorrectly cited as an inspiration for Hill Street, but actually was released a month after Hill Street had already begun airing.

It’s almost impossible to imagine now what it must have been like tuning in for the first minutes of this pilot, on a Thursday night at 10pm, following a two-hour episode of the campy sci-fi Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. From the first frame, the camera is roving all over the place. Everyone is talking over everyone else like it’s a Robert Altman movie, and there’s also a ton of ambient background noise. (Keep in mind that this was during the era when shows were still broadcast exclusively in mono, and TV sets only had one tinny speaker, which was usually emitting staticky background noise and reverb…due to these limitations in the way shows were presented, TV producers were obsessed with making sure dialogue was as clean and intelligible as possible…clearly not a concern for Bochco and company.) We don’t know who anyone is, and there’s no clear indication whom we’re supposed to be focusing on besides of course Esterhaus, who commands the podium as he will at the beginning of each subsequent episode. Speaking of which, another innovation: this main cast is massive. Ensemble shows were relatively rare, but one with a cast this big was completely unheard of. There are a whopping thirteen series regulars credited in the main titles for this first season. And this pilot does an enormously economical job of introducing almost all of them in a quick-and-dirty way where we instantly get the colorful essences of their characters.

Perhaps the most brilliant and important element that the show brings to the table, which will impact all subsequent television from The Sopranos to Succession, is its messy complicated humanity. For the first time, a show isn’t primarily about plot…the plot is almost incidental. In previous cop shows, the focus is on neat resolutions: cops catch the bad guy, justice is served. Hill Street doesn’t care about that. The focus is not on the results of police work, but rather the reality of police life: the soul-crushing impossibility of fighting a losing battle every single day and what that does to a person. But despite the serious subject matter, Hill Street never takes itself all that seriously…because just like many actual real-life cops, the only way for the show and the characters to cope with such a harsh reality is to develop a dark, worldly sense of humor. Which is not to say that the show is entirely cynical—the noble Frank Furillo, the heart of the show, ensures that hope can still exist in this world—but even the most heroic characters aren’t charging to victory on a white steed…they’re just trying to get through the day. As an indicator of how willfully blind average 1980s viewers were to reality, and how much their perceptions of policework had been colored by bland network procedurals, the early testing for the pilot was absolutely terrible, with several comment cards complaining that the show was unrealistic because the police were so messed up that they couldn’t even keep control of their own precinct let alone the city! (Actual cops loved the show, as it came closer to depicting the messy ugly reality of their job than any show up to that point had.)

Characters like Belker and Hunter are at this point purely absurd cartoonish caricatures, and yet there’s somehow immediately a perfect delicate tonal balance between drama and comedy that never feels out of whack.

Another innovation of the show is its serialized nature, which we begin to get a slight sense of here with the final scene, ending on the uncertain fates of Hill and Renko. Daytime soaps had of course always been serialized, and in the years directly preceding Hill Street, nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty (the latter of which debuted just three days before Hill Street) had brought the concept of serialization into prime time. But soaps were seen as their own thing, and were generally looked down upon as an inferior form of storytelling, the success of Dallas notwithstanding. Hill Street legitimized the concept of serialization by merging it with the crime procedural, presenting a serious approach to characters and relationships that change and evolve, and issues that aren’t resolved in an hour and will be brought back up in future episodes. It meant that audiences had to follow the show every week (which terrified network executives, who didn’t believe they could rely on audiences to have that kind of loyalty or attention span), and eventually led to the “Previously on Hill Street Blues” recap at the top of every episode, which was another innovation that now is of course commonplace (such recaps were previously used for the occasional multiparter, but were never before a recurring weekly feature on a series).

While the hostage standoff is the centerpiece of the episode, and the production value in that sequence is pretty astounding for the era (the sound design is especially breathtaking), the scene that for me really encapsulates the show is Hill and Renko responding to the domestic call. There’s so much expressed in that little scene, all of it in a matter-of-fact way that defies preachiness or morality. We get racial tension, complex socioeconomic and cultural dynamics in black families, statutory rape, sexual dissatisfaction, systemic distrust of police—all of this in the span of a few minutes, all woven up together in a complex human bundle of how fucked-up our society is, and how the personal is truly political (and vice versa). Michael Warren as Hill is phenomenal in that scene as he takes over the room and puts everyone in their place, using his status as a black man in a position of authority to resolve the problem without resorting to arrests—and also taking advantage of Renko’s presence as the only white man in the room, presenting him as a sort of mad dog, in a great twist on the usual “good cop/bad cop” cliché.

The precinct exists in an intentionally ambiguous Anywhere, U.S.A., although Bochco had Pittsburgh in mind as an inspiration (he attended Carnegie Mellon there—as did Mark Frost—and the Hill Street name comes from Pittsburgh’s Hill District). All the second-unit exterior shots in the main titles and in all the episodes were shot in Chicago.

Hill Street’s breaking of taboos was revolutionary at the time as a rebellion against the prudish conservative culture that dictated what our delicate eyes and ears were permitted to be exposed to on the airwaves…and ironically, or perhaps sadly, we’ve now cycled back to a world where the show would likely never be allowed on the airwaves, this time because of liberal political correctness censoring many of the exact same themes! Wild.

In a famous bit of series lore, Renko originally died in the pilot, as Charlie Haid had another show lined up. When that other pilot didn’t go to series, he begged Bochco to write him back into Hill Street, and Esterhaus’s side of the closing phone call was reshot to have him saying that Renko was in intensive care, as opposed to dead.

The hilarious scene of Fay reaming Furillo is copied almost note-for-note in Twin Peaks season 3 with Doris and Truman, to the extent that I have to imagine that this was a conscious homage by Frost, right down to both characters being named Frank! (As an aside, Barbara Bosson, who plays Fay, was Bochco’s wife at the time.)

The pilot has a couple of appearances by very young actors who would go on to much greater fame. Andy García (credited here as Andy Arthur) appears in the first scene after the main titles, as the kid behind the glass partition who’s taunting another young hooligan (he’ll pop up again later in a season 4 episode). Steven Bauer (Tony Montana’s best buddy Manny Ray in Scarface, and Don Eladio on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) also apparently appears here uncredited, although I’m not sure if I spotted him (I think he might be one of the cops wrestling with the EDP who goes berserk in the station)…in the following episode (“Presidential Fever”), an adorably baby-faced Bauer has a significant credited speaking role as Officer Fuentes (credited under his first screen name, Rocky Echevarria).

I’m fairly certain Goldblume mouths “fuck” after the Emergency Action Team shoots up the liquor store. You can even hear the “f” but the choppers drown out the rest of the word.

The pilot won the Emmys for writing, directing, and drama series. The series would eventually win Outstanding Drama Series four times, tying it with The West Wing, Mad Men and Game of Thrones for the all-time record. The show would go on to set other awards records as well, including the only time in Emmys history that every nominee in an acting category was from the same show (the 1982 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category).

Although the first season of Hill Street (which mostly aired on Saturday nights—which at that point wasn’t yet the graveyard slot that it later became) was a ratings disaster, NBC renewed it. While never a colossal hit, the show always had respectable ratings from its second season on, and became the first piece of the puzzle in the NBC Thursday night lineup developed by NBC’s new president, wunderkind Brandon Tartikoff—the lineup that would eventually be branded “Must See TV” in the 1990s. In the 1982 season (the same year Frost and Milch joined the writing staff), Hill Street was joined on Thursdays by Cheers, Fame, and Taxi (the latter of which NBC snagged after ABC had declined to pick it up for a fifth season), and the most famous night in modern television history was on its way to decades-long success.
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Excellent and informative write-up on Hill Street, @Mr. Reindeer

As you already know, I've taken you up on the opportunity to watch it. I don't think it is currently streaming in the US, but I have the DVD box set, which is great so far, magnifying the grit of the series and preserving the aspect ratio. I can't promise I will have much of anything to say in this thread, but I welcome this opportunity to finally watch the series.

I had watched the pilot three days ago, and I watched it wide-eyed the entire time. I thought it was one of the great pilots. I did not expect that it would hit with such uniqueness and force, especially not within its opening moments, which it sustained for nearly 50 minutes. I had no idea about the cacophony of its aesthetic, either, which, as you said, feels like Robert Altman directing a gritty, sprawling, blackly comic cop show. It feels like a major component of history, both in terms of the development of television as well as a time capsule demonstrating racial, gender, socioeconomical and other political dynamics. Like I said, I was WIDE-EYED watching the thing.

Re: the scene with Frank Furillo being berated by his wife, Twin Peaks immediately came to mind. Whether or not it was intentional on Frost's part, it did make me think of how some viewers of The Return had complained about the nagging wife syndrome, when here in Hill Street the scene is played in completely realistic fashion 36 years earlier! It sort of gets what you hint at about how the winds have shifted in how certain sectors view art. And there's some stuff you don't even mention here--one thing in particular--that absolutely would not be allowed today especially in a mainstream, network time slot, and if it were, the thinkpieces and moral stances and twitter outrage would be a sight to behold. To be fair, it is a majorly taboo subject to the point that I had to do a double take and rewind to make sure I heard it right.
An older, authoritative, main character nonchalantly states that he is waiting for his girlfriend to graduate...from high school.

Incredible stat about the Emmy acting category, as well. All five Supporting Actor slots filled by the same show.

I'm going to stick to a one-per-day schedule, as I know that is how Mr. Reineer prefers to soak it in. Tonight I'll be watching the third episode. I'm very curious to see how it unfolds episode to episode. The second episode doesn't pick up immediately after the first--around 4 weeks or so have passed, maybe?--whereas I feel that nowadays the second episode would have picked up immediately where the first left off, in tighter, more movie-like serialization. Both the first and second episodes have a self-contained procedural story, but like Mr. Reindeer said, so far this feels like it is less interested in the procedure of solving the case and more in the day-to-day lives of the police officers solving the cases.
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Someone whose influence - indirectly - should be mentioned in regard to Hill Street Blues (Hill Street's 'grandfather' almost) is Jospeh Wambaugh. His influence as a writer (and the man behind Police Story - an anthology that featured recurring characters) was huge on the portrayal of all emergency services on TV and in novels. If anyone who hasn't read his work and wants to, I'd advise starting out at the beginning with his superb book The New Centurions, which was later adapted into a film starring George C Scott and Stacy Keach Jr.


Right away, after the pilot, this season establishes the show’s approach to serialization: for the most part, the seasons are broken up into informal arcs made up of four (or occasionally three) episodes. Dividing the season into these more digestible chunks presumably made breaking the stories more manageable for the writers, as well as giving the audience some sense of closure every few weeks. In order to service the large cast, in addition to the A-story, these arcs may have as many as three or four other running storylines which may or may not intersect with one another. Additionally, there are also periodically smaller stories interspersed which may be the focus of an individual episode (such as the wacky sewer-based Howard Hunter adventure “Gatorbait”), may be a more minor runner during an episode (such as the forgettable storyline about Phil confronting a man who had shot him), or they may even last for only one scene (Hill and Renko delivering a baby in a car).

The end of this season has a rather unusual structure, as the initial order was for thirteen episodes (pilot included), with “Fecund Hand Rose” as the presumptive season finale, airing in March. NBC CEO Fred Silverman, in a last-ditch effort to try to boost the unsuccessful series, ordered four more episodes to air in May. Those ended up airing as two two-hour episodes (they are broken up into two two-parters on the DVD).


The first four episodes after the pilot are written by Mike Kozoll and Steve Bochco, and directed by Bob Butler; so, the same three-man team is responsible for the first five hours of the show.

With the sixth episode, Anthony Yerkovich joins as Story Editor (hired after Bochco read ten pages of a Starsky & Hutch script he’d written); he remains the only full-time staff writer besides Kozoll and Bochco for the rest of the first season. When discussing the contributions of the various writers, Bochco credited Yerkovich with being “quirky” and “fascinated by cultural norms and the absurdity and the hypocrisy of that kind of stuff,” as well as with doing more to define Howard Hunter than anyone else. As much as Howard was a pretty clear, distinctive character right from the jump in the pilot, he does seem to somehow reach a whole other level of absurdity as soon as Yerkovich joins the series. One of my favorites is his “Camp Guadalcanal” presentation, a hilarious one-off scene where he discusses a military training camp for juvenile delinquents: “Where the ghetto streets end, and manhood begins. Where democracy plays one-on-one with the domino theory, and protective reaction is not just a fourth-down call.” Or the Yerkovich-scripted episode “I Never Promised You a Rose, Marvin,” which has a really funny B-plot (with pretty incredible production value for the era) where Howard disastrously drives an armored assault vehicle through the city (after first presenting a diorama demonstration to department higher-ups, complete with: “scale-model Hispanics, Chief. I was hoping you’d notice”).

Yerkovich left Hill Street after season 3 to create Miami Vice. Yerkovich show-ran Miami Vice for only the first six episodes; I haven’t been able to find a reason for his exit, but one imagines it had to do with the always-reliable “creative differences,” with Executive Producer Michael Mann fully taking over the show after Yerkovich’s departure and putting his own indelible imprint on it. Yerkovich’s remaining screen credits following his Miami Vice exodus are sparse: he created the short-lived 1987 series Private Eye (featuring a post-Goonies Josh Brolin); wrote the 1997 TV movie Hollywood Confidential (with Edward James Olmos and a pre-Devil’s Advocate Charlize Theron); and most notably (although still not very notably), co-created the short-lived but great 2001 FBI/NYPD drama Big Apple with his former Hill Street coworker, David Milch. Big Apple is to date Yerkovich’s final screen credit, other than a ceremonial Exec Producer credit on Mann’s 2006 film of Miami Vice.

In addition to the regular writing staff of Kozoll, Bochco and Yerkovich, two episodes of Hill Street’s first season are written by freelancer Lee David Zlotoff, who would go on a few years later to create MacGyver.

Zlotoff’s second episode, “Life, Death, Eternity,” is cowritten by Gregory Hoblit. Hoblit had been with Hill Street as Producer since the pilot, and had shot all the second-unit material in Chicago for the main titles and for use throughout the episodes. (He had previously produced Bochco’s short-lived Paris series, as well as the Kozoll/Bochco-scripted TV movie Vampire.) “Life, Death, Eternity” is Hoblit’s only writing credit on Hill Street—in fact, it’s one of only two screenwriting credits in his entire career. With the episode “Fecund Hand Rose”—the presumptive season finale—Hoblit begins a more notable career, as a director. When the first season was extended by four episodes, Hoblit also directed the two-hour “Rites of Spring.” While “Fecund Hand Rose” is a bit of an uneven episode (more on that later), his direction on “Rites of Spring” brings a level of dynamic energy to the show that has rarely been seen since the pilot. From the very first scene (following roll call, of course), Hoblit seems to be intentionally upping the show’s game, as the camera starts close on Henry and some body bags coming out a door, then begins to follow them down a fire escape and pulls way wide and away, to eventually discover Officers Bates and Coffey three stories down on ground level holding off a crowd and bantering. Among other highlights, the episode has a wonderfully murky and dark shootout in an alley, and a solidly-shot hand-held foot chase, which includes Bruce Weitz as Belker gamely diving over the hood of a moving car. Hoblit would go on to become the most prolific director throughout the run of Hill Street (and Mark Frost would later cite him as a mentor on Frost’s own first directing gig). After Hill Street, Hoblit would go on to a successful feature career, directing Primal Fear, Fracture, and Hart’s War.

One other somewhat notable writer (although not notable for his writing career) is Alan Rachins, who writes the originally-planned finale, “Fecund Hand Rose.” Rachins was Bochco’s brother-in-law, and is better known as an actor, particularly for his Emmy-nominated role as Douglas Brackman on Bochco’s next series, L.A. Law (where his wife was played by his real-life spouse, Bochco’s sister).

The shared three-way episode writing credits throughout the season between Kozoll, Bochco and Yerkovich begin to evidence the preferred system of writing Bochco developed on the show: the story would be worked out in the room (“writers’ rooms” were a pretty common phenomenon in comedy going back to Your Show of Shows, but were rarely used on network dramas pre-Hill Street), and after the story had been broken, each writer would take an act or two. Then, after finishing a first draft, they would exchange acts and rewrite, getting an episode done much faster than if only one writer were working on the entire draft.

“Life, Death, Eternity” is directed by Jack Starrett, who played Gabby Johnson in Blazing Saddles and Sgt. Galt in First Blood (he would later appear onscreen in season 3 of Hill Street). The two-hour season finale, “Jungle Madness,” is directed by Corey Allen, who played gang leader Buzz Gunderson in Rebel Without a Cause, and directed several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, including the pilot; he would go on to direct two more Hill Street episodes in season 4.

Season Analysis

Even under Bob Butler’s direction on those first four episodes after the pilot, the show settles down a little bit into a staider, more TV-like quality after the pilot. Inevitably, the characters and the precinct setting have become a bit more familiar. Sometimes the show can start to feel like a workplace sitcom, focusing on mundane aspects like the constant struggles with the vending machines, the heater being broken, and petty interpersonal grievances. But that feels appropriate, as the precinct house is in theory a safe haven for our main characters, which makes it all the more jarring when, with inevitable regularity, the chaos of the city invades that supposed safe space, whether it be unruly perps or a misfiring shotgun. As the news reporter puts it in the episode “Your Kind, My Kind, Humankind”: “Far from offering a respite to its officers, Hill Street Station literally assaults them with a harsh, untempered focusing of the violence and despair that flourishes just outside its walls.”

The way the series leans heavily into (sometimes very silly) comedy can sometimes give the viewer whiplash. However, speaking as someone who’s spent some time in police precincts, and quite a lot of time around cops, during my years as an assistant district attorney, the hairpin turns between absurdity and tragedy feel very realistic for an environment where the characters are dealing with extremely erratic individuals on an unrelenting basis. You never know which way any interaction may go. One of my favorite episodes this season is “Film at Eleven,” which contrasts an amusingly goofy plot about Belker arresting a guy who thinks he’s a vampire (legal name: Kevin Herman Dracula) against the deadly serious storyline involving tracing the gun that shot Hill and Renko in the pilot…except that at the end of the episode, the comedic vampire plot that no one was taking seriously is the one that ends in tragedy, an outcome that feels quintessentially Hill Street. This is the first episode written by Yerkovich, and also the first time we really get to see Belker’s sensitive side. (There’s also a hilarious subplot of Belker and Phil babysitting for a suspect’s infant…Mick improvising a makeshift seagull with a pair of handcuffs to entertain the kid is a terrific insight into his deranged mind.)

I can see where @Cappy is coming from in not being able to get past the show feeling “of its time” in certain respects. Despite the fairly revolutionary serialized element that set the show apart from most of its predecessors, there is still also a somewhat formulaic element common to TV of the time. Every episode begins with the raucous roll call, and many episodes end with Frank and Joyce together at the end of the day. Fay’s weekly visits to the precinct to harangue Frank get repetitive and tiresome pretty quickly. Another oft-repeated shtick is Belker chicken-pecking at his typewriter while growling at a perp and fielding calls from his never-seen mother (“The man is 83 years old, Ma…”). There is also a “set-’em-up-and-knock-’em-down” quality to some of the storylines—a feeling that no matter how compelling the individual scenes may be from a writing and acting standpoint, the outcome is predetermined and the status quo will be mostly preserved (for instance, LaRue’s “Saloon-dromat” scheme inevitably doesn’t come to fruition; Frank is of course not going to get the promotion to Commander that would take him away from the Hill; the plotline about Henry’s son being sick is only there to create artificial turmoil and ends with a quick unconvincing wrap-up of the son being fine; etc.). The seventh episode, “Choice Cut,” feels like a repeat of the pilot, with a hostage situation by the same gang members and very similar back-and-forth dynamics (albeit with a slight variation, in the form of a shaggy-dog storyline involving a slab of beef and a body bag, which just-barely pays off in humorously understated fashion). That being said, even “Choice Cut,” as repetitive as it is, does lead to a character-defining arc for Furillo over the subsequent few episodes, where we see him bending over backwards trying (and failing) to help Hector (the gang member) get out of the system (to the point that even Joyce questions whether Frank is too soft).

One interesting piece of history is that the final screen in the show’s end credits features the icon for the Television Code—a Hays Code-style self-policing initiative instituted by the networks in 1952, and finally done away with in 1983. It was on its last legs here; one of the tenets of the Code was that police not be depicted in a negative fashion, something Hill Street clearly did not adhere to. Granted, all of the series regulars are redeemable—not always good people, very frequently messy as hell, but this is not an HBO show where the characters are truly morally compromised. However, many of the guest cops who have multi-episode arcs are indeed depicted as corrupt, albeit almost always somewhat sympathetic. Cops like Detective Emil Schneider (Dolph Sweet) and Detective Charlie Weeks (Charles Hallahan) aren’t just villainous rotten apples who are presented as anomalies in the system, but are instead morally complex guys who have been compromised due to larger systemic issues and the personal sacrifices they’ve made for their careers.

Even as the show comes to feel a bit more conventional or “TV-ish” at points, one thing that never wanes is the commitment to showing a gritty urban reality, populated by people of color who speak and act believably and live in believable conditions, down to the least extra. It’s a kind of honest representation that we’ve grown more used to seeing today, but was rare on television at that point. The recurring focus on police violence against people of color, and the community reaction, also feels shockingly far ahead of its time in terms of what was on TV in that era (one black man, after his younger brother has been killed by a cop, darkly jokes that the police must be investigating because he “only used two slugs instead of the routine six”). Additionally, even the most noble and decent of our main cop characters are shown to be consistently nicer to white perps than to people of color, reflecting an all-too-realistic truth. The prostitute in “Film at Eleven” hilariously points this out: “Police don’t believe no one unless they white. No matter nothin’ if they’re freaks and junkies and neck-sucking vampires, long as they white neck-sucking vampires.”

One aspect where the show does feel positively quaint is its depiction of gang relations. Apparently, every race in the city has one unified gang (blacks, Hispanics, Irish, etc.), which is ridiculously simplistic and reductive; and the way Furillo resolves beefs between them is complete naïve fantasy. It feels more like a dispute between rival trade unions than actual gang activity.

While I enjoy the way some storylines simply fizzle out, which is realistic, one bizarre one is the rapist storyline that runs through the first four post-pilot episodes. The storyline mostly functions as background noise, besides providing some character development for Belker; but in the fifth episode, “Double Jeopardy” (originally titled “Dressed to Kill” before Brian De Palma asked them to change it), it suddenly gets foregrounded in ridiculous fashion, with all the male cops being required to go undercover in drag in order to lure out the perpetrator. Even worse, after playing this for cheap laughs as they get dressed up, most of the story takes place off-screen…including Lucy Bates apparently getting assaulted by the rapist, a development we only hear about, and which is subsequently never addressed again! As will be discussed more below, the show struggles throughout this season to treat Bates as a fully-rounded character with an emotional reality, and this is one of the more frustrating examples of that.

Language is an interesting aspect of the show. The writing for Esterhaus, Hunter, and—in his own way—Renko reflects the writers’ penchant for the florid and verbose, in a way that is not necessarily naturalistic but is enormously entertaining. One can’t help but draw a line from Hill Street to the Shakespearean logical conclusion to which David Milch took this sort of grandiloquent dialogue in Deadwood. Speaking of language, one of the curiosities of this era of television is that the characters really can’t curse beyond your basic “damn” or “crap,” yet for some reason, incredibly hurtful racist slurs like the N-word or “sp*c” are allowed! Not that I have a problem with the way the show uses those words: they’re used very sparingly and always responsibly and realistically, to enhance the scene. But it’s so emblematic of our messed-up society that the censors are puritanical about discussing natural bodily functions or healthy sexuality, whereas allowing hateful racism into viewers’ homes is totally fine. (I always remember watching the censored broadcast version of Casino as a kid, where Pesci’s dialogue is censored in all sorts of comically ridiculous ways—“Stuff you!”—but then he just casually drops the N-word.) It’s a credit to the actors that some of the very silly euphemisms in the dialogue (“bean dip” for “bullshit,” “witch’s lip” for “witch’s tit”) just roll off their tongues to the point where you don’t really question it in the moment. This inability to accurately depict the street language of cops and the people they interact with would be a frustration/fascination of Milch’s once he joined the show in season 3, as he discusses in his autobiography…and he and Bochco would later begin to shatter some of those language taboos on NYPD Blue.

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Captain Frank Furillo is established as the tough-but-loving mother hen, and an effective middle manager. As described by Bochco, the core of his character is trying to navigate a job where he has tremendous responsibility but almost no true authority. His most effective arc is near the end of the season, when he blows up a potential promotion in order to expose a city councilman’s crimes, and to help a young kid charged with murder. He’s the classic hero of these sort of left-leaning TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s, always sticking up for the underdog, played with soft-spoken sincerity by Daniel Travanti.

In a lot of ways, Officers Bobby Hill and Andy Renko remain the heart of the show, as the “blues” (uniform cops) we spend the most time with, the guys who really interact with the populace on a street level. Their storyline over the first three post-pilot episodes remains the most compelling aspect of that early stretch of the show. Although (as @LateReg has previously noted) the two-month time jump after the pilot is initially jarring, this allows the show to skip over their physical recoveries from being shot, and to focus on their PTSD: a condition which is never specifically named onscreen, but is very clear from their behavior. In fact, PTSD had only entered the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) with the DSM-III in 1980, a few months before Hill Street debuted, and the term was likely not yet well-known outside the medical community. There are some very strong scenes between the two partners as they engage in both accusation and self-recrimination. It’s pretty groundbreaking stuff for the time, and the only fault that can really be found with it is that the ultimate resolution where they decide to remain partners is a bit pat and abrupt (albeit well-acted).

And yet, even when the storyline seems to be wrapped…it’s not! The gun that took both of them down is found, and several episodes are spent on tracing it back to the alleged shooter. Furillo performs an identification procedure which is flawed in all sorts of ways (for some reason, he lets Renko and Hill be in the room together to make their IDs; and furthermore, moments before, they had already caught a glimpse of the arrested suspect in the interrogation room—this latter problem isn’t Frank’s fault, but it irrevocably taints the identification). Ultimately, the suspect, Eddie Hoban, is released due to lack of evidence…but confesses a few days later, when he finds he is being shunned on the streets, because everyone thinks he narced. He is put away, and Renko—utterly convinced that Hoban was the shooter—finally has closure and is relieved. Hill, on the other hand, is convinced that Hoban doesn’t remember the shooting—either because he was so high at the time, or because he didn’t do it at all—but either way, Hill thinks the guy has confessed to a crime he doesn’t remember committing, and Bobby won’t be able to sleep because of it. Furillo is also conflicted, but there’s nothing to be done. The audience is never told whether Hoban was the actual shooter or not (for whatever it’s worth, the shooter in the pilot was played by a different actor). This type of depiction of the complexities and flaws of the criminal justice system, defying easy narrative closure, is a revolutionary step in Hill Street reshaping the way these types of stories are told on TV.

Bobby often displays a pacifistic ability to appeal to the sensibilities of the impoverished people of color in whose affairs the officers frequently find themselves entangled. He’s familiar enough with the black culture of the city to be able to relate on a meaningful level, while not being truly one of them. His conciliatory approach is often contrasted against Renko’s explosive outbursts (which usually center around the words, “These people!”). Some of these interactions are humorous (Bobby bullshitting a used car lot owner in order to calm him: “Belker v. Furillo says that if the purchasee rescinds the object in question due to danger or distress within a quarter of the original consignment, then he’s entitled to unobstructed easement. Hey, man, now, you’re a businessman and you should know that, man!”). Others are tragic, such as the prolonged arc over the final four hours of the season, in which Bobby tries in vain to get a twenty-year-old girl to take an interest in her two kids before they’re taken away by Child Protective Services.

Probably the fullest character arc of the season, in the sense we’d think of a season arc today, is Detective J.D. LaRue’s inexorable downward spiral. His alcoholism was written into the show as a result of actor Kiel Martin’s own substance abuse issues (Bochco has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe Kiel had drawn a sober breath since he was thirteen). Although Martin hit all his lines and never blew a take, his off-set behavior got increasingly erratic, from the production having to bail him out of jail after bar fights so he could get to set, to feuding with cast members (including perfectionist Michael “Phil Esterhaus” Conrad, who once got so frustrated with Martin’s antagonistic improvisations while Conrad was trying to deliver the roll call spiel that he strangled him). Bochco apparently felt that by making Kiel live the recovery journey onscreen through his character, he might be inspired to make some changes in his own life (Martin later called the storyline a “message of love” from Bochco). Still, Kiel Martin would go through another three years of bottoming-out before Bochco gave him a firm ultimatum in season four, and he finally attended rehab, and stayed sober for the rest of his regrettably short life.

That storyline also has one further real-life parallel. In one of the best-remembered moments of the series, LaRue, at the end of his rope, attends his first AA meeting. As he is greeted by the group, he hears a soft voice: “How you doin’, J.D.?” Furillo, who has been giving J.D. some tough love the last few episodes, is in recovery himself. (In a bit of foreshadowing, notice how many times over the course of the season Furillo orders a club soda in social situations.) Daniel Travanti, who plays Furillo, is also an alcoholic and has been in recovery since 1973, something he discusses frequently in interviews and considers a core part of his identity.

The first season also gives us the first of LaRue’s get-rich-quick schemes, the “Saloon-dromat.” While it may seem like a goofy idea, combination bar/laundromats actually did become a bit of a thing in the 1980s (unclear if Hill Street was an inspiration, or if it was just a case of great minds thinking alike). The late lamented Sudsy Malone’s in Cincinnati, a noted concert venue, is one example. Plenty of these “sip-and-spin” joints can still be found today in your more hipster-dense areas (there are several in Brooklyn).

Bochco has credited Kozoll with the conception of Detective Mick Belker: “a nice Jewish boy who somehow went very wrong.” The classic story is that, in his audition, Bruce Weitz jumped up onto MTM CEO Grant Tinker’s desk and tried to bite his nose off. After Weitz left the room, Tinker turned to Bochco and said, “Well, I’m not going to tell him he didn’t get the part.” Over the span of this first season, Belker starts off as a cartoon character, but is slowly revealed to be a wounded, shy, sexually repressed (and maybe slightly suicidal) figure, with some pretty complex feelings towards violence and affection…while still remaining really funny.

A character near and dear to my heart is bow tie-wearing Sergeant Henry Goldblume, played by Joe Spano (also cited by Mark Frost as the character he identifies with the most). The liberal conscience of the show, even moreso than the more pragmatic Furillo, Henry is the yin to Howard Hunter’s yang. The show’s politics are pretty clear in the fact that conservative Howard is constantly ridiculed by the writers (as hilarious and charming as he can be in his moronic way), whereas Henry is always played more seriously. That being said, it’s made clear in multiple episodes throughout the season that Henry may not be well-suited to police work, as he himself even repeatedly acknowledges. Henry is TOO idealistic, perhaps too naively generous and altruistic toward gang members and drug addicts, too sensitive and trusting. At one point, we learn that he had promised himself that he would never unholster his service weapon in the line of duty (and in fact, he even carried it unloaded for years, before Furillo caught on). Henry can’t temper his idealism with a healthy dose of reality the way that Furillo can. During my time at the D.A.’s office, I personally observed the truth of the maxim that those who enter into a law enforcement career for the right reasons are inevitably the people who get burned out after a few years. Henry may not be the most effective cop, but his perspective is still important to balance out the more cynical and jaded elements of the force. As Furillo tells him in “Rites of Spring,” “It’s a big, cumbersome, imperfect system, Henry. If you leave it, it’ll be just a little bit worse.”

The relationship between Furillo and Joyce Davenport is one of the more charming aspects of the show. The two have great chemistry, and the conflicts and arguments always feel realistic but never become unpleasant or overshadow the love between them. One thing I found myself wondering about is the occasional references to Joyce being fairly well-off (offering to buy Furillo expensive suits, driving a Mercedes convertible, etc.), which seemed odd to me given that she’s a public defender. Bochco provided my answer on an audio commentary, where he says that the conception of the character was that she was “independently wealthy.” (Joyce herself seems to confirm this in “Rites of Spring,” when she compares herself to another public defender: “Good family, good contacts, in the trenches eighteen hours a day…remind you of anyone?”) This makes sense, that Joyce would come from a wealthy family, and due to her strong moral drive, would feel the urge to give back by working a low-paying job that can bring about some good for the less fortunate. I can’t remember if that backstory was ever dealt with directly onscreen in later episodes, but I look forward to hopefully learning more about her. (Since we have many Lost fans here on the board, it’s worth noting that Veronica Hamel played Jack Shephard’s mother, which I believe is her final screen role to date.)

Detective Neal Washington, for all the charm Taurean Blacque puts into his performance, is mostly the straight man to LaRue for most of this season, trying to keep J.D. from going completely off the rails. Washington comes into his own in the final three hours of the season, where he goes out of his way to exonerate a racist cop despite his personal feelings, just because he has an instinct and it’s the right thing to do.

Lieutenant Ray Catellano also doesn’t have a lot to do, besides being Frank’s reliable right-hand man, although actor René Enríquez embodies him with an inherent sweetness and occasional mischievousness. Dan Travanti (Furillo) has claimed that the producers/writers quickly limited Ray’s role because they found his accent too difficult to understand, and that Enríquez was heartbroken by this. He has his best moment of the season pretty early on, in the last act of “Can World War III Be an Attitude?” when he’s acting commanding officer of the precinct during a blackout and (seemingly) a siege, and he heroically goes outside to radio for help.

The gender politics of the show are certainly a bit dated, particularly where it comes to Officer Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas). Most of her storylines this season revolve around her being sexually harassed, which is certainly accurate to the era, but it’s played mostly for laughs as opposed to dealing in any meaningful way with the impact it has on her. One of the few times we get any real dramatic insight into what it’s like for Bates to be in this environment is an episode where she cries at her desk, and Phil comforts her by saying that he had considered asking her out at one point, making for a very strange, uncomfortable moment, where I’m truly not sure what the intent of the scene was. In another episode (“Your Kind, My Kind, Humankind”), Bates suddenly randomly has the hots for Henry. Bates does start to finally come into her own as soon as she’s partnered with Joe Coffey in the final four hours of the season. Whereas for most of the season she has seemed to be more of an administrative assistant to Phil, now she’s out on the beat with a partner with whom she has a fun, playful dynamic. Notably, Betty Thomas is the only Hill Street cast member to be nominated for an Emmy for all seven seasons. Thomas would transition into directing not long after Hill Street, directing Private Parts, as well as The Brady Bunch Movie, Dr. Doolittle, and…an episode of Lynch/Frost’s On the Air.

Season Endings

Lieutenant Phil Esterhaus spends most of the season being torn romantically between high school senior Cindy Spooner and the somewhat more age-appropriate sexually voracious Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock). This storyline alternates between being somewhat amusing and just tiresome. It finally comes to a head in the episode which was originally planned as the season finale, “Fecund Hand Rose.” It’s an odd episode. Unlike the usual slow-building four-episode arcs, this episode crams a whole lot into one tonally jumbled, standalone hour. It brings back Dan Hedaya’s Detective MacAffee character, with Furillo being forced to assign officers to guard the hated MacAffee after he turns state’s witness, his attempt to fuck LaRue over earlier in the season having failed. It’s not a bad story idea, and it could have made for a compelling longer arc…but it’s completely abandoned after this episode. The episode also seems to be setting up a conflict between Furillo and Deputy District Attorney Skip Fitzgerald, who appears onscreen for the first time after a few prior teases about Joyce having a flirtatious relationship with him…this, too, is completely forgotten after this episode, and Skip Fitzgerald never appears again. More to the point, the episode is largely built around the wedding between Phil and his teenage bride Cindy, which takes up the entire fourth act of the episode. This somewhat sitcom-ish climax ends up being a deck-clearing exercise, an excuse to abandon a perhaps ill-advised storyline in a pretty predictable, clichéd manner (but at least we learn that Phil’s middle name is Freemason). The best part of this episode is a subplot involving the novel and hilarious pairing of Joyce and Belker, whose interactions mostly center around when, where and how her client is going to shit out the evidence of his (alleged) crimes.

It's a blessing that NBC ordered those four additional hours, because they make for a much stronger ending to the season. These episodes feel like kind of a hard reset, ignoring most of what happened in the prior episode.

The main thrust of those last four hours focuses on Furillo and Washington going above and beyond to protect a corrupt, racist narcotics detective from prosecution for manslaughter because they believe he wasn’t in the wrong in this particular instance. It’s an interesting and morally complex storyline to end the season on, Frank sticking his neck out for a thoroughly repugnant, lousy cop. The storyline ends on a note of some doubt, with Chief Daniels pointing out to Frank that it doesn’t matter whether the guy was rightly exonerated: all that matters is that the public is going to see a white cop who shot a black kid, and was protected by other cops. The Chief—as awful as he is—is honestly not wrong here. In terms of optics, it’s a rather strange choice to end the season on this particular storyline, but certainly a ballsy and compelling choice as well.

The only real weak spot of those last four hours is a storyline about Renko dating his English Comp teacher, which is both ill-advised and boring…and inevitably ends with a breakup at the end of the season, making the whole thing feel utterly pointless to boot. We knew from earlier in the season that Renko planned to go to night school to get his undergrad degree because he wants to make detective someday, so it was nice to see him follow through on that. The first scene where we see him with the teacher starts out very nicely: he hits on her in somewhat endearingly earnest but still completely inappropriate fashion, and she rebuffs him in a sweet but firm way, preserving boundaries but still complimenting him as a student and calling out his macho bullshit. Good, believable, feminist writing! Then, out of completely nowhere, the scene just throws all of that away and slides into male fantasy, with her suddenly deciding to enter into a romance with him after all. I’ve rarely seen an example of a scene that deteriorates so abruptly from good character work into terrible character work. A much more effective approach to similar material is pulled off with Hill in the final hour of “Jungle Madness,” when he asks out the social worker. The moment when she reluctantly accepts feels earned, because we’ve been observing their interactions over the past four hours of the show and watching their mutual respect grow. Likewise, these last four hours of the season introduce former NFL running back Ed Marinaro as Officer Joe Coffey, Lucy’s new partner and potential love interest, and their flirtation realistically portrays Lucy’s complex feelings about her romantic life intersecting with her professional identity in a way that feels simultaneously nuanced, mature, and a little giddy and girlish, but developed in a completely believable way—unlike the weirdly off-putting Renko storyline.

There is a persistent online rumor that the original airing of “Jungle Madness” had Joe Coffey definitively die in the shooting, and that the ending was reshot for syndication to make his fate ambiguous. The most common version of this rumor is that Phil’s line saying that he’s not sure if Joe will make it was added for the revised version. However, I find this difficult to believe; the scene between Frank and Phil is played entirely in one shot, so their entire exchange would have had to be reshot in order to add that line. Then, following that, Lucy says, “He’s gonna die, I know he is”—AGAIN letting us know that Joe is not actually dead—and this shot was clearly done at the same time as the lovely final pullback shot that ends the episode. Essentially, in order to add these two references to Joe not being dead (by Phil and Lucy), it would mean that basically the entire final scene was reshot, which seems extremely unlikely to me. I think maybe that people are conflating this episode with the pilot episode, where footage of Phil was reshot to retcon Renko’s death. In terms of the finale, the more likely version of the story I’ve heard is that Marinaro was negotiating his contract to return the following season, and the producers left the option open to either kill him or leave him alive. In any event, it’s interesting that after mostly sidelining Lucy all season, the season ends on a powerful emotional moment that is focused entirely on her.

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Other Odds and Ends

Among the guest stars this season who would later go on to bigger things:
  • George Dickerson (a.k.a. Detective John Williams—the father of Sandy—in Blue Velvet) as Commander Dave Swanson, a recurring character throughout the season
  • David Caruso in a small recurring role as the leader of the local Irish gang, the Shamrocks…clad in a hilarious leprechaun hat and shamrock-embroidered vest which one likes to imagine as some kind of preemptive revenge for what an asshole Caruso ended up being on Bochco’s later NYPD Blue
  • Dan Hedaya (Nick Tortelli on Cheers and its short-lived spinoff The Tortellis, as well as Vincenzo Castigliane in Mulholland Drive) in a multi-episode arc as Detective Ralph MacAffee, a corrupt bigamist narcotics detective (who for some strange reason is Irish, which Hedaya is very clearly not!)
  • Charles Fleischer (the voice of Roger Rabbit, and the creepy projectionist in Zodiac) as Floyd “Malibu” Stazwitz, a career car thief who turns out to be the best handyman in the city, in “Can World War III Be an Attitude?”
  • Tim Daly (star of stage, screen, and Wings, as well as playing J.T. Dolan in Sopranos season 6) in a very early bit part as a training detective in the episode “Gatorbait”
  • Dwight Schultz (Captain “Howling Mad” Murdock of The A-Team) as Officer Carmichael, the partner of an anti-Semitic cop whose finger Belker bit off in police academy, in “Life, Death, Eternity”
  • John Lone (Emperor Puyi in The Last Emperor and Song Liling in Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly) in an uncredited role as the sushi bar valet in “I Never Promised You a Rose, Marvin”
  • Michael Tucker (Stuart Markowitz on Bochco’s L.A. Law) as Mr. Heidel, the gentleman cat burglar who enamors the precinct in “Fecund Hand Rose”
  • Mimi Rogers (Someone to Watch Over Me, and the woman who introduced Tom Cruise to Scientology) as Sandra Pauley, Renko’s English teacher and love interest in the last four episodes of the season
  • James Remar (Ajax in The Warriors, Ganz in 48 Hours, and Harry Morgan on Dexter) as Officer Cooper, a cop who hits on Lucy in “Rites of Spring”
The location of the precinct remains intentionally ambiguous (all the license plates simply say, “SAFETY FIRST – DRIVE CAREFULLY”). However, we do get Renko saying that he’s never been west of Chicago (in “Politics as Usual”). There are also several references indicating a NY location, perhaps reflecting Bochco’s upbringing: a reference to Alleghany State Park (“Up in Arms”), Santini saying his brothers are cops on Long Island (“Your Kind, My Kind, Humankind”), Frank saying the Nishitsu PANDA vehicle was found in the East River (“I Never Promised You a Rose, Marvin”), and LaRue living on the Lower East Side (“Fecund Hand Rose”). Of course, there is also the occasional palm tree seen in the background, as the series was shot in L.A.

The first season garnered acting Emmys for Daniel Travanti (Furillo) as Lead Actor, Michael Conrad (Esterhaus) as Supporting Actor, and…Barbara Babcock (Grace Gardner) as Lead Actress. This was a peculiarity of the Emmys system at the time. At that particular point in history, the Guest Actor category did not exist, and so guest actors were simply nominated as either Lead or Supporting—even if they were only in one episode of the season. This led to some truly batshit results. Babcock, who only appears in five episodes this season, and if anything should have been nominated in the Supporting category, won for the episode “Fecund Hand Rose,” beating out poor Veronica Hamel (Joyce Davenport), who was nominated another four times for Hill Street, but never won. An even crazier result happened two years earlier in 1979, when Mariette Hartley won Lead Actress for a one-episode guest role on The Incredible Hulk.

It’s worth mentioning that while the show was an absolute ratings disaster during its first season, Mike Post’s theme for the show became a top ten Billboard hit. Post was churning out TV themes from the 1970s through the 1990s: Law & Order, The Rockford Files, The A-Team, Quantum Leap, Magnum, P.I., NewsRadio, Bochco’s L.A. Law and NYPD Blue and Doogie Howser, M.D., as well as the #2 hit “Believe It or Not” (the theme from The Greatest American Hero). The Hill Street theme inspired Pete Townshend to write the song “Mike Post Theme” for the Who’s 2006 album Endless Wire.

The storyline of a film crew shadowing the precinct is an obvious homage to The Police Tapes, the documentary that partially inspired Hill Street.

In “Rites of Spring,” Yerkovich, Bochco, Hoblit, and Kozoll appear in the lineup as, respectively, number two, number three, number five, and number six.

The first season features the only time the words “Hill Street blues” are actually uttered in dialogue, spoken by Detective Emil Schneider (Dolph Sweet) while belittling Hill and Renko in the episode “Gatorbait.”

On an audio commentary, it’s pointed out that one of the photos on the wall in Furillo’s office, depicting several officers standing in a row, is actually a poster for the 1973 Robert Blake motorcycle cop flick Electra Glide in Blue.

Phil calling Grace “Mouselet” on the phone at the end of “Choice Cut” was inspired by Bochco overhearing Bob Butler calling his wife this over the phone one late night while they were editing the pilot.

Part 1 of “Jungle Madness” is the first and only time this season that an episode doesn’t strictly cover one day: the final scenes of the episode take place the following morning (just before roll call), leading directly into the second part.

In his autobiography, Bochco goes into some detail about his conflicts with Kozoll. According to Bochco, Kozoll was a night owl who tended to write all night long, then would drop off his pages in the morning and go home to sleep, leaving Bochco to essentially handle the production realities on his own. As the season progressed, Kozoll became resentful and antagonistic over the fact that he felt Bochco was taking all the credit in the press. When they were given the additional four-episode pickup at the end of the season, Kozoll initially refused to do the episodes because he was too exhausted. He ultimately cowrote those episodes, then quit the show.
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As an Indiana basketball fan I now admit to idle curiosity as to whether Hill Street Blues provided any inspiration to Bob Knight and his famous "Ivan Renko" prank
As an Indiana basketball fan I now admit to idle curiosity as to whether Hill Street Blues provided any inspiration to Bob Knight and his famous "Ivan Renko" prank
Ha! Great question. Coincidentally, Hill Street producer/director David Anspaugh (I didn’t mention him yet since he didn’t direct in season 1) is an Indiana native who went on to direct Hoosiers, where Gene Hackman’s character was partially based on Knight! Curioser and curioser.
Thank you for these amazing write ups @Mr. Reindeer !

They definitely make me interested in diving into HSB more than I have been able to in the past. But if I ever try to watch season 1 again, I might have to shield my eyes when David Caruso pops up as that leprechaun gangster. It’s a moment that totally wrecks the series’ verisimilitude for me.

Due to delays caused by the 1981 WGA strike, the second season started late and was eighteen episodes long—only one hour longer than the first season (which itself had been pushed back from the fall to January, due to the 1980 SAG strike).

After spending most of the prior season on Saturdays, the show moved into its long-term Thursday time slot this season.

One change in the circumstances surrounding the second season was that Fred Silverman was out at NBC. After spectacular runs resuscitating both CBS and ABC during the 1970s, he failed to complete the hat track during his disastrous tenure at NBC. He was a loyal supporter of Hill Street despite its miserable first-season ratings (Steve Bochco has claimed that it was the lowest-rated show at the time ever to get a second-season pickup). In 1981, Silverman was replaced as CEO by Grant Tinker, who of course had been President of MTM Enterprises and one of the key figures in greenlighting and nurturing Hill Street. So, in terms of network support for the show, the switch from Silverman to Tinker was a lateral move. Less encouraging was the new situation at MTM, where Tinker’s vacancy was filled by Arthur Price, Mary Tyler Moore’s business manager. Unlike the artist-friendly Tinker, Price was by all accounts a bureaucratic bean-counter, focused on the bottom line, with little interest in quality. Bochco would regularly butt heads with Price over the following seasons, although it would take a few more years for the relationship to reach the point of no return.

At the beginning of the second season, co-creator Mike Kozoll takes a demotion from Executive Producer to Creative Consultant. It’s not clear what his actual involvement was with the second season, if any, but he has a story credit (shared with Bochco and sometimes others) on thirteen out of the first fifteen episodes of the season.

Greg Hoblit gets a promotion from Producer to Supervising Producer, and directs the first two episodes of the season.

Tony Yerkovich is promoted from Story Editor to Producer. He shares both story and teleplay credit on these first four episodes.

David Anspaugh, who joined the show immediately after the pilot episode as Associate Producer, is bumped up to full Producer this season. Like Hoblit, Anspaugh had a pre-Hill Street relationship with Bochco, acting as Associate Producer on Paris and the Vampire TV movie. Anspaugh makes his directorial debut on the third episode of this arc, “The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue,” and will go on to direct nine more episodes over the course of Hill Street’s run. Anspaugh later established himself as a feature director, mostly on feel-good crowd-pleasers like Hoosiers and Rudy.

Robert Crais joins the show as Executive Story Consultant, and shares teleplay credit on the final two episodes of this arc with Bochco and Yerkovich. Crais had previously acted as Executive Story Consultant on Universal’s Jack Klugman-starring medical drama Quincy M.E., and following his short run on Hill Street this season, he jumped over to Cagney & Lacey to fill that same position there for a bit. He eventually found his greatest success writing mystery and thriller novels, including Hostage, which was adapted into an unremarkable 2005 movie starring Bruce Willis.

One final personnel note: pilot director Bob Butler returns to direct the season’s fourth episode, “The Second Oldest Profession,” marking his sixth and final directing credit on the show.

This first arc of the season is primarily noteworthy for its main guest star, Danny Glover! With only a few TV guest roles to his name at this point, Glover was still an unknown, and I believe this arc was his most prominent part up that point. Glover imbues gang leader Jesse John Hudson with charisma to spare, in both of his Jekyll-and-Hyde personas as magnetic community leader and murderous warlord. As Goldblume says at the end of Hudson’s first scene, “He’s got a lot of presence.” For better or worse, the show plays straight with the audience from the get-go about Hudson’s true goals, and makes clear that his civic-minded social reform persona is purely a front. (I do appreciate the fact that, during Hudson’s press event for his charity art exhibition, it’s the one black reporter in the group who sees through Hudson’s bullshit.) I mentioned in my Season 1 comments that one of the more dated and naïve aspects of the show is its portrayal of gang rivalries; the appearance of the brutal Hudson goes some way to correcting this. The biggest downside is that the storyline wraps up abruptly, just as it seems to be really getting going. This is an issue with these four-episode arcs: in today’s world, Hudson would have certainly been the major antagonist for an entire season (i.e., 10-12 episodes on the cable/streaming model).

The best thing to come out of the Hudson arc character-wise is that Belker (clearly by this point a favorite of the writers) gains even more depth. We’ve previously seen that Mick has a soft spot for outsiders and weirdos (for obvious reasons), but here we see him genuinely caring about his young undercover contact in Hudson’s gang, and he gets really pissed at Furillo, who has seemed like a bit of a father figure to him in past episodes, when the undercover is killed due to some bad judgment calls. Moving up the chain of command, we likewise see Furillo really losing it on Chief Daniels, who surprisingly takes it pretty well. As absolutely loathsome as he is, Daniels often makes some good pragmatic points, reminding us of how complex and potentially deadly every decision Furillo has to make is.

The opening scene of the second season initially feels like a big letdown after the way Season 1 ended. Following his shooting, Joe Coffey (now a series regular, increasing the main cast to fourteen) is back at work (reminiscent of the post-pilot time jump skipping over the immediate aftermath of Hill and Renko’s shootings), and everyone is very business as usual…until a domestic violence offender at the booking desk gets his hands on a gun and opens fire on the precinct, causing Renko and Coffey to have to take him out. It’s a solid opening to the season (and, presumably, was many viewers’ introduction to the series, given how the show’s second-season ratings ballooned after the disastrous first season), reminding us of how quickly things can go from zero to ten in this line of work, and the toll it takes on the officers living that way from day to day, never sure if their morning coffee is going to turn fatal.

Other storylines in these first four episodes:

A breakup arc with Furillo and Joyce inevitably ends with them getting back together, but it’s all played very believably, especially the poignant breakup scene, which nicely portrays both of their perspectives, and features a very good performance from Veronica Hamel in particular. Plus, the reunion scene does move the relationship past the status quo, with Joyce finally acquiescing to going public with the relationship, in a feel-good ending that reminds me of An Officer and a Gentleman (which wouldn’t come out until the following summer).

Phil’s love life just keeps getting more and more complicated, which is funny because Phil is so earnest and modest, and he keeps getting into trouble because he’s apparently irresistible to both sexes, as we learn. This arc features an amusing storyline where Howard Hunter briefly dates Grace Gardner and has an “equipment failure” (“I have proven myself a first-rate nimrod from Dartmouth to Da Nang, and I’ll be damned if I’ll be crucified for one wet squib!”), which results in a pretty funny subplot where Howard goes around trying to figure who has heard about his problem—inevitably, no one has, until Howard himself keeps spreading the word. Meanwhile, Phil tries to take a break from dating and find some relief in male companionship, only for his new compadre to also be in love with him! The show chooses to portray Phil as homophobic in the extremis (as Freemason himself might phrase it). His bigotry is not portrayed as a good thing (his poor friend Mac is clearly heartbroken at Phil’s reaction, and the audience is meant to sympathize with Mac, played sweetly by Sandy McPeak); but Phil’s homophobia is also not overtly condemned. There is no moral or lesson to be learned; it’s just the sad reality that a man of Phil’s age living in 1981, as charming and likable as he is in many other respects, would have this unpleasant flaw. (Although admittedly, the final scene of that arc—with Phil questioning his sexuality in the locker room, and Grace reaffirming his heterosexuality—is pretty dated in the way it resolves the whole situation in comedic fashion. Sometimes, Hill Street’s jarring tonal shifts work like gangbusters; other times, they’re a bit more questionable.)

There’s also a storyline involving an orangutan who lives in the precinct house for a bit after being “arrested” for pickpocketing (in the tradition of the dog and later the cat who spent some time living in the precinct in Season 1…a definite animal theme is developing here). Mick’s interactions with the orangutan are charming. The same orangutan, C.J., played Clyde in Any Which Way You Can.

A storyline about Henry having a brief affair (leading to an estrangement from his wife which is resolved within a couple of episodes) feels like one of those standard 1980s TV tropes (there is a lot of relationship stuff in these first four hours!), but it does serve to humanize the morally righteous Goldblume a bit, and we finally get to meet his wife Rachel (although I can’t say I was terribly impressed by her…both parties come out of that conversation looking pretty bad, and not much is resolved). The affair sort of comes out of nowhere, but it makes sense that Henry would be attracted to a woman in somewhat pathetic circumstances, appealing to his white knight complex.

One concession Bochco made to the network in the second season, vis-à-vis the serialized nature of the show, is that each episode would have one self-contained storyline that would have a beginning, middle and ending by the conclusion of the hour. So, in the first episode we have a missing child case; in the second, a storyline about a problematic informant. The strongest of these first four episodes is “The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue,” where Renko and Hill have to deal with a neighborhood dispute (“marigolds and soccer balls!”) which escalates into a homicide. The eponymous “last white man,” Mr. Popovich (Reuven Bar-Yotam), delivers a moving monologue about how idyllic the neighborhood was back when he was raising his children, and about how little he has left in his life now…which is jarringly interrupted with a reminder that, oh right, the guy is a vehement racist. As with Phil, the show’s ability to allow a character to be a bigot while still being sympathetic and having his own emotional reality is something I doubt would ever be permitted today. Joe Spano’s performance in that scene as Goldblume, which is largely limited to reacting silently, is also very strong. Polar opposites Henry and Howard even find a little bit of common humanity while dealing with the situation.

Lucy and Joe are mostly supporting background players for the first three episodes, but Lucy has a strong arc in the fourth one, “The Second Oldest Profession”: her first real storyline of the series that doesn’t revolve around being hit on, although it does still pivot on gender-related questions about whether she, as a woman, is too emotional/sensitive for the job. Arresting a young hooker, Lucy reluctantly acquiesces to turn her back (literally) and let the girl fix before being brought in…leading to an overdose. Furillo is initially hard on Lucy (justifiably so) when she confesses, saying that he never wants his officers to disconnect from their feelings, but that any display of sympathy on the job will be inevitably interpreted as weakness. One thing that surprised me is that the hooker is shown shooting up onscreen. I know that on Lost (23 years later!), they were never allowed to show Charlie shooting up or even snorting, so the only way he was allowed to do heroin onscreen was by licking it. It’s bizarre how the networks got more permissive about certain things over the years, while becoming stricter on others, with very little rhyme or reason.

The show is getting bolder with doing long takes, such as Hoblit’s nearly two-minute shot at the top of “Blood Money” Act 1, tracking one pair of characters walking-and-talking, then swinging over to another pair as they cross the screen, and then switching over to a third pair as they cross to another portion of the set, and so on.

Other notable guest stars in this arc besides Glover:
  • Martin Ferrero (attorney Donald Gennaro in Jurassic Park and informant Izzy Moreno on Miami Vice) as a crook robbing a check-cashing place in “Hearts and Minds”
  • CCH Pounder in a small role as a purple-clad prostitute named Jasmine in “The Second Oldest Profession”
Both Ferrero and Pounder will appear in other roles in subsequent Hill Street seasons.

Other odds and ends:
  • A couple more references to local geography once again hint at the precinct being in the NY area: a mention of Lake Lackawanna (New Jersey) in “Blood Money,” and a reference to Newark being “across the river” in “Blood Money” and “The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue.” Although, supporting a Chicago location, the exterior of the famed steakhouse Gene & Georgetti is shown prominently when Phil and Mac have lunch in “The Second Oldest Profession.”
  • One thing that’s absolutely astounding to me is all the smoking that goes on in hospitals!
  • This arc also informs us of Belker’s preferred lunch order: “Bermuda onion and sardine on pumpernickel, side of anchovies, and a couple of kosher pickles, full sour.” LaRue’s reaction: “No wonder they feel persecuted.”
  • Goldblume’s cheating arc also gives us this gem from LaRue, vis-à-vis reconciling with Rachel: “You tried hitting’ her, Henry?” Maybe this is just a bad joke on J.D.’s part, but he follows it up with, “I know my women.” Yikes.
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SEASON 2 EPISODE 5: “Fruits of the Poisonous Tree”
Written by: Jeffrey Lewis
Directed by: Rod Holcomb
Airdate: December 3, 1981

This one is a great little standalone episode. It’s the first script written by Jeffrey Lewis, who joins the show as Story Editor beginning with this episode. It’s also one of only two episodes in the second season to be credited to a single writer (meaning also that this is one of the only episodes of the season where co-creator Mike Kozoll doesn’t have a story credit). Lewis is arguably one of the most important figures in modern television history, by proxy: While attending Yale undergrad, Lewis bunked with a certain David Milch, and years later when Lewis got the Hill Street gig, he suggested that maybe his old roommate might like to try his hand at writing TV…

Lewis would go on to co-create the short-lived hour-long baseball comedy-drama Bay City Blues with Steve Bochco (clearly, Bochco really had a thing for titles with the words “blue” and “blues”). After Bochco was unceremoniously dismissed from Hill Street, Lewis would show-run Seasons 6 and 7 along with Milch. After the failed Hill Street spinoff Beverly Hills Buntz, which Lewis co-created with Milch, he would go on to create the acclaimed but short-lived medical anthology Lifestories. Lewis later turned his attention to print fiction, and has written several books, including the semi-autobiographical Meritocracy quartet.

Lewis, a Harvard-educated lawyer, spent three years at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office prior to his stint on Hill Street. That legal experience really comes through in this episode, which is by far the most focused on the nitty gritty legal procedural elements to date. (And forgive me in advance if I interject a bit of my personal experience, since I did the same job that Lewis did, albeit in a different decade and a different borough.) Right from the outset, in roll call, there’s some unmistakable lawyer humor. Phil recites a new ordinance requiring dog owners to “substantially” remove any “evacuations” (i.e., shit), and someone in the peanut gallery asks what happens if someone removes it but not “substantially.”

At the beginning of Act 1, we see Neal and J.D. engaged in a particularly petty sting operation, which they call a “dollar collar.” The NYPD was unfortunately still doing various forms of this type of thing when I was at the Brooklyn D.A.’s office in the 2010s, including the infamous Operation Lucky Bag, which justifiably garnered a ton of bad press. (In this version, a bag containing money or some expensive object like an iPad is left lying around, monitored covertly by cops, who wait for someone to come along and “steal” it.)

The show up to this point hasn’t really dealt much with the legal realities that occur after an arrest is made, despite having a lawyer as a main character. In fact, I believe this is the first time we actually have scenes set inside a courtroom (which comprise about ten minutes of the episode!). The one thing that surprises me about this episode’s portrayal of events is that the cops apparently have to be present for arraignment. I’m not sure if that was Lewis’s experience back in NY in the 1970s, or if he was fudging things in order to include our main characters in the courtroom scenes in a more proactive way (I’m guessing the latter…crime was so crazy back then in NYC and the cops were so overworked that I can’t imagine additionally requiring them to sit in court for hours on each arrest). Either way, Renko’s desperation to avoid making an arrest rings true; between all the booking paperwork, evidence logging, transport, debriefing with the D.A.’s office, etc., an arrest near the end of a shift can certainly be a life-derailing occurrence for a cop, and there is often much horse-trading about who will “take the collar.”

Everything else in the episode feels spot-on as well. Although the cases mentioned (People v. Fernandez and People v. Robles) appear to be made up in this context (likely to preserve the ambiguity about which state the show takes place in), all the statements of the law are accurate. Likewise, the dispute between the assistant district attorney and the cops over the bad arrest really took me back. Even though cops and district attorneys are ostensibly on the same “side,” I think most cops view the court aspect of things as being so separate from their reality and the goals of their job (as they see it) that in my experience many officers tend to view prosecutors in almost as antagonistic a fashion as they view defense attorneys, as if lawyers are all part of the same malicious club designed solely to make cops’ jobs even more difficult. This was really nicely displayed from the police perspective in the scene where poor Neal sees both counsels and the judge watching the football game in chambers like an exclusive clique.

I particularly enjoy the way Joyce stands by with a smirk and lets Frank hang himself legally. Far be it for anyone to assume that this woman is going to let her now-public relationship prevent her from continuing to give the most zealous representation to her clients, even if it means screwing over her boyfriend. I also love Belker’s speedy and monotone reading of the Miranda warnings, which is so accurate, and the shittiness of the courthouse décor with peeling paint and scaffolding and ladders everywhere. Credit to Art Director Jeffrey L. Goldstein and Set Decorator James G. Cane, who never skimp on detail when presenting how unglamorous these characters’ everyday lives are.

This is also a good episode for Neal, who all too often is relegated to being LaRue’s second banana. His frustrations with the job and his fear of an old football injury cutting his career short make for a nice little arc. Taurean Blacque as usual does a lot with a little.

Jeffrey Tambor makes the first of many appearances as Alan Wachtel, who at this point is merely a sleazy self-absorbed attorney (and former law school classmate of Joyce’s), but he will become much more memorable in future appearances. Thanks to Wachtel, we also begin to see the complications Joyce is going to face now that her relationship is public, as other defense attorneys will inevitably badger her to talk up their causes to Frank. Another first-time guest star is Allan Rich, a character actor in films including Serpico (where he played a district attorney) and Amistad (where he played a judge). Rich plays Judge Maurice “Let ’Em Go Moe” Schiller in this and in several future episodes.

Other highlights include the hilarious, messy fight where Belker, Lucy, Joe and Bobby try to take down a giant, while Renko cheers them on from the sidelines. The big goon is played by Mickey Morton, perhaps most noteworthy for his role as Chewbacca’s wife Malla in The Star Wars Holiday Special.

The episode ends on another strong scene for Lucy. Betty Thomas is really good in those final moments, as she absorbs the fact that her takedown of the kid was completely righteous and above-board, but that still doesn’t change the fact that she just took the life of a fourteen-year-old. Credit to director Rod Holcomb (perhaps best known for directing both the pilot and the finale of ER) for the particularly effective shot of the kid’s hand gripping the chain link fence then slowly slipping loose as camera racks focus to a horrified Bates.

Other odds and ends:
  • In another hint supporting a Chicago location for the series, the Illinois state flag appears behind Judge Schiller in the courtroom.
  • The outspoken kid at the scene of the murder of the little girl (named in the credits as “Tall Kid”) is played by Marcelino Sánchez, best known as Rembrandt in The Warriors: the second Warrior to appear on Hill Street, after James Remar (but not the last!). Sánchez would appear twice more on Hill Street before dying tragically young, of AIDS, at age 28 in 1986.
  • We learn that Joyce once dated the “backup quarterback” for the Giants! (In 1981, that would have been Scott Brunner.)
  • Fran Tarkenton, color commentator for ABC’s Monday Night Football, has an audio guest appearance, announcing the game on TV. Tarkenton was Ed Marinaro (Joe Coffey)’s former teammate on the Vikings. I assume that he recorded his lines (about Joe Danelo kicking a field goal at second down) especially for the episode, but I’m not fully certain. The Giants-Redskins game in the episode appears to be fictional (the most recent Monday night NY-Washington game when this episode aired had been on September 17, 1979, and the Giants went scoreless in that game). One also has to wonder how unamused NBC’s execs must have been to air an episode where much of the storyline revolves around the characters wanting to watch a competing network’s sports coverage.
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SEASON 2 EPISODES 6-7 (“Cranky Streets,” “Chipped Beef”)

A quick two-episode arc. The main through-line is the decision by our core four “blues” to file false reports on behalf of a troubled, angry officer who severely beats a suspect. The show is smart for making Bobby the ringleader, since he’s traditionally one of the most noble characters on the show. He has a sense of loyalty to the officer, Nash, who helped Bobby out at the beginning of his career. Bobby feels obligated to protect Nash, even though he clearly feels awful about perjuring himself, and even worse about inciting his friends to do so. I have to say, the cynic in me felt that the scene in the locker room where they all decide to lie almost felt quaint, in how much they all struggle morally with the idea. At the risk of overgeneralizing, in my experience, officers lying to protect each other (“thin blue line” and all that) is a common occurrence and I’m not sure there would be that much hesitation normally. I think that in a show from a later era—even on NYPD Blue a decade or so later—the officers involved wouldn’t all be such decent people who have a moral problem with this. Still, it’s a good strong scene, with a typically solid performance from Michael Warren, and some nice atmosphere with the stormy weather out the window. And once again, the show takes on a social issue that seems pretty pedestrian and well-worn now, but which I think was fairly revolutionary to put on TV at the time.

There’s also a background subplot about contract negotiations with the city and a potential police strike, which is a nice note of realism, but doesn’t really go anywhere. One wonders if the writers were inspired by their own WGA strike a few months earlier.

The first episode of this mini-arc, “Cranky Streets,” is directed by Randa Haines, who went on to direct Children of a Lesser God. She’s the first woman to direct on the show, and will go on to direct a few more episodes over the next couple of seasons. The directorial highlight of the episode is a nice setpiece where Hill and Nash pull a couple out of a burning and exploding car. Haines also gets some hilarious performances from Taurean Blacque and Kiel Martin as Washington and LaRue as they join Renko in pranking a rookie, basically giving minstrel-show-quality performances as a homeless pair (“She done killed him, Mr. Renko! She done killed Lance!”).

The major standalone story in “Cranky Streets” centers on Joe Coffey, who finally gets some character development. It’s a sweet story where we get to see his old neighborhood and meet a beloved family friend from his past, although the whole premise (about a wannabe wiseguy) seems curiously old-fashioned. There’s an “aw shucks” quality to the whole thing, which isn’t helped by the Little Italy set, which is clearly filmed on a studio backlot, unlike most of the other more realistic urban locations the show usually employs.

It’s kind of funny how Fay is such an ancillary character to the main action that she basically has her own offscreen show, which we occasionally catch little glimpses of. Here, we get a storyline about her new fiancée dying completely out of the blue, which is initially played for laughs (the scene that gives “Chipped Beef” its episode title, where the officers debate various rumors they’ve heard about what dish the guy collapsed into), but ends on a surprisingly poignant note, with Fay and Joyce meeting for the first time and sharing an unexpected human moment.

We also get a somewhat bizarre storyline about Neal’s girlfriend Jill, who had previously appeared in Season 1 and never appears again after this episode; and we meet Belker’s sister for the first and only time.

“Chipped Beef” has a little storyline about ATM thefts, back when ATMs were still clearly a relative novelty (Esterhaus says there are 73 of them in the city, and six on the Hill). For some reason the ATMs on the show talk, which makes for some amusing Belker moments, but also just feels bizarre.

“Chipped Beef” is the first episode to feature an opening recap (at least, on the DVDs…I’m not entirely confident in how consistent the DVD producers were with including these). Taurean Blacque (Neal Washington) provides the voiceovers for these (“In the last episode of Hill Street Blues…”), just because Bochco liked his voice.

Some notable guest stars in this arc:
  • Art Evans (air traffic controller Leslie Barnes in Die Hard 2) as William Teacher, a hard-luck transport driver with a knack for saving cops’ lives
  • John Diehl (Wim Wenders’s Land of Plenty) as a clumsy precinct repairman
  • Daphne Maxwell (later known as Daphne Reid: the second Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) as Sheila, a friend of Neal’s girlfriend Jill
Every time Belker arrests the pickpocket played by Nick Savage, the thief gives Belker a different name. Here are all the ones he’s given so far:
  • Richard T. Wilson, a famed 19th century investment banker (“Hill Street Station”)
  • Roland P. Carstairs, the character who engages Sherlock Holmes’s services in the 1946 Basil Rathbone film Terror by Night (“Politics as Usual”)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Choice Cut”: he claims the F. stands for “Felix”)
  • Robert Q. Lewis, a 1950s and 1960s comedian best known for hosting the game show The Show Goes On and for his appearances on another game show, What’s My Line? (“Up in Arms”)
  • Sam Snead (pro golf hall of famer) (“Hearts and Minds”)
  • In a changeup on the usual formula, Belker asks the pickpocket’s mother’s name, and he names jazz singer Pearl Bailey (“Chipped Beef”)

“The power’s in the glove, Mick. It always was.” – Captain Freedom, “Freedom’s Last Stand”

The above line is by far the most intriguing Hill Street moment yet for a Twin Peaks fan: in his dying moments, delusional wannabe superhero Captain Freedom reveals that the secret of his supposed strength is in…a green glove! Lynch says in Room to Dream that the green glove was an idea he’d had for a long time, going back to an unrealized project with Jack Nance. But it seems too perfect that The Return, which acts as a sort of summing-up not only of Lynch’s career but also of Frost’s and of the entire era of prestige television, would (inadvertently?) call back to this climactic moment from one of the best-remembered story arcs of a show that was arguably the grandparent of the prestige TV era. Did Frost remember this moment (which admittedly is from the period before he worked on the show)? For that matter, did he ever even see this episode? When Lynch mentioned the green glove idea, did Frost make the connection? Or, is it even possible that during discussions of the original seasons of Twin Peaks in the early 1990s, Frost mentioned this Hill Street moment in conversation, and it stuck with Lynch? Or is it pure kismet? There’s an appealing sense of completing the circle in viewing Hill Street as the birth of the prestige TV era and The Return as the death of it, the alpha and the omega, with The Return redeeming Captain Freedom through the character of Freddie Sykes, allowing poor tragic Freedom’s fantasy to finally become reality, in one of the most bizarre, controversial scenes of the show.

The first episode of this arc, “The World According to Freedom,” is the second of the two episodes this season to feature a solo writing credit. This time, that honor goes to Michael Wagner, for his first script of the series. Wagner had a few scattered writing credits freelancing on popular ’70s shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man and The Rockford Files before landing the Hill Street gig. Post-Hill Street, he went on to co-create the short-lived 1988 sci-fi series Probe with Isaac Asimov. He is also known for his extremely brief tenure show-running Star Trek: The Next Generation at the start of the third season, and for co-creating the disastrous animated series Capitol Critters with Steve Bochco in 1992 (one of several attempts at the time to cash in on the success of The Simpsons: Bochco admits in his autobiography that they were completely unprepared for how difficult it is to produce an animated show and he doesn’t understand how anyone does it). Wagner died tragically young of brain cancer in 1992.

When assessing the strengths and personalities of the various Hill Street writers, Bochco has referred to Wagner as “whacky,” “brilliantly screwy,” as having “an almost supernatural imagination,” and as someone to whom Bochco would assign the show’s weirdest stories. Fellow writer Jeff Lewis has referred to Wagner as an “innocent.” Wagner came to Bochco’s attention through a feature script Wagner had written, about a character named Captain Freedom. Per Bochco in his autobiography: “while I wasn’t crazy about the script, I was crazy about the character, and I thought we could do a wonderful four-story arc about him.”

Dennis Dugan was cast in the role of the heroic, pure, but clearly deeply mentally ill Captain Freedom. Dugan had a prior relationship with Bochco, having played the title role in the very short-lived series Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, co-created by Bochco and Stephen Cannell at Universal (the Brockelman character was introduced in a backdoor pilot on Cannell’s Rockford Files). Dugan has subsequently gone on to a career as a director of lowbrow comedies, beginning with Problem Child. The vast majority of his directing work, starting with Happy Gilmore, has been on films starring and/or produced by Adam Sandler, including the much-maligned Jack & Jill, and Dugan has the dubious honor of being in the top five most-nominated directors for the Golden Raspberry.

The quickly-established shtick of the Captain Freedom character is to deliver an earnest, sincere monologue that moves everyone listening, followed immediately by some one-sentence batshit crazy statement that reminds everyone he’s a nut bag. One of the weirder—possibly coincidental?—trivia notes regarding this arc is that it aired a little over two months before The Greatest American Hero premiered on ABC. The Greatest American Hero was created by Bochco’s buddy and former Universal coworker Steve Cannell, and revolved around a nerdy white guy who was given a red superhero suit by aliens, and who worked with the FBI to fight crime. Captain Freedom makes similar claims at various points, although obviously, in his case, he’s delusional, which makes the situation both much funnier and sadder than Cannell’s goofy character. Although it’s tough to know how much credence to give to anything Freedom says, there are intimations that he had an abusive childhood, and that he currently sleeps in a closet, lending an underlying poignancy to all the silliness (a dichotomy which Bruce Weitz plays nicely in Belker’s reactions, with his constant pivots between being moved and enraged).

The first episode of the arc, the Wagner-scripted “The World According to Freedom,” is very nearly a standalone episode, other than the largely comic relief introduction of Freedom himself, who will recur in the subsequent three episodes. It’s perhaps the strongest episode so far for Furillo, who has to deal with a crime which is presented in the most brutal, realistic, animalistic terms that could be allowed on TV in 1982. Furillo is furious, tearing into his employees, allies, and friends alike, demanding a resolution. Goldblume and Esterhaus take his verbal abuse, and they’re not offended: they’re just worried about Frank’s mental state. I overall find Daniel Travanti’s performance in this episode effective in its restrained anger barely boiling over the surface, although I can see where others might find it a bit forced. Travanti was apparently a much more flamboyant, expressive guy offscreen, but he makes a deliberate choice to play Furillo with an economy of movement and soft-spokenness that makes every small gesture and inflection feel more powerful. We don’t know too much about Furillo’s backstory at this point, other than the fact that as a child, he wanted to be the next Stan Musial (which he reiterates to Joyce in this episode, after having first told her in the second season premiere). He continues: “I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be good. I wanted to be everything everybody ever expected of me. I never thought I’d be what I am now. Because of something inside, I thought I could make a difference.” Up to this point, Furillo has been a source of strength, an anchor in a storm. But here, we see him a bit unhinged, and get a sense of what is truly driving him: the perfectionism and insecurity that are at his core, the desperate need to define himself by accomplishment, to have a sense of purpose (characteristic of the alcoholic and addict). In a statement demonstrative of his obsessiveness and possessiveness: “It’s the kind of place that falls off maps, though. The Hill. My turf.”

In an interesting way, although they never share a scene, Captain Freedom acts as a dark mirror of Furillo (it’s worth noting that they both claim the title “captain”). Freedom is the deranged version, who hasn’t found a positive career outlet for his obsession with standing up for the little guy. Freedom interacts the most with Belker, who (in by now well-established Belker fashion) sees a bit of himself in this weird misfit, while also begging the kid to leave crime-fighting to the professionals. (On an audio commentary, Belker actor Bruce Weitz points out that over the course of seven seasons, Captain Freedom is the only person Belker ever refers to as his friend.) Just as Belker acts as a bit of a father figure to Captain Freedom, we have repeatedly seen Furillo acting as a father figure to Belker himself, establishing the various descending levels of insanity in this crime-fighting world. Notably, when Furillo is at his most enraged about the bar massacre, he says to Phil, “If you have to, take Belker off the gas station, then turn him loose.” Much like Captain Freedom, Belker is viewed as a mentally unbalanced lunatic, even by Furillo to some extent.

The conclusion to the bar massacre storyline is very effective: the revelation that these horrific crimes weren’t committed by gang members at all, but by children. Henry Goldblume has one of the best lines of the series, which sums up the dilemma of being a police officer and confronting unthinkable acts while trying to maintain your humanity: “Where do you put your hate?” It’s a heartbreaking and unanswerable question, when most of the atrocities are more the result of systemic failures than true evil. Furillo’s phone call to his own son at the end of the episode is maybe a bit trite from today’s perspective, but is beautifully performed by Travanti in a single take, as Frank’s breath fogs up the phone booth. There’s an element of these episodes that reminds me of 1940s noir films, in the way they combine moral complexity with narrative simplicity. TV at this point was in most ways still several decades behind film in terms of what they were able to show, regarding both technical ability as well as censorship, but there’s something about Hill Street at its best that balances the strongest elements of the two eras of television that it straddles.

I think the moment when Furillo truly realizes he’s crossed a line and needs to pull back from the edge is when Howard Hunter praises him in the restroom. If Howard’s praising you, it’s probably time to take a good long look at yourself. Hunter has a typically hilarious and racist rant, which has its own twisted internal comic logic, when describing a (made-up) book called The Concrete Galapagos: Reverse Evolution and the Inner City. At the end of that same scene, there’s a great jarring smash cut, from a wacky Clouseau-style comedy moment of Howard yanking a paper towel dispenser off the bathroom wall, to a deadly serious J.D. LaRue, locked in a cell (posing as a prisoner to gather intel), frantically screaming for Leo to come prevent a child molester suspect from hanging himself two cells over (as pyromaniac “Murray the Torch” cheers the guy on). It’s a great example of being thrown into the deep end of a chaotic scene with no forewarning or buildup, and J.D.’s claustrophobic helplessness is nicely portrayed by Kiel Martin.

Following his solo credit on “The World According to Freedom,” Michael Wagner shares teleplay credit for the rest of this arc, although he doesn’t yet receive a running staff credit. Robert Crais ends his short staff tenure after “The World According to Freedom” (having racked up only three teleplay credits to his name), although he does have one further staff credit a few episodes later, on “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement,” an episode with an earlier production number.

One last personnel note at this point: I’ve previously speculated that co-creator Mike Kozoll’s credits on Season 2 might be largely ceremonial or contractual. Having listened to an audio commentary with writer Jeff Lewis, I now know that’s not exactly the case. Evidently, Kozoll, feeling overworked, chose to step back from the day-to-day, but stayed on to conceive the story ideas only, along with Bochco. Hence, his Creative Consultant credit, and his story credits on the majority of episodes this season (a credit which is absent only on Jeff Lewis and Mike Wagner’s first scripts for the show, as well as the season’s final three episodes, by which point we can surmise Kozoll finally left the show altogether).

While “The World According to Freedom” is largely a standalone, tied to the subsequent episodes only by the appearance of Freedom himself, the next three episodes are a more traditional Hill Street arc, mostly focusing on the now-familiar theme of Furillo once again trying to keep his moral footing in the face of a corrupt system. This stuff can admittedly start to feel a bit “samey.” The wrinkle this time is that an attorney general with his eye on a lieutenant governorship is conducting a grand jury investigation on police corruption, trying to use fear-mongering to turn police officials against each other. The conduct of the Deputy A.G. in the grand jury is frankly pretty over the top (as writer Jeff Lewis admits on the audio commentary). Although grand jury has a much looser evidentiary standard than a trial, I can’t imagine a prosecutor just coming right out and asking on the record for rumors and gossip, and outright admitting that he’s on a fishing expedition.

The most effective aspect of this storyline is the revelation that Frank has committed a rather egregious impropriety, by keeping an all-but-in-name-retired “paper soldier” named Art Delgado on the books (with forged timecards and arrest reports) to ensure that he’ll get his pension in a few months. Furillo’s well-intentioned loyalty to his people is admirable, but this is a misuse of public funds, and Joyce correctly points out: “what troubles me is your belief that you somehow have a right to function under a different set of rules, because you have an absolute corner on the morality market.” Once again, we get a sense of some of the chinks in the overall noble Furillo’s armor. We also get to contrast him with his shlubby counterpart at Midtown (the dedicated narcotics precinct in the city), Captain Jerry Fuchs (Vincent Lucchesi) (first seen in Season 1’s “Rites of Spring”). Fuchs refuses to go to bat to help one of his guys (who is suffering from addiction) because he’s a coward and fears the consequences in the current political climate, whereas Furillo is ultimately willing to fall on his sword in the grand jury and admit his own wrongdoings, while continuing to argue for the rightness of ensuring that Delgado is taken care of after a thirty-year career.

The other noteworthy, highly amusing element of this storyline is that the loathsome Chief Daniels (Jon Cypher) is suffering from hemorrhoids, leading to several terrific moments where he is the butt (pun intended) of lowbrow humor.

Another running storyline in this arc is the Bates-Coffey relationship, which has a bit of a “will they or won’t they” vibe at this point. Lucy fends off Joe’s advances, while clearly also being jealous of his womanizing (there’s a funny scene where a furious Lucy keeps writing tickets for a poor hapless schmuck, who begs Joe to stop pissing her off). While it arguably feels rather reductive for the writers to throw our one lead female cop into a potential romance storyline, she has a nice ending to this arc. Lucy admits that the scrutiny she faces from the male officers makes her feel that one mistake will damage her reputation, fueling her reluctance to enter into a relationship that would inevitably reduce her to the role of being Joe’s girl. In a nice touch, we also learn that Lucy is the precinct’s designated poker champ in the interdepartmental tournament, adding another layer to her character.

A storyline about our officers operating a saloon (set up as a sting operation at Chief Daniels’s request to catch dishonest cops in the neighboring South Ferry district) mostly just serves as a comedic opportunity to see the characters bickering in a different work setting, and Belker flipping burgers while swatting cockroaches with his spatula.

“The Spy Who Came in from Delgado” centers around Hunter heading a team tasked with rounding up rabid dogs, a storyline which feels a bit too similar to the “Gatorbait” story in Season 1. Howard does get one of his most serious storylines to date, when he ends up trapped inside an abandoned housing project, but the realities of 1980s TV production leave these scenes feeling more bland than harrowing, unfortunately. The best part of the episode is when a hospitalized Howard is served with a subpoena, and the process server unexpectedly unloads on a stunned Hunter and Furillo about how difficult his life is in a hilarious, out-of-the-blue monologue. This also feels a bit reminiscent of The Return, in the way a random one-off side character takes center stage for a few minutes.

“Freedom’s Last Stand,” the last episode of this arc (which includes Captain Freedom’s demise), won the 1982 Writing Emmy for a Drama. That episode also features another storyline involving male officers dressing in drag (reminiscent of Season 1’s “Double Jeopardy”), but it at least gives us a nice down-and-dirty street brawl, as a cross-dressing Henry brutally takes down a purse-snatcher.

In the Hill Street tradition of not being afraid to obscure dialogue with ambient noise and outright cacophony, several comedic scenes in “The World According to Freedom” revolve around Renko and Hill’s car horn malfunctioning repeatedly, while characters try to yell over the noise. I’m sure some viewers at the time, not used to such abrasive sound design on their TV shows, found this really annoying.

One storyline that doesn’t really go anywhere is Renko losing his gun in a stick-up at a poker game. In reality (at least, in today’s world), he would have gotten in a lot of trouble if he failed to immediately report losing his weapon, but here there don’t seem to be any consequences.

We learn that Bobby is now living with Denise, the social worker he asked out at the end of Season 1. Although she is discussed a few times in this arc, she never again appears on the show.

One of those elements that charmingly dates the show is the occasional reference to the precinct’s computer. Yes, the precinct has one, single computer (and I’m somewhat surprised they even have that, in 1981/1982). In “The Spy Who Came in from Delgado,” we actually catch a glimpse of the computer for the first time.

An amusing scene in “Pestolozzi’s Revenge” shows Phil once again having to calm Lou, the excitable Busy Baker vending machine guy, after his machines are the victim of yet another hostile attack (this is once again an example of the show being willing to take a breather and spend screentime on a rando character). Michael Conrad is really good here, delivering an absurd inspirational monologue. Conrad is also charming in various scenes throughout this arc where Esterhaus is practicing his French in anticipation of a trip with Grace.

We also get the secret to Belker’s signature look: “I never shave in the morning. Sometimes I shave at night.”

Notable guest stars in “Pestolozzi’s Revenge”:
  • Marcelino Sánchez (from The Warriors), who had just appeared four episodes earlier, plays Jimmy, an unfortunate kid on the way to a wedding who gets in a car accident with Renko, leading to ever-increasing complications (having royally screwed up this kid’s life, a philosophical Renko has the immortal line, “What is justice, my man?”)
  • Charles Robinson (Mac on Night Court and El Jefe on Mark Frost’s Buddy Faro) as Roy, the surly auto shop manager
  • Peter Iacangelo (the owner of Lou’s Tavern in Fight Club) as the surprisingly understanding husband of a woman Joe shtupped
  • Pamela Hayden (voice of Milhouse on The Simpsons) as Ms. Jackson, an administrative assistant in the grand jury
Notable guest star in “Freedom’s Last Stand”:
  • Troy Evans (Principal George Wolchezk in the Twin Peaks pilot) as Dunello, a public health inspector on the take
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