HILL STREET BLUES Hill Street Blues

THE REST OF SEASON 2: EPISODES 12-18

"Of Mouse and Man," "Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement," "The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded," "Some Like It Hot-Wired," "Personal Foul," "The Shooter," "Invasion of the Third-World Body Snatchers"


The first three episodes of this final stretch of Season 2 adhere to the established Hill Street format: a continuing A-story (in this case, the murder of public defender Pam Gilliam) as well as continuing B- and C-stories. In fact, this triptych feels more like Season 1, as there really aren’t any major standalone episodic stories of the type that Bochco had promised the network in Season 2. In contrast, the final four episodes of the season go somewhat to the opposite extreme. They’re not exactly standalone episodes, since several character arcs carry over between them (in fact, Joyce and LaRue’s arcs continue through all seven of these final episodes of the season, and Renko’s arc carries through the last six)…but the procedural police aspects of the final four episodes refresh every hour, with all-new investigations in each episode, so that there is really no continuing main arc to unify these episodes.

The first episode of the three-part arc, “Of Mouse and Man,” does break the established episodic format of the series in a key way with its opening scene. For only the second time in the series, an episode doesn’t strictly cover one day. Furthermore, for the first time ever, an episode doesn’t start on a roll call. The cold open of “Of Mouse and Man” begins on the night before the episode proper (it essentially acts as a cold open to the cold open), with Furillo at the scene of a murder. As a side note, the scene of the murder is shot at the Hotel Lorane, a Skid Row location in Downtown Los Angeles which also featured in the first season of Hill Street, as the home of the negligent mother Hill and Renko repeatedly respond to, and which again pops up in the episode “Personal Foul,” which I’ll discuss below. The Lorane is perhaps most famous for its appearance in Rocky III, when Paulie tells Rocky, “This is below you and the sister’s standard.”

The major storyline of this three-part arc is…interesting. Public defender Pam Gilliam (who happens to be young, black and from a “good” family) is murdered, and this apparently leads to tremendous political upheaval in the city. Truthfully, I’m not fully sure that I buy it. For one thing, cops are supposedly upset about Gilliam’s death, in a way that I don’t find believable…in my experience, most cops view defense attorneys in a purely adversarial light, and likely wouldn’t be affected by her murder any more than any other homicide they deal with.

Meanwhile, Joyce Davenport is REALLY out for blood following Pam’s murder. Her arc even spills over into the following four episodes, with Joyce becoming completely disillusioned with her profession, and acting out in some pretty alarming ways that border on malpractice. I find this to be both an unrealistic and unappealing direction to take the character. On the one hand, I can understand that the idea of a zealous liberal public defender being confronted with the murder of someone close to her is a potentially compelling storyline. But I feel that the show takes Joyce’s characterization to the nuclear option without sufficient development. It’s a classic case of “tell don’t show,” with the writing trying to convince us that Gilliam was a truly exceptional person; but other than a brief black-and-white TV interview, we never meet her and have no reason to feel attached to her. To the show’s credit, in a nice bit of continuity, Joyce did mention Pam in the Season 1 episode “Rites of Spring,” and she clearly felt that the two of them were cut from the same cloth. But, for me, we’re just not given enough to believe that this strong opinionated woman would suddenly upend her entire belief system. Are we to understand that Joyce has never thought through the realities of the criminal justice system before now? If it was a family member or an incredibly close friend who was murdered, I could understand the second-guessing of all her life choices…but a coworker, even one whom she really respected and liked, just doesn’t quite sell it for me. This was the woman who was calling the police fascists in the pilot, and now she’s suddenly done a complete 180, calling her clients the “ravage and pillage set,” and lamenting about all the defendants she’s gotten off on “legal technicalities” (a phrase I just can’t imagine any public defender who truly believes in her job ever using). On a conceptual level, I can accept that Joyce is a character who seems to come from a background of advantage, and that the dichotomy between her upbringing and the work she does could result in a certain amount of hypocrisy. She wants to help the less privileged, but when a crime directly impacts someone close to her, she has to confront a reality that has previously remained an abstraction to her. That’s realistic. But the way her professional implosion is depicted is so wildly unprofessional and childish, so extreme and lacking in any nuance, that it doesn’t feel consistent with the person she has been portrayed as up to this point.

Procedurally, I also find it pretty difficult to believe that Joyce would be permitted to shadow Frank on the various investigations into Pam Gilliam’s shooting, especially the scene where she’s in the interrogation room when the killer is being questioned, which feels totally improper and bizarre.

One of the few things I do like about Joyce’s arc is the scene near the end of “Some Like It Hot-Wired,” where Frank confesses that he’s afraid of losing Joyce if she quits her job, because they run in different “social circles”: “I was afraid if you left my world, I wouldn’t be able to hold onto you in yours.” He also responds, when Joyce mentions starting over career-wise, that he considers that “the option of the rich, the bright and the socially acceptable,” demonstrating a chip on his shoulder about the fact that, impliedly, those terms apply to Joyce and not to him. (Joyce bitterly retaliates by calling him the only proletarian hero she’s ever met who’s a cop.) Once again, without getting a lot of specifics, we get a satisfying sense of Furillo as a guy who probably came from impoverished circumstances, picked himself up by the bootstraps, and always feels like he has to prove himself.

The evidentiary issue with the gun in “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement,” with the lapsed impound license voiding the inventory search, almost certainly came from writer Jeff Lewis, and feels like something that he or a colleague probably experienced during his time at the Manhattan D.A.’s office. The memo that was lost in a drawer leading to the downfall of a case also has the ring of truth to it. However, it does feel rather silly when the A.D.A. says they immediately appealed the ruling and it was upheld—all in the span of two weeks! Even if there were an extreme exigency element (which almost certainly wouldn’t exist in the type of drug case described), I can’t imagine an appeals process being completed in a measly two weeks.

While I’m in nerdy legal mode, the A.D.A. in “The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded” has a great line about one-witness trials: “One witness, even a good one, is like trying to tie your shoe with one hand.”

Eric Laneuville really chews the scenery as Pam Gilliam’s shooter, Wilbur Harmon, especially in his final scene where he brags about how little time he’ll get if convicted of murdering the guy who ratted on him. The performance is so ridiculous that it shouldn’t work at all, but there is something chilling about how sociopathic the over-the-top delivery feels. Laneuville soon thereafter became a series regular on St. Elsewhere, then transitioned into directing work on that series. He has been working steadily as a director of episodic TV ever since, including on the Hill Street spinoff Beverly Hills Buntz, on several Bochco shows, as well as on five episodes of Lost.

The storyline about Bobby being elected in absentia as vice president of the Black Officers’ Coalition is interesting, and I wish it had been extended beyond this three-episode arc. This is a classic example of the show developing a character’s storyline in a fascinating direction, then immediately backtracking to the status quo once the arc is over, a frustrating reality of the fact that true serialization in prime time dramas was still very much in its infancy. Bobby is one of the most interesting characters on the show, a very principled guy but also someone who does his best not to rock the boat, and that makes him a very fascinating prism through which to view the racial inequalities of the 1980s. He has maybe the quintessential Bobby Hill line when asked if he wants to be a uniform for the rest of his life: “I don’t know what I wanna be for the rest of my life, Vern. But for right now, yes, I like being a street cop, if you can believe that.” He’s being pushed and pulled from all sides by people who want him to take various approaches to his new office, but my favorite moment is the scene with Detective-Sergeant Alf Chesley, played by Gerry Black. Black has been with the show since the pilot, but this is one of the few times he’s had a truly featured role in a scene. Alf talks to Bobby about how he had his “wings clipped” due to being outspoken in 1968. It’s a heartbreaking moment, seeing this proud black man who has come to terms with the fact that the only way to ensure the security of his job is to keep his head down. He has a few great lines here, but my favorite is, “You young boys, think you discovered all the problems driving to work this morning.”

A somewhat questionable side effect of Bobby’s storyline in this arc is that Renko is given the arguably meatier emotional storyline. The writers (all white men, it must be noted) clearly love writing for Renko, and while Hill certainly gets his due, a lot of screentime in these episodes is devoted to Renko, as he feels abandoned by Bobby and resorts to his usual shtick of doubling down on self-pity and casual “joking” racism. And as usual, Bobby ends up forgiving Renko for his self-centeredness at the end of the storyline. As charming as Charlie Haid’s performance is, one starts to feel that eventually Bobby’s tolerance for this guy needs to reach a breaking point if Renko doesn’t display some emotional growth at some point; and I find myself wishing that Renko’s screentime had instead been devoted to giving more depth to Bobby’s dilemma. The Renko storyline, about his dad being sick (and ultimately dying), actually plays on all the way through to the end of the season, making it one of the longest-running storylines on the series to date. In a remarkably good feat of physical casting, we meet Renko’s sister and father, and both of them look and sound believably like Charlie Haid: Alley Mills (Kevin’s mom on The Wonder Years) plays sister Tracy, and Morgan Woodward (Boss Godfrey in Cool Hand Luke) is patriarch John. Charlie Haid’s real-life brother David even pops up in the episode “Personal Foul” for a VERY quick cameo as Andy’s brother Tommy (a role he will reprise in Season 4…it’s really not clear why he was even included here given how little he contributes, other than pure novelty and nepotism). The Renko’s dad storyline overall feels very soap opera-ish and honestly doesn’t do much for me, but the wacky way it concludes in the season finale is rather fun. We also learn that Renko spent last Thanksgiving with Bobby Hill’s family instead of his own, a strong indicator of how adrift Andy feels when he thinks Bobby is slipping away.

The third major storyline of the three-part arc is J.D.’s relapse, which nearly screws up the takedown of a PCP lab. Substance abuse recovery is rarely a linear process, so I appreciate the depiction of a relapse. However, like the storyline about Renko’s dad, LaRue’s struggles are unfortunately played in relatively cliché fashion. The difficulty of depicting the addiction cycle onscreen is that, on a surface level, the reality often is a cliché…but that doesn’t necessarily translate to compelling viewing. Case in point: the therapy scene where J.D. is sobbing “Don’t let me die” is arguably realistic, but still feels very heavy-handed as a dramatic choice, both in terms of the writing and the acting. As with Renko and Joyce’s arcs, J.D.’s storyline continues right through to the end of the season, but it doesn’t really amount to a whole lot, unfortunately. He is banished to the motor pool for awhile, and I find myself questioning the logic of putting a known alcoholic into a position where he’s going to be regularly driving a tow truck… There are a few strong scenes where Neal goes to bat for his friend and mentor; it’s always nice to see Taurean Blacque get some scenes to play, as the writers often don’t give him much to do. Dan Travanti as an unusually hardassed Furillo also has some good scenes where he resists the idea of giving another chance to “a drunk” who has proved himself untrustworthy: scenes made all the stronger by the knowledge that not only is Furillo an alcoholic, but so is Travanti. But the arc is ultimately wrapped up in hasty, sloppy fashion, with Furillo—literally on his way out the door on a vacation to St. Croix with Joyce—casually throwing an assignment to LaRue and Washington.

I’m being kind of down on all these storylines so far; and truthfully, the dramatic aspects of these episodes overall don’t work all that well for me. What does work like gangbusters, though, is every single scene with Detective Mick Belker in it. So, let’s take a moment to pause for the…

Mick Belker Appreciation Section

There’s a very sweet moment in “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement” where Belker is sitting at his desk, forlornly looking at Captain Freedom’s green glove on his hand. The glove remains as part of his wardrobe until the end of the season. By the finale, it’s starting to become frayed at the tips of the fingers, and I’m assuming it will eventually become indistinguishable from his original fingerless green gloves.

In that same scene, there’s a great exchange when Henry asks, “Mick, you ever wish you could get even with your high school bully?” Belker simply responds, in no-bullshit fashion, “I did.”

In “The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded,” Belker goes undercover as a hot dog vendor and gives foot chase to a drug dealer, played by Jed Mills (Hank’s parole officer Wilson Mooney on Twin Peaks). Bruce Weitz, always a game physical actor, does a nice stunt where he leaps on top of the fleeing suspect and tumbles to the sidewalk. A later scene where Belker worries that he’s losing his physical edge to age, and Esterhaus and Hunter absolutely fail to comfort him, is a real treat. These are three of the most consistently funny characters on the show, and I don’t think they’ve all shared a scene together before.

Another priceless Belker-Hunter scene (comedy gold, I say!) occurs when the two sit in a diner, putting the action of the show completely on pause so we can watch these two debate the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, and discuss Mick’s regrettably short-lived pet drug-sniffing mouse.

In “Personal Foul,” our man unexpectedly impresses a cute concession stand worker at a porno theater where he’s working undercover, but the storyline never goes anywhere (just like his first-season romance with the nice Jewish girl his mom set him up with, who vanished from the show after “Fecund Hand Rose”). Belker does get to show off his basketball skills in this episode, all the more impressive given that he pre-games by chugging a blended concoction containing sardine tails.

Yet another great Belker storyline, in the otherwise heavy-handed episode “The Shooter,” deals with Mick renewing his driver’s license (which has been expired for three years). We learn that he has freakishly good eyesight (he reads the “bottom line” of the chart, which is the infinitesimal publisher’s notice), and his driving test naturally ends in a high-speed chase (“It’s a stickup, Hairball!”).

And in the season finale, we get Belker going undercover as a homeless guy and finding that he really enjoys the lifestyle…and the food.

Let’s face it, the five-minute Mick Belker Show every week was the number one reason to watch Hill Street.

End Mick Belker Appreciation Section

The always-reliable Howard Hunter also has a lot of great moments in this stretch. My favorite is his line during a briefing: “Now, this is a formidable playground, but by no means an impregnable one.” Howard also has a great storyline in the final two hours of the season, as he tries to sell his coworkers (and Fay) on First Strike Estates, a kind of combination co-op and survivalist bunker.

Fay has a pretty funny arc where she joins the amusingly-named WAD (Woman Against Discrimination). In classic white privilege mode, she gets pissed off when long-suffering Midtown Detective Walsh (previously seen trying to help Fay during her Season 1 nude hot tub arrest) gives Fay preferential treatment during a WAD protest at Chief Daniels’s office, much to Fay’s humiliation. This also leads to another hilariously awkward Fay/Joyce meeting, with an uncharacteristically pissy Frank stuck in the middle.

Henry’s arc in the final four episodes kicks off with him being pissed about losing out on a lieutenant promotion to Alf Chesley, with the clear implication that he resents Alf for being an affirmative action promotion. While I like Henry, I do find him increasingly whiny as the series goes on. In this case, he’s also obviously hypocritical (albeit in a believable way), given that he disavows his liberal ideals as soon as they cause him a personal inconvenience. In this sense, his arc is a bit similar to Joyce’s during this stretch, but I find Henry’s hypocrisy more palatable and believable. Part of my reaction might be due to the fact that he suffers a comeuppance: Henry’s pettiness leads directly to him deciding to go on an undercover operation, then getting shot, and then his wife divorcing him. I don’t know if the writers precisely meant this sequence of events to be karmic, but when Henry’s wife Rachel asks him, “What were you trying to prove?” it’s pretty clear that at the very least, the causal progression was very intentional. In a truly random development, Henry also has the very final scene of the season, when he and Fay run into each other in a bar, two lost souls, and impliedly strike up a friendship (and perhaps more…?).

Continued in next post due to character limit...
 
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CONTINUED FROM PRIOR POST: THOUGHTS ON SEASON 2 EPISODES 12-18

“Personal Foul” is my favorite of these final seven episodes of the season. The dramatic stuff works much better than it does in most of the surrounding episodes. It has a strong central arc about a laid-off housing authority cop who ends up holding his girlfriend and her son hostage. Similarly to the portrayal of the racist old guy in “The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue,” we get a portrayal of a very problematic character—in this case, a domestic abuser—whom the writers and the actors present with humanity and nuance. We get the sense that this is a once-decent guy who has been screwed over by the system one too many times, and has entered such a state of despair that he’s lost his moral compass. As he says repeatedly, “I’m over the line.” It’s a sad, believable characterization which, again, I doubt would ever make it on the air in today’s climate. The other major storyline in this episode balances things out with a more lighthearted event: a basketball game between the precinct and local gang members. It’s an absolutely stupid premise…as I’ve said before, the depiction of police-gang relations is the one area of this show where the writers really seem absolutely clueless. However, ignoring the silliness of the premise, the seven-minute game sequence itself is really fun. Director David Anspaugh, warming up for his work on Hoosiers a few years later, shoots the game with a good kinetic energy, and it’s nice to see the series regulars in a totally different context having fun on the court…particularly Michael Warren, who was a UCLA All-American starting guard (his character Bobby Hill is said on the show to be an MVP from “City College”).

The following episode, “The Shooter,” is not as strong. The storyline about a cop being shot feels a bit repetitive, and the fact that it’s a character we’ve never met before and will never see again feels very “TV.” I enjoy the procedural aspects of how they track down the shooter, because I’m a nerd for that stuff, but it admittedly is reminiscent of the Season 1 arc where they trace the gun that shot Hill and Renko (right down to both guns having ties to a liquor store owner). As someone who is very anti-gun, I do appreciate the more character-driven moments showing Frank’s distaste for firearms. However, even for me, the commentary about the prominence of gun culture feels very heavy-handed (the precinct hosting an armaments exhibition, Henry and Neal interviewing a gun collector, and even Joyce getting a concealed carry permit at the end).

Other Scattered Thoughts:

It strikes me that the Esterhaus/Grace Gardner scenes presage Twin Peaks to a certain extent, in the way that they’re a mix of soap opera and campy comedy, with the silly broad acting by Michael Conrad and Barbara Babcock reminding me a bit of Jack Nance and Piper Laurie in Twin Peaks Episode 7. I could absolutely see Michael Conrad acting in a Lynch movie.

In addition to the various NYC and Chicago geographical references used in dialogue to refer to the show’s ambiguous setting, there are also several references to Buffalo geography, thanks to writer Tony Yerkovich. Fellow Buffalo native son David Milch would continue the tradition when he joined the writing staff in Season 3. As one example, in “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement,” Howard mentions the Ganson Street canal.

Renko has a great line in “Of Mouse and Man,” when a black detective tries to give him dap: “Old European tradition, shakin’ hands. Never knew there was much improvement needed on it.”

Timeline flub: In “The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded,” LaRue says he has seven months of sobriety…so, counting back to the springtime setting of the end of Season 1, that should place this episode in the autumn months. But just a couple of episodes later, it’s spring again.

“The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded” has an unintentionally surreal edit. Frank is in his office with Henry, watching the taxi driver who has perjured himself sitting out in the bullpen…but when we cut to Frank’s P.O.V. shot of the bullpen, Henry is out there too, prominently sitting at his desk next to the cab driver. Then Henry is back in Frank’s office in the next shot!

Minor continuity error in “The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded”: Hill is back on the beat with Renko, and Renko says he’s been missing Bobby the last few days…but if the PCP lab bust was “last night,” Renko was only with the other partner for one day. Also, Renko is already out of his sling and seems to have full mobility, after having his arm slashed the prior day and getting sixteen stitches.

Police hats are a subject of some fascination for me. Uniformed NYPD officers are still required to wear the peaked hats today, which seems ridiculously outdated and impractical to me. My understanding is that, in most other places in the U.S., the hats haven’t been required for years. In the cold open of “Some Like it Hot-Wired,” Phil announces a new departmental mandate that the hats be worn again, after a period when they weren’t required (although we never see any officer actually following this mandate, in this episode or any other). This makes me wonder whether police hats were already on the way out in 1982. Although, I found a police officers’ online discussion forum where some users claim that the substitution of department-issue ball caps in place of the classical peaked hats actually came about because cops in many precincts saw Andy Renko and Joe Coffey wearing ball caps on Hill Street and demanded the change (see here When did the ball cap become an accepted uniform item? - Police Forums & Law Enforcement Forums @ Officer.com). So, Andy Renko’s Waylon Jennings cap may have brought about a sea-change in law enforcement cranial adornments!

Minor continuity gaffe: Henry’s wife Rachel says Henry has a responsibility to his child, but it has been previously established that they have two children.

In “Personal Foul,” Howard makes a topical reference to the December 1981 kidnapping of American military officer James Dozier by the Italian Red Brigades.

In “The Shooter,” Belker’s favorite perp gives his name as Jean-Claude Killy, the champion Olympic skier (appropriately enough, it appears that Belker is arresting the guy for stealing a pair of skis).

Bates and Coffey kind of get lost in the shuffle in this last stretch of the season. The season finale has a weirdly brief storyline about Bates finding out the guy she’s dating is married, and Joe confronting the guy, who turns out to be the Commander of the Michigan Avenue Precinct. This amounts to much ado about nothing, and I don’t think it’s ever mentioned again.

PRODUCTION NOTES:
  • With “The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded,” Mike Wagner finally joins the writing staff as Story Editor, after six consecutive episodes with a writing credit but no running staff credit. On the same episode, Jeff Lewis is bumped up from Story Editor to Executive Story Consultant.
  • “Of Mouse and Man” is the first episode directed by future Swing Kids director Thomas Carter, who will go on to direct eight more Hill Street episodes (including this season’s “Some Like It Hot-Wired” and “The Shooter”), as well as the pilots for St. Elsewhere and Miami Vice. Carter also has a featured guest role in “Invasion of the Third World Body Snatchers” as accused rapist Donald Lilly, and gives a strong sympathetic performance as an aspiring law student done dirty by the system, who inspires the apathetic Joyce Davenport to finally reconnect with her values.
  • “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement” has a co-story credit for Thom Thomas, who was primarily known as a playwright. He attended Carnegie Tech at the same time as Steve Bochco.
  • I previously mentioned (in the context of Robert Crais’s staff credit) that “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement” has an earlier production number, as compared to the order in which it aired. While the episodes have so far mostly aired in linear production order (that will change in Season 3), the production numbers frankly baffle me when they do go out of order. For instance, “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement” (8005-1408) is clearly intended to be viewed exactly when it aired: following “Of Mouse and Man” (8005-1413), and preceding “The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded” (8005-1414).
  • “Some Like It Hot-Wired” is the final episode of the series where co-creator Mike Kozoll has a story credit.
  • “The Shooter” begins with a “Previously, on Hill Street Blues…” recap (only the second one to appear on the DVDs). Rather unexpectedly, the end of the recap transitions directly into a second montage, as Taurean Blacque announces, “And now, tonight, on Hill Street Blues…” The footage shown from the upcoming episode is the equivalent of your typical 1980s TV commercial…it’s really jarring when watching the show on DVD, being confronted with pretty big spoilers for the episode you’re about to watch. I hope that doesn’t become a regular feature.
GUEST STARS:
  • Edward James Olmos appears in “Of Mouse and Man” and “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement” as Joe Bustamante, a law student living in a rent-controlled apartment run by a slumlord. It’s another storyline of Henry Goldblume embracing a “lost cause,” albeit this time with him taking a somewhat violent approach to the solution (with Belker’s help, and perhaps with Henry still high off the adrenaline rush of his street brawl in “Freedom’s Last Stand”—he still has the bruises on his face).
  • Jonathan Frakes plays drug dealer Eddie Sims in “Of Mouse and Man.”
  • Jeffrey Tambor returns in “Of Mouse and Man” as attorney Alan Wachtel, with some great comedy surrounding both his sleazy predatory nature and his prostate issues. Wachtel is representing Frakes’s character, and he very correctly notes that he could get his client off under an entrapment theory (the fact that he doesn’t go this route, and instead lets his client do some time and turn state’s witness, is probably an indicator of pure laziness on his part).
  • J.A. Preston (the judge in A Few Good Men) is featured in the three-part arc as Lieutenant Ozzie Cleveland of Midtown Homicide, the president of the Black Officers’ Coalition. He will reprise the role several times in subsequent seasons.
  • Peter Iacangelo returns in “The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded” as Bruno, the guy whose wife Joe Coffey fucked, last seen in “Pestolozzi’s Revenge.” He continues to be a hilariously complex mix of rage and emotional acuity.
  • Meg Tilly (Agnes of God) appears in “Some Like It Hot-Wired” as the hooker Renko picks up as part of Operation Hookslide.
  • Talia Balsam (the current Mrs. John Slattery, the former Mrs. Roger Sterling on Mad Men, and the one-time Mrs. George Clooney) guests as Sally, the prostitute who shoots Henry in “Some Like it Hot-Wired.”
  • John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin on Cheers) plays one of the phony cops running the scam with Sally in that same episode.
  • Beloved character actor Tracey Walter (known to Lynch fans as Blinky Watts on On the Air, Marvin “Roach” DeLoach in a Wild at Heart deleted scene, and Dusty in The Cowboy and the Frenchman) is Sammy Liddle, the flakey informant LaRue shoves into a laundry dryer, in “The Shooter.”
  • Arnold Johnson (Putney Swope) appears for the second time on the show as a nameless drunk, a role he repeated several more times over subsequent seasons.
Next up: David Milch’s first episode!
 
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SEASON 3 EPISODE 1: “Trial by Fury”
Written by: David Milch
Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
Airdate: September 30, 1982


Getting the new-season housekeeping personnel stuff out of the way first…

Steve Bochco remains as Exec Producer. Mike Kozoll is out completely.

Greg Hoblit moves up from Supervising Producer to Co-Executive Producer.

Tony Yerkovich is promoted from Producer to Supervising Producer.

David Anspaugh remains as Producer, and is joined by Scott Brazil, who started on the show as Associate Producer in Season 2. We’ll discuss him more later, once he starts directing.

David J. Latt, who has been with the show since the second episode as Location Manager, gets bumped up to Associate Producer. Latt is of particular note, as he produced the Twin Peaks Pilot, a gig he got based on his Hill Street relationship with Frost. I can’t find the link anymore, but I swear I remember reading an interview where he candidly discusses how he didn’t get along with Lynch, leading to him being replaced by Gregg Fienberg on the rest of the series.

Jeff Lewis continues as Executive Story Consultant. Mike Wagner continues as Story Editor.

And, of course, the big news…David Milch joins as Story Editor.

The episode itself merits a good deal of discussion, but before we even get there, we of course have to acknowledge the significance of the fact that this is the debut of arguably the greatest television writer of all time. Now is probably as good a time as any to plug Milch’s autobiography, Life’s Work, since I will be referring to it throughout this post. Published in 2022, when he was in the throes of Alzheimer’s Disease, it’s a truly fascinating work. Even at the height of his mental acuity, Milch was a highly unreliable narrator due to years of substance abuse and a tendency toward what could charitably be called creative mental record-keeping. By the time he was actually putting his story down for posterity, he was relying heavily on his family and on recorded and transcribed records to inform him of events that he could no longer remember, as he admits in the book’s Prologue. The result is a sort of one-person game of “telephone,” where Milch is recounting stories that he told, sometimes decades ago, which may never have been true in the first place and of which he no longer has any first-person recollection. And yet, it’s the only accounting we’re ever going to get of the man’s life, and in addition to its invaluable significance in terms of insight into his creative process, it’s also a tremendously entertaining, heartbreaking, humanistic story in its own right.

Here’s Milch, essentially revealing the mission statement of the book (and perhaps the mission statement of his entire life) while recounting a story about a car accident his dad had: “I’ve told the story a lot of different ways. I’m not sure any of it is true. Now the particulars of my condition make it quite literal that I don’t know anymore what parts of the story are true, and what are just parts of different stories I’ve told. But we’re all making choices in how we tell the story and one thing I would suggest is that what literally happened need not be overly determinative.”

Here’s an interview with Milch’s daughters, who explain the process of writing the book, in fascinating and poignant terms: Opinion | We’ve Waited Our Whole Lives to Help Our Father, David Milch, Tell This Story (Published 2022)

I cannot recommend this book enough, for anyone who has any interest in the man’s work, or in the craft of writing in general. The only warning I’d give is that it contains spoilers for every show he’s written; so if you haven’t seen something and intend to watch it someday, you may want to skip around some sections. But the explanations he gives about where he found inspiration for certain ideas, the connections he made and how his mind leaps from A to B to C, are just absolutely fascinating. And, of course, if you know anything at all about Milch, craft aside, his life story itself is well worth reading. As his daughters say in the New York Times interview I linked, this is not a guy who holds anything back, either in terms of how he lives his life, or in terms of speaking openly about it. One of the things that struck me most, in contrast to nearly every other Hollywood retrospective I’ve ever read, is how humble the guy is. Throughout the book, he takes ownership for all his own behavior, and has a clear-eyed view of the people who caused him damage (chief among them his asshole father), never condemning himself or anyone else…just stating the facts and the feelings. I was once told that addiction is the greatest disease to have, because through the recovery process, you’re forced to reach a level of self-awareness and clarity that most “normal” people never even contemplate. It really feels like Milch’s life journey is a testament to that. Obviously, given that his wife and daughters helped with the book, we can never be fully sure how much of Life’s Work is truly him; but given how open everyone involved has been about the process, and given how authentic the voice is, I do believe this book is truly Milch’s work, albeit with a lot of help to mentally get him where he needed to be to put the words down on a daily basis.

So, how did this guy get onto Hill Street Blues? As I mentioned in an earlier post, Milch came to the show, and to screenwriting, because his former Yale undergrad roommate Jeff Lewis asked Steve Bochco to hire him. At this point, Milch was an alcoholic since age eight; a heroin-addicted, as-yet-undiagnosed bipolar, self-described sociopathic, gambling-addicted Yale literature teacher. He was in Delta Kappa Epsilon with George W. Bush (with whom he went duck hunting), and graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, after a brief detour wherein he dropped out to work in an LSD lab in Mexico for a year (an experience which ended with him digging a grave for the lab’s deceased chemist). He attended Yale law school for a semester, during which he refused to buy any textbooks or attend any classes, and was ultimately expelled for shooting out the lights on a cop car (Milch: “How about that for being white? You can shoot at a cop car and get sent to the law school dean”).

His only prior connection to the entertainment world was in pitching a miniseries to a local Boston PBS affiliate, about sibling-authors Henry James, William James, and Alice James. (This pitch plays a role in one of the strangest, most unsettling stories in his autobiography. Milch rather matter-of-factly recounts how, while he was making his pitch to PBS, his father committed suicide in dramatic fashion in front of Milch’s brother and mother, with his last words being, “Don’t tell David until he’s done with his pitch.” “Or at least that’s how I’ve remembered it,” Milch adds.)

In the book, Milch incorrectly claims, in a bit of charmingly self-deprecating revisionist history, that he was only hired on Hill Street due to a writers’ strike. He says that Bochco brought him on because the Guild-admitted writers weren’t allowed to write, and so Milch was a convenient hire because he wasn’t in the WGA. Aside from the fact that that would have been sanctionable behavior by Bochco and MTM if true, the WGA strike was actually the prior year, in 1981, leading into the second season of Hill Street. There was no strike the year Milch was hired.

In his breakdown of the various Hill Street writers, Bochco has described Milch as “street-conscious” and an “outlaw.” Other than “brilliant,” the other word most used to describe Milch’s time on Hill Street is “chaotic.” Bochco tells some stories in his own autobiography, which Milch verifies. Here are a few: During this time, Milch was carrying around his entire life savings in silver dollars in a gym bag, flying every single night to Las Vegas where he gambled all night, then flew back to Burbank in the morning to work on the show. He routinely pulled down his pants to flash and moon his coworkers, window washers, and passing drivers. He pissed in Bochco’s receptionist’s pencil cup.

Bochco on Milch:
  • “He is somehow irresistible. He’s volatile, he’s tough on writers, he can be witheringly cruel to people when he feels threatened, but there is something redeeming about David that has always bonded me to him.”
  • On Milch’s tendency to throw money around (he has given away millions of dollars over the course of his life, often to strangers): “It was easier for David to give you a thousand dollars than sit down and have a meaningful conversation.”
  • “For all his contradictions, his insecurities, and his foibles, David was – and is – the best writer I’ve ever known, and I will always love him.”
It’s worth recalling at this point that Milch was coming to the series with a strong academic literary background, but no knowledge whatsoever of the TV industry. He clearly learned very quickly. Here’s Milch in a 2014 New York Times retrospective commemorating the Shout! Factory DVD release of Hill Street: “There’s a saying in all writers’ rooms – it’s either fear or faith. You’re either trying to satisfy your guess about other people’s expectations, or you’re working through the genuine and authentic possibilities of the material.”

In the 2020 Conversations book, Mark Frost responds to the above quote: “As always, David was wonderfully coherent about the process—and slightly less so while being in the process itself.” Frost additionally says of Milch: “I loved him. I consider him a friend, and he was fun to be around, but he was also tragically self-destructive and could be a real handful. He didn’t mess with me, for some reason. I’d been around brilliant, chaotic people before, in the theater. I learned you’ve got to lay down strict boundaries or they will not respect you. David and I always got along really well.”

Continued in next post due to character limit.
 
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"Trial by Fury" Thoughts/Spoilers Continued from prior post.

So, with all of that out of the way, on to the episode itself, finally…

Bochco invited Milch out to L.A., based on Jeff Lewis’s recommendation, and Milch came in with the episode idea. According to Bochco, it was the fourth episode produced for the season (although the production number is 2403...the production numbers this season become especially chaotic and perplexing). Bochco was so happy with the show that he chose to make it the season premiere. It ended up winning Milch the Writing Emmy, as well as winning the Dramatic Series Emmy, and also won Milch the WGA Award and the Humanitas Prize. It’s one of the best remembered episodes of the series. In Milch’s autobiography, he gives the script a positive assessment: “going back to it now there is some satisfaction that on a basic level, as a piece of writing, it holds up.”

As with “The Shooter” near the end of Season 2, this episode starts with a preview: “Coming tonight, on Hill Street Blues…” Once again, it’s very annoying that the DVD producers choose to include this clip that spoils key scenes from the episode before you watch it. Pro tip: there is a chapter break in there, so you can hit the skip button and go to the beginning of the episode proper.

In his autobiography, Milch explains that the genesis of Esterhaus’s roll call discussion on substitute swear words reflected Milch’s “interest in accounting for the divergence between what [he] considered a credible portrayal of the language of these characters and the way they had to talk because of the limitations imposed by network standards and practices.” He wanted to draw attention to the artifice, and by doing so, to make clear to the audience that as a substitute for the “fresh and vital” nature of realistic profanity, the show would instead be “making it a little silly,” a different but comparable approach to giving the language some color. It’s an appropriate jumping-off moment for Milch’s oeuvre, given how all-important both eccentric language and obscenity ended up being to his artistry. Milch’s writing style is also immediately a great fit for Phil Esterhaus’s established high-falutin patois. Referencing the creative way male prostitutes disguise their presence in bathroom stalls, Esterhaus pontificates, “Would that we could address our problems of urban blight and inflation as resourcefully as we satisfy our passions.”

Phil notes that he will only be conducting roll calls and will not be managing the desk for the next six weeks, as he will be “conducting an experimental, six-week orientation class for senior cadets at the police academy.” And, sure enough, he does not appear in the episode after the cold open. I suspect that this is the first indication of Michael Conrad’s illness reducing his role in the show.

Goldblume has a mustache now! Rocking that sexy newly-single 1980s style.

The gay prostitute Eddie Gregg (played by Charles Levin) is the first character Milch ever created for television. He is based on Milch’s drug dealer back East, Eddie Grundy (although Grundy was black). Milch describes Grundy as a prostitute who would sometimes remove his dentures for favored clients, and someone who, after traveling up from NYC to New Haven to deliver Milch’s methadone, would spend the day in the Yale library teaching himself Latin and Greek and reading the gay poets in the original. Eddie Gregg goes on to appear several more times over the subsequent seasons. His character is emblematic of the types of well-meaning kind-hearted outsiders and fuckups that Milch relates to best, in both his personal life and his fictional writing. I was particularly struck by the moment when Belker asks Eddie why he keeps degrading himself, and Eddie responds, “It’s what I do.” That exchange reminds me of the many instances throughout Milch’s book where he says that he went through most of his life viewing himself as a degenerate who didn’t deserve a place in civilized society. Eddie gets a quicker, more facile mini-redemption arc in this episode than Milch (or most of us) do.

Eddie’s storyline here is yet another example of Belker becoming emotionally invested in a disenfranchised outcast. Here, the twist is that Belker’s dad is going senile, and Eddie expresses compassion and humanity. The senility plot immediately jumped out at me given Milch’s own current struggle with Alzheimer’s, and Milch himself also notes that the storyline had a new resonance for him when he reread the script while writing his autobiography.

In an echo of the many scenes with Nick Savage’s pickpocket character, Eddie initially gives Belker a fake name: Blanche DuBois, from A Streetcar Named Desire.

Eddie hilariously asks Belker to charge him with “lascivious carriage,” which is (or at least was) a real on-the-books crime in some jurisdictions, but also is a classically Milchian turn of phrase. Eddie pridefully says that characterizing his arrest as such would make it “a tonier kind of bust.”

Although over a year has passed since the beginning of the series, Belker’s dad has apparently gotten younger. Although he was 83 in the pilot, Belker here says he is 82.

Milch gives Ray Catellano a minor storyline. As I mentioned before, the writers apparently diminished Ray’s role because René Enríquez’s accent was deemed too difficult to understand, and of all the series regulars, he has been easily the most under-serviced. As largely insignificant and tangential as this story is (Ray is worried about a tax audit), it’s the largest screen presence the character has had since probably early Season 1.

A minor, silly (and very Milchian) subplot revolves around Hill and Renko responding to a domestic dispute, where a wife’s paramour slipped during his attempted escape out the bathroom window and got his head improbably wedged between the toilet and the bathtub. In typical Hill Street fashion, there’s a lot of yelling and chaos, to hilarious effect.

Once we arrive at the main plot of the episode, the nun being raped and brutally mutilated, it really feels like a watershed moment. I just don’t think this was anything that had been seen in prime time before, and you really feel that the series and television drama as a whole has kicked into a different gear. But the brilliance of Milch’s script is that the extreme nature of the crime isn’t the endgame; it’s just the starting point. The episode draws the viewer in by getting us pissed off at this heinous act. In any normal procedural of the era, it’s a blatantly cut-and-dry issue of wanting to see the perpetrators crucified (no pun intended). Then, in a way that now perhaps doesn’t feel particularly subtle, but absolutely was for that era of television, we are lured into going along with Furillo as he conspires to turn a disadvantageous circumstance, the public’s rage, to his advantage in order to coerce a confession. It’s Howard Hunter who plants the seed, in one of those trademark Hill Street bathroom scenes: what if instead of protecting these animals, we simply handed them over to mob justice? (“One man’s opinion, without tears.”) Frank doesn’t quite go that far over the line, but he does game the system in order to put the fear of God into the less culpable defendant. The moment when the episode truly takes a turn is when Furillo is speaking to the A.D.A. and delivers the chilling line, “I know there’s a lynch mob out there. I think I can use it.” That is not what we want to hear our supposedly heroic police captain saying. This is the lowest we’ve ever seen Furillo go, and it’s worth noting that the reason he’s doing it is to avenge a nun, a demographic that he as an Italian Catholic is highly sympathetic towards (after viewing the crime scene, he tells Ray that he’s about to be sick, the first time we’ve ever seen him express a physical reaction to a crime).

Meanwhile, Joyce is finally back to her old zealous advocate self, after the weird and unfortunate path the writers took her down in the end of Season 2; and she is not happy. In a great hypocritical line, Judge Schiller notes, “this is a tribunal of rules and procedures.” The great strength and the great weakness of our criminal justice system is that it’s not outcome-determinative. There are strict procedural rules, which cannot possibly contemplate every conceivable situation; and so, as we see here, Furillo is able to use those rules to enact “jungle justice,” as Joyce calls it, and no one but Joyce even bats an eye. This puts Joyce into the unusual and untenable position of trying to argue for bail and incarceration for her client over the D.A.’s recommendation. The thing is that Joyce says she wants there to be rules that are abided by; but Frank actually is playing by the rules, and that’s the problem (as he puts it, “I went by the book. I pushed a little hard at the bindings”). This is Joyce’s second blowup in Judge Schiller’s courtroom, after “Some Like It Hot-Wired”; at least this time, she’s staunchly defending her client (as opposed to throwing him under the bus). Still, we’re a long ways from the collegial scene in Schiller’s first appearance, in “Fruits of the Poisonous Tree,” when Joyce was invited to watch the Giants game in chambers (and was placing friendly bets with the judge).

Joyce has perhaps her angriest moment yet with Furillo, when she confronts him after the arraignment and snarls, “You railroading bastard.” But by the time she shows up later at his office, she no longer seems angry…she’s just sad, and so is he. It’s a really well-written and well-acted scene, Milch’s first truly great dialogue scene. There are no points to be scored; each of these characters completely understands the other’s position. It’s an adult argument, between two people who just have a core fundamental difference of values in this instance, and are looking at each other across a great divide. It’s painful and awful. And I love that Joyce reverts to calling Frank “Furillo” like she did in the early episodes. It was a playful endearment then; here, it’s a way to distance herself from him.

And then, we get the final twist of the knife, when Ray tells Frank, “The men are proud of what you did today.” The last thing Furillo wants is for his loyal soldiers to admire actions that he perhaps believes were necessary, but which he knows were certainly not praiseworthy. This leads us to the episode’s ending, which is indicative of the sort of old-fashioned storytelling this show sometimes engages in (in a good way). Furillo walks into St. Mary’s church, enters a confessional booth, and simply says, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” It’s a very 1940s film noir kind of moment, the kind of storytelling choice that’s simultaneously morally complex and morally simplistic, and just tremendously satisfying.

We also get a third approach to justice, in addition to Frank’s (punish the responsible parties at any cost) and Joyce’s (abide by the imperfect, arbitrary rules of the criminal justice system). Sister Agnes, the sole eyewitness (who ends up being completely useless), notes that the rape victim Sister Anna has likely already forgiven her attackers, even as she is minutes from death. This philosophy of forgiveness over punitive action provides a refreshing counterpoint to the procedural criminal justice stuff, and displays how savvy Milch is in his choice of victim. The decision to portray this brutal crime against a nun is not just for shock value; as I’ve already mentioned, the choice of victim has personal significance to Furillo, exposing his own biases, and in addition to that, it also acts as one more reminder of how our justice system is not the be-all end-all of morality. From a character standpoint, Furillo exists in both worlds, as an agent of the court and also a practicing Catholic…but we see where his true allegiances lie when Sister Agnes says that she is sure Sister Anna has forgiven the attacker, and Frank coldly replies, “I wish I could.”

The counterpoint to the “raped nun” story is a minor little arc about a murdered Hispanic bodega owner, the victim of a robbery-homicide who leaves behind a wife and two kids. The storyline is completely without note, a bland unassuming crime of the type that certainly happens on the Hill every day, leaving the viewer to question why we’re even spending screentime on it…which is exactly the point. The case ends up repeatedly neglected in favor of the more high-profile press case involving the nun. (As an aside, “press case” was close to a religious phrase when I was working at the Brooklyn D.A.’s office; it’s sickening how much weight is put on those two words, at the expense of many other worthy cases.) Joe and Lucy respond to the bodega and quickly get bored with it given the lack of evidence; ditto LaRue (Washington at least makes a small push to keep at it, but eventually follows LaRue to the more fruitful St. Mary’s investigation); forensics apparently never even shows up; even the usually reliable Golblume half-asses the case and writes it off. This little story is what highlights the final, brutal hypocrisy of the criminal justice system in the episode. While Frank and Joyce and A.D.A. Bernstein and Judge Schiller and the entire citizenry of the Hill are wrapped up in the nun’s case, this poor widow is never going to see any kind of justice for her husband, because when viewed on a macro level, it’s just not a shocking or interesting enough crime to merit attention. As the wife correctly notes in one scene, the nun didn’t leave behind a family; so, from a public interest standpoint, the bodega killing really should merit the higher priority. But the death of a working-class person of color just doesn’t demand attention in the cynical, overburdened system. In his autobiography, Bochco takes the credit for proposing this subplot to Milch as the final ingredient that the script needed to fully express its viewpoint.

Other Stray Thoughts:

By this point, Howard has apparently fully embraced “EATers” as the accepted acronym for his Emergency Action Team. Back in the pilot, he expressed disgust with this designation.

Milch manages to inject some vitality into the obligatory Fay scene. Fay’s inevitable arrivals at the precinct have the potential to become tiresome (and one wonders if she remained a series regular every week largely because the actor was married to Steve Bochco). Here, though, her haranguing monologue is abruptly interrupted by an active shooter situation in the precinct. After the shooter is subdued, Fay (in a nice performance by Barbara Bosson) babbles her usual mundane dialogue about how the school wants to skip Frank Jr. ahead a grade, while she’s bleeding and clearly in a shell-shocked state. It’s a good strong scene, and probably informs Furillo’s ultimate decision to make sure that the nun-killers are put away at any cost, for the good of the community. (There is unfortunately one shot in this scene on the DVD, which lasts for about 50 seconds, where the color timing is really wonky, with a pulsating blue tone.)

Nerdy legal point: Joyce notes that the items stolen from the church were possibly of felony value. In NY, there is a specific statute that automatically makes the theft of religious objects an E felony. I’m not sure if that was on the books in 1982, though.
 
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SEASON 3 EPISODES 2-4 (“Domestic Beef,” “Heat Rash,” “Rain of Terror”)

This three-episode stretch, scripted entirely by the now-familiar collective of Yerkovich, Lewis and Wagner, is a refreshingly strong arc after the final bunch of Season 2 episodes left me a bit cold. As is typical, the A-story focuses on Furillo dealing with departmental corruption. But in this particular arc, that theme runs through nearly every single storyline to a greater or lesser degree, in such a way that the several variations on the motif play off each other in a very satisfying manner that enhances the whole.

Playing out over this entire three-episode arc is a heat wave, which finally dissipates with a downpour at the end of the third episode (although Esterhaus has warned that even this respite of alliterative “cool, Canadian cumulous clouds” is potentially very short-lived). It’s a nice metaphor for these characters’ lives; and the correlation between heat waves and higher crime rates is a very real thing.

As we move along through this season, Esterhaus continues to be only present in the roll call scenes, with the in-world explanation that he is teaching a police academy course.

The main storyline of the arc begins when Furillo is tasked with presiding over the Board of Rights hearing for a fellow police captain, Lou Hogan, whose behavior is not overtly dirty, but amounts to willful negligence in the way he turned a blind eye to his subordinates’ activities. Frank’s predictably dogmatic approach to the judgment results in a chain of events wherein a drunken Hogan shows up at a roast for Chief Daniels (itself a self-indulgent proceeding exposing the gross in-bred excesses of the police force), and blurting out his knowledge of several corrupt enterprises at other precincts, including Hill Street. Furillo is left to clean up the aftermath, while psychologically dealing with his culpability in Lou Hogan blowing his brains out only a few hours after the roast, and wondering if he truly handled the Board of Rights tribunal as well as he could have.

Chief among the allegations Hogan makes is a Hill Street detective having sex with a fifteen-year-old prostitute. To the show’s credit, this doesn’t turn out to be some random character: it’s Henry Goldblume. Of course, as it turns out, Henry didn’t actually commit statutory rape. But, through poor decision-making which is characteristic of his overly sensitive and naïve nature, he chose not to bust a teenaged prostitute, and instead gave her shelter for several days while he got her into a youth program (one where she obviously did not last for long). In a very nice understated performance by Dan Travanti, Frank is absolutely incredulous that Henry could be so stupid as to not realize the optics of this well-meaning behavior. It’s no accident that, when Frank calls Goldblume into his office, the poor hapless idiot couldn’t look more like a stereotypical pedophile, with his bowtie, his unfortunate mustache, and a double-popsicle sticking out of his mouth like walrus’s teeth.

Logan’s other major accusation is officers trafficking in stolen goods, and here Washington and LaRue are tasked with tracking down the culprits. J.D., having been on the other side of misconduct allegations, feels disgusted with the whole thing, especially when he finds out the perpetrators are two cops he thought were “choir boys,” one of whom he spent some time with as a rookie. These cops, Coley and Lyle, have been mentioned throughout the series, and Coley has been seen regularly since “Fruits of the Poisonous Tree” in early Season 2. For all intents and purposes, they’re red shirts to the audience, but it’s nice that at least there is some semblance that has been built through the narrative that our main characters know and like these guys.

Meanwhile, Hill and a very reluctant Renko arrest a city councilman (the councilman in charge of police appropriations, no less). On Chief Daniels’s orders, Furillo is forced to instruct his subordinates to cut the guy loose, despite it being his sixth drunk driving arrest. Hill confronts Furillo over the double standard, in light of the memo Furillo just distributed that morning demanding absolute by-the-book behavior from his precinct, and Furillo doesn’t respond particularly well. Forced to eat the hypocrisy, instead of trying to provide any explanation, he just angrily snaps, “Grow up, Hill.”

Furillo finally manages to protect Goldblume’s job by essentially blackmailing Chief Daniels: threatening to go to the press with Daniels’s protective behavior towards the councilman. While we’ve often seen Frank on Daniels’s shit list before, we’ve never seen the Chief this angry at him. As Daniels says, he previously let Frank get away with more than any of his other captains because he respects Furillo’s idealism; but now, Frank is playing politics, an area he had previously steered clear of. Frank isn’t comfortable with it either, but he’s willing to play dirty in order to protect a friend. Henry, once he learns what happened, is also extremely unhappy with the way Frank saved his job…but he still can’t promise that he will sacrifice his humanity in the future if confronted with another conundrum that places his badge and his idealism at odds. Frank simply warns that he may not protect him next time. The entire morality of the situation is left in an impossible tangle, with everyone involved soiled to one degree or another, in one of the more satisfyingly complex outcomes on the series to date.

Furillo is also forced to deal with the reality of a major motion picture production choosing to shoot on the Hill, and its star John Gennaro (clearly a method actor) wanting to insert himself into precinct operations. Character actor Leo Rossi (Halloween II, Maniac Cop 2) nicely plays Gennaro as simultaneously self-absorbed and earnest, a movie star who’s completely out of touch but truly wants to find an honest basis for his performance. Everyone involved in writing and producing Hill Street obviously has a lot of fun satirizing their industry with this showbiz storyline, and from a story and character standpoint, it becomes one more bone of contention in terms of Furillo resenting Chief Daniels and the city in the ways they continue to hamstring him from doing his job properly. The centerpiece of the Gennaro storyline is how he decides that Belker is the Platonic ideal of the police officer that Gennaro needs to become for his role, much to Belker’s annoyance and disgust. It’s yet another variation on the theme of Mick reluctantly coming to like someone who pisses him off—a reliable narrative device which has not yet become even remotely tiresome. Belker has to try to conduct undercover business while shadowed by a highly recognizable film star who is all the while doing his best impersonation of the detective, alternately impressing and repulsing Mick. The storyline inevitably ends in darkly comic fashion, with the actor getting himself killed in the line of “duty,” dying in Belker’s arms (evocative of the Captain Freedom demise), and destroying the community’s chances for a cash infusion from Hollywood.

Hunter has a story over the final two episodes of this arc wherein he undergoes surgery due to a growth, ultimately revealed to be benign. While still portrayed as mostly goofy and comedic, he is given some more depth than usual as his macho bravado is stripped away. Actor Jim Sikking has said that in his view, Howard is an ultimately poignant character because he is so lonely, and the ending of this storyline addresses that, as he begins to form a romantic bond with his nurse (a storyline which is played as soapy and campy but still somehow sincere; again, in a way that feels like some scenes in Twin Peaks). The romance storyline will continue throughout the season.

The least interesting major storyline in this arc revolves around LaRue and Washington applying for jobs on a private security force at a Bahamian resort. LaRue really wants the gig, and Washington is ambivalent, leading to some arguments about their friendship and J.D.’s potential racism when Neal gets the coveted position. It ends in a sweet scene where J.D. realizes how strongly Neal feels about him, but the outcome feels pre-determined.

The episode “Domestic Beef” gets its title from a fun storyline where Bates and Coffey (later aided by Renko and Hill) encounter a bootleg butcher with a “hot” cow in his apartment, and are confronted with the problem of how to get a cow down from the fifth floor of a tenement building. The asshole who has been harboring the cow is mockingly and charmingly played by Arnold Johnson, who has turned up in a couple of past episodes as a drunk. His character here is credited as “Tubbs,” a name that was previously used in the Season 2 episode “The Shooter” for one of the cops who gets shot. One has to imagine that it was Tony Yerkovich who liked the name and kept using it, since he would go on to create Miami Vice, where one of the two leads was named Tubbs.

Bates and Coffey have another good funny storyline in “Heat Rash,” involving a reclusive guy who thinks he’s an interstellar being whose people are returning any day to beam him up to the mothership, but they can’t find him unless he has a phone. The character is reminiscent of Captain Freedom in his delusion, and one imagines that writer Mike Wagner was the primary architect of these scenes (“I salute the vector bosoms of my mother”). The storyline interestingly ends by implying that the character may have actually been beamed up into space out of his jail cell, the first time Hill Street flirts with the supernatural…but in the roll call of the following episode, Phil provides the real-world mundane punchline explaining what actually happened. Armin Shimerman (Quark on Deep Space Nine and Principal Snyder on Buffy) has a small early role as a phone installer (and remover) in these scenes.

A quick scene in “Domestic Beef” where Joyce helps Belker out with a birthday present for his mother makes me wish that Belker/Davenport scenes could happen every episode. But I probably feel that way about Belker’s interactions with almost every character on the show.

Speaking of Joyce, her disgust with Furillo at the end of “Trial by Fury” is just glossed over and never addressed again.

Fay has a mini-arc where she becomes a reporter for a supermarket tabloid. It all starts off well enough, when Furillo finally tells Fay off for showing up at the precinct every day bitching about her petty problems. He points out that he’s neither her husband anymore nor her father, and as much as he loves and cares about her, she needs to take control of her own life. Unfortunately, the way she does that is by becoming a crime reporter who will be hanging around the precinct constantly, due to her extremely sketchy press pass, granted by Chief Daniels, who thinks he is doing Furillo a favor. “I legitimized your ex-tuna today,” Daniels happily says (a phase which Frank hilariously repeats in complete disbelief and disgust).

“Rain of Terror” gives us Renko’s thirty-fifth birthday (the third birthday storyline of the series, after Phil in “Jungle Madness” and Frank’s fortieth in “Hearts and Minds”). The usually morally upright Hill secretly buys Andy a hooker as a present (perhaps indicating how disillusioned Bobby is after Furillo’s hypocrisy in cutting the councilman loose). Things go about as well as expected once Andy realizes what the audience has realized several scenes earlier.

In a minor storyline about Joe Coffey’s cousin being a standup comedian, Joe actually uses the phrase, “my cousin Vinny.” Soon to be a major motion picture!

When the gang members are negotiating the terms of the movie filming on the Hill, one demands a love scene with Victoria Principal. While Ms. Principal was a sex symbol of the 1970s, by 1982 she had retired from acting for several years and just recently returned, and was best known then for her role on Dallas on another network. I have to imagine that, like the Monday Night Football storyline in Season 2, this reference must have been a bit of an act of subversion on the writers’ parts in plugging the competition.

As I’ve alluded to before, there are a lot of weird vaguely euphemistic phrases on the show (in one episode in this arc, Renko exclaims, “Whip my wire!”). One particular idiomatic strain I keep hearing is phrases with the word “brown,” usually uttered by either Howard Hunter or Fletcher Daniels. “I’m not going to wear the brown earmuffs,” “I’ll support you tighter than a brown jockstrap,” “I’ll be dipped in brown sauce,” etc. Is this some kind of phrase that was ever actually used in reality? Or is it simply the show using the word “brown” as a euphemism for “shit”? And, if I’m correct about the latter…my God, what a gross turn of phrase. It would have been far less disgusting to just let the characters use actual curses in a more conventional way; which sort of makes the whole thing even more satisfying, in the way that it leaves the censors wearing the brown jockstrap! (Ew.)
 
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SEASON 3 EPISODE 5: “Officer of the Year”
Written by: Karen Hall
Directed by: David Anspaugh
Airdate: October 28, 1982


This is a good standalone episode, the first written by Karen Hall. Hall is the first female writer on Hill Street; and, in fact, she remained the only woman to write on the show up until Season 7, when a writer named Marjorie David freelanced one episode. Hall had previously been on staff on Eight Is Enough, and was actually on staff at M*A*S*H, then in its final season, when she wrote this episode. She joined Hill Street full-time later this season, once M*A*S*H ended. Following her run on Hill Street, she had a good long career, working on staff at Moonlighting, Roseanne, NBC’s Third Watch, Showtime’s Brotherhood, and the Amy Brenneman vehicle Judging Amy, which was show-run by Hall’s sister Barbara. She also published a gothic horror novel, Dark Debts, which Stephen King gave a positive review.

It’s a good strategy as a new writer coming onto an established show to focus your first script on a character who perhaps hasn’t received as much development. Hall gives a major storyline to Ray, who is honored as Hispanic Officer of the Year, and uses his acceptance speech to attack the hypocrisy of the whole proceeding. René Enríquez, whose accent was apparently a barrier to him having a larger role on the show most of the time, does a nice job with the speech, playing it emotionally and believably. There’s a running joke in the episode that no one actually knows Ray’s ethnicity, with people assuming everything from Mexican to Cuban. Ray reveals that he is actually Colombian-American (in reality, Enríquez was Nicaraguan-American). In Hill Street fashion, the show manages to effectively have it both ways, taking Ray’s dignity and hurt seriously, while also getting great humor out of the ignorant racism of Howard Hunter and other characters. The cops at the station gossip about what they heard second-hand about Ray’s speech, with Joe exclaiming that “He was screaming in Spanish, throwing guacamole!” As usual, Furillo is the nurturing den mother, validating Ray’s feelings, and sharing an embarrassing anecdote about himself to convince Ray that his job is safe. The true payoff to the story, though, comes when Officer Perez thanks Ray for giving voice to what all the lower-ranking Hispanic cops wish they could say.

Yet another hilarious Belker subplot involves him undercover as the manager of a sleazy massage parlor (the loftily-named Scandinavian Holistic Massage Institute), as Washington and a very frustrated LaRue listen in from the outside. LaRue seems to think that being inside the operation would be sexy-time, when the reality is the typically surly Belker dealing with jealous husbands and complaints of lice infestations…until J.D.’s absurd sexual fantasies improbably manifest into reality when one of the masseuses tries to set Belker up with her exotic dancer friend (an unimpressed Belker crumples up the number as soon as the girl is gone). The fun silly subplot suddenly turns deadly serious in that hairpin Hill Street way when a robbery situation next door to the massage parlor causes Neal to mistakenly shoot the armed owner of the store. Taurean Blacque plays the aftermath nicely, with very little dialogue and most of the story playing out on Blacque’s face, as he tries to make sense of a senseless situation.

A Renko storyline deals with the concept of uncooperative witnesses, and the cumulative damage that the flakiness of witnesses causes to officer morale. As the episode depicts, being a witness in an ongoing criminal case is a time-intensive endeavor, and one which doesn’t actually provide any benefit to the witness, beyond (maybe, sometimes) a sense of justice or vindication, or of fulfilling civic duty. But most of the time, witnesses are forced to relive an event that they would rather forget, over the course of many months, with no tangible return on investment. It’s understandable why most witnesses lose interest in the proceedings, whether it’s within hours or weeks or months; and it’s equally understandable that many cops become so frustrated and disillusioned about the fact that they put their lives on the line to help someone, and in return that person doesn’t even want to devote a few hours of their life to seeing the case through. The episode does a good job of portraying the dynamic realistically…until it gets to the ending, which is sort of rom-com-ish. The witness decides to come back after all and finish the paperwork, and then she becomes a potential love interest for Renko. These Renko romance subplots have so far not been my favorites, so we’ll see how this one goes. I think I prefer Renko as a source of comic relief, rather than as the lead in more emotionally-driven stories.

Incidentally, the witness—Theresa Hyler—is played by Helen Shaver, who among other prominent roles, played Martin Sheen’s girlfriend in the Mark Frost-scripted The Believers.

Another little story I quite like involves Bates testifying at her first trial, and being torn to shreds on cross by Joyce. It seems like a pretty by-the-numbers drug arrest, so Joyce does what any good defense attorney does in a straightforward case where the main witnesses are police, and does everything in her power to destroy the officers’ credibility. As with the Renko storyline, this is another of those occupational hazards that can really cause a cop to become jaded and demoralized. Although it isn’t addressed in the episode, being found to be an incredible witness can have a serious impact on a cop’s career; but on top of that, it can just be humiliating, especially for a first-timer, as we see here. No one likes to be called a liar in a very public setting. Despite being extremely nervous about her first trial, Bates didn’t prepare accordingly (although I would argue that this is more the fault of the A.D.A., who should have prepped her much more effectively). Bates obviously considers Joyce sort of a friendly acquaintance due to her relationship with Furillo and her frequent presence at the precinct, so she’s completely unprepared for Joyce to go on the attack to that degree once they’re in an adversarial setting. Joyce herself expresses some regret to Furillo after the fact, feeling that she did more than she needed to, and fearing that Lucy will take the wrong lessons away, acknowledging the way these experiences can cause officers to become cynical (Frank: “She’ll be stronger herself the next time.” Joyce: “That’s what I’m afraid of”). It’s always nice to see Lucy get a spotlight; as usual, Betty Thomas plays her with a mix of toughness and sensitivity that makes her extremely believable as a female cop in that era. Thomas spent time in Chicago doing improv, and her Bates portrayal always feels very “Chicago cop” to me.

This storyline also briefly addresses one of the great legal fallacies of the criminal justice system: cops are expected to testify that they didn’t discuss their testimony with other witnesses, which in most cases, includes their partner. OF COURSE it’s human nature that if two human beings spend ten-plus hours a day together every day, they’ll discuss anything and everything, especially an upcoming stressful experience that they both share in common. Yet it’s a lie agreed-upon that, absent any egregious evidence that comes out to the contrary, all the parties involved expect the officers to commit this minor bit of perjury, just to make all our lives easier. Of course, Joe Coffey is too stupid to play by the rules, and screws Lucy over by answering honestly.

Lucy does raise a valid point about Frank’s potential bias in cases that Joyce is involved in—a bias which, even more troublingly, also potentially runs the other way whenever Joyce is assigned a case from the Hill Street precinct (which seems to happen an awful lot). I take it for granted that both Frank and Joyce are the consummate professionals the show wants us to believe they are. But even if they manage to keep their human emotions completely separate from the work (which is of course impossible), the negative optics, and the potential for casual information-sharing and subconscious influencing, are just too great. Realistically, Joyce’s office should be shielding her from any cases in that precinct, which wouldn’t be a huge burden on her practice by any stretch. In the first season and very early Season 2, Joyce made a huge deal about not going public with their relationship due to the potential conflict of interest. However, since they did go public, there haven’t been any consequences of note, and I would really like to see that change in a meaningful way.

Running through the episode is a plot about Frank Jr. going missing. Maybe it’s because I’m not a parent, but the beats this story hits feel fairly rote and predictable. My biggest takeaway is what a great boss Frank is, and his strength in being present for Ray and Neal during times of need, when we know inside he’s dealing with his own incredibly powerful fears about where his son is. When Francis Xavier Furillo Jr. finally does show up, he is played by Jesse John Bochco, the son of Steve Bochco, and Barbara Bosson, who plays Frank Jr.’s onscreen mother Fay. After reprising the role once more in Season 5, Jesse Bochco did not further pursue an acting career; instead, he went on to a successful career as a producer and director, often on his dad’s shows (including NYPD Blue), as well as on Prison Break, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Dallas revival, and one episode of David Milch’s John from Cincinnati.

Other random notes:

The story Frank tells Ray involves him pouring a double scotch onto Commander Swanson, the George Dickerson character from Season 1.

Royce D. Applegate (Reverend Clarence on Twin Peaks) plays Roy, the scorned husband of one of Belker’s masseuses.
 
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We are finally approaching the debut of Mark Frost, who writes the third episode in this next arc. Here are my thoughts on the first two episodes of the arc…

SEASON 3 EPISODE 6: “Stan the Man”

This is the second Milch-scripted episode of the series, and is the last episode for several seasons where Milch receives a solo writing credit. It’s the start of a new arc, but also works as a satisfying hour in its own right.

The episode title refers to Stan “the Man” Musial, one of the great gentlemen of baseball, who has previously been mentioned twice as Furillo’s childhood role model. In this episode, he is referenced when Belker, trying to keep a bank employee calm during a stickup, asks the man to name his favorite baseball player. The title also refers to Robert Davi’s character, Special Narcotics Detective Stan Mizell, whose name is strangely similar to Musial’s, but who could not be more different in terms of temperament. More on him in a bit.

The episode introduces two Milch-created characters who would not only recur throughout the rest of the series, but would have a life beyond Hill Street. In the cold open, we meet a hysterically cheerful nudist; needing a booking name, Leo dubs the guy “Buck Naked,” per his delirious yelling. Buck Naked, played by Lee Weaver (uncredited in this episode), apparently moved to New York at some point: his character is the one cross-over between Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. The second significant new character is sleazy self-serving Sid Thurston, soon to be known as Sid the Snitch, played by Peter Jurasik (Londo Mollari on Babylon 5), who appears for the first time here as a drug connect involved in some heavy trafficking through the airport. After Hill Street ran its course, Sid moved to L.A along with Dennis Franz’s Norman Buntz, on the buddy comedy spinoff Beverly Hills Buntz.

Additionally, Marco Rodriguez makes his first appearance as drug addict Rico, the hilariously out-of-it suspect Belker is booking, who will appear many more times throughout the series. Milch is beginning to build a repertory company of derelicts, reprobates, and outsiders, establishing the M.O. that will come to define his subsequent series.

This episode has one of the strongest cold opens in recent memory, sustaining a really nice jovial atmosphere at roll call and immediately after, with all the actors clearly just having a ton of fun. Lucy takes some good-natured ribbing when Phil announces that her long-standing police academy record as champion of the “Eat ’Til You Barf Contest” has been surpassed. All the guys are excited about the bachelor party of Officer Tommy Geraci tonight. Renko is in an uncharacteristically upbeat mood as he heads off to his now-routine “morning sit-down,” with a newspaper handed to him by Leo. Even the convicts seem good-natured, with Buck Naked’s infectious enthusiasm bringing a smile to everyone’s faces. This uncharacteristically happy and conflict-free morning is jarringly interrupted when Joyce gets taken hostage by a violent prisoner. In a nicely-staged shot, Furillo lurks in the background and then expertly takes out the attacker, heroically rescuing the woman he loves. It’s a great start to the hour.

The first shot of Act 1 shows us the street behind the precinct house, a part of the building’s surroundings that we haven’t seen before. It gives a nice sense of what a bad neighborhood this red brick behemoth stands in the middle of, both on the show and in real life.

The main plotline of the episode revolves around our core four Blues being assigned to eviction duty, overseeing the peaceful exodus of tenants from a building flagged for “urban renewal,” i.e., demolition. In a very moving little storyline, Hill tries to convince an older woman to leave her apartment, and she refuses, very graciously and with great dignity. Ultimately, she seems to choose to give up the ghost rather than relocate: she dies shortly after informing Bobby that “the Lord has his ways.” Bobby is clearly deeply touched by the interaction. Frances E. Williams, a veteran of stage and screen, but perhaps best remembered for her political activism, beautifully plays the woman; Henry G. Sanders, star of the great Killer of Sheep, plays her grandson Jerome Grundy. And as always, Michael Warren’s humanity shines through as Bobby.

A storyline about Henry dealing with a potential jumper on the tenement’s roof is not quite as effective, but it does have a surprising resolution, when an unexpected figure turns up to play hero: Councilman Arnie Detweiler, the drunk driver Hill booked in “Heat Rash.” Detweiler (who notably now has a chauffeur) takes the opportunity to do a little bit of press after saving the day, and acts smug towards Hill; although he does also have the self-deprecating line, “Not bad for a drunk, eh, Furillo?” Given Furillo’s own baggage in that regard, it’s fair to say that Frank’s reaction to the whole situation is complicated, as nicely played by Dan Travanti.

By the way, I neglected to mention it before, but Councilman Detweiler is played by Michael Fairman. Fairman turns up in Mulholland Drive as Adam’s assistant Jason. He’s the guy Adam tells, “This is the girl.”

While on eviction duty, Ed Marinaro as Joe Coffey performs a nice, hazardous-looking stunt, dodging a TV set that some asshole hurls at him.

The other major storyline of the episode is LaRue and Washington’s meeting with Sid, which goes a little topsy-turvy when Davi’s volatile Detective Mizell shows up. It turns out that Special Narcotics is also working Sid, and a territorial Mizell comes dangerously close to blowing everyone’s cover. Mizell has spent eighteen months in deep cover and has evidently gone off the deep end; his boss Jerry Fuchs, attempting to defend Mizell, notes that “You live with crazies, Frank! You get a little crazy!” Even Fuchs, though, admits that Mizell has always been a “bad egg,” dating back to a time when he worked for Furillo on the Hill. Several of the characters strongly suspect that Mizell is a drug addict as well (as confirmed in his autopsy in the next episode), which I guess isn’t quite as huge a liability as it normally would be, if you’re working undercover among dealers and users. Davi is great in the role, at first just seeming like an aggressive jerk, but revealing more and more layers of just how psychotic this guy is, culminating in the climactic sequence at the bachelor party. After manically trashing LaRue’s (brother-in-law’s) car, Mizell pulls a gun on J.D. in front of about twenty other cops…and then turns the gun on himself, cycling through a gamut of emotions in a span of seconds. It’s one of the tensest, scariest scenes on the show so far, as this guy just feels so unhinged and unpredictable.

According to Fuchs, Hill Street only stumbled onto Sid because he has the same bookmaker as J.D. There are a couple of references in the episode to LaRue potentially having a gambling problem. This is certainly apropos for a Milch episode.

We get a sense of J.D.’s complex reality, balancing being both a person in addiction recovery and an undercover cop, as he sips some wine when meeting with Sid. I guess it’s tough to maintain firm boundaries when you spend half your time pretending to be someone else.

We get a return appearance from J.D.’s brother-in-law Rob, last seen in Season 1; he rents LaRue a car. LaRue’s latest get-rich-quick scam is the result of a fender-bender he had with a local textile executive. J.D. had the presence of mind to feign loss of consciousness at the scene, and now has Jeffrey Tambor’s delightfully sleazy Alan Wachtel representing him.

The storyline about Belker’s dad going senile (and thinking he’s a dog) continues from Milch’s last episode, “Trial by Fury.” We get another glimpse of Mick’s sensitive side when he begins to break down in Furillo’s office, and bolts when Frank gets up to comfort him. We learn that Belker has never had any kind of credit line, and has always paid cash for everything, making it impossible for him to get a loan to pay for his father’s medical care…until he fortuitously helps foil a robbery at the bank. It’s a cliché twist, but I like Belker’s bitter reaction when the bank employee is now willing to cosign for him: “Why? ’Cause I pulled a gun and killed somebody to save your lousy bank a couple grand?”

The storyline of Hunter’s relationship with his nurse continues on from “Rain of Terror,” with Howard running into her at the hospital after he’s been too afraid to call her (she has a great line when she angrily demands that he not put his pants on until they finish their discussion). He admits that he is much better at being assertive in the line of duty, so Nurse Wulfawitz tells him to give her an order. Again, it’s very corny stuff, but also charming. The scene has a great punchline, when she says out of the blue, “I want you to meet my parents,” and Howard’s eyes go wide.

Fay is particularly oblivious and self-absorbed in this episode, even for her: she detains Frank in his office after he tells her he’s on his way to deal with a jumper situation, and insists on sharing some news that is most definitely not time-sensitive. It turns out that her interview with actor John Gennaro (presumably his final interview before getting himself killed) has been picked up for national publication, netting her a windfall.

Continuity note: Fay says that she and Frank divorced four years ago, but in the Season 2 finale, she tells Henry they divorced two years and three months ago.

Renko is apparently seeing both Cindy, the prostitute from “Rain of Terror,” and Helen Shaver’s Theresa from “Officer of the Year.”

Bobby has a boil on his butt, a condition which Steve Bochco had suffered and decided to inflict on one of his characters.

Bobby, who always has some excuse not to hang out with Renko after-hours, not only attends Geraci’s bachelor party, but really cuts loose, puffing on a cigar and enthusiastically shooting craps. It’s nice to see our man Hill having some real fun.

After a very sweet Furillo-Davenport scene in the hospital, the episode ends on a cliffhanger, with Mizell turning up shot dead and LaRue as an obvious suspect. As cliffhangers go, it’s pretty lame. I doubt that anyone watching, then or now, actually suspects LaRue is guilty, and he is immediately cleared in the next episode before the opening credits even roll.

SEASON 3 EPISODE 7: “Little Boil Blue”

The second episode in the arc is written by freelancer Robert Earll.

The main plot revolves around Furillo dealing with the aftermath of the Mizell murder. It turns out that no one besides Frank is particularly interested in giving Mizell posthumous justice. The DEA has been courting the killer for months as a witness in several major investigations, and wants his state murder charges dismissed in exchange for his federal cooperation. Chief Daniels is only too happy to bury the whole thing, as he’s running for Mayor, and having Mizell’s dirty laundry aired publicly would be one scandal too many for him after the Lou Hogan fiasco. Captain Jerry Fuchs of Special Narcotics is equally happy to let the whole thing go: there are some skeletons in Mizell’s file that Fuchs would rather keep closeted. For most of the episode, Frank doesn’t have a clue what’s actually going on, until Councilman Detweiler once again appears, like an extremely corrupt Virgil, to guide Frank to the truth. Of course, he does this solely because he’s also running for Mayor and wants to see Daniels soiled. Stuck in the middle of all this bullshit, Furillo as usual remains true to his ideals and to his friend. Disobeying Daniels’s orders to keep Fuchs in the dark about the investigation, Frank gives Jer the lay of the land: the criminal case may be going away, but that doesn’t eliminate the internal investigation. Frank tells Fuchs that Daniels has it out for him, and his only hope is to release all the Mizell files and let the chips fall where they may. Any coverups will eventually come to light and leave Fuchs beholden to Daniels forever. I really like Vincent Lucchesi as Fuchs; he feels like a believable police captain to me, and there’s something oddly charming about his constant hangdog attitude. It seems like he stopped acting in the early 1990s; I wonder what became of him.

The other big storyline in the episode centers on yet another hostage situation. This one distinguishes itself by centering on a Vietnam vet named Vernon. It’s interesting to be reminded how recent the war still was at this point, and to see how the culture was dealing with the aftermath. Larry Riley is very good as Vernon, who is looking to commit suicide by cop. The storyline is also a good spotlight for Ed Marinaro as Coffey, who in his typically easygoing manner, manages to piss off Vernon by revealing how quickly he (supposedly) got over his own service-related trauma. Marinaro has some strong moments in the final scenes, wherein Vernon holds his wife at gunpoint and forces Joe to make the choice whether or not to shoot him. In an interesting storytelling decision, it’s left ambiguous whether the sole gunshot we hear is Vernon shooting his wife, or Joe shooting Vernon. It doesn’t really matter, though; whichever version of events happens, it obviously takes a massive toll on Coffey, and in the final scene, he opens up to Lucy with a depth we haven’t seen from him before.

Another little storyline revolves around Renko pressuring a medical intern to omit details in his report, to make it look like a (potential) murder victim died solely due to the assault, and not any intervening issues during surgery. Furillo catches wind of it and is perhaps more vicious than we’ve ever seen him with one of his subordinates, calling Andy a lazy cop and a lying cop. Frank is completely correct here; but Andy is clearly not thrilled with the reaming, and I’m curious to see where this takes his character.

We get some more background about Mizell’s time on the Hill: he was there in 1978. Phil took a swing at him, and he was partnered for five months with Perez, who implies that Mizell was on the take. Lucy also mentions being groped by Mizell in a ladies’ room when she was assigned to South Ferry.

There’s an obvious but funny joke—which I’m surprised got on the air in 1982—where Howard drinks Goldblume’s piss, thinking it’s apple juice.

For the first time this season, Esterhaus actually appears in the main body of the episode, outside of roll call…albeit only in one brief shot, where he assigns Bates and Coffey a run.

Returning from Season 2, in different roles, are CCH Pounder (as Vernon’s wife Wilna), and Martin Ferrero as (Mr. Sybert, a hospital patient Hill mistakes for a doctor, in a funny scene).

Next up: Mark Frost’s first episode, “Requiem for a Hairbag”!
 
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SEASON 3 EPISODE 8: “Requiem for a Hairbag”
Written by: Mark Frost
Directed by: Bob Kelljan
Airdate: November 18, 1982


Steve Bochco prided himself on hiring writers who had substantial experience outside of show business (lawyers, literature professors, journalists, etc.), but Mark Frost was an exception to Bochco’s professed hiring preference. In fact, he had been around showbiz since he was born. In addition to his acting and teaching work, Mark’s dad held a variety of behind-the-scenes positions on various TV shows when Mark was growing up, and Mark has described his parents as “theater gypsies.” He spent time on TV sets as a kid, and even appeared on Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things” segment. The way he describes it in the Conversations book, it doesn’t seem that Frost ever seriously considered any career other than show business. Frost’s Hollywood writing career got its start thanks to Charlie Haid (a.k.a. Andy Renko). While Frost was attending Carnegie Tech as a theater major, Haid, an alum of the school, returned to direct a play. Frost and Haid quickly became lifelong friends, and Haid suggested that Frost come out to L.A. and meet Steve Bochco. (Bochco and Haid had become friends when they were both attending Carnegie in the 1960s.) Frost took Haid up on the offer, and with Bochco’s guidance, he was soon freelancing scripts for Universal shows like The Six Million Dollar Man. He didn’t work for Bochco at that time—Bochco didn’t yet have his own show—but Bochco showed Frost the ropes and acted as a bit of a mentor figure. After a couple of years, Frost got tired of the assembly-line TV writing process and decided to follow his girlfriend back to Minneapolis, where he honed his craft at the prestigious Guthrie Theater, worked on some documentaries for the local PBS station, and directed a feature-length film about a boxer he knew. After four years in Minneapolis, Frost, sick of the harsh midwestern winters, decided to return to L.A. and take Bochco up on his standing offer to hire him on Hill Street.

Before leaving Minnesota, Frost took advantage of a fortuitous coincidence. Anthony Bouza, the Minneapolis police chief, had previously been an assistant chief of police in the Bronx, where he was interviewed for the documentary The Police Tapes—the film that had partly inspired the creation of Hill Street Blues. Frost met with Bouza to help him get into the mindset of writing for the show. (Here’s an article on Bouza, who was a pretty fascinating guy, and just passed away last year: Anthony Bouza, Police Commander Who Ruffled Feathers, Dies at 94)

Despite the way Frost tells the story about having the job in pocket when he moved back to L.A., it doesn’t appear that he was actually on staff in Season 3. He only writes three episodes this season, and doesn’t have any running staff credit. (I know that some shows had a “Staff Writer” position that didn’t receive an onscreen credit, so it’s possible that Frost had this position; but my impression is that he was a freelancer this season.)

Further supporting the notion that he was not on staff this season, during the same time he was writing these episodes, Frost also wrote two episodes for a show called Gavilan, which as far as I can gather, is a Magnum, P.I. knockoff created by Tom Mankiewicz (best known for his writing on 1970s Bond movies and Superman: The Movie, as well as developing Hart to Hart). The show stars Robert Urich (S.W.A.T.) as a former CIA operative who now works for…an oceanographic institute (?). The one episode synopsis I could find (not for a Frost-scripted episode) involves the requisite sexy dame of the week—in this case, a marine biologist studying krill—needing Gavilan’s help after she steals an ancient samurai sword from the Yakuza (?!). I sort of really want to watch this show now.

Unlike many of the other Hill Street writers’ series debuts, Frost’s inaugural script on the show isn’t a standalone episode, but rather is continuing (and resolving) many ongoing storylines that have been percolating for the prior two hours. It’s therefore impossible to know how much of the storyline Frost is responsible for, and how much was handed to him by Bochco and Yerkovich.

The director of this episode, Bob Kelljan, is sort of an interesting cat. Before moving over into episodic TV, it seems that he mostly worked in the grindhouse/exploitation genre, including a movie called Flesh of My Flesh, about siblings having sex, as well as the Blacula sequel Scream Blacula Scream. This episode was his final directing job; he died of cancer a week after it aired.

On a somber starting note, the episode opens with a dedication to Dominique Dunne. Dunne had died two weeks to the day before this episode aired, after spending five days on life support following a brutal beating at the hands of her abusive ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney. The bruises on Dunne’s face in this episode were not applied by the makeup department; they were very real, from an assault by Sweeney on September 26, the day before she filmed these scenes.

Timeline note: Although there was a blistering heat wave just four episodes earlier, it’s now the holiday season, with Thanksgiving approaching.

The main storyline is the conclusion to the Mizell homicide case. One of the most effective sequences in the episode is Chief Daniels’s bullshit eulogy, which is humorously intercut with LaRue going through Mizell’s safe deposit box and exposing the depths of his depravity, emphasizing the hypocrisy of the funeral. The show doesn’t typically use this device; the only other time I can remember this type of ironic intercutting is in the Season 2 premiere, when Danny Glover is speaking to Furillo while Belker speaks to his informant. It works very nicely, and Frost gives J.D. some good smartass lines.

It bears noting that the safe deposit box scene has obvious resonance with the Twin Peaks Pilot.

We briefly meet Mizell’s widow and two kids (Bochco’s daughter Melissa plays Mizell’s daughter, also named Melissa). The wife seems…very ordinary and down-to-earth. She somehow seemingly has no clue what a nut job her husband truly was; one final compelling piece in the Stan Mizell puzzle. Furillo, always the master of tact, manages to summon up the closest thing to a compliment he can muster: “He was an impressive man.” Definitely true, albeit maybe not in the precise way Mrs. Mizell is meant to take it.

Chief Daniels is in an uncharacteristically receptive mood, soliciting and following Frank’s advice. We’ve seen in the past that Daniels recognizes Frank’s value, but he’s also usually yelling at Frank for his latest idealistic crusade. Here, on Furillo’s counsel, Fuchs receives leniency despite his poor judgment with Mizell, and Daniels kills the deal with the DEA and elects to pursue charges against Mizell’s murderer, despite the fact that it means Mizell’s conduct will go public. As Frank tells Daniels, a department that’s substantially clean should be able to stand the airing of some dirty linen. Additionally, Daniels is once again trying to push Frank into applying for a Commander job, and brings up Furillo’s past alcohol struggles in a complimentary but very icky way. Furillo seems as surprised as anyone that Daniels asks for his advice, and it seems to disturb him. At least when Daniels is yelling at him, he knows where he stands. Having Daniels treat him as an ally and a confidante makes Frank feel dirty. As he says in the last scene, “You hate to be on the same side with him, even for different reasons.” Frank, who from the start of the series has tried to just do his job and stay out of the political side of the department, now finally has to admit that he’s a politician too.

Meanwhile, Councilman Arnie Detweiler has it out for Furillo, although truthfully, this part of the story is a little obscure to me. I’m not exactly sure what Detweiler was asking Frank to do…bring him some evidence of the coverup, I guess? I’m not sure why, at the funeral, Detweiler is convinced that Frank has betrayed him when Frank hasn’t really taken any action one way or the other at that point. I guess the idea of the later scene, when Detweiler is angrily phoning Furillo, is that Furillo stabs Detweiler in the back (as he himself puts it) by convincing Daniels to actually do the right thing and go public with everything, which Daniels of course does solely because he sees the political cachet in being transparent in this instance. But I’m still not sure why Detweiler is so pissed at the funeral. In any event, it ultimately doesn’t matter, as Arnie’s drunk driving habit tragically kills someone and ends his career.

Dominique Dunne’s character, Cindy, in her small amount of screentime, is a compelling portrait of a young girl who wants to get rid of her baby because she’s terrified of perpetuating the cycle of abuse she’s dealt with from her own mother. It’s a powerful heartbreaking performance, and given the real-world context that Dunne had just been the victim of domestic violence the night before shooting these scenes, it’s honestly difficult to watch. I had a visceral reaction to the moment when Lucy tries to help Cindy up, and Cindy reflexively flails wildly, as if she associates any physical contact with violence.

On the lighter side of that storyline, we get some sweet scenes of everyone fawning over the adorable baby. And Belker gets to do his delightfully creepy “baby talk” voice again, last heard in Season 1.

Bobby Hill’s butt boil storyline comes to a painful end (pun intended) when J.D. plays a magnificent practical joke on him, setting him up to be present in all his unclothed splendor during the bust on the doctor’s office. Poor Hill, who is just about the nicest guy on the show, doesn’t deserve this humiliation, but it’s still very funny to watch. I enjoyed seeing Renko being a good partner and friend, and doing everything he can to try to ease Bobby’s embarrassment instead of partaking in the laughs. I do feel that Officer Nichols, the cute new transfer from Midtown (whom Bobby is seen checking out early in the episode), is kind of a colossal dick in photographing Hill au naturale, and then later giving him shit for not appreciating the joke. Maybe you can get away with that when you’ve known someone for awhile and established a rapport, but given that she’s just met Hill, she comes out looking like the asshole. That reconciliation between the two of them is honestly not the strongest scene, in either the writing or the acting.

That raid on the doctor’s office leads to the arrest of Alan Wachtel, who is revealed as the mastermind behind the insurance scam from last episode. This also puts a pin in LaRue’s own insurance fraud, as he hastily cuts ties with Wachtel and accepts the lowball settlement offer (which hilariously goes down even lower as he’s on the phone with them, reeking of desperation).

While Belker is routinely rude to pretty much everyone, he manifests a racist side here that we haven’t seen from him before, calling the Indian doctor “curry breath” and demanding that he “talk American.”

After having his appearances relegated solely to roll call in the first third of the season, Phil Esterhaus is back with a vengeance, appearing throughout the episode. He even has a humorous callback to his Buick being “dismembered” in “Some Like It Hot-Wired.”

In contrast, Ray is curiously absent from this episode, with Phil handling all the types of business that Ray would usually be doing.

Since I’ve previously speculated on the similarity between the Fay scenes and the Doris Truman scenes on The Return, it’s worth noting that this is Frost’s first time writing Fay, although she is more in a “weepy” mode as opposed to the “badgering” mode that would be more apropos to the Doris analogy. Evidently, a burglar has stolen everything from her home, including (impliedly) sex films of Frank and Fay. In a sweet scene at the end of the episode, Frank and Joyce watch one of the film reels that was recovered from the burglary, containing footage of Frank’s high school or college graduation, which appears to be actual footage of a young Dan Travanti.

A couple of other ongoing storylines get brief check-ins. Howard proposes to Nurse Wulfawitz, in yet another campy but fun scene. Frost has mentioned Hunter as one of the characters he most enjoyed writing, which makes sense given Howard’s lofty word choices and pompous verbosity…what writer wouldn’t love a character like that? Frost has a lot of fun letting Howard stretch a military metaphor to the point that Wulfawitz misinterprets his proposal as him saying that he wants to re-enlist. The scene ends on a reference to Sammy Davis Jr.: Wulfawitz needs Howard to convert to Judaism in order for them to get married, and Hunter mentions “that colored singer.” Davis was apparently a big fan of the show (as Bochco put it in a 1983 Playboy interview, “Sammy would give his right eye to be on the show,” although sadly that never happened). When Bochco told Davis about the reference they’d put in, he was terrified for a moment that Sammy would be offended, but he loved it.

The conversion storyline also leads to a great exchange. HOWARD: “What is it like being a Hebrew?” HENRY: “Well…I don’t know, Howard. What’s it like being a human being?” HOWARD: (ponderously) “Well, it’s not a cakewalk, Henry.”

Prostitute Eddie Gregg makes his second appearance, in a brief scene focusing on Mick’s continued interest in trying to turn this gigolo’s life around. Frost gives Eddie some fun dialogue (“This handsome middle-aged man asked me for a match. I said, ‘How about you and me?’ What can I say, I’m a hopeless romantic”).

The storyline about Belker’s senile father also gets a minor continuation: Dad keeps slugging his nurses, so he needs to go into a nursing home. It doesn’t quite feel right continuity-wise, given how little time has passed in the other storylines since “Stan the Man,” that the dad has already gone through multiple nurses, the mom has already set up a meeting with a nursing home, etc.

In another in the long line of animal scenes on Hill Street, Renko is traumatized when he picks up his raffle turkey from the butcher’s and finds the thing still alive. It’s funny little moments like this when I like Renko best.

Detective Walsh from Midtown makes his final appearance on the show. He’s the long-suffering guy we’ve previously seen arresting Fay on multiple occasions; here, he’s assigned to the burglary at Frank’s request.

This is also the final appearance of Gerry Black as Lieutenant Alf Chesley. Chesley has been a reliable presence on the show going back to the pilot, although he was rarely given a ton to do; I have no idea why he stopped appearing after this. Black did later turn up in a couple of NYPD Blue episodes.

Mrs. Morgenstern from the city Youth Authority shows up to take custody of the baby. She was last seen in Season 2’s “Personal Foul” in the storyline about the housing cop shooting his wife.

Furillo has updated the TV in his office from a black and white set to a color one. While playing Daniels’s press conference, the TV is set to Channel 3, a telltale error that really takes me back. (For those too young to know, Channel 3 was rarely used for broadcast frequencies, so that one channel could be kept free for input from VCRs and other devices without interference. Hence, however they were transmitting the Daniels playback to the TV on set required the TV to be tuned to Channel 3, revealing that it’s not actually a real broadcast.)
 
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SEASON 3 CONTINUED

EPISODES 9-11 (“Hair of the Dog,” “Phantom of the Hill,” “No Body’s Perfect”)


On this arc, the senior triumvirate of Bochco, Yerkovich, and Lewis devise the story, and also write the teleplay for “Hair of the Dog.” On both of the other two episodes, teleplay duties are shared by Michael Wagner and Milch. It’s a potentially interesting pairing, based on the way I’ve heard Wagner described: Wagner as the innocent, affable guy who tended be attracted to more fanciful ideas; Milch as the cynical realist. In practice, though, these episodes feel like business as usual on the Hill. Unlike Milch’s first two episodes, which are credited solely to him and feel distinctively like the arrival of a major new voice, it’s much tougher to discern Milch’s presence in these episodes. Which is not to say that they aren’t enjoyable.

As I’ve mentioned, the first seven episodes of the season have the conceit that Esterhaus is relegated to the roll call because he is teaching a police academy class the rest of the day. That pays off in this arc, with some of those academy cadets joining the Hill Street Precinct. Most noteworthy (although she doesn’t get much to do in this arc) is Lisa Sutton as Officer Robin Tataglia, who sticks around and becomes a significant character on the series.

The two major storylines are the arrest of a murder suspect named Bubba Edwards (played by Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead), and the desperate search for the governor’s wife’s kidnapped Lhasa Apso dog. The dog storyline is played for laughs, but also demonstrates the way government resources are misspent, with tens of thousands of dollars devoted to the investigation, money and manpower which is inevitably taken away from serious felony cases. It acts as a nice counterpoint to the murder storyline, which focuses primarily on the dangerously underfunded coroner’s office and the repercussions their lack of resources has on the case.

That storyline introduces chief coroner Wally Nydorf, who has known Furillo since Frank was an alcoholic 24-year-old homicide detective. Wally’s character is a depiction of the symbiotic way that dysfunctional government agencies give birth to dysfunctional employees, and the cycle repeats endlessly. Wally lacks the resources needed to his job, so he has become completely burned out and lackadaisical, and therefore has become another part of the problem…a very large part, since he is the head of the department. It’s a sad portrait of the decline of a once-passionate civil servant, and Frank is alternately pitying and completely disgusted with the guy. The central screw-up eventually boils down to a tragic clerical error: due to incorrect toe tags, the victim has been incinerated as a John Doe.

Ultimately, the D.A.’s office decides to have a “hanging party” of Nydorf: fed up with the coroner blowing one too many cases, they put the overconfident Wally on the stand (despite Frank’s attempts to warn him off), and let him destroy his credibility for all time. Given that we have seen grand juries used in episodes such as “Trial by Fury,” it appears that the show takes place in a state where the prosecution has the choice of whether to submit felonies to a grand jury, or to opt for a preliminary hearing instead (in this case, opting for the more publicly humiliating option for Wally). Muddling the matter further, Nydorf promises that he’ll get them an indictment; indictments are only the result of a grand jury proceeding.

The main driving force of the dog storyline is the exasperation of Furillo and his subordinates at how much time and money is being spent on giving preferential treatment to this one missing canine. There is also a charming sequence at the end of “A Hair of the Dog” where the local news stations make every possible dog pun, with an exasperated Frank and Joyce lying in bed watching, eventually giggling through their own puns, giving in to the hysteria. The actual resolution to the story is not very satisfying, hinging as it does on Jesus Martinez, the leader of the Los Diablos gang. Trinidad Silva, who has played Jesus since the pilot episode, died tragically young shortly after Hill Street ended, in an accident with a drunk driver; by all accounts, he was a beloved figure on the set and a great guy. His cocky portrayal of Jesus is not my favorite, mostly because it is attached to the gang element of the show, which as I’ve said is consistently the weakest aspect whenever the show goes to that well. There’s just something so reductive and toothless about the way the show consistently deals with gang activity that is particularly bizarre given how nuanced most other aspects of the show are for the time. I don’t know if it’s maybe a case of the writers having a bit of a naïve Henry Goldblume-esque liberal sensibility in this regard. Anyway, here, Jesus’s goal in kidnapping the dog is to extort the governor into providing funding for youth programs for the city! (Much to the delight of a smirking Furillo.) I guess in a way, the writers were trying to be groundbreaking for the time by giving Jesus noble ends and not making him a straight villain; but “inner-city gang leader with a heart of gold” just strikes me as a characterization that is both problematic from a social standpoint, and overly simplistic and boring in a narrative sense. So it’s a lose-lose.

That being said, the final cap on the dog storyline is absolutely hilarious, revealing that the entire thing has been a shaggy-dog narrative (both literally and figuratively): as Hunter plays fetch with the newly-retrieved dog, he promptly causes it to run away (and possibly get hit by a car). I’m a dog lover, but I also love good comedy and specifically Jim Sikking’s performance as Howard, which got a huge laugh from me here. You see the gag coming a mile away, which just makes it even funnier.

In a conclusion to the ongoing storyline of Eddie Gregg (for now), Eddie rats on his boyfriend, who has brutally murdered two Peruvian drug dealers at the airport. Eddie lives with Mick for a couple of days in a sort of makeshift witness protection-cum-Odd Couple scenario (“Your mother called. She’s a doll”). As usual, the Belker storyline ends up being my favorite in this arc. Mick has a nice scene where he goes off on J.D. for his homophobic jokes, saying that Eddie is different and scared and just trying to get through the day, and you get the sense that Belker is also talking about some part of himself. The care and faith Mick places in the kid turns out to be misplaced, when Eddie has second thoughts and tips the boyfriend off just before the warrant is executed, putting Mick and all his fellow officers at serious risk. In the aftermath, Belker, who has every reason to be absolutely furious, is just sad. The final scene between them feels very much like Milch’s writing to me, especially given his personal connection to Eddie’s character. Bruce Weitz has a terrific silent moment at the end of the scene, after Eddie kisses Belker on the cheek. Left alone, Mick’s facial expression and his little gesture with his shoulders say so much about the character and his inherent loneliness.

One of my favorite storylines in this run is the “Phantom of the Hill,” which gives the second episode its title. Supposedly a sewer-dweller who murdered his wife and her cop-boyfriend, it’s actually an elaborate long-running hazing prank. The seasoned cops tell the new recruits horror stories, and then pose as the Phantom to terrify them (in a nice callback, J.D. mentions how the prank was played on him by Art Delgado, the burnout case we met in Season 2). This leads to a couple of nice little horror-style sequences directed by David Anspaugh, which almost result in tragedy when Officer Nate Crawford fires on LaRue, disguised as the Phantom (resulting in yet another of those slow-mo sequences the show likes to do whenever someone gets shot at). Thankfully, Crawford is a poor shot. Out of the new recruits, Crawford gets the most focus across these three episodes, in a nice little storyline about what it’s like to become a cop and immediately realize that maybe you’re not cut out for it.

In the ongoing exploits of Fay Furillo, which as I’ve said are basically their own sub-show, Fay verbally attacks a traffic court judge, gets herself thrown into contempt (where a fellow detainee tries to recruit Fay as her prison wife), and finally in a remarkable reversal of fate ends up dating the traffic court judge. Oh, Fay.

As I predicted, the storyline of Renko dating Theresa doesn’t lead anywhere satisfying. She’s put off by his blue-collar ways, attempts to have an affair with Joe Coffey (which he quickly aborts), and then she breaks up with Andy, who stalks her, then goes off on her at her place of work in his typically entitled man-child way. I did note one line in the final scene of this storyline that feels to me like a Milch line (in fact, it sounds like Milch berating himself during this era): “You’re not gonna be happy until you bulldoze yourself into nothing.”

Bobby hooks up with Officer Marty Nichols, the lateral transfer whom we first met in Frost’s episode “Requiem for a Hairbag.” We see a few more flirtatious glances between them afterwards, but no other clues about whether the relationship is ongoing.

The ongoing Phil Esterhaus/Grace Gardner saga gets its first check-in in awhile, with Grace refusing Phil’s proposal of marriage. The most memorable part of this storyline is the ring being stolen when Belker is trying to pick it up, and Phil becoming absolutely enraged when dealing with the arrested accomplice, crushing a wooden chair seatback with his bare hands. I suspect that this bit (especially the line Phil has: “I may be forced to do something that I haven’t done in many years”) was inspired by something Steve Bochco claimed he heard: that actor Michael Conrad once killed a man with his bare hands (although Bochco admitted that he was unable to verify this). The storyline also results in a very nice scene where a teary-eyed Phil comes to Frank in the aftermath of the rejection. It’s a really well-acted, understated little scene where you get a sense of the enormous love and respect between these two seasoned vets who rely on each other tremendously (albeit usually in a professional context).

Other scattered thoughts:

In “A Hair of the Dog,” Belker’s recurring pickpocket perp introduces himself as “Curtis Interruptus,” a pun name apropos to the fact that he was stopped before completing the theft of many pornography videotapes.

In what is becoming another little running joke, Chief Daniels repeatedly calls Goldblume “Goldstein.”

In one funny scene, Daniels goes on an angry tirade unwittingly revealing that he doesn’t know what the state bird is. Pacifist Henry thinks it’s the swallow, and militaristic Howard chimes in proposing the peregrine falcon.

During an undercover storyline in “A Hair of the Dog,” Belker turns out to be extraordinarily competent as a pawnbroker. He was also pretty great as a massage parlor manager in a prior arc; in other storylines, he has displayed less talent as a hot dog vendor and a bartender. I’m now intrigued to track what jobs Belker ends up being a good fit for.

In a very silly little subplot in “A Hair of the Dog,” Lucy gets set up on a blind date with a guy who plays for the Washington Generals, the team whose job is to perpetually lose to the Harlem Globetrotters. Bates’s dating world continues to be a sad, sad place.

The last time we saw LaRue meet with Sid the drug dealer contact, J.D. had some wine; this time around, J.D. has now altered his undercover persona to match his real one, saying that he’s on the wagon (“only dope”). (This scene, directed by David Anspaugh, also is one of the laziest setups I’ve seen on the show: It’s just four people crammed awkwardly into the 4:3 frame around a table, in one continuous shot for two minutes and seventeen seconds, with the only camera move being a push-in right at the end.)

“No Body’s Perfect” has a nice running thread about the precinct’s ancient boiler, lovingly referred to as Big Bertha, kicking into overdrive and causing a heat wave inside the precinct while the outside temperature is well below freezing. It’s one of those great relatable workplace situations, which I’ve been through. It also provides a nice button to the episode, with Bertha finally shutting down in the final seconds of the final scene, startling a pensive Furillo.

In “No Body’s Perfect,” Bobby says he was shot two years ago. Indicating that just about the same amount of time has passed in-show as passed between the airdates of the pilot and this episode.

EPISODE 12: “Santaclaustrophobia”

The show’s first Christmas episode is very fun, and nicely balances expected holiday tropes and Hill Street mayhem. After some initial lighthearted repartee (Hill and LaRue yak through roll call betting on who can name all the reindeer; Renko earnestly expresses his love for the Chipmunks Christmas album), the cold open builds to a darkly hilarious punchline, with Hunter blowing the top off the precinct Christmas tree with a gun he mistook for a donation to the toy drive. From there, the episode nicely contrasts the holiday festivities with a particularly brutal and senseless outbreak of mass murders and assaults throughout the Christmas Eve day.

The highlight of the episode is the final act, where almost the entire cast gets to perform a Christmas play at a children’s hospital, to the delight of all. It’s a really fun sequence, and a rare moment of pure joy and camaraderie on the show…which is fleeting, when the paddy wagon carrying all of our “carpooling” characters home from the hospital comes upon the perpetrators of the killing spree and they give chase (with all our guys being violently bounced around in the back of the van). The show gets some good mileage out of the characters doing very serious things while wearing their goofy North Pole outfits.

I love the word-salad title “Santaclaustrophobia,” although I’m not sure what it literally means. I think maybe the claustrophobia is a metaphor for the way many of these characters feel trapped and alone in their emotional realities. The two main character storylines in the episode center on Bobby and Neal. Both are good stories, but probably felt much fresher when they first aired. In the decades since, we’ve seen more effective versions of these stories on many shows. I sort of wish the murder spree had received more focus instead.

In Bobby’s arc, he gets an unexpected visit from his deadbeat dad Reggie Hill (a.k.a. Reggie Hilbert, a.k.a. Hilbert Reginald, a.k.a. Regis Reginald, a.k.a. Regis Hillstone), a roving gambler played nicely by James McEachin, who was usually best known for playing more straight-arrow cop roles, particularly in many Perry Mason movies. It’s a good well-acted storyline, and I’m happy to learn more about Bobby’s background (we also learn that he has three siblings—he has previously mentioned a sister), but the emotional beats are predictable.

Meanwhile, Neal is still coping with (or failing to cope with) shooting an innocent man seven episodes ago, in “Officer of the Year” (in-universe, he says it has been three months). He knows that he did everything right procedure-wise; he knows that he can never undo the pain he caused to the man’s wife; and he doesn’t know what to do with any of that emotionally. I’m always glad to see Taurean Blacque get more to do than play J.D.’s second banana, and I’m also happy to see the emotional reality of the killing’s aftermath kept alive for his character.

As I often find to be the case with Hill Street, it’s the little moments that really hold up for me and elevate the show. In one hilarious scene, Howard has another blowout with the waitress at the local greasy spoon over her lousy cooking, but this time she breaks down in tears; it turns out her husband just left and she’s having a rough time. Howard’s back-pedaling is great, as is Goldblume’s second-hand embarrassed reaction in the background.

We also get a nice holiday-themed return appearance by flasher Buck Naked, who is informed that his attempts to be drunk and disorderly aren’t enough to get him arrested (he wants a Christmas turkey dinner at the Michigan Avenue jail complex). So, he resorts to flashing Fay. Bates has a terrific line when Fay asks why they can’t arrest the man; glancing downward, Lucy replies, “Insufficient evidence, Mrs. Furillo.”

The episode also reveals an apparent long-standing precinct tradition: troubled kids who are brought into the precinct are threatened with a beating in the “belt room,” as demanded by their furious parents or other caretakers. It turns out the belt room is the lineup area, where Furillo gives a young boy a quiet heart-to-heart about how it’s difficult sometimes for separated parents to explain their feelings to their kids. The talk is obviously a surrogate for Frank’s holiday guilt around his own son. Dan Travanti does a really nice job with the scene, but the writing feels a bit too on-the-nose.

After Belker’s spirited performance as Santa at the children’s hospital, the others enthusiastically try to include him in an after-work get-together, but he lies about having big plans (probably not fooling anyone, but they don’t push it). In the penultimate scene of the episode, we see his apartment for the first time, and learn that his plans consist of watching Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol alone. It’s a very sweet quiet scene. I love everything about it. The way Mick climbs up on his couch and gazes out the window at the snowfall, like a child. The way the scene ends with him shocked to find his phone ringing (presumably this is after his mother’s bedtime), and being relieved to discover it’s a wrong number. This is a guy who seems to have no social life outside his parents (although he has received a few holiday cards, one of which makes him smile). He is Jewish of course, so Christmas Eve is likely not a day of particular note for him. But we’ve seen Belker repeatedly form emotional bonds with unlikely people, often good-hearted outlaws who end up disappointing him, like Captain Freedom and Eddie Gregg. It seems like on some level the guy really craves connection, and it’s sad to see him passing up an opportunity to possibly grow closer to the people he spends the most time with.

This is followed by another sweet scene, albeit this one is all about characters connecting. Joe brings Lucy a Christmas tree at the hospital after she suffers a concussion in the climactic arrest melee, and he gallantly offers to spend the night on her chair so she’s not alone. Instead, Lucy invites him into bed as “Silent Night” plays and the episode fades to credits.

Other notes:

In the cold open, Phil references the Blue Line, Chicago’s famous transit line, which has been seen in many establishing shots throughout the series.

My favorite piece of set dec ever on the show so far is the creepy photo next to Belker’s door. I can only describe it as a child—maybe him—standing next to…a clown with a monster’s face? (Because OF COURSE that would be Belker’s beloved childhood memory.) But I can’t rule out the possibility that the clown-monster is actually Belker’s mother.
 
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SEASON 3 EPISODE 13: “GUNG HO”

A good standalone episode, written by Messrs. Milch, Lewis, and Wagner, and directed by David Anspaugh. The story is primarily about what we would today call domestic terrorism, but at that time, I guess the common term for the type of group depicted was something along the lines of “far-left Marxist militant organization.” The groups that spring to mind for me as historical reference points are the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, and of course the Symbionese Liberation Army, which this episode seems to be evoking with a Patty Hearst-esque “upper middle-class” white woman who has been radicalized. All three of those groups were defunct by 1983, when this episode aired. Wikipedia informs me that the May 19th Communist Organization (an offshoot of the Weathermen and the BLA) and the United Freedom Front were still active in 1983, but this type of activity was certainly on the decline after the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, making this episode maybe not exactly “of the moment.”

The episode seems to go out of its way to avoid naming real organizations, or even real events of domestic terrorism. (For instance, the mention of “the Fourteenth of October Group” is presumably a fictionalization of the May 19th Organization; the 1970 “Broome Street explosion” seems to be a fictionalization of the March 1970 Greenwich Village occurrence when a bomb that the Weathermen were manufacturing accidentally exploded.) Yet, strangely, when it comes to the main “black separatist” group referenced repeatedly in the episode, the writers chose the name “Uhuru,” a real movement which is affiliated with the African People’s Socialist Party. The real Uhuru doesn’t have any history of violent activity as depicted in the episode (nor does the APSP). Wikipedia claims Uhuru was founded in 1972 (the same year as the APSP), but based on what I can find elsewhere online, Uhuru seems to have been very low-profile at the time this episode aired; possibly not even so much a “movement” per se as a name that the APSP gave to certain ventures, like a housing center and a bakery (both in Oakland). I’m assuming that the writers were unaware of the real Uhuru and the naming was an unfortunate coincidence. “Uhuru” is apparently the Swahili word for “freedom”; I am still curious how precisely the writers came across this word and chose it.

Conceptually, the episode seems to be about the ways that youthful idealism shapes us as we grow older. In particular, monologues by the show’s two most liberal series regulars spell this theme out in very literal but eloquent fashion. Both Goldblume and Davenport recognize themselves in the radicals’ ideology, and there is an element of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Joyce’s monologue focuses on the smugness of youth in assuming that they have a “hotline to the truth.” The implication is that Joyce irrationally hates her client, Christina Beck, because she sees things in the woman that Joyce doesn’t like about her own younger self. There is also possibly an implication that on some level, Joyce misses having that certainty of youth, and so she resents Christina for having what she has lost.

Goldblume’s own ruminations take a more systemic angle: “There was a time when Lenore Kramer and I probably read the same books, marched in the same marches. Now she’s just a robber. I’m just a cop. Is that what happens to every idea, Frank? That what happens to everything?” Eventually, ideas transform into action, and as soon as that happens, things become infinitely more complex. Every ideological movement has internal disputes about how to achieve the desired ends (one could even argue that this is the central conflict behind most Hill Street Blues storylines, especially the ones involving Furillo clashing with his superiors). While Goldblume certainly doesn’t approve of the radicals’ murderous actions, we also see many times throughout the series how conflicted he is about his own role as a cop and the various systemic failures in which he is a reluctant participant on a daily basis. In a flawed world, is there any way to pursue one’s ideals, to attempt to enact positive change, without also causing tremendous collateral damage?

It is worth noting that both Goldblume and Davenport compare themselves to the white women from Uhuru. The black woman who is arrested is portrayed as much more hardline and devoted to the cause (it is after all a “black separatist” movement), and is not given the same narrative consideration as—or, indeed, commensurate screentime to—the two white women.

As an antidote to the more serious stuff, the subplot that gives the episode its title involves a new Chinese takeout place (“Gung Ho!!!”) which is a runner throughout the episode, from the very first shot, with a good punchline when the whole precinct gets sick. The structure of the episode is a nice example of what Bochco has said about how the secret to Hill Street’s success was its mixing of the highbrow and the lowbrow. (I’m pretty sure I even heard Frank fart when he lies down in Joyce’s bed near the end.)

The other major subplot in this one involves Officer Dorsey, one of the new recruits we met in the last arc, being shot and killed by a member of Uhuru in a senseless chance encounter. Storywise, this is mainly a device to put Belker and Officer Robin Tataglia into an emotionally charged situation that begins to bring them together, as Mick’s caretaker instinct kicks in and he becomes hyper-focused on getting Robin through the experience. The last shot of the episode is a really nice understated reveal that the two are holding hands as they walk around the block one more time. Awww.

A few other thoughts:

This episode starts with another of those annoying “Coming tonight, on Hill Street Blues…” intros. This one is at least pretty abstract, with stuff that doesn’t reveal much about the plot, like Belker having a gun duel with a mechanical cowboy.

In a small scene, Howard floats Belker a loan to pay for Dad’s nursing home bills. It’s a nice human moment for Hunter, who is usually the butt of jokes. I’m curious to see if it will come back up at all in future episodes.

It’s January, and it’s Lucy’s birthday, the fourth birthday we’ve seen on the show (after Phil in “Rites of Spring,” Frank in “Hearts and Minds,” and Renko in “Rain of Terror”). She says Joe promised to meet her at the Breakers for breakfast, making this the second time he’s stood her up there, after “Pestolozzi’s Revenge.” Girl doesn’t learn her lesson. Usually Bates seems like one of the most level-headed characters on the show, but she comes off as kind of an asshole here as she takes revenge on Joe for a male stripper stunt he pulled on her, and Joe actually comes off as the more mature one for making peace at the end.

Attorney Ronald Schuster represents one of the arrested radicals, and ultimately almost screws over Joyce and her client. But before that happens, we learn that Schuster is very high-profile, and Joyce seems to have a bit of a crush on him. She has the rather strange line, “You cut quite a figure in my emotional life when I was training for the law. I guess even before that.” I can’t imagine anyone using the phrase “emotional life” in that professional context; it feels like straight-up schoolgirl crushing.

In a nice bit of hypocrisy, (former?) Uhuru member Lenore Kramer calls Bobby the racist epithet “Buckwheat” when he arrests her.
 
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SEASON 3 EPISODES 14-16: THE “MOON OVER URANUS” SAGA

Since the middle episode in this arc is written by Frost, I’m going to do individual writeups on each episode this time.

First, a general note on the titling of these episodes, which breaks from the typical Hill Street convention by using the same “Moon Over Uranus” title across all three episodes. This is not because the episodes are any more connected than the usual Hill Street multi-episode arc. Rather, it’s due to a fight Bochco had with the NBC censors. Originally, only the first of these episodes was meant to be called “Moon Over Uranus.” The censors insisted that the juvenile “anus” pun had to go; Bochco refused, pointing out that the episode titles in those days were never made public, so what did it matter? The censors countered that if the episode was nominated for awards, the title would be included in the nominations. It strikes me as a pretty pointless argument from both sides, but Bochco held fast and eventually won. In an act that some might consider petty, he decided to title the following two episodes “Moon Over Uranus: The Sequel” and “Moon Over Uranus: The Final Legacy.”

“Moon Over Uranus”
Bochco and Jeff Lewis have story credit on all three episodes, joined on each episode by a third person: in the case of this first episode, Joseph Gunn, who co-created the series Delvecchio, which Bochco had worked on at Universal. Teleplay duties on the first episode are an all-hands-on-deck affair, with all the staff writers besides Bochco credited: Yerkovich, Lewis, Wagner, and Milch.

So: why “Moon Over Uranus” to begin with? To explain the butt of the joke (sorry), I defer to the always erudite Sergeant Philip Freemason Esterhaus, in this episode’s roll call: “Item 14 is a cautionary tale concerning last evening’s full moon. Or rather, a pale and reportedly pockmarked imitation thereof, which appeared on a front yard in Pittsfield shortly after the 1am conclusion of Officer Mel Sandowsky’s bachelor soiree. Shocked to see the famed celestial provocateur in such exotic closeup, a Mrs. Friedkin from across the street called the County Sheriff’s Office, which proceeded to arrest Hill Street’s own planetary adventurer, Andrew J. Renko, on charges of public exposure. […] The charge was subsequently dropped. Not as precipitously as the pants, but nonetheless dropped.”

The mooning serves as the inciting incident for a series of ups and downs in fortune for Renko over these three hours, which Andy eventually decides were the hand of fate (or something). In this first part, a furious Furillo reassigns him to parking ticket duty, which through bad luck puts him into the crosshairs of surly Vice Detective Sal Benedetto, who hands Renko his ass in a beatdown. Benedetto is played by Dennis Franz; it feels only appropriate that the man whose bare ass would become the most famous on television makes his Bochco/Milch debut in an episode titled after a couple of butt puns. And it is a pure joy to see the future Andy Sipowicz going toe-to-toe with Hill Street’s resident loudmouth Andy Renko. (To Renko’s credit, he eventually tries to de-escalate the situation by joking earnestly about his lack of emotional maturity, but Benedetto is spoiling for a fight.)

The main overarching storyline in this arc is the mayor’s insistence on a P.R.-based shakedown of the worst block on Dekker Avenue. This episode kicks things off in hilarious fashion as prissy Chief Daniels does a tour of the area, and through a series of wacky occurrences, ends up being (unnecessarily) treated for rabies. Daniels is at his most enjoyable as a character when he’s in extreme discomfort (see: the hemorrhoids in Season 2).

With this episode, Goldblume is promoted to lieutenant (after being passed over last season in favor of Alf Chesley, which actually led indirectly to his divorce). He has a prominent storyline across these three episodes focusing on his continually growing disillusionment with being a cop, and how ineffectual he feels. That starts in this episode, with a case involving a young girl named Mary who is being stalked by her ex-boyfriend Richard (played in nicely sociopathic fashion by a very young William Forsythe). When I watched the first scene between Henry and Mary, I initially thought Goldblume was being incredibly dismissive and I was absolutely appalled. Then I remembered that not a single state in the U.S. had a law against stalking until 1990. It is really wild sometimes to recognize what a distant historical reality 1983 was in many respects (while in many other respects, it feels like the criminal justice system has barely evolved or changed at all since then).

The major standalone plotline in this episode is the rape of the daughter of a Midtown lieutenant. The other one-off story in this one is Bates and Coffey’s arrest of a delusional survivalist who has been stockpiling weapons for the inevitable societal breakdown. Although it’s not clear until the end of the episode, these two storylines are on a collision course, in another instance of that kismet or fate that Renko later talks about, a recurring theme across these three episodes.

The first scene of the survivalist plot (directed by TV veteran Christian I. Nyby II, who does a solid job with this whole episode) has a nice long take lasting almost two minutes, starting in the hallway of the guy’s building and then going inside and moving the camera around the very tight and cluttered apartment. It’s not a showy shot, but it must have been difficult to get based on the size of the sets, and it lends a nice sense of reality and claustrophobia to this guy’s world. The survivalist’s story is mostly played for laughs, particularly in a really funny scene where Joyce tries to bring her client back to reality by revealing her own heretofore-unknown wilderness survival savvy…in the process earning her an unexpected and rather unorthodox romantic proposal. But the show also doesn’t lose sight of the poignancy of the guy’s mental problems.

Ultimately, the rape storyline and the survivalist story collide in a darkly comic ending. The scene is very effectively shot, again in a single take (lasting exactly a minute) starting on the rape victim’s dad as he stares at the holding cells indecisively from behind the window, then enters the area, takes out a concealed gun, and opens fire on the person he thinks is the rape perpetrator…just as the poor doomed survivalist turns around in his cell and the audience realizes what is about to happen. Still in the same shot, the whole bullpen is seen out of focus in the background, diving for cover as he opens fire, and then our regulars rush in as Leo delivers the final punchline: “The poor jerk shot the wrong guy.” It’s a very well-executed shot, and a tragic ending for both the lieutenant and the survivalist, both of whom have been portrayed sympathetically. Now, the lieutenant will certainly lose everything, including his freedom, and he hasn’t even succeeded in avenging his daughter. He just has an innocent man’s blood on his hands. Naturally, Bates and Coffey subsequently crack some sick but funny jokes about the situation at the bar later.

A typically ridiculous Fay storyline involves new boyfriend Judge Grogin ghosting her. She actually follows Furillo’s joking proposal that she get a traffic ticket so the judge will have no choice but to talk to her, and in a very funny scene, insists that poor beleaguered Renko write her a ticket. What a psycho.

The arrest of the rape suspect has one of those glorious sudden bursts of violence Hill Street does so well, with several of our cops (Belker, Hill, Tataglia, Coffey, and a trailing Bates) crashing through a glass door and tumbling down a staircase while trying to subdue the guy, then continuing to struggle with the maniac on the street. I love Bates’s line: “First it was wacky survivalists, and now this. What are we, the Suicide Squad?”

Jack Starrett (Gabby in Blazing Saddles, and also the director of the Season 1 episode “Life, Death, Eternity”) has a small but fun role as an extremely passionate animal control guy whom J.D. dubs “the Captain Ahab of the rat kingdom.”

“Moon Over Uranus: The Sequel”
This is Frost’s episode. He shares story credit with Bochco and Lewis, and has solo teleplay credit.

In the final scene of the prior episode, Joyce blindsides Frank by telling him that she has an interview for a DOJ position in D.C. the very next day. Apparently, it came extremely last-minute with the help of a former professor, on whom she admits she had a crush once upon a time (in retrospect, maybe she didn’t need to volunteer that information right then). Frank’s pretty understandable reaction is to become extremely withdrawn, and that continues into this episode, with a nicely-written minimalist scene where Joyce drops by the precinct to say goodbye on the way to her flight—obviously looking for some kind of reconciliation—and Frank says very little in response, barely even making eye contact. Both Travanti and Hamel are very good here, as are Travanti and Michael Conrad immediately after Joyce leaves, in a quick scene where Frank is uncharacteristically sulky and snippy with Phil. This emotional turmoil contributes to Furillo being in a pissier-than-usual mood as he deals with the official launching of “Operation Big Broom,” the highly unconstitutional street sweep of Dekker Avenue.

There’s a nice bit of “street theater” where Washington poses as a dealer and LaRue “kills” him. It reminds me of the Season 2 scene where they pull a similar prank on Renko’s new partner. It’s always fun seeing these two get an excuse to take their performances extremely broad. These antics are the final straw for Furillo, who shuts down Operation Big Broom, in direct contravention of his orders.

As if Frank wasn’t having a bad enough day, Daniels shows up to ream him, and is perhaps even more irate than ever before, treating Furillo like a kid called to the principal’s office, and telling him to now get ready to run Operation Big Broom not for just one day as planned, but every day, as punishment for his insubordination. In a last smug little dig, Daniels calls back to a scene in the episode “Freedom’s Last Stand”: “Aren’t you going to offer me your badge, Captain?” The implication is that he’ll happily take it this time. Furillo is clearly furious, but all he can do is stand there and take the abuse and humiliation.

Concomitant with the troubling Joyce situation, Frank meets a pretty parole officer—actually, he met her in the prior episode, before he knew about Joyce’s job offer, and he was clearly extremely taken with her before she even opened her mouth…and even moreso after seeing her in action. Frost writes a very cute scene, played nicely by Travanti with a broad grin, as the woman blunderingly tries to ask Frank out while rambling out a list of activities that neither of them wants to do. They get dinner, and although Frank is up-front about his “pretty heavy duty” relationship with Joyce, he also seems to be openly admitting, to himself if not exactly out loud, that he may soon be contemplating other options to Joyce Davenport. As the episode ends, things look worse than ever for the relationship. Furillo (weirdly in Joyce’s bedroom…did she ask him to stop by to water the plants or something?) calls Joyce’s hotel and learns that she never checked in. It’s a nice little bit of scripting and acting, with Frank about to ask on a hunch for Clark Galloway’s room (the guy who recommended Joyce for the job), but catching himself and reigning himself in. It feels like a classic recovering addict moment. Relapse is not only about actual use, but also surrounding behaviors, and Frank is starting to spiral here. He’s furious and he’s jealous, and he doesn’t like the side of himself that’s starting to rear its head.

Goldblume’s storyline continues to be a major focus this episode, appropriately, as Frost has said that Henry was the closest thing he felt to a character surrogate for himself on the show. The stalking situation escalates, with Richard actually assaulting Mary, so that charges can finally be brought. It is worth recalling that domestic violence against a young woman was also a significant storyline in Frost’s first episode on the show. It’s not a subject that receives much if any attention in Frost’s books or his other non-Peaks film/TV work (in contrast to Lynch, who obviously has focused on it a great deal). But it is interesting to see this as a major theme across Frost’s first two Hill Street episodes.

The outcome of Richard’s arraignment on the assault is very consistent with my experience in domestic violence arraignments. The sad reality is that everyone involved recognizes that these cases, as a practical matter, rarely go anywhere due to recantations, reconciliations, witnesses simply no longer wanting to cooperate for a variety of reasons (which realistically include intimidation and coercion)…not to mention the innate weakness of any one-witness case, particularly one where the witness is inherently biased and often problematic for various reasons. The ADA asks for $1000 bail, judge grants defense request for release on recognizance, with a restraining order in effect and a stern warning; this is exactly what I saw happen time and time again (even the de rigueur prosecution bail request apparently has not gone up in amount since 1983).

Inevitably (from a storytelling standpoint), Mary ends up dead, and Henry is left feeling more disgusted with his own impotence as a cop than ever. In a creepy performance from Forsythe, Richard just grins happily as he is arrested over Mary’s dead body, proving Henry’s instinct that the kid is seriously disturbed. Furillo is at his best when he has others who need comfort or reassurance, and despite the bad day Frank’s had, he is there for Henry, as a bitter Goldblume wistfully suggests that they would be doing more good in the world if they opened a pizzeria. (I’d watch that spinoff.)

Renko’s little Vespa fortuitously places him at the scene of a massive fire at an apartment complex, and he gets to have an action hero moment, rescuing people from the burning building. It’s a good day for Andy Renko, who is reinstated to regular patrol and recommended for a meritorious citation to boot. It’s nice to see the long-suffering Renko get a win here, and it’s cool that it happens in Frost’s episode. Given that Frost has a story credit in addition to his teleplay credit, I’d like to think that he may have proposed this twist as a gift to his buddy Charlie Haid. In another feel-good Renko win (by proxy), Bobby goes out of his way to avenge his friend, hunting down Sal Benedetto and laying a righteous ass-whooping on him.

Frank Jr. is having trouble with a bully at school, leading to a contentious parent-teacher conference, with Fay being Fay. As I’ve said before, it may just be because I’m not a parent, but this didn’t do much for me. Although I do like the little subplot of Phil volunteering to give Frank Jr. boxing lessons.

In a small runner in this episode, the precinct’s old Busy Baker vending machine which took such abuse is retired, replaced by a cutting-edge top-of-the-line model called The Emperor. This gives a pissed-off Henry the opportunity to reference 2001: A Space Odyssey, a favorite of Frost’s.

Near the end of the episode, we get a little progress on the Belker-Tataglia romance, with Robin offering to come sit in Mick’s car while he visits the nursing home, so they can get dinner after. Awww.

Nerdy lawyer analysis: Two aspects of the courtroom scene feel inaccurate to me. The more minor one is that the witness and Goldblume would likely not be present in court (Mary could technically attend since arraignments are public, but she’d be sitting in court for hours waiting for the case to be called, and would not be sitting at the prosecution table). This is an understandable narrative fudge to keep our major characters involved in the proceedings. The other, weirder inaccuracy is the judge twice referring to the prosecutor as Mary’s counsel and to Mary as the prosecutor’s client. Prosecutors do not represent witnesses in their cases, and no criminal court judge would make this mistake—or would immediately correct himself if he did mis-speak. It’s a bizarre error on a show that usually gets things pretty right, and I’m surprised former prosecutor Jeff Lewis didn’t correct this during the scripting process, but I guess with the network TV grind, some stuff just slips by.

Casting fun: the ADA in this episode is played by Marlene Warfield, who played Ecumenical Liberation Army spokeswoman Laureen Hobbs in Network (apropos to my recent discussion of the episode “Gung Ho” in the prior post).

Continued in next post due to character limit
 
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“Moon Over Uranus: The Final Legacy”
Beginning with this episode, both Mike Wagner and David Milch are promoted from Story Editor to Executive Story Editor. Karen Hall, who previously wrote “Officer of the Year” as a freelancer, joins the staff, also as Executive Story Editor.

As with the first “Moon Over Uranus” episode, the teleplay is by Yerkovich, Lewis, Wagner, and Milch. A writer named Philip Combest, who had a few scattered TV credits during this era, shares story credit with Bochco and Lewis this time out.

After the murder of Mary Hicks in the prior episode, Goldblume is feeling déjà vu all over again. The department quickly drops charges in a stabbing which is deemed self-defense, but that leaves the stabber, a young kid named Ray (played by Mykeltie Williamson, later to be Bubba Blue in Forest Gump), vulnerable to inevitable gang retaliation. The department has no resources to protect the kid or his family. The Gang Intervention division is actively unhelpful, as their purpose is to build trust with gangs, not to side with non-gang-affiliated citizens. The thing about this storyline is that, while Henry’s frustration is completely relatable, he’s the one being the dick in his interactions with other branches of the system. He’s getting angry at other people who are only doing their appointed jobs, and doing them well. They’re all cogs, just as Henry is. It’s the system itself that is failing, but Henry is perceiving those failures only from his own narrow perspective. As usual, Henry has a certain immaturity and over-sensitivity (as an attorney character says, “Do you get this way about all your cases, Lieutenant? How do you stay sane?”). Furillo has built a thick skin and an ability to protect himself emotionally while staying true to his ideals (as much as possible); Goldblume perhaps just doesn’t have that ability. He’s still a raw nerve every time he sees the system failing, and that inevitably will impact his mental wellbeing long-term. Finally, he vents all his pent-up frustration on the (uncharged) gang members who are likely behind the attacks, using his known “nice guy” status to let them know no one will believe that he hit them. In the grand scheme of “bad cop” scenes, it’s not a terribly impressive display, but in Goldblume terms, he’s breaking bad here. Of course, Henry immediately outs himself to Frank and agrees to write up the incident, revealing himself to still be a boy scout…but one who is losing more and more of himself.

As for the Joyce and Frank relationship: I’m generally not a big fan of these “relationship in jeopardy” arcs on TV. On the one hand, these types of disputes are obviously something that happens all the time in reality, so they’re fair grist for the storytelling mill. But this type of thing is so overused as a source of easy conflict, and the beats of these stories are so predictable, that they’re usually just not very satisfying. This storyline started out with a fairly artificial inciting incident: Joyce getting an interview for a high-profile out-of-state job on literally no notice. It’s possible that this could happen, but pretty unlikely. On top of that, the job happens to involve a former teacher to whom she had an emotional attachment. So far, none of this is Joyce’s fault as a character, but it’s contrived on the writers’ part. Then, Joyce makes matters worse by staying at the guy’s house, and not contacting Frank to let him know she wasn’t staying at the hotel where she said she’d be. This is where she’s the asshole. Knowing that Frank was already being somewhat petulant about the whole thing, why would you compound things by creating the absolute worst look possible? I’m always rooting for these two, and most of the time I love Joyce as a character, but the writing choices here are not thrilling.

Meanwhile, Operation Big Broom immediately gets out of hand again, with LaRue scoring a tank through his junior high buddy Paulie Schoelkopff (played by Ernie Sabella, best known as the voice of Pumbaa in The Lion King), and parading it through the streets in an unsanctioned display of force. (One really questions how this guy hasn’t been fired yet.)

Ultimately, Furillo is dispatched by Chief Daniels to stand up in court and defend Operation Big Broom against a Civil Liberties challenge. I’ve been in the position of having to degrade myself by arguing in favor of something I know is both legally and morally wrong; it’s some small comfort to know that you’re inevitably going to lose, but that doesn’t do much for your self-respect. In Furillo’s case, it’s even worse because of the personal circumstances: opposing him is Joyce, about whom he currently has some very conflicted feelings, and sitting on the bench is Judge Grogin, who until very recently had been shtupping Frank’s ex. It’s a perfect storm of humiliation, and all Frank can muster is an uncharacteristically wimpy, “Uh, I would say, uh, that, uh, given the existing circumstances, we did our best.”

It is a bit ridiculous that a traffic court judge would be hearing this motion, but the show did lay the groundwork in the prior episode, establishing that the spate of frivolous arrests has caused the criminal caseload to overflow into the traffic courts. After Grogin issues an injunction against Big Broom, we get the payoff to the Fay storyline from two episodes ago, an absolutely absurd scene where Fay forces the judge to hash out their relationship in open court (“case closed,” Fay laments as their relationship ends). The scene leans into the absurdity, but as with at least half of Fay’s scenes at this point, it’s more annoying than funny.

Ray Catellano gets another rare spotlight, with a silly (in a good way) storyline about him deciding to start wearing a toupee (he hilariously informs Frank, “I am wearing a toupee,” as if no one would notice, and poor snickering Furillo does his best to keep it together). The show gets some good mileage out of this, culminating in a classic nicely-choreographed violent Hill Street struggle in the booking area that unexpectedly devolves into laughter from cops and perps alike when an oblivious Ray has his toupee knocked askew. But in the show’s signature style of undercutting drama with comedy and vice versa, the storyline takes a serious turn. Ray confesses to Phil that he struggles with pride, and he worries that his chances to ever make captain are dashed with Goldblume—whom Frank confides in moreso than Ray—now being of equal rank to Ray. This leads to Phil expressing his own career frustrations in never making lieutenant—Ray and Henry’s rank—putting things in perspective.

In a really nice little “girl talk” scene, Tataglia is disappointed to learn that Bates and Coffey have never actually boned. (Bochco has said that they did write, and even film, a storyline where the two took it to the next level, but ultimately decided it damaged Lucy’s character and got rid of it.) Bates doesn’t totally discourage Robin from pursuing things with Mick, but she says to make sure she goes in with her eyes open: it will give ammo to male officers who are already looking for any excuse to belittle and distrust female officers. Betty Thomas and Lisa Sutton are very good here, and in a show that hasn’t always done great by Lucy, the writing here feels very truthful.

A few other stray thoughts:

Phil weirdly refers to today’s Operation Big Broom as the “fourth consecutive day of social sanitization,” although it’s clearly only the second, as these “Moon Over Uranus” episodes take place on three consecutive days. He even refers to how the sweep was precipitously aborted the prior day.

The reference to the Dekker neighborhood having a track record for stealing tanks calls way back to Season 1, when Howard’s Nishitsu PANDA vehicle was stolen.

Casting fun: Steven Williams (X on The X-Files) plays Sonny Freeman from Gang Intervention. Martin West (the dad from Assault on Precinct 13) has a small role as a lawyer.
 
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THE REST OF SEASON 3 (SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE SEASON)

These final six episodes are made up of two three-episode arcs. The first arc has a story by the three head writers: Bochco, Yerkovich, and Lewis. The second arc has story by Bochco, Lewis, and a different third person on each episode (Wagner, Yerkovich, and Milch, respectively). The teleplays are by various three- or four-person combinations of all the staff (excluding Bochco), reflecting Bochco’s preference for divvying the episodes up by act. Milch is the only writer credited on all six of these final teleplays for Season 3, indicating how rapidly he has become indispensable to the operation.

Mark Frost has his third and final writing credit of the season on the season finale, “A Hill of Beans.” He shares teleplay credit with Yerkovich and Milch (making this episode notably cowritten by creators of Miami Vice, NYPD Blue, and Twin Peaks). Of course, it’s impossible to know which act(s) of the episode Frost worked on. I’ve previously speculated that Frost’s account of being hired to the show may be somewhat simplified compared to the reality, and that he was likely a freelancer during Season 3. The formatting of this teleplay credit also supports this: “Teleplay by Anthony Yerkovich & David Milch and Mark Frost.” My understanding of WGA crediting guidelines is that typically, an ampersand indicates closer collaboration, whereas the word “and” spelled out is used for more arm’s-length “collaborations” (e.g., someone doing a rewrite on someone else’s work). In this instance, my belief (which is pure speculation but I think makes sense) is that Yerkovich and Milch have the ampersand because they were on staff and in the room every day, whereas Mark is more separate because he wasn’t yet full-time. That being said, his inclusion here as the only (potentially) non-staff member to work on these final six episodes—and on the finale, no less—certainly indicates that Bochco considered Frost part of the inner circle, and Frost may have already been hired for the following season by this point.

The finale is also Yerkovich’s final script for the show; he departed to work on developing the two-word series concept handed to him by NBC wunderkind Brandon Tartikoff: “MTV Cops.” The rest, as they say, is history. Although, as I’ve mentioned, Yerkovich only lasted for six episodes on Miami Vice (which debuted in fall 1984, at the same time as Hill Street Season 5). Whether he left Vice willingly or not is unclear. I read one story that he took a feature deal at Universal; if so, nothing he wrote there seems to have ended up in a screen credit. His most noteworthy work post-Vice is the show Big Apple, which he co-created with Milch, and which is well worth tracking down on DVD.

Up until now, the “Previously on Hill Street Blues…” recaps have only appeared on two episodes on the DVDs, both in Season 2. Starting with “The Belles of St. Mary’s,” they appear on all six of these final episodes of Season 3. Again, I’m not sure whether this is true to the way the episodes aired on television, or just the DVD producers being inconsistent about including them. But it makes sense that these recaps are becoming much more prominent at this point. To date, the show has been sort of semi-serialized: fairly obvious three- or four-episode arcs, with most (although not necessarily all) storylines begun and then wrapped up within that same arc. By this final stretch of Season 3, although these six episodes are still broken down into two identifiable three-episode arcs, there are more and more stories and characters being brought back from earlier in the season, and more long-term character growth that is premised on the viewer’s knowledge and memory of more than just the past couple of episodes, in a way that feels a bit closer to the season-long arcs of modern TV drama as we know it.

Hill Street didn’t invent the idea of ongoing serialized broadcast drama by any stretch. Its heritage can be traced back to the early radio soap operas of the 1930s. 1964 saw the debut of the first prime time TV soap, Peyton Place (based on the prior novel and film), the success of which apparently was an influence on the ABC execs who picked up Twin Peaks (an influence which Lynch and Frost quickly disregarded, by their own accounts). The 1977 sitcom Soap, a spoof of the genre, has often been cited as the first prime time show in the “modern” era to employ week-to-week serialization (“modern” era obviously being relative at this point, depending on how old you are…). Seven months after Soap debuted, and almost three years before Hill Street, Dallas made weekly prime time soaps a mainstream concept for the “modern” era. Hill Street’s main contribution in this regard was to take the concept of serialized drama beyond the typical subject matter of soap operas over the prior fifty years, and to marry it to more serious ideas, and more diverse and complex situations and characters, in a way that “legitimized” it and removed the stigma that serialization typically carried at that point (i.e., that it was for melodramatic shows targeting housewives). Bochco has said that, internally, the producers referred to the show as “cop soap.” It is really incredible, given the overall low reputation of the soap opera genre, how great an influence it has had on the renaissance of television during our lifetimes. Both Hill Street and Twin Peaks owe their existences to soaps in one way or another, and without those two shows, we likely wouldn’t have any of the other great prestige dramas of the past thirty years—at least, not in quite the same way that they currently exist. Frost has described the original Twin Peaks as a “novel for television,” and Lynch has discussed falling in love with the idea of an endlessly continuing story, but the reality is that in 1989, that sort of intensive continuity on TV was still a pretty recent concept outside of soaps. It’s fascinating to remember that Frost was there on Hill Street at such a watershed moment for this evolution in television storytelling, and also makes one wonder what exactly Lynch’s frame of reference for soap operas was. Had he just heard about them, or was he a regular viewer? It’s certainly tempting to imagine a late-’60s Lynch tuning in to Dark Shadows daily.

In fall 1982, as Hill Street Season 3 was starting, St. Elsewhere debuted (also produced by MTM), and transported the Hill Street formula to a medical setting (complete with serialization, steadycam, ensemble cast, etc.), to great success and acclaim. Cheers debuted on NBC on September 30, 1982 at 9pm (just an hour before David Milch’s first-ever hour of television, “Trial by Fury,” aired). Following a first season comparable to Hill Street’s first year (great critical and awards success, disastrous ratings), Cheers became a massive ratings juggernaut that increased the level of serialization traditionally seen in sitcoms, influencing a whole generation of comedy writers who grew up on the show, like Dan Harmon and Michael Schur, to take long-form comedy storytelling to greater lengths. My point is, Season 3 of Hill Street is really on the cusp of this change that it helped to precipitate, and you can feel it starting to push the envelope in terms of trusting the audience to be tuning in every week and remembering everything they’d seen, with these “Previously on…” segments as a little gentle cliff-notes-style reminder.

Digression over. On to the episodes…

The first arc I’m discussing here, beginning with “The Belles of St. Mary’s,” has one incredibly problematic storyline: a group of girls from a Catholic high school visits the precinct, and their sole function storywise is to act as forbidden fruit and to instigate horny jokes. It’s especially disturbing because most of these girls LOOK really young; this isn’t like on some series where, just for example, a high school student is played by a twenty-four-year-old Sherilyn Fenn, making the males’ conflicted feelings more understandable. This was obviously an era when our culture was heavily sexualizing teenaged girls and painting them as objects of desire, with the only deterrent being jailtime (which is where the conversation keeps going in these episodes). As a child and then a teen myself during the 1980s and 1990s (and a straight male), I was all for it, but looking back as an adult…what a creepy time that was. This storyline mostly focuses on John LaRue, who comes dangerously close to committing statutory rape with a sixteen-year-old named Kristen Murphy, played by future Brat Pack member Ally Sheedy (who was actually twenty at the time of filming). The scenes are pretty unpleasant to watch, with the main highlight being level-headed Neal Washington’s constant warnings (like reminding J.D. that he’s “35 going on 10-to-20 upstate”). Kiel Martin has said that LaRue was originally scripted to actually sleep with the girl, but he asked the writers to change it because he felt it would make his character irredeemable. Good call there. I wonder what the writers were even planning…how could they let LaRue continue being a cop after that?

LaRue is all over this first arc. He has another major plotline, where his latest get-rich-quick scheme is to act as manager for an out-of-work stand-up comic who gets brought in by Renko and Hill for parking violations: Vic Hitler, played by Terry Kiser (best known for his much less animated performance as Bernie Lomax in Weekend at Bernie’s). Hitler’s comic stylings are very much in a dated 1960s Borscht Belt setup-and-punchline mode (mother-in-law jokes and the like); you can tell the series writers had way too much fun getting to be comedy writers for a couple of weeks while scripting these scenes. But despite the corniness of the material, Kiser is really charming as the down-on-his-luck comedian who is always “on,” and who refuses to abandon the beloved family name. The final punchline comes when Vic falls asleep during the first gig J.D. gets him, and is revealed to be narcoleptic. I love how amused the oblivious Hunter is by the sleeping “routine,” and I also love J.D.’s final button on the storyline, rolling the phrase “Vic Hitler, the Narcoleptic Comic” around as he debates the marketing potential.

Rico, the precinct’s “resident junkie” (as Henry calls him), really steals the show in these six episodes. It’s not even clear initially why he’s constantly hanging around the precinct when he’s evidently not in custody, but the physical comedy of actor Marco Rodríguez is hilarious. Ultimately, Leo decides to take the troubled kid on as his personal charge, in the episode “Spotlight on Rico,” and indeed, it’s a great spotlight for both actors. Robert Hirschfeld, a reliable and likable presence on the show as Officer Leo Schnitz going all the way back to the pilot, hasn’t gotten a ton of character development or narrative attention, but he effortlessly exudes warmth and humanity and patience here as he nurses Rico through detox. Rodríguez is as great with the dramatic stuff as he is with the comedy, committing his whole physicality to painfully depict the horrors of withdrawal. I’m assuming that Rico’s drug of choice was meth, based on the black teeth. Rico says that he hasn’t been “down” since 1977. Yikes. Leo and Rico are actually the focus of the final moments of the season, as Rico turns up at the precinct, having inevitably relapsed, as everyone has told Leo he would. The last shot of the season finale is a disappointed Leo, in obvious pain as everyone else around him is celebrating the arrival of their overdue pay. It’s kind of ballsy to end a season on such a relatively minor character, but it works really well because the performances have earned our investment in these two.

While I had misgivings about the “Joyce job offer” storyline in the prior episodes, it does lead to some well-scripted argument scenes. Furillo repeatedly tries to save face and (semi-)apologize for his behavior, but within the same breath his insecurities take hold and he can’t help making some new nasty remark. This happens over and over in varying ways, and it feels very true to the flow of real arguments. I’ve talked before about Furillo’s insecurity about coming from a presumably lower-class background than Joyce, a subtext that often underlies any arguments they have. Here, he talks about how Joyce will be moving in posh social circles in D.C., and then will come home on weekends to see Frank wearing shiny suits (“You don’t wear shiny suits,” an exasperated Joyce replies). Joyce ultimately decides not to take the DOJ Antitrust job (of course), seemingly because she witnesses some sleazy insider-baseball action regarding an arrested senator’s son, and is reminded that she would rather continue giving voice to the underprivileged than enter a higher-profile but less morally fulfilling world. Ultimately, the issue of Furillo’s bullying behavior towards Joyce the past few days is resolved in rather facile fashion, with Joyce deciding to finally pull the trigger on getting married. It’s not really the most satisfying or natural character development for this precise moment in her arc, but it is nice to see the characters and the show take this step anyway. And it leads to a very sweet little scene where Bobby Hill becomes the first in the precinct to learn Frank is married, with Frank clearly unable to contain his joy.

I’ve previously noted that the name Tubbs keeps popping up on the show, a portent of Tony Yerkovich’s imminent creation of Miami Vice. These episodes have an even more blatant naming overlap: a bear-sized violent white supremist named Sonny Crockett. Yerkovich obviously liked the name so much that he gave it to a very different character when it came time to create his own show. (As another amusing naming aside—for me, anyway—Crockett is said to work as strong-arm man for a loan shark named Tobias Wolf. At this point, the real Tobias Wolff had published two short story collections, and I wonder if one of the series writers was an early fan.)

The Crockett storyline involves a young black man being murdered in the holding cells (the second in-custody death at the precinct recently, as the Internal Affairs guy points out to a snippy Furillo). Coffey is investigated for the death. It’s incredibly obvious to the audience that Crockett did it, and that Joe will eventually be exonerated, but the storyline does lead to some good scenes. When questioned about his past, Coffey admits that he has used excessive force during arrests, and that he has used the N-word (in both cases, Joe immediately appends to his admission the typical “everybody does it!” defense, as well as the classic “they use it!” defense of using the N-word). It makes sense that as someone from a working-class Italian family, especially in that era, Joe would have been brought up using the N-word, and it’s nice that the series acknowledges this reality with an overall likable main character. In another very blue-collar Italian character touch, Joe assumes that since he has nothing to hide, he can just run his mouth and tell the truth before his lawyer gets there. (Interestingly, Joe’s account of his visit to the holding cells isn’t entirely accurate to what we saw in the prior episode…it’s unclear if he’s intentionally omitting details of his interactions with the two prisoners, or if it’s because of imprecise memory. Some of the stuff he leaves out could actually benefit him, like Crockett’s racist comments toward the guy who turned up dead.)

Internal Affairs Lieutenant Shipman makes his first appearance; he will recur in later seasons. When Internal Affairs is depicted in film and television, the characters are usually purely there to perform a narrative function. It’s interesting, and refreshing, to see Bochco and company give us a bit of insight into how miserable this guy’s job is. He spends all his time hanging out in places where everyone hates him, and he makes the valid point to a resentful Lucy that the reasons she is hostile to him are the same reasons the general public is hostile to cops. That puts her in her place a bit; maybe doesn’t exactly win her over, but she stops grandstanding and clearly has some food for thought.

This storyline also brings in Ketty Lester for the small but impactful role of the dead boy’s grieving, angry mother. Lester is better known as a singer, particularly for her recording of “Love Letters,” which was of course used in the climax of Blue Velvet. Also in this storyline is Ron Silver (campaign manager Bruno Gianelli on The West Wing) as Coffey’s PBA-appointed attorney.

In the final three episodes of the season, Dennis Franz is back as Sal Benedetto and really takes center stage. We’ve seen bad cops before on the show, but he’s by far the most corrupt yet. Sal works for Midtown Vice, the domain of beleaguered Captain Jerry Fuchs, who seems to only employ sociopaths like Benedetto and the late Stan Mizell (who gets name-checked here). Franz is really good as Sal, in that effortless Dennis Franz way. Even in the direst circumstances, even in his final moments when he’s cornered and about to kill himself, the guy never stops cracking wise and busting balls. He’s revealed as a greedy, homicidal lunatic who is proud of the fact that he’s betrayed his badge, but he still also seems to take pride in being a cop (he wants his illegal gains to be left to the PBA). He seems to have a perverse respect and even perhaps a sense of fellowship toward Bobby, since Bobby kicked his ass (even calling in a favor to get Bobby’s car released from impound). And he seems to be genuinely upset that Neal got shot as a result of Sal’s botched plan…in fact, his guilt over this seems to be the trigger for him letting his hostage go and ultimately offing himself. In other words, it’s a complex portrayal, both in terms of writing and acting, that leaves you sort of loving the guy, as awful as he is.

Meanwhile, poor Jerry Fuchs is becoming increasingly unhinged as he sees his kingdom crumbling, showing up at Frank’s office unannounced to accost Chief Daniels (“Look, if you’re gonna kill my career, do it all at once. Don’t piece me out! Don’t Buddy Jannette me!”…the latter referring to a murder victim whose corpse has been turning up incrementally).

Benedetto is on loan to Hill Street to carry out a complex bust on Buddy Jannette’s suspected murderer, loan shark Rollie Simone, played by another casting coup, Michael Lerner. This whole plot, which makes up the main A-story of the final arc of the season, is a Swiss watch of film noir-esque plotting, with the already-convoluted police sting operation on the surface, and Sal’s private machinations going on behind the scenes.

Pretty immediately after arriving at the precinct, Sal is taking enthusiastic bets on which parts of Jannette will be found next, despite Fuchs’s admonition not to do exactly that. This leads to some good gags, with Renko guessing “the waist” (Lucy: “Where’d you learn biology?”), and LaRue pulling a lame attempt to collect with a cow’s heart. It’s somewhat alarming that Esterhaus essentially endorses the illegal betting enterprise, which I imagine Furillo would be less than thrilled with.

Continued in next post due to character limit...
 
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THE REST OF THE REST OF SEASON 3 (CONTINUED FROM PRIOR POST)
Sal’s final scene, holed up in a room at a bank, is an example of that great Hill Street combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. It’s a tense dramatic situation, when suddenly, vainglorious Howard Hunter comes marching in with the stupid TK-4600 robot, a prototype on trial loan to the precinct, which has been played for laughs up until now (mostly used for spying on bathrooms and locker rooms). Now, Furillo has to admit it’s their best option for making contact and getting a read on the hostage situation, so they send the damn thing in…and, with everything else he’s dealing with, Sal is SO irrationally pissed off that they sent the robot in! “You jerks, you got no class whatsoever!” Franz is hilarious. Kiel Martin has a really nice moment, where LaRue is pissed off at Benedetto for nearly getting Neal killed, and eggs him on to kill himself…and then you see the uncertainty and guilt immediately wash over him when Sal actually does it.

Jonathan Banks, Mike Ehrmantraut himself, has a great two-episode guest turn as a guy with multiple personality disorder, whose real name is ultimately revealed to be Carl Brown. I have no idea how medically accurate the portrayal is, but it’s fun watching Banks shift on a dime from shy to cowardly to cocky, even becoming a blind man at one point. He’s especially effective when he becomes the murderous T.J. and has a terrifying freakout in the precinct. A weaker part of this storyline occurs when “T.J.” plants a pipe bomb in the precinct. It doesn’t do much damage, and weirdly everyone is pretty lackadaisical about it in the aftermath, not even evacuating (apparently based solely on Howard’s eyeball assessment that they don’t have to). They do call in the bomb squad, but there’s no way everyone would remain in that building in the meantime. It’s a bizarre narrative choice, because the show COULD have just jumped ahead in time an hour and said the bomb squad had already completed a sweep, and literally nothing would have to be changed in the story.

I previously complained about Diablos gang leader Jesus Martinez, in the arc earlier this season where he dognaps the governor’s Lhasa Apso in order to extort the governor into approving a grant for youth programs. Interestingly, we learn that the governor held up his side of the bargain even though the dog ran out the precinct window and wasn’t actually returned. More importantly, we learn in the season finale that Jesus has been playing the stock market with the grant money, ultimately losing it all and ending up in jail (after trying to cover his losses with a robbery), which makes me feel a little better about the character not being QUITE so much of a goody-goody. Although I do question how he was even able to embezzle the money…was he personally given unlimited access to the funds with no oversight? The final jailhouse scene between Furillo and Martinez is a nice culmination of everything that’s gone down between them, with Jesus keeping his cocky demeanor up but clearly feeling the weight of Frank’s disappointment.

Ray’s insecurity about ever attaining his goal of making captain carries over from the “Moon Over Uranus” arc. Frank, Ray and Henry have a humorously awkward lunch where everyone keeps avoiding the actual thing they’re supposed to discuss, the conflict between Ray and Henry (and Frank is clearly burdened by his relationship issues with Joyce, culminating in him uncharacteristically getting into a confrontation with another diner). Once they do have the overdue discussion in the car, it’s handled in nicely mature fashion, with Furillo admitting that he thinks Ray is great at his current job but not necessarily a leader. Ray is accepting of this but sulky, and spends the rest of his appearances this season neurotically trying to prove himself…and in the process, sort of proving Frank’s instincts correct. Ray came to the U.S. twenty-eight years ago with the goal of becoming a police captain, and the rigid drive to attain that goal is causing him to lose sight of the fact that being a cop of any rank is about more than ego or personal accomplishment. It is nice to see Ray finally getting a little more character development, which can all be traced back to Karen Hall’s “Officer of the Year” earlier this season.

Fay gets a more dramatic storyline than usual in these episodes, as she learns she is pregnant by Judge Grogin, and he has no interest in providing anything other than money for an abortion. Fay is evidently very anti-abortion. Interestingly, the Catholic Furillo seems much more pragmatic about the issue, pointing out the obvious financial and health risks of Fay having the child. This was eleven years after the lead character on the sitcom Maude had an abortion and caused a controversy (bowing to the outrage, many affiliates across the country refused to air the episodes when CBS reran them). With very few exceptions, TV producers in the ’80s and ’90s avoided the hornet’s nest of having a character get an abortion. These storylines typically ended with the character deciding they wanted the baby after all (giving the impression of an anti-abortion message, intentional or not), or having a miscarriage that makes the decision for them. Hill Street didn’t usually shy away from controversy, but they do take the safer, more traditional TV route here, with Fay deciding to carry the pregnancy to term.

Fay gets a very good scene in “Eugene’s Comedy Empire Strikes Back,” where she’s blindsided by the news of Frank remarrying while she’s just begun coming to terms with raising a second child on her own. She has the sad admission that up until this very moment, she had always assumed she and Frank would get back together.

I note that, as in the first third of this season, Esterhaus is once again conspicuously absent for most of the last four episodes of this season, outside of the roll calls. His voice is also sounding a bit rougher than usual. Outside of roll call, he has a brief appearance in “Buddy, Can You Spare a Heart?” when he tells Hill that Youth Patrol has arrived to take custody of the kid. Much more significantly, he has a really beautiful scene in the finale with Fay, where he bemoans the fact that he will likely never be a parent, and Fay asks him to be godfather to her expected daughter. Michael Conrad is absolutely lovely here, and I have to imagine that his illness and his own mortality were on his mind while playing this emotional scene.

“The Belles of St. Mary’s” has a great subplot about Belker arresting two older homeless guys who are perfectly willing to go to jail and be able to eat regularly, but only if they can stay in the same cell together. (They’re named Barney and Fred, the same Flintstones gag Peaks did in Episode 6.) It’s a very sweet, sad, funny storyline, with Mick being charmed by these two bickering lifelong friends. The casting for these two is superb: Whitman Mayo (Grady Wilson on Sanford and Son) plays Barney, and Harry “Little” Caesar (Granny Granville in The Longest Yard, in which he appeared with Michael Conrad) plays Fred. The great punchline to this story is after Belker has gone to bat and gotten the two guys off with a stern warning from the judge, they come up to him and complain that the property clerk won’t give them their shotgun back.

Belker and Tataglia’s relationship progresses apace. We see the beginnings of what Lucy had always feared if she got involved with Joe: Mick humiliates Robin by yanking her out of a brawl, making it look like she needs a male protector. When he says she could have been hurt, she angrily reminds him: “I’m going to get hurt. That’s my job.” Robin puts the incident behind her in very mature fashion, and Mick seems to take the advice to heart. Anytime he starts acting like a Jewish mother (as Robin puts it), she quickly warns him off. Still, the situation is probably untenable long-term, so Robin wisely requests a transfer to Washington Heights. (The timeline in the penultimate arc of the season is a little wonky. The three episodes seem to pretty clearly take place over three consecutive days, but this leads to a few things that don’t quite work timeline-wise, and one of them is Robin’s transfer request seeming to be approved literally overnight.)

Belker’s dad passes away in “Life in the Minors.” The night before, at the end of the prior episode, Tataglia proposes that they go visit his dad together. Impliedly, this ends up being the last time Mick saw him. It’s sweet that Robin at least got to meet him once. There’s a nice scene near the end of “Eugene’s Comedy Empire Strikes Back” where Furillo responds to a homicide scene and finds Belker, who was just driving around, on scene. Against the background of violence, there’s a nice moment of human connection, where Mick opens up about a fond memory of his dad. Of course, it involves biting: Dad (“a little guy, just like me”) bit some hairball’s arm and refused to be shaken off.

As a huge fan of 1990s-era Simpsons, my jaw hit the floor when Phil mentioned that Belker will be going undercover to investigate bootleg designer jeans! In the great Season 6 episode “The Springfield Connection,” Marge becomes a cop and Hill Street is among the parody targets, with a roll call scene, and a mashup of the Hill Street and Simpsons themes playing throughout the episode and over the end credits. In that episode, counterfeit jeans play a prominent role as a humorous stand-in for your more traditional illicit goods. To top it off, Phil, in his usual grandiloquent style, can’t just say that Belker will be undercover as a blind man…he instead says that “he will assume the guise of the classical poet, Homer”! Obviously a different Homer, but all this caused my brain to explode. I went back and listened to the audio commentary on that Simpsons episode to see if the writers deliberately chose counterfeit jeans as a reference to this episode. Matt Groening and the writers do discuss their love for Hill Street, but the writer who apparently came up with the counterfeit jeans gag (the great George Meyer) is not on the commentary, so this will likely forever remain a mystery.

After continuing in the background for most of the season, the Hunter and Nurse Wulfawitz relationship finally reaches an ignominious end, as she can’t stand any more of him rambling about his narrow interests (guns and battle offenses). Howard has a nice scene where he bares his soul to the TK-4600 robot in the locker room, which is still funny, as all Howard scenes are (“Looks like you and I are cut from the same block of non-ferrous material, old pal”), but also sort of heart-wrenching as he discusses his inability to open up to people. Interestingly, Bates is seen watching the whole thing via the robot’s remote screen. Howard and Lucy’s relationship goes back to Season 1. There’s one episode in the first season where he ineptly tries to show how non-sexist he is by complimenting her abilities, and another where he tries to recruit her as an EATer and ends up making her cry. I don’t think there’s anything remotely romantic there, but there’s some sort of very bizarre attraction thing between them, and you can tell that Bates is really affected by seeing this side of Howard.

But there’s a silver lining for Howard! He goes to a massage parlor (impliedly one of ill repute, since he initially uses a fake name), and finds unexpected connection with the Vietnamese masseuse. It’s actually a very sweet scene, with Howard, in the context of his military service, finally finding a way to express authentic emotion about something that someone else is interested in (in this case, the beauty of the girl’s home country). Obviously, asking out your masseuse is probably a doomed basis for a relationship, especially in the context of an oblivious TV character like Howard Hunter. But it is really nice to see him briefly finding genuine connection. There’s something so weirdly likable and even well-meaning about the way Jim Sikking plays the buffoon, despite his casual racism and lust for (strictly regimented) violence.

The continuing adventures of Hill and Renko: In “Life in the Minors,” Renko has a great little absurd mini-monologue about how pigeons only perch on the amber portion of traffic lights, a nice little slice-of-life look at what cops who spend all day together driving around talk about. Also in that episode, Renko and Hill are dispatched to arrest Sonny Crockett in a biker bar, and Renko passionately defends his fellow bikers against their negative portrayal in “the media” (calling out that hated liberal Peter Fonda!). Renko refuses to wear his riot gear, to show a “willingness to parley that will incite trust.” Bobby, for his part, grew up in pool halls (as we learned in the Christmas special), and has taken his share of pool cues to the head. Inevitably, a well-choreographed brawl breaks out immediately, but to his credit, Andy takes his helmet-less beating and comes out with a winning grin.

The main standalone story in “Buddy, Can You Spare a Heart?” is a little morality play. In the midst of a departmental pay freeze and ever-more-crippling debt, Hill and Renko find a gift from heaven: a satchel full of money and gambling receipts, which no one is ever going to claim. Andy finally just about talks Bobby into keeping it, when their unit is stolen (a callback to the pilot), making them realize that once the car is found, the department will find the satchel in the wheel well and know that they had no intention of turning it in. Thankfully, they find the car, which was stolen by a little thug with the absurd name Speedboat. Scared straight, Andy makes a big show of turning the money in, while Bobby connects with Speedboat. Going back to the first season (the pilot, I believe), when he talked about his then-girlfriend’s kids, Hill has always seemed to have a strong paternal streak, which we’ve seen in action several times by this point. Having met his dad in the Christmas special, we now perhaps have some idea where that came from: given his own miserable relationship with his father, he’s more inclined to be a mentor figure to young kids who may not have a strong male presence.

There are some great messy brawls in these episodes, but I did start to wonder: how much does this precinct spend on replacing glass? It seems like almost every episode, someone is going through a window. At a certain point, you’d think they’d just take them out and go for a more “open” interior design.

Other tidbits:

Beginning with “Life in the Minors,” the show brings back those annoying “And now, tonight, on Hill Street Blues…” opening previews, which continue on directly from the “Previously on…” recap as one continuous piece.

We learn that Frank’s mother’s maiden name was Zerilli. And that Frank and Joyce met four years ago (so, roughly in 1979).

There is again some confusion regarding the differences between grand juries and hearings, in “Eugene’s Comedy Empire Strikes Back.” Although the proceeding at which Sonny Crockett is testifying against Joe is repeatedly referred to as a grand jury, Joyce mentions a judge being in the room, which would mean it’s a hearing.

Joe is finally fully exonerated of the murder in the holding cells when Sonny Crockett is unceremoniously shot by Sal Benedetto, leaving Davenport apparently no longer bound by attorney-client privilege. She tells Joe that her late client committed the murder, and promises to notify the victim’s family and the D.A.’s office. This was pretty shocking to me; today, I think it’s universally agreed across all states that attorney-client privilege continues after the death of the client. We could argue about the merits of this; I studied cases in Ethics class where the wrong person sat in prison for decades because the attorney who had represented the deceased actual perpetrator was still ethically bound not to come forward. But I think that even in 1983, most jurisdictions that had addressed the issue found that the privilege survived death. The Supreme Court decided the issue on a federal level in 1998 in Swidler & Berlin v. U.S. (arising from Ken Starr’s attempts to subpoena lawyers’ notes while investigating the Clinton-era “Travelgate” controversy). I guess if the issue reached the Supreme Court, there was obviously some controversy surrounding it, so I suppose in 1983 it’s possible that in Joyce’s state, the privilege did terminate upon death. Even so, she is really aggressive in making the disclosure, offering to notify everyone herself when Joe isn’t even in danger of any imminent loss of liberty (the D.A. has already decided not to bring criminal charges, and there isn’t even a civil suit filed yet).

Leo’s wife Myrna appears for the first time, and it seems to be a stereotypical “henpecked husband” dynamic of the sort that you’d see a lot on TV during that era. Although Myrna does impliedly have some legitimate grievances: it seems the good-natured Leo is a bit of a soft touch and is too loose with their money (in this case, trusting LaRue and bankrolling Vic Hitler). For Leo’s part, the nagging seems to just roll off his back, and he remains as affable as ever.

“Spotlight on Rico” is the first episode to air without the Television Code logo in the credits. After several successful attacks against the Code on the basis of the First Amendment, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, and antitrust provisions, the crippled Code was finally and fully done away with in 1983, leaving the networks to make their own ethical determinations and self-regulate their own content (within FCC guidelines, of course).

Displaying his oblivious narcissism at peak power, J.D. has only contempt for Rico’s attempt at getting clean. It doesn’t even occur to him to have some empathy as someone who’s gone through the same thing, not even when Leo says it point blank: “How’s your glass house, J.D.?” LaRue doesn’t understand what he means. Hilarious.

Continuing my documentation of Belker’s dietary choices, in “Spotlight on Rico,” his sandwich of the day is liverwurst and the always reliable Bermuda onion.

We learn that the occasionally-referenced Mayor D’Angelo’s first name is Mario (courtesy of Joe saying, “Eat this, Mario!”).

“Buddy, Can You Spare a Heart?” is the rare episode (the first, I think?) that features neither Joyce nor Fay. All we get is a brief phone call with Fay where we only hear Frank’s side. The two women are meeting at Frank’s suggestion to talk out ground rules going forward regarding Frank Jr. We never do hear anything about that talk, and given the buildup, and the subsequent absence of both women in this episode, my suspicion is that their discussion was shot but cut from the episode.

Apropos of Mark Frost and Peaks, “A Hill of Beans” has a silly little comedic scene involving an elderly room service waiter who keeps interrupting what we want to see (in this case, Joyce and Frank having sex). It’s tempting to imagine that Frost was responsible for this scene. (Also, when we talk about things that date this show, Joyce’s slip! This was still a time when young women wore slips, although I think even then they were very much on the way out.)

Robert Pastorelli, who appears in “A Hill of Beans” as the guy busted for holding up Washington and Benedetto, had a rather tragic life. He was a self-described “junkie,” and lost one girlfriend to AIDS in 1990 before he got clean and made a decent career for himself in the 1990s, including a series regular role on Murphy Brown and playing the mobster in Eraser. Another girlfriend committed suicide by gunshot in their home in 1999, and he had a rough time of it after that, relapsing and eventually dying of an overdose in 2004, at the age of 49.
 
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Saw that room service scene in Joel Bocko's Journey Through Twin Peaks essay. Very fascinating. My memory is very hazy here but I might recall that in his youth David Lynch was friends with an old lady in his neighborhood. She watched soap operas, and he saw some through her.
 
SEASON 4

As I previously mentioned, with the fourth season, Tony Yerkovich departs the writing staff. Scott Brazil is promoted to fill the vacated Supervising Producer title.

David Anspaugh also exits, to pursue a career as a freelance director (working on fellow MTM show St. Elsewhere and Yerkovich’s Miami Vice, before transitioning into feature directing). Writer Jeffrey Lewis is promoted to Producer.

And, of course, Mark Frost finally joins the staff full-time, starting out as Story Editor.

Yerkovich had been acting as Bochco’s second-in-command for the past couple of seasons, and was often in charge of running the writers’ room while Bochco dealt with other production realities. With Yerkovich gone, Jeff Lewis more or less took on that role. However, both Bochco and Lewis had their attentions somewhat divided as Season 4 was starting up…

Bay City Blues

Post-Hill Street, Steve Bochco would go on to become something of an institution in the TV industry for awhile. During the period from 1987 through 1998, he nearly always had two series on the air, and at a few points three. His massive successes (L.A. Law, Doogie Howser) were enough to sustain his reputation as a reliable hitmaker, even in the face of some of the most infamous and costly failures of the era (Cop Rock, Capitol Critters). Back in 1983, though, Hill Street was still his sole claim to fame. In fall 1983, he attempted to expand his brand with a second series, the hour-long baseball dramedy Bay City Blues, centering on a minor league team. This would be the only time during Bochco’s tenure on Hill Street that he had another series on the air. Bay City Blues was created by Bochco and Jeff Lewis, and Milch also came aboard, initially credited as Supervising Story Editor, and then being promoted to Producer for the last couple of episodes that were made. The main cast, which is even larger than Hill Street’s (a whopping sixteen regulars!), features several actors who had spent some time on the Hill: Dennis Franz, Marco Rodríguez (Rico), Peter Jurasik (Sid the Snitch), Pat Corley (Coroner Wally Nydorf), and Mykelti Williamson (the kid who stabbed another kid in self-defense in “Moon Over Uranus: The Final Legacy”; he’ll return to Hill Street in a different role later). Robert Davi apparently appears in several episodes as well. The main cast also includes Ken Olin (who would go on to have a recurring role on Hill Street) and a young unknown named Sharon Stone (whom Bochco has described as “difficult”).

The show was apparently very expensive; aside from the huge cast, Bochco has said that they built a full, real baseball stadium. Suffice it to say, the show was not a hit, ending up as 93rd out of 101 shows in the Nielsens for the period it was on. It was canceled with eight episodes made, and only four aired, becoming the first high-profile “swing and a miss” of Bochco’s career. The remaining four episodes were apparently shown by some NBC affiliates the following summer, outside of prime time. Seven of the eight episodes are on YouTube, taken from 2011 broadcasts on ESPN Classic (which annoyingly have a scroll at the bottom of the screen with score updates running throughout the entire episode). I haven’t watched any of the episodes, but I did a quick scan of the credits. The order of the episodes on the YouTube playlist is different from the original airing order, but it appears that the one missing episode is unfortunately the only one where Milch has a solo teleplay credit, which of course is the one I’d be most interested in seeing. Milch does have shared writing credit (in that Bochco fashion where four writers work on an episode) on two other episodes, the ones listed as Episodes 6 and 7 on the YouTube playlist.

All of which is to say: this must have been a hectic time on Hill Street, with three of the six series writers—including the two most senior writers—having their attentions divided with the massive task of getting a very ambitious new series off the ground. I imagine this was an interesting time for Frost to come onto the show.

EPISODE 1: “Here’s Adventure, Here’s Romance”

The season premiere is a standalone, perhaps trying to emulate the success of last year’s “Trial by Fury” by again doing a one-off dealing with a hot-button issue. It’s another all-hands-on-deck affair, with story by Bochco, Lewis and Milch, and teleplay by the four junior writers (Wagner, Milch, Hall and Frost). The main plot deals with a series of mass murders at gay bars. The only guy who can ID the killer is a police detective named Art Bradley who’s terrified to come forward because it will mean outing himself, and destroying his family and career. Belker, LaRue and Washington all have history with the guy and like him, and reluctantly get themselves into some hinky territory trying to use his information without identifying the source. None of the guys are portrayed as overtly homophobic (not even LaRue, somewhat surprisingly), but nor are they particularly sympathetic to Bradley’s plight. He’s a cop first and foremost, and he has a responsibility to come forward, consequences be damned…which is the message that Furillo eventually gives Art when Frank catches wind of everything. (Interestingly enough, Bradley is played by a straight actor, while Furillo is played by a gay actor. I found myself wondering what Dan Travanti’s thoughts on the storyline were.) Bradley finally comes forward in a rather absurd courtroom scene (I did a lot of arraignment shifts, and never once saw anyone dramatically barge in and take over the proceeding…in fact, that’s probably a good way to get held in contempt). Afterward, Furillo tries to comfort Art by saying that his job is protected under civil rights law, but Bradley responds that “they’ll always find some way to get rid of someone like me.” Ultimately, I’m sure this storyline played with a bit more power in 1983 than it does today. The episode ends with Furillo, who effectively outed Bradley by naming him in the criminal complaint, watching a news report and saying, “They’re gonna crucify him.” I don’t believe the show ever mentions Bradley again. I might find the story more effective if they’d made it a longer arc where we actually see the consequences he faces.

The episode gets its title from a much more lightweight subplot, about Lucy and Joe’s continued run-ins with a guy named Alan Branford, who believes himself to be the late actor Duncan Renaldo, who played the Cisco Kid in the 1950s. Martin Ferrero, who has previously portrayed two other guest roles on the show, plays Branford playing Renaldo playing the Cisco Kid (got that?). Amusingly, Branford mistakes Ray for Leo Carrillo, the actor who played the Kid’s sidekick Pancho. Ray has kidney stones throughout this episode and is already in a pissy mood (pun intended), which makes this further indignity even funnier. The episode title “Here’s Adventure, Here’s Romance” comes from the intro to the Cisco Kid TV show, which the judge in the episode unsuccessfully tries to quote, reciting the intro to The Lone Ranger instead. In addition to providing the basis for another of Hill Street’s patented animal-centric crimes (Branford repeatedly steals a horse), this storyline is also a love letter to 1950s TV, which feels very Frostian to me, although I’m sure most or all of the series writers had nostalgia for that era.

I don’t think we know exactly how old Joyce is, but Veronica Hamel was just about to turn forty here, although she doesn’t look it. I found it momentarily disorienting when Branford starts asking Joyce about sneaking out of bed to watch Texaco Star Theater (she says that for her, it was Tom Corbett, Space Cadet). It’s odd to see a young woman (I’m forty now, so forty is young) in what I think of as a modern setting, who grew up watching essentially the first wave of television shows ever aired. It’s a crazy reminder that the early 1980s were closer to the 1950s than they are to the present day. That’s basic math obviously, but I guess it’s something that I consciously try to avoid thinking about.

Other stuff:

This is only the second episode to not open with roll call, after “Of Mouse and Man”; similarly to that episode, it opens in the middle of the night with Furillo arriving at a homicide scene. The episode does technically keep to the Hill Street format of taking place over the course of a single day, as the opening scene takes place around 4am.

The roll call itself is rather unusual on this one, as I believe this is the first time we’ve ever started with Item 1. Typically, we tend to tune in when Phil has already been going for awhile. This also means that roll call seems to be extremely short this day, with only three items.

Belker once again arrests the same pickpocket from the pilot, who this time was stealing a whole bunch of musical instruments, and gives the last name James; Belker guesses the first name is “Harry,” referencing the 1940s bandleader. The pickpocket throws a curveball by giving his first name as “Dorsey,” referring to another bandleader of the era, Tommy Dorsey. Famously, Frank Sinatra started out singing for Harry James’s band before being poached by Dorsey.

The main title sequence gets its first overhaul since the beginning of Season 2, when Ed Marinaro joined and some new shots of the Chicago streets were added. (Technically, the last change prior to this episode was the fifth episode of Season 2, which made a minor tweak to the audio, fixing a glitchy music edit.) Up through the end of the third season, the cast members’ credit shots had remained unchanged since the pilot, resulting in some outdated looks (notably, the main titles for three years depicted Taurean Blacque with just a mustache, in a shot from the pilot, but he started wearing a goatee immediately after the pilot, and has had a full beard for a good long while). For some reason, the only cast member whose shot is not updated here is Ed Marinaro.

Keone Young (Wu on Deadwood) has a small role as a store owner profiteering on ice during the combination heatwave and blackout.

Joyce is all over this episode, representing both the Cisco Kid and the bar shooting suspect. It gets a little absurd in an episode like this how she seems like essentially a full-time tenant of the precinct.

Tracey Walter appears for the second time on the series, this time as a career burglar LaRue enlists to recover the gun from the shooter’s apartment, making a lot of noise in the process so the cops have an excuse to “catch” him. Clearly, someone liked the dynamic of Walter playing a nervous criminal who is intimidated by LaRue, since it’s basically the same dynamic as the earlier episode where LaRue shoved him into a dryer, although Walter is playing a different character. I honestly don’t quite get this storyline, from a legal perspective. LaRue and Washington intentionally “forget” to Mirandize Walter’s character, apparently meaning that he has to be let go…but that isn’t what would actually happen. Miranda relates solely to statements; so, if they failed to read him his rights, nothing that he said would be admissible in court. But that wouldn’t be a reason to throw out the whole arrest, if the guy was caught red-handed burglarizing a place.

There’s a rather strange moment where Frank throws something through the window of his office, scaring the shit out of ADA Bernstein and everyone else in the bullpen. In the grand scheme of stressful situations we’ve seen him in, this particular moment doesn’t feel like he should be getting that out of control.
 
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SEASON 4 EPISODES 2-4 (“Ba-bing, Ba-bing,” “The Long Law of the Arm,” “Death by Kiki”)

The first episode is written by Karen Hall; the second by Mike Wagner; and the third by the team of David Milch & Mark Frost. David Anspaugh directs “Ba-bing, Ba-bing,” his final Hill Street credit.

The strongest storyline revolves around Bobby Hill winning the lottery. Dealing with the attendant stress of everyone trying to get a handout, Hill becomes aloof and cruel, and loses himself in underworld craps games. The show has laid some groundwork for Hill having a gambling addiction: we know his dad was a deadbeat gambler, we previously saw Bobby very enthusiastically shooting craps at the bachelor party in “Stan the Man,” and late last season, Furillo learned that Hill had gotten a loan from the shady loan shark they took down (which Bobby attributed to a family emergency). Hill takes center stage in the third episode of this arc, and that whole storyline feels very much like it came from Milch, particularly Hill’s emotional speech to Renko. Just like Milch, Bobby has a complicated relationship with his gambling-addicted father, and is extremely self-conscious about having the same streak in himself. Just as Bobby is obsessed with the idea that he will be a “loose man” if he doesn’t keep a tight lid on his personality at all times, Milch similarly used the word “degenerate” to describe the personality traits that he believed he inherited from his dad.

Furillo has a good heart-to-heart with Bobby, where he says that as a “drunk,” he recognizes the behavior patterns in Hill spinning out. He tells him, “The nightmare can end, but you gotta give it a chance,” which is classic recovery rhetoric. It’s also nice to see Renko acting like an adult and being a good friend to Bobby, taking the day off work and unrelentingly trying to get Bobby to open up to him.

The primary storyline of this arc revolves around escalating gang war between Diablos and Bloods, as well as an internal Diablos conflict due to the power vacuum left by Jesus Martinez after his arrest at the end of last season. Complicating things even further is the ongoing mayoral race, with Chief Daniels’s latest opponent being Councilman Benjamin Fisk, who insists on moving into the Dante Projects, a hotbed for violence, in order to gain political points. Fisk is played by George Coe, best known for his role as network exec Ben Cheviot on Max Headroom. As usual, Furillo is caught between Daniels’ political maneuverings and his duty to de-escalate violence. All of this feels like other storylines that we’ve seen many times before on the show. The highlight of this one is the rift between Frank and Henry.

In the first episode of the arc, a major driver of the violence is Diablo Lazaro Majana, who is weaponizing the gang in a power grab. (Strangely, this is the only role listed on IMDb for this actor, Juan Hernandez.) Goldblume tries to build trust with Hector Ruiz, the kid who held the liquor store hostage in the pilot. We last saw Hector going back to juvenile detention way back in Season 1 (actor Panchito Gómez was just seventeen then; here, he’s nineteen). Goldblume gets Hector to drop a dime on Majana, with the implicit understanding that Henry and the department will support Hector filling the power gap left by Majana, and his vision for community programs like assistance for the elderly (as usual, these gang members are so civic-minded!). Frank lets Henry use Hector to get Majana, but fails to tell Henry that he’s secretly arranged for the expedited release of Jesus Martinez, which he reveals in dramatic fashion at a gang summit. Jesus has always been someone that Furillo feels he can reason with, whereas he views Hector as an unstable teenager. Goldblume is furious that Furillo set him up to be a traitor to Hector. Frank’s defense for not explaining the situation to Henry is, “I stood there with you and I saw a twenty-minute argument coming.” Goldblume can be a needy guy, and Furillo has a lot on his plate, so his response is understandable, as is Goldblume’s anger (although he’s rather childlike in the way he keeps harping on it in petty ways every time he interacts with Frank).

Ultimately, a furious Hector takes a hostage for a third time (following the pilot and Season 1’s “Choice Cut”), which proves Furillo’s point that he’s too volatile to deal with. This time, the hostage is Councilman Fisk. Furillo, who really tried to go to bat for Hector in Season 1, trying desperately to find a youth program that would take him, this time has no option but to coldly give the kill order to Howard. Even Henry recognizes that this is the end of the line, and lies to Hector to manipulate him into position to give Hunter’s men the kill shot.

Councilman Fisk, who seems well-intentioned if stupid, reaches a darkly hilarious end in the Milch/Frost episode. Demonstrating to the press how poor the grillwork is on the windows of the Dante housing projects, he takes a tumble down several stories, landing on Goldblume and Hunter’s trailer. While everyone else back at the station cracks wise about the councilman’s demise, Goldblume, whose mental state has been steadily deteriorating over these episodes, has a full-blown panic attack.

Goldblume didn’t get much attention in the latter half of Season 3, and his personal life really hasn’t been addressed at all since the Season 2 finale, when we saw him and Fay forming a connection in a bar. Improbably, the show comes back to that storyline after all this time, with Henry agreeing to be Fay’s Lamaze partner, and the two becoming romantically involved. Funnily enough, both Henry and Phil are much more involved in Fay’s life than Frank is by this point, with Furillo receiving news of the eventual birth by phone from Goldblume.

In one of Hill Street’s many bathroom scenes, Furillo (uncharacteristically stuttering, struggling to find his words) takes ownership for his part in the issues between him and Henry, admitting that he is bad at delegating and that all the pressure on him from above caused some poor command decisions on his part; but he also very compassionately points out that the process of helping Fay give birth may be dredging up Henry’s sense of loss around his divorce. Frank is such a good boss.

Deputy Chief Dennis Mahoney, a character never seen before, also causes some trouble for our guys. He plays the classic film/TV role of a police superior with a giant stick up his ass. In particular, he tries to intervene when Belker struggles with a resisting detainee, and Belker angrily throws him up against the wall. We’re obviously meant to side with Mick here, and it’s easy to do so because Bruce Weitz is so likable in the role. On the other hand, Belker is prone to rage, and using excessive violence in arrests—it was his defining character trait in the pilot—and it would be interesting to see that dealt with in a more meaningful, serious way. It is difficult to imagine that he has never been in front of Internal Affairs before, as he says here.

Other thoughts on this arc:

Although it was missing from the season premiere, the combination recap/preview “Previously on…” / “And now, tonight on…” segment returns here, and as with the end of last season, these seem to now be de rigueur on most every episode. The recap on “Ba-bing, Ba-bing” goes all the way back to the pilot, and provides a reminder of how most shows aren’t quite fully-formed at the pilot stage: Henry has to ask who Jesus Martinez is. Looking back, it’s pretty ridiculous that Henry, who specializes in gang activity, wouldn’t know the name of the highest-ranking Diablo. (Also, Alf Chesley refers to Jesus as a “warlord”…yeah, OK.)

Improbably, a pair of mud-wrestling twins figure prominently across all three episodes, in a storyline about Joe Coffey having a threesome with them. Sure, why not.

“Ba-bing, Ba-bing” has Belker going undercover at a fish market. This provides the opportunity for lots of fish puns (“Just for the halibut”), but Bochco has said that this storyline was mainly written because Bochco wanted to dramatize one of his favorite jokes: an older woman repeatedly asks for a fresh chicken and then sniffs each one between the legs before rejecting it, and an exasperated Belker finally responds, “Lady, could you pass a test like that?” I’m not really sure why they set the scene in a fish market as opposed to a butcher shop (do fish markets sell chicken?). But the fishy setting gives us some good visuals, like Belker talking into a bass that has a wire hidden inside it, and rolling around on the ice and fish displays during a struggle with a perp.

Chief Daniels has appointed Ray as his minority affairs consultant, but predictably blows him off when more pressing crises inevitably arise.

Continuity gaffe: In “Ba-bing, Ba-bing,” Joe and Lucy’s shirts don’t have the mud stains on them when they talk to Fay, but the stains return again in a later scene. Indicating that the Fay scene was probably moved from earlier in the episode.

Timeline update: Renko references the armored car theft in “Gung Ho” as being six months ago. Meanwhile, Jesus gets early parole, after Frank saying in the third season finale that he’d likely be in for eight months to a year.

“Ba-bing, Ba-bing” is the first credited screen work of Mark Frost’s sister, Lindsay, who plays a reporter interviewing Bobby on his lottery win. Lindsay went on to have a pretty steady acting career over the following thirty years, including playing Shannon’s mom on an episode of Lost. This was the only time she and Mark worked on the same project; her husband Rick Giolito played Montana on Invitation to Love.

In another of those silly “amnesty” gang summits at the precinct, we get full names for the main gang leaders: Ronnie James of the Bloods (we’ve been seeing this guy since the pilot), Dudley Hicks of the Mau Maus (first appeared in Season 2’s “The World According to Freedom”), Russell Mobley of the Dragons (going back to Season 2’s “The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue”), and Tommy Mann of the Shamrocks (going back to the first episode after the pilot; @Cappy will be heartbroken to learn that this is David Caruso’s last appearance in the role).

I hope this isn’t too controversial to say, but there is a certain streak in police culture that parallels gang mentality. We see that exemplified during the gang summit, with Frank getting territorial: “In the past six weeks, there have been six murders in my precinct. My precinct.”

We get confirmation that Joyce is a trust fund baby, with $107,000 in her fund. “Ba-bing, Ba-Bing” also has a nice fake-out ending, with the traditional ending of Frank and Joyce in bed turning out the light giving way to a phone ringing over the black screen, summoning Frank to the scene of yet another gang killing.

“The Long Law of the Arm” takes place on September 28, per Phil saying it’s only 88 shopping days ’til Christmas.

“The Long Law of the Arm” gets its title from a gruesomely funny little subplot that’s actually mostly over before the main titles even roll: J.D. and Neal come across a car accident scene and need to hastily find a severed arm. A grossed-out Washington is nonetheless amused to note that the arm’s watch is still in good working order, and he quotes the Timex ad slogan, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” Later in the episode, the deputy chief reprimands Washington and LaRue after members of the public complain about their gallows humor, and Furillo undermines the guy by telling his own ghoulish joke. It’s a great scene of jovial camaraderie, with the other guys in the room (LaRue, Washington, Belker and Renko) disbelievingly listening to their boss essentially say “up yours” to his superior in the form of a stupid joke. As Furillo joins the rest of them in the doghouse, the five guys all just break down in shared therapeutic laughter. Frank is usually so concerned with living up to his own high expectations for himself, it’s refreshing to get these moments where he lets himself just be one of the boys.

Also, while it’s not a Frost-scripted episode, it’s an amusing coincidence as a Peaks fan to have a character credited as “The Arm.”

Another running storyline across the last two episodes of this arc involves a young immigrant student and cab driver named Kiki, who seems to have a somewhat naïve view of the world. It’s a mini-tragedy, mostly centering on Joyce, who inevitably represents him. Kiki shot one of his fares, but he insists it was self-defense. He refuses to take a plea and tries to get a confession out of the guy, ultimately escalating into a conflict where Kiki kills the dude with a hammer (offscreen), and then is arrested and immediately confesses before Joyce gets there. It’s basically just a sad little slice-of-life of another day in the criminal justice system, no moral to be found. The final scene of this storyline is a stenographer reading back Kiki’s confession, repeating his broken-English phrasing with flat intonation, a perfect encapsulation of the impersonal, clinical nature of the system.

The guy Kiki shoots is played by Carl Anderson, best known as Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar…which is appropriate enough to this arc, as Henry refers to himself as Judas after he betrays Hector.

Since we were speaking of soap operas and their influence on Hill Street, “The Long Law of the Arm” has a funny scene where Belker’s mom (on the phone and never seen, as usual) is greatly upset about a couple getting divorced, until Mick finally suggests that she change the channel.

Belker has a nice 46-second single-take struggle, rolling around in garbage with a perp.

“Death by Kiki” is directed by Bill Duke. As expected for an episode directed by an experienced actor, the episode has some very good acting (especially from Michael Warren, Charlie Haid and Dan Travanti); but, more perplexingly, it also has a few very broad, questionable acting moments: Joe Spano as Goldblume suddenly breaking out sobbing out of nowhere in comedically exaggerated fashion, Michael Warren’s freakout as Bobby when the craps game guy tries to get his real name, and Chief Daniels literally doing the Lucille Bluth wink.

Although we don’t see the infamous Hotel Lorane this time out, it’s actually mentioned in dialogue as the location of the floating craps game Bobby attends.

Once again, in “Death by Kiki,” the writers seem to have some confusion regarding preliminary hearings and grand jury. The judge seems to be conducting a preliminary hearing on probable cause, complete with witnesses, but then he puts the case over for grand jury! It’s one or the other; not both. Also, given that the witness appeared to have been shot in the chest in the last episode, presumably at very close range since the two were in a car, he seems to be perfectly fine here a day later; and the judge is weirdly dismissive of the case, acting like it’s not particularly serious. I can’t imagine a judge trying to get rid of a shooting case with such a low disposition this early on in the process.

“Death by Kiki” has a really bizarre scene where Bates takes Coffey aside and tells him to stop acting like a child. It’s bizarre, because he doesn’t do anything in the episode to lead up to this! In fact, in the scene that immediately precedes this, Lucy and Joe are joking around and seem to be completely fine. I’m guessing that something must have been cut from the episode that provided some buildup. Very strange.

We learn that Bobby’s mother lives in St. Louis.

Frank refers to Belker as a sergeant at one point, perhaps indicating that he was promoted offscreen, although elsewhere in the episode he’s still called “Detective Belker.”

At Chief Daniels’s behest, the deputy chief agrees to squelch the disciplinary action against Belker, but realistically, I don’t think he would be able to make the thing disappear once the wheels had already been set in motion on an IAD investigation.
 
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@Mr. Reindeer
And here I was thinking what an eloquent job you’ve done at convincing me to watch Hill Street Blues, when you had to go and remind me of *that* character, lol.

That being said, these are great write ups. Thanks for taking the time to chronicle this important (and somewhat forgotten) show!
 
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