Hill Street Blues: The Complete First Season Review
I bring good news! Not, you'll understand, anything to do with Hill Street Blues as such, more that having been understandably cruel to David Caruso over the past few months, I come to say that on the evidence of Season 1 of this show, he may once have fallen into a role that's almost perfectly suited to him. At first, though, you can't quite believe that it's him - there's a flicker of a smile on his lips, his dusting of ginger hair was once a thick barnet, he's not perving out in the company of a young girl and he doesn't threaten anyone with all the force of a souffle - but no, it really is him. Granted, he's in no position to threaten anyone, what with his carrying a shillelagh and his wearing of a top hat and a waistcoat with a shamrock sewn on it, which, apparently, is the chosen wardrobe of Shamrock, the leader of a gang of Irish-Americans. Bejaysus, it's quite enough to have me question my own Irishness!
But then I remember that this first season of Hill Street Blues was made only a few years after The Warriors, when, as with Walter Hill's gang thriller, organised gang warfare was still considered a very real threat to the order of one's life in the inner cities. Of course, as with The Warriors, it's hard to look at such moments in Hill Street Blues with any amount of seriousness, with Caruso's Shamrocks being as terrifying as Hill's High-Hats or the Baseball Furies. And yet, maybe we are, or rather I am, looking at this at a safe distance, some twenty five years on from when Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll and underestimating just how threatening gang culture was in the late-seventies and early-eighties for, in all other respects, Hill Street Blues is as grittily realistic a cop show as they come - less sensational than The Shield, yes, but funnier, warmer and an entirely satisfying piece of television.
If there's a thin blue line of police and crime dramas on television, Hill Street Blues didn't so much branch off it as simply bring an existing one a little further on. Hill Street Blues didn't create the genre of the realistic cop drama - Dragnet, The Untouchables and The Streets of San Francisco had all portrayed police investigations in as realistic a manner as they could given the times - but what it did do was to usher that sense of reality back in after Starsky And Hutch, Hart To Hart and Holmes And YoYo. Add to that its obvious comedy, its working as a continuing drama, or soap opera, and its intertwining plot lines and, eschewing many of the cliches of cop shows before it, Hill Street Blues was the foundation on which two decades of police dramas have been built. Without it, we wouldn't have seen The Shield, Homicide, NYPD Blue or Law & Order and therein lies its importance. We also wouldn't have had ER, St Elsewhere or Chicago Hope, nor, on this side of the Atlantic, Casualty or The Bill, which although that doesn't appear to be a particularly impressive list, it must be said that British cop shows have tended towards the Dixon Of Dock Green template, followed by that set by The Sweeney and The Professionals before settling on one inspired by Morse's languid two-hour investigations.
"Let's be careful out there!" So ended the roll call that, in the minutes after the start of the shift at 7am, opened each episode. Contrary to what you might think, this was not just a precis of the forthcoming episode, more a chance to set up a homely feel to the squad and to re-introduce the characters and their personalities at the outset of each hour-long episode. Occasionally, there are continuing storylines - in the first season, these are the presidential visit, the James Park rapist and the charge of corruption against LaRue - but just as often, this roll call sets up moments of comedy, such as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus's (Michael Conrad) call for a higher standard of graffiti in the toilets or his summary check on unacceptable weaponry, where daggers, shotguns and nunchukas are placed on the desk before being gathered once again as the squad leaves the precinct building. The titles also serve to push the storyline on, showing the post-roll call leaving of the Hill Street station by the cops in blue and onto the beat. Where this drama takes place is never clarified for although it appears to be set in a northeastern city in the US - New York would be a likely candidate but Bochco suggests that Pittsburgh was the actual city that he had in mind when creating the show - the actual location is never specified.
Once the beat cops, including the undercover officers LaRue and Washington, leave the station, the drama shifts to Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), who gives each episode some focus. Whether it's his dealings with a presidential aide, the gangs around the Hill Street station, including David Caruso's Shamrocks or, in the opening episode, his talking down of a couple of gangbangers, Furillo ensures that a connection to the station remains throughout an episode even when the beat cops are shot, are taken in by an IA bribe or go out dressed in drag to catch a rapist. Finally, a typical episode ends - and this isn't really a spoiler given that they're shown together in bed in the final minutes of the opening episode - with Furillo and Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) together, discussing the day's events, often from entirely different points of view - he as the captain of a police squad, she a lawyer from the Public Defender's office.
This feeling of an underlying tension to the show, typically between partners, is what fuels many of the personal relationships in the show. For example, black, urban Hill (Michael Warren) is partnered with white hick Renko (Charles Haid), LaRue (Kiel Martin) and Washington (Taurean Blacque) had a history of alcohol and drug addiction whilst the pacifist Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano) often feels overwhelmed, both personally and professionally, by the trigger-happy, right-wing gun-nut Lt. Howard Hunter (James Sikking). Way, way out on the periphery of the squad is the wild, grubby-looking Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), who contrasts with the charming and urbane Esterhaus. Holding it all together is Furillo, who is a most modern captain, recognising the limitations of his squad whilst accepting that they are called upon to do remarkable things, including the organisation of a visit by the president in an area that is torn apart by gang warfare.
From Esterhaus's roll call to Furillo and Davenport together in the evening, each episode of Hill Street Blues offers some sense of the familiar with enough surprises and depth of characterisation to bring the viewer back into it. It may not have been the first realistic cop show but it was most likely the first ensemble police drama and such was its influence that it appears to have barely dated at all. Post-The Shield, Hill Street Blues may appear to be a touch on the safe side - the language, nudity and violence are tame by today's standards - but the stories and the characters are as good as ever. Furillo and Esterhaus, in particular, make a great partnership, a calm in the centre of the storm that circles their station and if there's the occasionally bumpy moment - once again, we're looking at you, Caruso! - that's little to complain about in a drama of this standard.
There are numerous spoilers in this following guide to the seventeen episodes included in his set so if you'd rather avoid them, click here to go to the next section.
Hill Street Station (49m06s): After roll call, public defender Joyce Davenport arrives at Hill Street station in search of her client, who appears to have gotten lost within the building or between it and a criminal hospital. Furious with Furillo, who is not, it has to be said, taking her complaints at all seriously, Davenport also has to deal with LaRue's attempts at seduction to which she responds in typically brusque style. But Furillo's main concern is with a couple of gang members who've held up a liquor store downtown. With Goldblume trying to talk them out of the store and Hunter more than willing to fire upon them, it's Furillo who looks to defuse the situation with the help of a local gang leader and, though successful there, soon hears some terrible news regarding two of his officers.
Presidential Fever (49m14s): Anywhere else and it would have been great news - the president is planning a visit to Hill Street and is looking for full cooperation from Furillo. But how can Furillo offer such a deal when he doesn't even have complete control of his precinct? Elsewhere, Belker works alone to catch the James Park rapists, Hill and Renko return to the station, both having a few issues to sort out with one another and two new beat cops get mixed up in a simple and perfectly legal house more, ending with them having a fridge thrown at them. Finally, Esterhaus is asked to entertain the police decorator, Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock) but despite his best efforts, he feels nothing but contempt for her.
Politics as Usual (49m04s): Hill and Renko put in separate requests to be broken up as a team - Hill wants a new partner, Renko wants to be taken out of blues and into plainclothes - but Esterhaus isn't so sure. Belker, under prompting from his mother, accepts a blind date whilst LaRue accepts a bribe from what he thinks is a dealer. Meanwhile, Furillo's dealing with the heads of the various gangs in his precinct continue but when minor arguments between them turn into death threats, is there anything he can do to bring order to his precinct before the president conducts his tour of Hill Street? More importantly, can he bring order to his ex-wife's home after she's arrested for possession of marijuana at a hot tub party?
Can World War III Be An Attitude? (48m52s): LaRue's drug dealer turns out to be a cop from Internal Affairs, who then bring charges of corruption against him. But Furillo decides to back LaRue and he needs to know the whole truth from a cop who he's always been somewhat suspicious of. What Furillo doesn't have, though, is the backing of the president and there's uproar amongst the gangs as his visit to Hill Street is cancelled. When the lights and the phones go out, the station gets ready for an all-out assault by the gangs. Out on the beat, Hill and Renko arrest a car thief who turns out to be an expert at fixing up the decrepit wiring and plumbing in the station, whilst Esterhaus finds himself warming to Grace Garder and wondering if his romance with a high school student is built to last.
Double Jeopardy (49m05s): Esterhaus announces at his roll call that the dog that has been adopted by the squad must go on the orders of the chief of police. He also announces that Operation Duckling is now a go and that all participating officers must report to the men's locker room. If the name doesn't give it away, then it's a trap that the cops of Hill Street are setting for the James Park rapist - they're dressing in drag and taking to the park in number. Some are, of course, more willing than others but Belker stands alone - he has a date that night and refuses to shave off his moustache. Elsewhere, Furillo decides that as well as defending LaRue, he ought to investigate the cop that trapped him, Macafee but everything turns up clean so he and Washington pay a visit to Macafee's wife.
Film at Eleven (48m53s): There's a television crew in Hill Street and Furillo is doing his best to convince them that he's of little interest - studying him, he tells them, would result in a, "10-hour film of a guy shuffling papers and phone calls with four trips to the coffeepot and two to the john." After taking in a show of new weaponry with Hunter, which fails to function quite as he describes them, they take to the road with Hill and Renko. Elsewhere, Belker arrests Kevin Herman Dracula, a vampire who's accused of biting the neck of a young woman whilst Washington and LaRue find the gun that was used in the shooting of Hill and Renko in the bag of a purse snatcher, which leads them to a suspect, Eddie Hoban.
Choice Cut (49m05s): Freddie The Wino, a long-time occupant of the streets in the precinct, dies whilst in custody - of natural causes, of course - and Fay, Furillo's ex-wife, causes a panic when she walks into the precinct holding a gun. A face from the pace comes back, having once again fired a shot at Hill and Renko - Hector Ruiz, the gang member who held up the liquor store in the opening episode, is back to his old tricks once again but this time he's armed and in a supermarket, which the television reporter from the last episode, Cynthia Chase, stirs up to her own advantage. Finally, LaRue and Washington pursue the case against Eddie Hoban, trying to connect him to the shooting.
Up in Arms (48m18s): Esterhaus allows Hunter a few minutes at the end of his roll call to promote Camp Guadalcanal, a place that offers, "Four intensive weeks of physical conditioning...along with our traditional classroom disciplines of third-world topographies, elementary infiltration and a teen guide to Rommel!" Needless to say, the beat cops appear to be less than interested. In the non-Emergency Action Team world and following on from the two hostage situations that he's had to deal with in this season, Furillo has to meet with the Dekker Avenue Merchants Association who are concerned that the police are not doing enough to ensure their safety. As they threaten to take matters into their own hands, Esterhaus receives a message from someone he once put away and Eddie Hoban's polygraph tests prove inconclusive.
Your Kind, My Kind, Humankind (48m32s): With Eddie Hoban back out on the streets, Esterhaus warns the squad that as far as they're concerned, "Unless he's up to his ears in a major felony, he does not exist!" Renko clearly thinks otherwise but, first, he decides to entertain a couple of prostitutes at an upmarket hotel. Meanwhile, the Dekker Avenue Merchants Association, who are now allowed to carry police-style batons, continue their patrols with the support of Cynthia Chase, who agrees to accompany LaRue on a stakeout.
Gatorbait (48m35s): With Esterhaus warning the squad about a gang of juveniles flashing the traffic on the Harding Expressway in the hope of distracting motorists into causing accidents, the morning roll call ends on a high note, which carries through to LaRue and Washington planning on having a little fun with Hunter during his annual search for alligators in the city's sewers. Meanwhile, Renko feels that a homicide detective is walking his way through the murder of a prostitute but gets his wrist slapped when he tries to intervene at the scene. He takes this back to Furillo, who decides to meet with the detective, Emil Schneider, to keep Renko involved, finding himself agreeing with his cop that something sounds out of place.
Life, Death, Eternity (48m36s): "Hey, stay warm and let's be careful out there!" The heating has broken down in Hill Street station but things are hotting up for Furillo when word comes that he is one of two candidates up for promotion to divisional commander. But that promotion is threatened when the suspect in the murder of the prostitute, Nemo Rodriguez, fingers a councilman, Tom McAurley, as being implicated in the girl's death. Meanwhile, two cops are transferred into the Hill, both on them on the F-list - one more foul and they're out - but they make a bad start when one of them calls Belker, Jew-boy. Finally, LaRue looks for money for his saloondramat, a place where one can wash clothes and wash down a beer! What's not to love about it?
I Never Promised You a Rose, Marvin (48m08s): With Esterhaus warning the squad of the danger of driving down Sniper Alley with a lack of disregard to their vehicle, their uniform or their career, it's up to Hunter to run the gauntlet down it with his newly acquired tank. Meanwhile, Marv's remains lie in state beside the coffee machine, which is handy for Hunter when he's looking to empty his pipe but LaRue's saloondramat, if you can believe it, falls through. Finally, McAurley is fighting back but after his television appearance with his family, Furillo responds with a subpoena.
Fecund Hand Rose (48m04s): On the morning after his stag night, which was held at the Kubiak Lodge, Esterhaus pays notice to those looking forward to his forthcoming wedding to Cindy. Grace Gardner, though, won't let him go without a fight and shows up to remind him just what he'd be missing if he goes ahead with the wedding. Meanwhile, Macafee is turning state witness and, much to Furillo's displeasure, he and his cops have to provide protection for him. Naturally, Furillo protests but the DA tells him that he doesn't have a choice - Macafee knows too much and must be protected and that Frank is the only cop he trusts. Inevitably, the news doesn't go down well back at the station but there's good news when Belker arrests a cat burglar with a long list of great stories before preparations for Esterhaus' wedding get underway.
Rites of Spring (Pt. 1) (47m43s): After the excitement of the wedding ceremony, things calm down again at the station with Hill and Renko looking into a nineteen-year-old girl with two kids who's accused of neglecting them. Renko favours taking the girl in and making the kids a ward of the court but Hill isn't so sure. Meanwhile, LaRue's drinking gets out of control when he fails to back up Belker during a stakeout on a bus and a chase with an armed robber, after which he turns up drunk. Finally, a brutal and racist vice cop, Weeks, shoots an unarmed black man dead, which results in riots in East Utina.
Rites of Spring (Pt. 2) (46m46s): With the riots in East Utina still ongoing, Esterhaus calls on the squad to get down there and secure the area. With LaRue and Washington escorting Weeks to the scene of the shooting, they're met by Internal Affairs who see Weeks' luck running out. Elsewhere, personal problems are the bane of the cops' life in Hill Street with Davenport complaining to Furillo about a night spent alone, of LaRue facing a final demand from the loan company and of some terrible news that Goldblume receives regarding his son.
Jungle Madness (Pt. 1) (46m58s): "Hey, let's be care..." It's Esterhaus' birthday and a belly dancer interrupts his usual roll call but, otherwise, it's business as usual - LaRue is still trying to raise cash to secure his car, Washington continues to investigate the Weeks' shooting and Belker's still doing surveillance on the fencing operation. Otherwise, Shirrett Anders, the mother-of-two that Hill had tried to help, leaves her kids alone once again and Hill and Renko are called to try and find her. Finally, a drugs bust goes wrong when LaRue shows up drunk, leaving Furillo no choice but to tell LaRue to get help or he's off the force.
Jungle Madness (Pt. 2) (46m23s): LaRue turns up to the roll call looking disheveled but his last chance has already passed and he desperately needs help. Furillo asked him to make the phone call but, so far, he's stuck it out in the liquor stores whilst his world crumbles about him. Elsewhere, Belker's surveillance comes to an end as does Washington's investigation into Weeks' shooting but when the news breaks, life has one final tragedy in store for the cops at Hill Street.
What little I watched of Hill Street Blues during its original run, I remember it being murky and a tough watch compared to the likes of Knight Rider, which, although it debuted some years after this, ran concurrently for a time. Similarly, to capture the busy feel of a police department, Bochco insisted on using handheld cameras so it all looks rough and ready with precious little sheen to the image. This DVD captures that look well, ably capturing the style of television shows of that time - a little dark, sometimes murky but with a sharpness borne out of using film in an environment that had to be lit as naturally as it could.
It's the same story with the mono audio track, which isn't going to win any awards as presented here but is faithfully recreated on DVD, even to the detail in the background chatter and the sharp tinniness of the sound. Finally, all of the episodes on the two discs are subtitled in English, French and Spanish.
Looking Back At Hill Street Blues (51m10s): This opens with various members of the cast greeting one another in the park outside of a soundstage before they take their seats in a line of director's chairs to reminisce about the show. Those present are Victoria Hamel (Davenport), Bruce Weitz (Belker), James Spikking (Hunter), Joe Spano (Goldblume), Michael Warren (Hill), Charles Haid (Renko), Ed Marinaro (Coffey) and Barbara Bosson (Fay Furillo) and they take part in an interesting, fast-paced, sometimes funny discussion about the origins of the show, its initial failure and its later success, which followed a great night at the Emmys. Possibly due to their involvement in the two commentaries, Spano and Spikking tend towards talking more about the show than of their characters - the rest sound a little like parents speaking about their offspring - and there's the noticeable rosy tint to some of the stories but it's good fun throughout and a surprise given the lack of such extras on older shows that are now coming to DVD.
Commentaries: There are two included here, both featuring Steven Bochco, James B Spikking and Joe Spano, on the episodes Hill Street Station and I Never Promised You A Rose, Marvin. Bochco is, as you would expect, a great contributor throughout with Spano and Spikking being there more to give him someone to work off than as equals. Both, though, are quite laidback tracks and there's lots of laughter, both at Bochco's memories of the time - as he admits it, he was quite naive and was surprised to find the Teamster boos on the set with a solid gold watch until he was told that this man was also the show's 'official' drug dealer - as well as at the antics of Howard Hunter, which is never funnier than during his attempt to park up the PANDA in I Never Promised You A Rose, Marvin.
Each episode also comes with a preview both for the current show and the one that follows, which are duplicated between menus, and the commentaries are enabled from the episode selection screen. Finally, these extras are not subtitled.
It's one thing to say how gritty and realistic Hill Street Blues is but it's also worth stressing how funny it is with there being more than a few good laughs per episode. This is particularly noticeable when an episode concerns Howard Hunter, who takes to his task with the kind of zeal only seen on those with a shoot-first-ask-questions-later-and-whilst-you're-at-check-do-a-check-on-that-gentlemen's-immigration-status. But it's also worth noting that Hill Street Blues expertly mixes emotionally hard-hitting material, such as the shooting of various officers throughout the season as well as, for example, Goldblume's worry that his son will die of meningitis.
It's at these moments that Hill Street Blues gives us something that I think we're missing in major police dramas - quiet time. With the average length of an episode of Hill Street Blues being 49 minutes, that's seven minutes more than a show like Law & Order gets per episode and it shows, having that few more minutes at the end of each episode where the characters quietly talk over their day. And what with a theme over the end titles that gently says, "Time for bed!", it's a beautifully paced series that does everything extremely well. It's an undoubted classic of police television and although more special features wouldn't have gone amiss, it's otherwise been well presented here.