Shark Patrol Redux 0005: In Remembrance and Celebration of "Hill Street Blues"
It being 2019 I am less hesitant to fear for subject matter dating me. Sure, I carry concern for the ever-present specter of ageism in my never-ending career adventures but there’s no denying this simple fact: those fun-loving kids who partied without protection like it was 1999 back in 1999 now have twenty-year-old children. “Time waits for no one,” as the Stones put it before even I was dialed into popular music.
So, my latest trip down memory lane has come via Hulu (who I might ad are pretty generous with free trial memberships should anyone be inclined to get in the “Way Back Machine”) who currently have all 146 episodes of the seminal cop series, “Hill Street Blues” (spanning seven seasons from 1981-1987) available for streaming. With nostalgia as the undeniable fuel, I dialed up the pilot episode and was transported back to the beginning of what would eventually be celebrated as groundbreaking television, and for good reason.
From it’s premiere at 10:00 PM on January 15th, 1981 - a time slot it would maintain for the duration of the series - “Hill Street Blues” essentially laid the foundation for NBC’s vaunted “Must See TV” lineup when it was eventually supported by the likes of “Cheers,” “Taxi” and “Fame.” From the start “Hill Street Blues" was unlike any other cop drama that had preceded it. Set in an unnamed but decidedly drab urban environment with obvious nods to the rust belt (Chicago, Buffalo and Pittsburgh were the prime locale suspects with the squad cars resembling metro vehicles manned by the Chicago PD at the time) the show took chances with both script choices and production challenges.
In the dramatic equivalent of “Saturday Night Live’s” cold opening, each early episode began prior to the credits with a roll call scene providing “Sgt. Phil Esterhaus” (Michael Conrad) the series most iconic catchphrase as he concluded each gathering with the admonition, “Let’s be careful out there.” The no-name cast is a diverse post-seventies grab bag: men and women of all shapes, sizes and colors and their fashion styles and slang-infused jargon are themselves an entertaining revisit to that era. The precinct house that serves as the character’s home base is suitably rundown and as time period appropriate as the societal mores examined. The fact that this is not recreation but instead a representation of the goings-on at the time the series was filmed provides an undeniable and imminently watchable authenticity.
Imagine if HBO’s “The Deuce” had been shot with hand-held cameras - another production risk at the time - as the Times Square scene of the 1970s was unfolding just behind the director’s chair. The regular background chatter added to an almost documentary feel which was also new at the time. So was the writing style of creator Steven Bochco who intertwined various storylines throughout the hour-long episodes allowing for the development of a multitude of characters as opposed to the traditional focus on a decided male and/or female lead. Quite a departure from the then tried and true methodology of all problems being resolved in 49 minutes of screen time.
The comparison to series that later aired in the more cinematic landscape of cable television is, in retrospect, an easy one. Throughout “Hill Street Blues” there are connected short stories, some resolved within the framework of a single episode, others setting a theme that will unfold over the course of a season or throughout the series. Like, “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” or, “The Sopranos,” it was not uncommon for a seemingly resolved storyline to resurface in later episodes of “Hill Street Blues.” Sometimes they collided with a seemingly disparate and more recent narrative, at others they nudged up against a new theme or unexpectedly reappeared with new consequences or influence. These wildly acclaimed series of the new millennium were to some extent exploring a story-telling approach first broached on “Hill Street” in the 1980s, but with the additional freedom of profanity, violence and the absence of commercial breaks adding to the cinematic feel.
This approach was not lost on critics of its time. “Hill Street Blues” received eight Emmy awards in that debut season, a feat not surpassed until 1999 when “The West Wing,” (a series employing the same approach to storylines) garnered nine. Eventually, “The West Wing,” “Mad Men,” and another Bochco creation, “L.A. Law,” would share the honor of claiming the most Outstanding Drama Series Emmy’s with four apiece. Bochco’s influence would extend to the well-received, “St. Elsewhere,” with a Boston hospital standing in for the nondescript precinct house and his own, “NYPD Blue,” which allowed him to once again employ Dennis Franz. If the brusque and morally questionable cop, “Norman Buntz,” of the Hill Street precinct needed redemption he found it as the floundering but pure-hearted detective, “Andy Sipowicz," in New York (after a regrettable turn in “Hill Street Blue’s” only spin-off, “Bevery Hill Buntz.” Less said about that the better).
It could be argued that the seeds for this “Golden Age of Television” were sown years before the advent of cable’s limitless possibilities. And, for those keeping score, Franz was not the only “Hill Street” alum to resurface in “NYPD Blue’s” 15th precinct. His first partner, “John Kelly” was portrayed by David Caruso who appears in the first season of “Hill Street Blues” in a recurring role as “Tommy Mann,” leader of a street gang, the Shamrocks, sporting wardrobe choices that would not have been out of vogue in the 1979 cinematic cult classic, “The Warriors.”
Not to be outdone in those first few episodes was an emerging young actor named Mark Metcalf. Previously noticed for his portrayal of sadistic ROTC nightmare, “Douglas Neidermeyer,” in “Animal House,” he would eventually reprise that persona in Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna” Take It” video before eventually reinventing himself as “Seinfeld’s” “Maestro.” Interestingly enough, Metcalf also appears in a season three episode (“Souvenir”) of “Mad Men” playing “Mayor Johnson.”
In the fledgling “Hill Street Blues” his anti-charm is evident again as brash rookie beat cop, "Harris," who after needlessly harassing some Puerto Ricans in the midst of a home move gets his comeuppance when a refrigerator is pushed down a flight of tenement stairs onto he and his partner.
Which serves to reinforce another theme originated on those January nights in 1981 that still resounds on television today. There are guys who are “stand-up” and guys that aren’t. Sometimes it’s easy to tell and sometimes it takes a while -or at least a few episodes - for that character flaw to reveal itself.
“Hill Street Blues” and that style of writing in many ways set that idea in motion.
“Let’s be careful out there.”
Mark Metcalf as "Officer Harris" (minus pledge pin).