TV’s “Hill Street Blues” holds up as a boxed set – The Denver Post

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Above, Bruce Weitz as Mick Belker and, left, Daniel J. Travanti as Capt. Frank Furillo in the much-beloved TV drama "Hill Street Blues."

Bruce Weitz as Mick Belker in "Hill Street Blues."

The praise heaped on current good-quality television is deserved: the abundance of complex, literate, dark dramas with artful cinematic styles is exciting.
A golden age, yes. Still, it’s important to note this isn’t the first time the medium has experienced a creative growth spurt.
We’re now observing TV’s third “golden age.” The first was Sid Caesar’s. The maturation of the cop drama achieved by “Hill Street Blues” counts as the second.
While “The Wire” has a large, ethnically diverse ensemble cast and a gritty, realistic-looking police precinct house, and “The Shield” brims with tragically flawed law enforcers, “Hill Street Blues” got there first.
The “True Detective” depiction of politics invading the cops’ headquarters is clever, and the bickering but ultimately loyal buddies enrich the tale. But “Hill Street” did that long ago.
The mixing of romance and police work on “Bones” and “The Mentalist” keeps things spicy. But Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel Travanti) and public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) wound up in bed/bath together at the end of “Hill Street Blues” episodes more than 30 years ago — they kept their relationship secret for the first few seasons.
The interweaving of multiple storylines, now a standard feature of hour-long dramas, was new when “Hill Street” tried it. “Homicide: Life on the Street” took the densely packed narrative further. And while “Homicide” was distinguished by hyper-realistic audio/video work, with hand-held cameras capturing the herky-jerky chaos of life and characters talking over each other with ambient sound getting in the way, “Hill Street” ventured into those effects, too.
In fact, most any convention you can spot on current TV crime shows owes a debt to the 1981-87 run of “Hill Street Blues.” The series arguably ushered in TV’s first era of serious, adult scripted drama for viewers willing to be challenged.
This week, the 34-DVD “Hill Street Blues” boxed set will be released by Shout Factory. Consider it a way-back machine: As soon as the indelible Mike Post theme music fills the room, we are transported to the dawn of a thoughtful, even provocative (and nostalgic) TV cop experience.
Never a huge ratings winner, it was a prestige project for NBC, launching the struggling network’s Thursday night “must-see TV” comeback and winning critical acclaim. “Hill Street” won eight Emmy Awards in its premiere season, surpassed only by “The West Wing.”
Before TV’s law enforcers moved out of police cars and into the crime lab, before “CSI” capitalized on modern digital effects, the pioneering crime drama was “Hill Street.”
It holds up as entertainment, and its underlying message is timeless. The show maintained that life is complicated and cops are flawed humans, too. The chaos of the (never named) city is overwhelming, “Hill Street” demonstrates, yet some small human moment can offer redemption and hope.
Revolutionary, pre-cable
For today’s demo darlings (18-34), it may be difficult to imagine how revolutionary “Hill Street” was. Remember, this was pre-cable. It was pre-antihero-onslaught. It was something entirely new and gritty-feeling, introducing a new sense of verite to the medium, breaking what were then the too-predictable patterns of hour-long dramas. “Hill Street” proclaimed that the cookie-cutter, airbrushed TV of the ’70s was over.
Fans of the show were particularly bonded to the characters, not least because we weren’t trying to follow eight other serial dramas at the same time.
Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll created the series with the intention of exploring characters while conveying the prevailing sense of urban chaos. They ended up remaking an entire genre. Bochco had written for “Rockford Files” and “Columbo” (and would go on to create “L.A. Law,” “Doogie Howser M.D.” and, most memorably, “N.Y.P.D. Blue”). Each of those series is marked by the dark humor that was a hallmark of “Hill Street.” With young David Milch (“N.Y.P.D. Blue,” “Deadwood”) also a writer-producer, it’s no wonder “Hill Street” continually tested the censors.
The cast members, largely unknowns, became instant stars. Bruce Weitz as growling, biting Mick Belker, Betty Thomas as tough-talking officer Bates, Michael Warren and Charles Haid as officers Hill and Renko, James B. Sikking as hawkish SWAT commander Lt. Howard Hunter, Joe Spano as sensitive community affairs officer Sgt. Henry Goldblume, Barbara Bosson (Bochco’s then-wife) as Furillo’s ex-wife Fay, and more.
Watching now, it’s fun to spot the not-yet famous David Caruso and Dan Hedaya in small roles in the first season, Alfre Woodard in the fourth season, Ken Olin in the fifth, Dennis Franz originating the role of Lt. Norman Buntz in the sixth.
“Hill Street” gave us all that and a catchphrase, “Let’s be careful out there,” uttered at the end of each morning briefing by Michael Conrad as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus. (When Conrad died of cancer midway through the series’ run, his death was written into the storyline, a shocking merger of life and art at the time.)
Who knows whether today’s much-recapped, deconstructed and dissected dramas will hold up as well 30 years hence? It’s enough to say the “Hill Street” run stands as golden.
Joanne Ostrow: 303-954-1830, or
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