Created by talented producer/writer Steven Bochco in tandem with Michael Kozoll, the series chronicled the busy, eventful and often outright dangerous professional and private lives of the officers who worked out of the aging, dilapidated, Hill Street Stationhouse in a run down district of an unnamed eastern city of the United States (exterior scenes were shot in Chicago). However, in spite of becoming arguably the most influential 'Cop Show' of the 80's, Hill Street Blues was not an instant hit with the viewing public.
The series premiered on the NBC network on 15 January 1981 to a critical reaction which ranged from the indifferent to the outright hostile, and then proceeded during its initial year to both narrowly avoid cancellation and gain the dubious honour of being the lowest-rated prime-time show (a lowly sixty-six out of a possible sixty-nine in the all powerful Nielsen rankings), ever to be renewed. From this somewhat less than auspicious start, the series remarkably went on to 145 episodes and seven seasons of innovative, quality, ground-breaking police action.
Employing one of the largest and most talented casts ever assembled for a single series at the time, Bochco and his team of writers wove a richly complex tapestry which pushed the accepted envelope of traditional U.S. television story-telling techniques far beyond what had until then been perceived as "viewer friendly", to astonishingly successful effect.
Swimming against the tide of accepted wisdom, the show blasted the tenet that the average viewer was unable to keep up with more than half a dozen characters in any one episode, by blithely presenting at various times more than two dozen core and recurring characters.
The belief that an audience found it impossible to follow more than one or two main plot lines at a time within an average episode also fell by the wayside, as the series presented its audience with six or eight in a single episode, deftly overlapping plots and drawing other story strands across the course of multiple episodes in mini story arcs. Bochco's use of sound was also as forceful and unconventional. Hill Street was a very noisy station in a very realistically noisy city.
The staff at Hill Street included Captain Frank Furillo, the quietly spoken but firm commander whose own private life was in a state of turmoil as he struggled to cope with his ex-wife and her alimony demands. Eventually his affair with defence attorney Joyce Davenport turned into marriage even though, professionally, they remained adversaries. Under Furillo served Sgt Phil Esterhaus, but when actor Michael Conrad died three years into the run, Sgt. Stan Jablonski replaced him. Other characters included Hispanic second-in-command Ray Calletano, trigger-happy SWAT squad lieutenant Howard Hunter, scruffy undercover detective Mick Belker, and tooth-pick chewing Neal Washington with his alcoholic partner J.D. LaRue.
Despite the series poor performance during its first season, it was nevertheless renewed. Although still suffering from a dangerously low profile, the show nonetheless swept the prestigious Emmy Awards that year, gaining a total of twenty-one nominations and netting an impressive total of eight awards, setting a new record for the most Emmy awards for a prime-time show in one year, including Outstanding Drama Series.
In a recent interview Bochco noted with some irony: "At the 1981 Emmy awards, there was a whole bunch of us sitting together, and every time one of us got an award we'd all stand up and yell, and everyone was trying to figure out who we were because no one knew what Hill Street Blues was." But the production team's faith in the series wasn't misplaced, and their creative risks began to pay off as the show began to acquire both critical acclaim and ever increasing viewer popularity, a continuing popularity which would see it go on to scoop the Emmy award for Outstanding Drama Series during its first four seasons, the only series to achieve such an outstanding accolade. Indeed, by the end of its full seven season run, the production gained a staggering ninety-eight Emmy nominations and twenty-six actual awards, an achievement eclipsed only by Cheers with twenty-seven and the legendary Mary Tyler Moore Show with twenty-nine awards. Added to this list was composer Mike Post and Larry Carlton's theme music for the series securing the number ten in the coveted Billboard Magazine list of Top TV Theme Songs in November 1981.
With outstanding performances across the board, coupled to scripts and story-lines which were realistic, gritty and laced liberally with an ever present undercurrent of dark, sophisticated humour, Hill Street Blues rewrote the book for the depiction of police television drama on prime time U.S. TV, and in its influential wake would follow such accomplished crime drama's as Bochco's own NYPD Blue and Murder One.
Breathtakingly fast paced, mature, tough, brutal and uncompromising, Hill Street Blues was a triumph of intelligence and substance over the narrow-minded and conservative complacency, which had dominated network series crime drama output for decades. The series' best remembered catchphrase might well have been "And let's be careful out there." But luckily for both the viewing audience and television drama as a whole, Hill Street Blue's pointedly ignored its own advice.
Published on December 21st, 2018. Written by SRH for Television Heaven.