NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues’ pilots hooked viewers with sex, violence, and depth

NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues’ pilots hooked viewers with sex, violence, and depth

About two-thirds of the way through Hill Street Blues’ first episode, 1981’s “Hill Street Station,” officers Bobby Hill and Andy Renko—played by Michael Warren and Charles Haid—walk into a boarded-up tenement, looking for a telephone so they can report a stolen patrol car. Instead, they stumble onto a circle of junkies, who get spooked and start firing guns before the cops can respond. When the episode begins, Hill and Renko look like they might be Hill Street Blues’ breakout characters. One’s a level-headed, handsome African-American; the other’s his goofy, hot-tempered cowboy partner. But when the episode ends, it’s unclear whether either man will survive. (In fact, Renko was meant to die, until Haid lost a competing acting gig and was suddenly available to continue as a series regular.)

Twelve years later, Hill Street Blues producer Steven Bochco debuted another cop show, NYPD Blue, and about halfway through its pilot episode, another major character gets gunned down. Dennis Franz’s alcoholic, combative Detective Andy Sipowicz walks out of the squad room after getting suspended for beating up a mobster, and heads straight into a bar, where he picks up a prostitute, who lures Sipowicz to a hotel room where that mobster is waiting, with vengeance in mind. Unlike Warren and Haid, Franz was a fairly well-known actor before NYPD Blue premièred—he’d been on Hill Street Blues for years, as well as its spin-off series Beverly Hills Buntz—but in its first episode, NYPD Blue focused more on Sipowicz’s partner, John Kelly, played by David Caruso. So right up to the final scene, where a comatose Sipowicz squeezes Kelly’s hand in intensive care, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that Bochco could kill off Franz’s character. Because while Bochco was never a journalist, somewhere along the line, he seems to have learned the first rule of the news business: If it bleeds, it leads.

Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue were credited for revolutionizing television in their respective decades, and for similar reasons. Both shows’ first episodes are immersive experiences, thrusting audiences directly into fast-paced, dangerous, at times blackly comic worlds, populated by so many jaded lawmen and vicious criminals that at first, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. Both then expand out to include glimpses of the cops’ complicated home lives, while still finding time to show the police interfacing with the other side of the criminal justice system, where state’s attorneys and defense lawyers are slugging it out. Throughout their respective runs—1981-87 for Hill Street Blues on NBC, 1993-2005 for NYPD Blue on ABC—both shows explored the edges of what broadcast censors and the FCC would allow, in an overt attempt to compete with other media. Hill Street Blues looked to be as sophisticated and adult as contemporary cinema, which was in the middle of a heyday of R-rated maturity. NYPD Blue was looking to draw people away from cable TV, which at the time was luring viewers with the promise of nudity and profanity, even though its original programming wasn’t yet up to the networks’ best standards.

Most importantly, both shows’ first episodes were genuinely surprising, setting up many, many hours of stories to come. The shootings aren’t their only twists. Throughout “Hill Street Station,” Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) spars with public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), who protests the police’s incompetence and abuse of power. At the end of the episode, the audience learns that Frank and Joyce are actually lovers. In NYPD Blue, Detective Kelly flirts with his lawyer ex-wife, Laura (Sherry Stringfield), but ends up having sex with uniformed officer Janice Licalsi (Amy Brenneman), who at the end of the pilot is revealed to be working for the mob, on a mission to kill Kelly. Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue were partly about the tangled relationship between crooks, cops, civilians, and the legal system, so it made sense for both to carry that idea forward via scenes of its lead characters literally sleeping with the enemy. But even beyond the metaphorical implications, the sexual relationships let viewers know that they had plenty of intrigue in store.

Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue shared key personnel besides Bochco. Gregory Hoblit was a producer and director on both shows, and helped establish NYPD Blue’s jittery, handheld, swish-pan-heavy look. (On the commentary track to “Hill Street Station,” Bochco says he considered employing a similar style for Hill Street Blues, but decided to use handheld cameras sparingly, figuring that wall-to-wall docu-realism would exhaust the audience, especially since so many of Hill Street Blues’ scenes are long, and set in one location.) NYPD Blue co-creator David Milch got his start as a TV writer in the early days of Hill Street Blues—later becoming its showrunner—and his personality is embedded in both shows as much as Bochco’s. In interviews, Bochco comes across like a Frank Furillo type: calm and cerebral. Milch is more of a Sipowicz: irascible yet perceptive.

Actors who worked with Milch on his later shows Deadwood and Luck sometimes talk about Milch’s strangely effective methods, which involve him walking onto a set, making a few tweaks in the staging, and delivering an offhand comment that clarifies exactly what the scene’s really about. On a featurette included on the NYPD Blue season-one DVD set, this “Milch touch” is evident in the way he describes the cops on the show as wayward Catholic boys, who serve institutions as a way of assuaging their guilt at being sinners. Bochco had a standing deal at ABC when he and Milch were developing NYPD Blue, but the network stalled on picking up the show, which gave Milch an extra year to do research with real-life NYPD cop Bill Clark. In that time, Milch picked up tips not just about how cops behave, but why.

The most noticeable differences between Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue are era-specific. Hill Street Blues feels like the culmination of multiple trends in TV and movies that had been building up throughout the ’60s and ’70s. The show was serialized in a way that was rare for primetime dramas at the time, with open-ended stories that weren’t contained within the usual episodic confines. Hill Street Blues resembled the literal-minded, anecdote-driven Jack Webb/Mark VII productions Adam-12 and Emergency!, mixed with the edgy Joseph Wambaugh-derived Police Story and the Oscar-winning policier The French Connection. But what really marked Hill Street Blues as a product of the early ’80s was its main character, Captain Furillo: a tough but sensitive leader in the mode of Hal Linden’s eponymous protagonist on Barney Miller. In “Hill Street Station,” Frank talks sincerely about how he wishes he could spend more time with his young son, who his ex-wife’s psychologist says is going through “gender-identity confusion.” But Frank can’t be the family man he feels he should be, because he’s too busy shepherding a band of eccentric, multi-ethnic old pros. (Furillo was one of the last of this wave of touchy-feely TV heroes; a few years later, when Hill Street Blues writer Anthony Yerkovich helped develop Miami Vice, he expressly wanted to move away from the Furillo/Barney Miller/Hawkeye Pierce types.)

The peripheral characters on Hill Street Blues are very late-’70s/early-’80s too, not unlike the casts of M*A*S*H, Stripes, and Animal House. There’s Michael Conrad as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, a gentle giant who calls Frank “Francis,” makes sure to tell his charges to “be careful out there,” and facetiously chides his officers for packing illegal switchblades and brass knuckles. There’s also Betty Thomas’ brash Lucille Bates, who tries to defuse concerns about her gender by acting mean; René Enriquez’s Lt. Ray Calletano, who’s embarrassed and angry about how many Hispanic criminals parade through the squad room; Joe Spano’s Henry Goldblume, an outwardly serene but inwardly insecure hostage negotiator; and James Sikking’s Lt. Howard Hunter, a pipe-smoking, comically gung-ho S.W.A.T. team leader. Hill Street Blues drew on a good mix of jobs and types, from the stupidly cocky undercover detectives to the jittery rookie patrolmen.

But no Hill Street Blues supporting character is as perfectly 1981 as Bruce Weitz’s Detective Mick Belker, a hairy little imp who in “Hill Street Station” growls like a feral cat, calls bad guys “hairball,” types up reports in hunt-and-peck fashion, and takes calls from his demanding Jewish mother. One of the other big “wow” scenes in “Hill Street Station”—along with Hill and Renko getting shot and Joyce Davenport jumping into bed with Captain Furillo—comes when Belker leaps at an out-of-control suspect and then pouts when Furillo warns him, “No biting!” Belker is a furry freak with a badge—the kind of guy who could just as easily have been a roadie for Black Oak Arkansas, or a bouncer at a topless bar, or everybody’s favorite gonzo high-school teacher.

NYPD Blue’s pilot episode is well-populated, but it isn’t as teeming with characters as Hill Street Blues’, and the actors on the whole are better coiffed and more nattily attired than the weirdoes of the Hill. The show is also more location-specific, as opposed to the unidentified urban decay of Hill Street. NYPD Blue’s debut is rooted in New York City, and squarely focused on one man. It’s all about John Kelly, as he handles his rogue partner, his disapproving ex-wife, and his fluid sense of right and wrong. The first NYPD Blue covers Kelly’s reactions to volatile station-house politics, and to his unsettled domestic situation, which is brought to the fore by a visit from his ex’s neighbor, a divorce lawyer played by David Schwimmer. David Caruso was a journeyman character actor prior to getting cast as the lead in NYPD Blue at age 37, and at the time, his jutting jaw, thin lips, and fiery red hair made him an unusually striking figure on prime-time television. Even now, there’s no doubt while watching NYPD Blue’s first episode that this man could be a star.

Behind the scenes, though, Caruso was reportedly more trouble than he was worth. On the DVD featurette, Franz diplomatically refers to Caruso as having “a process” that was all about getting to where he needed to be for a scene, regardless of whether that inconvenienced his fellow cast-members. (Hoblit is less charitable, saying, “David functioned by creating dysfunction.”) When Bochco and Milch co-created NYPD Blue, the hourlong TV drama had been floundering, with just the occasional Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, or Homicide: Life On The Street to carry on the legacy of quality that Bochco’s Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law established. NYPD Blue was immediately touted as the rare network show that was “too good for TV,” and Caruso apparently shared that belief. Given the medium’s history to that point, Caruso had no reason to expect that being a TV drama star could be creatively fulfilling, in these years before ER on NBC, The Sopranos on HBO, and yes, NYPD Blue on ABC proved that TV dramas could be both successful and sophisticated.

So Caruso bailed after one season, to try his luck in movies. When that choice flopped, Caruso returned to TV, punching a clock on CSI: Miami after the revolution had already happened without him. Stringfield went on to ER and Schwimmer to Friends, playing their own part in sparking the new TV Golden Age that was about to begin. Meanwhile, Caruso is the only major NYPD Blue creative player not interviewed in the first-season DVD bonus features—which says something about his still-contentious relationship with the show that made him famous.

To some extent, the respectful attention paid to Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue from the start set a bad precedent—it established that the best way to win over TV critics (and make audiences feel smart) was to tell stories about shooting and brooding. There are limits to the emotional range of the life-or-death situations on these kinds of shows, which often become about exploring infinite shades of gray within stark moral dilemmas, rather than being about the relatable lives and choices of individuals. There’s a can-you-top-this element to the parade of morally ambiguous heroes and anti-heroes that have become the norm on “serious” TV in the years since NYPD Blue in particular. But it’s hard to blame TV writers for going that route, because it’s an easy shortcut to dramatic intensity, to create characters who have the need and the opportunity to kill other characters. If nothing else, it keeps audiences on their toes.

And make no mistake: Bochco is as much a businessman as he is an artist. Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue are meant to be edgy and smart—and they are—but not arty or difficult. They’re cop shows, and true to their genre in that they’re violent, pulpy, and primarily preoccupied with the world of men and how they posture and wield power. (Though to be fair, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue did showcase a number of strong female characters, too.) For all the complexity Bochco’s shows brought to their understanding of policemen, they could be eye-rollingly cartoony at times, especially when it came to depicting criminals. Sometimes the “gangsters” in both shows look like they stepped out of a B-movie: In “Hill Street Station,” they’re as colorfully dressed as extras from The Warriors, while in NYPD Blue’s pilot, they’re like the characters who couldn’t make it into Goodfellas.

That said, Bochco and his writers never downplayed the bad guys’ real threat to the heroes, nor did they ignore how handling these thugs affected the good guys over time. Both shows’ first episodes depict police brutality as casual and common—there’s a lot of talk in both about who’s allowed to touch whom, and how roughly—and both depict a constant flow of negotiation between the cops and the crooks, implying that the authorities are willing to allow some crime to go unpunished so long as order is maintained. In Hill Street Blues’ first episode, Captain Furillo treats the local gang lord as an honored guest, offering him favors in exchange for his intervention in a hostage crisis. In NYPD Blue’s pilot, Kelly wages a one-man war on all the vice dens in his precinct, to force the mob boss to give up the man who shot Sipowicz. The suggestion in the latter case is that if Kelly didn’t need something, he’d let gambling, drugs, and prostitution proceed as usual.

Negotiation wasn’t just an onscreen theme of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, it was what Bochco lived every day, wrangling with the networks over how raw he could be. On Hill Street Blues, he had to fight for even the tiniest bit of sexual innuendo. NYPD Blue was even more of a battle, since Bochco wanted to include as much nudity and profanity as ABC and its affiliates would allow. Before the first NYPD Blue episode was shot, the network and Steven Bochco Productions hammered out a glossary of acceptable swear words, and a quota. (On the DVD set, Bochco says he tried to sneak some vulgar-sounding made-up words past ABC, but they balked.) NYPD Blue’s directors and actors also sketched out every sex scene in advance, working closely with the lighting techs, the costumers, and the editors to make sure the home audience saw only butts and sideboob.

That almost-but-not-quite quality of NYPD Blue can be more distracting than “mature” at times, though the emphasis on extended, implicit sex does lend a sensuality to NYPD Blue that’s rare in these kinds of shows, even the ones with no content restrictions. And whatever the limits on NYPD Blue’s profanity, Dennis Franz was always able to make every one of his lines sound convincingly earthy, as in the pilot, when he answers the assistant district attorney’s “res ipsa loquitur” with, “Ipsa this, you pissy little bitch.” (Franz also found a way to make a mouthy drunk sympathetic, which is something Bochco and Milch reassured him he’d be able to do just by virtue of being Dennis Franz.)

The pre-air hype over NYPD Blue’s adult content touched off a Donald Wildmon-led protest, which—as is often the case—served as an inadvertent promotion for the show. The controversy scared off some affiliates, who initially refused to air NYPD Blue, and spooked some major advertisers as well. The show was an immediate hit with viewers, but still in danger of cancellation early on, because it was expensive to produce, and low on sponsors. But it didn’t take long for affiliates and advertisers alike to see that for all its sensationalism, NYPD Blue was first and foremost a well-written, engaging drama—not trash.

This was the other negotiation constantly going on with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue: a negotiation with the audience, to win them over while poking at them. NYPD Blue connected right away; Hill Street Blues took a while to become a respectable-enough hit. (In the latter case, it helped that young NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff believed in the show, and that he didn’t have much to lose, given the network’s cellar-dwelling ratings at the time.) Both ultimately were made to be widely liked, and both delivered strong first pitches. Even the opening credits reveal the true intentions. Mike Post’s Hill Street Blues theme contrasts warm, jazzy music with cold, wet streets, expressing the soft heart beneath the show’s gritty exterior. Post’s NYPD Blue music is hard and clattering—meant to evoke the sound of the New York subway—but it, too, softens suddenly, as though reassuring audiences that this is still television, and will still be entertaining.

The cops on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue knew the stakes: Make a misstep and die. Bochco knew them too, which is why the first episodes of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue remain models for how to establish a show in under an hour. So much attention is paid these days to each new pilot, yet so few of them succeed in hooking an audience. Some are too safe; some try too hard. Either way, they offer little reason to tune back in. Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, on the other hand, introduced dozens of compelling characters, wounded a handful of them, and linked a few others in unexpected ways. They jolted viewers. And so Hill, Renko, Sipowicz, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue—they all lived.


Next time on A Very Special Episode: The Avengers, “Death At A Bargain Price”

More A Very Special Episode