All TV shows age. It’s the nature of the medium’s production process that shows will be marked heavily by the time in which they are made. Even shows that aren’t about contemporary society are changed by the times they’re made in, by the prevailing production attitudes and fads. A show hits big, whether with audiences or critics, and no matter how original that show is, soon, every other network is copying it, trying desperately to capture some of that lightning in a bottle.
This is rarely more true than for the handful of shows throughout TV history that have changed the medium so profoundly as to become touchstones. There are few shows that have changed more about television than Hill Street Blues, the NBC cop show that debuted in 1981 and introduced so many innovations to the TV drama form that it’s possible to mark the evolution of the form in terms of before and after. The show’s best known innovation was to have continuing storylines, largely following the police officers’ personal lives but occasionally extending to cases and other business on the Hill. But Hill Street introduced more than just story arcs. Its interest in the cops’ personal lives alone was a huge innovation, allowing the show to comfortably straddle the line between detective show and soap opera and invent a genre called the “workplace drama.” It pulled in an interest in the social issues of the time that allowed for complexity and differences of opinion. It was shot almost in a cinema verité style. And it expressed a surprising amount of compassion for each and every person that wandered through its central station and neighborhood. In terms of character development, storytelling, and world building, television had seen nothing like it before.
Of course, essentially every show on television now follows the Hill Street Blues template—even most of the sitcoms. The show could be plopped down in the middle of the CBS primetime lineup and, with a handful of cultural references updated, feel right at home. Fans of The Wire or True Detective can perhaps appreciate Hill Street Blues as a historical signpost on the journey toward modern television, but they could also be forgiven for chuckling at the show’s outdated sexual and racial politics, or for the way that a key second-season episode turns one of the characters learning his friend is gay into an excuse to build up the former’s masculinity. The pilot famously features two cops entering an apartment to interrupt a domestic dispute in progress. The husband made a pass at his teenage stepdaughter, and his wife (her mother) reacted violently. The cops place the onus of the encounter on the wife, telling her that if her husband is going to ignore her daughter, then she will have to be more available to him. There are moments like that in almost every episode.
Yet Hill Street Blues unquestionably endures. Watching the entire series on DVD, available in this form for the first time, it’s amazing just how easy it is to get lost all over again in the world of the Hill, all of the ways that the show invites viewers to consider its universe of complexity and class struggle, complication, and compassion. The best TV shows might show their age, but like the best art in any medium, they invite the audience in. Unlike L.A. Law, another series co-created by Hill Street co-creator and executive producer (for the first five seasons at least) Steven Bochco, Hill Street both exists within its era and transcends it. The show is filled with such warmth and love for everybody within its confines that it manages to overcome any and all hiccups that mark it as a program of the ’80s—up to and including an episode where the police station is the set for a terrible music video.
Like L.A. Law, Hill Street is fond of talking about the way things are, but unlike that later program, it never talks down to the audience. In every episode, the show is willing to engage with the way that life rarely comes complete with easy answers. That applies both to the show’s personal storylines and its cases. The show might dwell on how infidelity needn’t be the end of a marriage if both partners are willing to work past it, and it’s just as likely to consider the role that race plays in the world of criminal convictions. The police station is the center of the action, but that’s less because it’s the place where the police officers work and more because it becomes the center of its own little universe. The neighborhood of the Hill grows richer and more complicated with every episode, and in a break that was perhaps more important than any other of the show’s innovations, it remains consistent. The gangs and politicians and side characters that define the Hill grow and change just as the officers do, and the character work is often astonishing.
It’s in the cast of incredible characters that the show continues to resonate to this day. At its center is Daniel J. Travanti’s Frank Furillo, a heroic type that’s willing to get his hands dirty, as to point toward the antiheroes that so define our current drama era. The female lead, Veronica Hamel’s public defender Joyce Davenport, joins Frank in one of the great TV romances of all time, a complicated dance between partners that’s as much about sex as it is the legal and ethical ramifications of their union. If Hill Street is remembered today, it’s for Michael Conrad’s Sgt. Phil Esterhaus and his catchphrase “Let’s be careful out there,” but to see Esterhaus now is to watch the birth of a very particular TV cop type, the loquacious oddball who cared too much. (The show is also worth watching just to see how many different ways Conrad found to read his most famous line.) The station house itself is filled with characters like Bruce Weitz’s growling Mick Belker or James Sikking’s cocksure Lt. Howard Hunter or Betty Thomas’ ahead-of-her-time officer Lucille Bates. Even the guest characters are great here, and the show rarely introduces a character who doesn’t have a point-of-view on their portion of the action, something that allows it to compare favorably to even modern cop shows.
Yes, Hill Street eventually faded, particularly in its last two seasons, after Conrad’s death (midway through season four) and Bochco’s firing (after season five). The show’s cast was always so huge that it was hard to give every character something to do, but that’s a problem that only increases the longer the show runs. But there are wonderful episodes in all seven seasons, and the first three, especially, are must-sees for anyone interested in the history of television. There are moments of stark beauty and unexpected connection throughout Hill Street Blues—and moments that speak to the urban blight and horrors that marked the inner cities of the ’80s. It’s a show of its time, but it’s also a show that feels unexpectedly modern. Think back to that earlier thought experiment. This show wouldn’t feel out of place on the modern CBS lineup, sure, but even now, it would still be one of the very best shows on TV.
The one episode you must see: The season-three premiere “Trial By Fury,” the first script ever written for television by famous writer David Milch, is a perfect encapsulation of everything that made Hill Street great. It’s a brilliant character piece for Furillo, an ingenious study of the neighborhood’s dynamics, and a tremendous legal thriller, all rolled up into one package. It’s also got a subplot about homosexuality that plays as quaint now but was legitimately groundbreaking for the time in its willingness to treat a gay male as a human being, not a deviant.
Created by: Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll
Starring: Daniel J. Travanti, Michael Conrad, Veronica Hamel, Bruce Weitz, Betty Thomas
Released: Tuesday, from Shout! Factory
Format: Hour-long workplace drama