Badge Of Honour
Tripwire continues its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. Counting down to its first choice at the end, here’s its 17th entry, NBC’s Hill Street Blues…
17. Hill Street Blues
Creator: Stephen Bochco
Stars: Daniel J Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Charles Haid, Bruce Weitz, Joe Spano, Betty Thomas, James Sikking, Taurean Blacque
Former Columbo writer Steven Bochco was given the freedom by MTM Enterprises to produce an innovative, ground breaking cop show for the 1980s, and The Hill Street Blues, an ensemble procedural piece that broke fresh archetypes and cadences within the genre, seamlessly fitted the bill. Based in an unnamed mid-western city over the course of seven seasons, the program was landmark television simply because it brought in realism and characters that up until then had rarely if ever been the focal point of police dramas. There were interracial partnerships, women police officers moving up the ranks, senior women attorneys, intractable conflict between city hall and high-ranking detectives, deeply flawed, antagonistic members of the department, along with more graphic delineations of urban strife and disconnection, gang war, endemic drug use, prostitution, corruption, poverty and racism. Plus the use of handheld cameras, jump cuts, insider terminology and overlapping Robert Altman-style dialogue for such programmes began here.
However despite this quantum progressive leap, the show was still of its time – it was episodic, often soapy, and despite its edgier, post-urban feel, it retained an upbeat, positive tone throughout. Its melancholic yet uplifting theme music made the viewer aware that although this was a pivotal moment in American broadcasting, it was still comforting, formulaic and only a little challenging, with resolution at the end of each chapter favoured over ongoing storylines. But that might be me seeing it through jaded, 2021 eyes – audiences back then would never have been ready for the moral ambiguity of The Sopranos or The Wire, the wilful abrogation of morality in Breaking Bad, or the freewheeling rejection of any kind of code whatsoever that underpinned the frat house hijinks of The Shield.
What made Hill Street work was the excellent ensemble, that superficially resembled a modern dysfunctional family, with Captain Furillo (Daniel J Travanti) its clipped, supremely adult alpha male father, Sergeant Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas) the mother figure, Detectives Washington and La Rue (Taurean Blacque and Kiel Martin) the errant nephews, and Officers Hill, Renko and Coffey (Michael Warren, Charles Haid and Ed Marinaro) the kids. Not to mention Detective Belker (Bruce Weitz) as the prodigal loner. What kept the series from repetition however were the shifting relationships between the cast members, the humour required to withstand the hardships of duty, and the afterhours comedowns.
Occasionally the series would veer away from its underlying certainties, such as when Officer Coffey was killed. But its most influential and pivotal character appeared in the show’s penultimate season with the introduction of Lt. Norman Buntz (Dennis Franz). Buntz’s smug conceit, stone identification with his job and lack of concern for what his colleagues thought of him brought a higher level of authenticity to the production and made the part a prototype for other such maverick detectives in later shows. It also made him a star.
Overall Hill Street Blues was a milestone in American TV, with many cameos and guest appearances from future Hollywood A listers. It did push the envelope, but more importantly provided the viewer with a raft of thoroughly believable, complex characters that entertained, sharp dialogue and well-crafted story arcs that were a marker for the long-form masterpieces that came a decade or so later.
Hill Street Blues is on now on All4 in the UK and Amazon Prime in The US