NBC's police drama Hill Street Blues began arresting viewers 21 years ago.

Hill Street Blues

In the early ’80s, the television landscape skewed to extremes. There was the ludicrously light (Dallas, The Dukes of Hazzard) and a kind of madcap realism (M*A*S*H, The Jeffersons) with little in between. But things changed on Jan. 15, 1981, when NBC rolled out Hill Street Blues, a show built on the somewhat fearsome notion that cops — flawed and frightened — are people too.

Set in a fictional city loosely resembling Chicago, Hill Street depicted the full range of urban crimes and misdemeanors, but focused on the way those crimes affected the men and women charged with fighting them. The cops were a brittle bunch whose ”leader,” Captain Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), had an ex-wife (Barbara Bosson) who hated him and a secret relationship with a public defender (Veronica Hamel).

Hill Street’s cocreator Steven Bochco still laughs recalling the way the series got greenlit: ”We didn’t want to do a cop show. Michael [Kozoll, my cocreator,] and I said we’d only do it if they gave us creative autonomy…. The only reason we got that kind of control was that in a moment of need…NBC sort of agreed to it. We held them accountable to that promise every day.”

Hill Street’s revolutionary style — much of the series was shot with a jittery immediacy that would become de rigueur for TV verite — and large ensemble cast broke ground, but also alienated audiences who, by and large, favored ABC’s fluffier Fantasy Island. NBC was already the least watched network of the Big Three, but president Fred Silverman had a hunch about Hill Street as Emmy time approached. ”Fred gave us an early pickup [before the nominations came out],” remembers Bochco, whose show received a then- record 21 Emmy nods in its first season. Viewers warmed up to it as well, especially after Hill Street moved to Thursdays. ”If you did a show like Hill Street today, getting the kind of ratings it [initially] got, it wouldn’t survive half a season,” adds Bochco.

Survive it did, for another six years, until Hill Street hit a ratings dead end. It came as no surprise, since Kozoll and Bochco, the show’s creative pioneers, had already left (by 1985, Bochco was at work on his next big hit, L.A. Law). So, despite a total of 26 Emmy wins, 1987’s episode 146 was goodbye: The Hill Street station burned down. As the credits rolled, the show’s melancholy theme played for the last time, but prime-time drama would be forever changed. ”To me, everything we did on Hill Street was of a piece,” says Bochco, who now exec-produces ABC’s NYPD Blue and Philly. ”When you do something different that becomes a cultural icon, people copy it and refine it and make it better. I think that’s great. That’s what keeps it all going.”

Hill Street Blues
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