Hill Street Blues: The Complete First Season
Because it is the popular art most quickly responsive to the way Americans change their ways of talking, dressing, and thinking, television shows also date quickly. Nearly all old TV programs seem slow and obvious, especially those series that are tagged as ”revolutionary,” because their innovations rapidly become copied clichés. Thus Hill Street Blues: The Complete First Season. Premiering in 1981, it pioneered the use of story ”arcs” (continuing a story line through a succession of episodes), handheld camera work on TV, and the notion of ”grittiness” as a measure of realism. Co-created by executive producers Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, Blues was conceived as controversial (it dealt frankly with sex, violence, and substance abuse) but quickly became beloved by both audience and industry, snagging 26 Emmy awards.
Watch Blues now, however, and it seems downright leisurely. HBO and Bochco’s own subsequent series NYPD Blue have rendered Blues‘ innovations tame. Instead, we can take different pleasures in its precinct-house tales, featuring the police captain (Daniel J. Travanti), his public-defender lover (Veronica Hamel), and his motley crew (cops include future TV and film directors Charles Haid and Betty Thomas). The ensemble acting is impressive for the way clashing styles — from Haid’s laid-back Method mumbling to Hamel’s earnest intensity — mesh in long, chatty scenes. It’s interesting to spot future stars — look, David Caruso as a gang member wearing a red top hat! — and, more soberly, to witness Kiel Martin’s Officer LaRue descend into alcoholism.
Pitiful extras include a drab documentary ”featurette” and two episode commentaries, one of which includes Bochco’s leering remark on the casting of Hamel: ”I saw her comin’ down the hall to interview and I thought to myself, Oh, God, if you can talk English, you got the part.” (Mind you, at the time he was married to Blues costar Barbara Bosson.) As Bruce Weitz’s barking Sergeant Belker would say: Grrrrrr…