How “Hill Street Blues” Reinvented TV Cop Shows In 1981

Main photo: Hill Street Blues opening credits video/screenshot

At 10 P.M. on Thursday, January 15, 1981, NBC added yet another hour-long law-enforcement drama to a TV landscape already dominated by the likes of Magnum, P.I; Quincy, M.E.; Hart to Hart; and the still-jiggling Charlie’s Angels.

Hill Street Blues, however, resembled such standard broadcast staples only in that it focused on cops, criminals, and an ostensible pursuit of some form of justice.

The new series immediately dispensed with established tropes and templates, from its documentary use of handheld cameras to its spreading multiple intertwined plotlines out over more than one episode to its bold dismissal of any clear demarcations of “good guys” and “bad guys.”

The city in which Hill Street Blues took place was never even identified (although it largely resembled Chicago and the station’s police cars are duplicates of the Windy City’s).

"TV Guide" cover dated Oct 31-Nov 6, 1981

“TV Guide” cover dated Oct 31-Nov 6, 1981

From the premiere onward, Hill Street episodes opened with a pre-credits “morning roll call” in which Sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) briefed the precinct’s officers on cases at hand and related news of the day. This was another first.

From there, the diverse “blues” hit the streets and confronted the sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, occasionally inspiring, and often brutal realities of life and death among the urban poor in the 1980s.

Depictions of violence were unflinching, as were Hill Street‘s handling of issues such as race relations, gender politics, addiction, corruption, excessive force, and desperation both among the police and the people they attempted (and often failed) to serve.

As life does, though, Hill Street also showcased good times and provided many opportunities to laugh at any number of absurdities.

Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) supplied the show’s moral anchor, even as he made mistakes and ideologically clashed with his romantic partner, public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel).

Critics applauded Hill Street immediately, even when the audience failed to show up. NBC, mired in the ratings basement, committed itself to the show, though, and Hill Street became the lowest-rated program ever to get picked up for a second season.

Come the fall of 1981, viewers tuned in, and word of mouth spread. Hill Street won eight Emmy awards, a record for any show in its debut year. Mike Post’s bittersweet instrumental theme song even hit #10 on the pop chart.

"Hill Street Blues," TV Guide cover dated June 1-7, 1985

“Hill Street Blues,” TV Guide cover dated June 1-7, 1985

Continuing to air on Thursdays at 10, Hill Street Blues also launched NBC to its decade-long ratings domination by essentially creating the notion of the network’s trademark “Must-See TV.”

Beyond Hill Street evolving into a popular smash, it attracted typically TV-eschewing talents and audiences alike. Playwright David Mamet and journalist Bob Woodward eagerly and proudly contributed Hill Street Blues scripts. In 1985, novelist Joyce Carol Oates penned a TV Guide cover story titled, “Why ‘Hill Street Blues’ Is Irresistible.”

Mercedes-Benz also pointedly aired its first-ever TV commercial during Hill Street.

Hill Street Blues ran until 1987, generating a total of 146 episodes. Its quality did not prove consistent and, by the end, the show is generally regarded to have been ready to go. Still, even that decline should be acknowledged as an inevitable pitfall of blazing new trails.

Series cocreator and overall mastermind Steven Bochco went on to launch other noteworthy series, including L.A. Law and the ostensibly even more daring NYPD Blue.

Still, Bocho’s real achievement — along with that of the myriad other writers, actors, producers, technicians, executives, and others who worked on Hill Street — was in reinventing the storytelling possibilities of television. Hill Street‘s groundbreaking success proved especially true in the realm of cop shows, but it extends out to the entire rest of the medium as well.

The road to TV’s contemporary “golden age,” largely thought to have commenced in 1999 with HBO’s The Sopranos actually began with a uniformed supervisor’s workaday announcement of what lay ahead, followed by the precinct garage door opening, and a patrol cruiser speeding out to an emergency situation somewhere in the Hill Street precinct.

Read more:
Indie Wire
Museum of Broadcast Communications
Washington Post

Main photo: Hill Street Blues opening credits video/screenshot