When it was originally on: 1981-1987
Original network: NBC
Where you can stream it now: Hulu
Had I seen it before: No.
What IMDb says: The lives and work of the staff of an inner city police precinct.
Why I picked it: I had never really heard people talk about Hill Street Blues the way I hear people talk about things like Law and Order or NYPD Blue, or other cop shows. That is, I didn’t hear people talking about it until I started trying to educate myself a bit more on television history. Many people point to this show as the inventor of serialized television. (Click here for a more in-depth look at that). It’s mind boggling to me how many people my age can be unaware of a show that had such a profound impact on all television that came later. So, this millennial is taking steps to rectify that.
What I liked: I don’t know that I’ve ever in my life seen a cop show that featured this much discourse over how much violence is necessary to diffuse a given situation. In this way, Hill Street Blues. We get this dispute during a hostage negotiation. We get it again when two partners are called to a domestic disturbance. Virtually every character is largely defined by where they stand on this issue, with some cops being loose cannons who will do anything for justice, and other cops saying “no, we have to stop and think about this, and use as little force as possible.”
Capt. Furillo, who is arguably the most favorably portrayed character on the whole show doesn’t get his big heroic moment when he apprehends a bad guy. He gets it when he tells his own men to not go around terrorizing the precinct in the name of “professional pride.” The other character in the running for most favorably portrayed is his girlfriend/friend with benefits, a public defender named Joyce Davenport. Joyce rehearses a whole monologue about how terrible the cops are and how they have no regard for the law. The notion of an anti-cop public defender in a cop show is genius, and opens the doors for so many more conflicts, ESPECIALLY if she’s having a semi-secret relationship with the police captain. (It was unclear exactly how secretive the two are about their relationship).
The fact that Hill Street Blues is not afraid to ask “how much police force is too much force?” and even make that question a central theme of its pilot feels more radical than many modern-day cop shows. And because it’s a question with no easy answer, it’s easy to see how such a theme could fuel episodes for years to come. Even more radical is how they actually portray nonviolent solutions as being preferable to violent ones, such as the aforementioned domestic dispute. One could even ding the show for being a little too optimistic in this regard. I usually don’t gravitate towards cop shows largely because so many of them are too cut-and-dry, but because Hill Street Blues is willing to grapple with complex issues that still feel all too relevant almost 40 years later, I could see myself really getting into it.
The show I thought also had a really nice balance between police issues as well as different personal struggles that various members of the precinct struggle with. Furillo has an ex-wife who’s now dating their son’s therapist and she’s constantly nagging him for more money to take care of the son. “Let’s be careful out there” dude is recently divorced and now dating a high school student (more on that later). Then you have two partners who get shot, and now they have to repair their relationship as well as recover from their actual injuries. It’s a show that never lets you forget it’s a cop show, while also presenting enough non-police conflict to feel like more than that.
What I didn’t like: So, I’m about to say some negative things about some scenes. I realize that pretty much all of these negative things fall into the “this came out in 1981” category and not the “this was made by sub-part writers, producers, and actors” category. I still feel it’s important to discuss such issues because while my overall opinion is positive and I would recommend the show to others, that recommendation does come with reservations. Because Hill Street Blues can feel so modern in some ways, it makes those “oh right, we’re still in 1981” moments feel that much more jarring. And so, I totally understand if some people want to skip this one because of all the “wtf 1981” moments, and since they may play a role in whether or not this pilot is worth 96 minutes of YOUR time, they’re worth discussing.
First, let’s talk about that domestic disturbance scene. It’s about a man who sleeps with his teenage stepdaugher, and his wife is quite understandably upset, and ready to stab someone. The cops diffuse the situation without violence and without making any arrests. While the officer does tell the man that he this is wrong and he needs to not do that again, he also tells the stepdaughter that she has to keep the door closed while changing, and tells the wife to “make yourself available to him, all he wants is a little attention from his woman.” Wtf 1981.
Then there’s the whole part about one cop having a relationship with a high school senior. I’d like to believe that this is some kind of comedy of errors that might take place in a Fraiser episode, where “Cindy” is actually a foster daughter or something and we find out in the end that that was a whole big misunderstanding. I’m still not totally unconvinced that that’s the direction in which they’re heading, even though such a move would feel completely inconsistent with the rest of the show’s tone. There’s also a point where Faye (Furillo’s ex-wife) asks if he’ll get re-married and he says “well maybe after she graduates.” Surely,
Look, I’m not even ENTIRELY mad that they had a plotline about a man who appears to be in his 50s (40s at the youngest) dating a high school student. This is television, and so scandalous stuff is going to happen. But the fact that man is a cop and makes no real attempt to hide his relationship from the other cops? The fact that this man can just go around telling people about Cindy and no one’s like “what the fuck, you need to stop that”? It seems like even in 1981, other people would have said “what the fuck, you need to stop that.”
I was so curious about this plotline, so convinced that there’s no way this can possibly what it appears to be on first viewing that I Googled “Hill Street Blues Cindy.” For 100 Pilots in 100 Days I can only watch pilots, and so this is a little bit of a breach of that rule. But I was really trying to find a way to defend this plot line. I was trying to find an excuse to say “it’s in poor taste, but they reveal in the very next episode that it was all a misunderstanding.” But no, apparently Cindy is still a plot point through Season 1 Episode 13 and the two GET ENGAGED at some point. WHAT. (Here’s a link to a summary of that episode).
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yes. Part of that is because I have some perverse curiosity to see what the hell they do with this Cindy plotline. But even beyond that, the show still seems like an enjoyable, net positive to the history of media that can teach important lessons about weaving social commentary into a television narrative.