There certainly hadn’t been anything like “Hill Street Blues” when it debuted on NBC in January 1981, at a time when police shows were four acts of clear-cut bad guys and one usually heroic crimebuster.
But once Mike Post’s sweetly aching piano theme introduced us to the dank urban nexus of system-fighting 9-to-5ers and lawbreakers in that unnamed city’s Hill Street station, viewers heard off-color dialogue, had to untangle many plots, felt the maddening bureaucracy, got swept up in complicated personal lives and laughed at a cop who bit people.
And now that the first two seasons are available on DVD, audiences are getting reacquainted with the men and women in blue.
“We vastly expanded the amount of information you put on a frame of film for television,” recalls Steven Bochco, the show’s co-creator, who can also be heard on a commentary track of the first season DVD. “At first, nobody knew where to look, but once they figured it out, it changed the way people look at television, changed their expectations.”
New York Daily News TV critic David Bianculli says we can credit “Hill Street Blues” with opening the door for shows with multiple storylines and Robert Altman-style overlapping dialogue.
“It became shorthand for a new type of programming,” says Bianculli. ” ‘St. Elsewhere’ was able to get on the schedule as ‘Hill Street in a hospital.’ ” Nowadays, jam-packed ensemble dramas practically dominate, from “ER” to “The West Wing” and current hits such as “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Does “Hill Street” hold up, though? Its stylistic daring may not be a novelty anymore, but it still captivates the way any great series does, because the characters — from hamstrung Capt. Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) to steadying Sgt. Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) to the quirky Det. Belker (Bruce Weitz) — were instantly memorable, and the writing had the rough poetry of everyday life.
Bochco says he learned a valuable producing lesson from fighting network censors over “Hill Street”: “There’s no such thing as broadcast standards. What there is is whatever you can negotiate.”