“Hill Street Blues,” finally available Tuesday in its entirety on DVD, remains the most groundbreaking, influential drama ever — but don’t watch just for historical purposes.
“That’s not a good enough reason,” said James Sikking, who played the militant-minded Lt. Howard Hunter. “You shouldn’t approach it like a term paper. I hope millennials will enjoy it and give us another lease on life.”
They should. “Blues,” which ran for seven seasons and received a staggering 98 Emmy nominations, holds up remarkably well with its dark humor, sexy interplay and harrowing story lines. If it had been launched just last week, we’d be talking about it with the same kind of reverence we give to “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.”
“I honestly feel like ‘Hill Street’ has been forgotten in a lot of ways,” said Mark Frost, who joined the writers’ room in its third season. “If you were around at the time, there was no question that this was a seminal moment that had a great cultural impact.”
“Blues,” for the uninitiated, was set in an unidentified metro area where police dealt with prostitutes, drug dealers, gang members and shady politicians. Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel Travanti) oversaw a motley crew that included an alcoholic Lothario, a country bumpkin and a detective with a reputation for biting his suspects.
Almost every episode took place over the course of a day and was primarily shot using handheld cameras and the kind of overlapping dialogue associated with Robert Altman films. It took on topics of religion, race, homosexuality and addiction that were rarely aired on prime-time network TV.
It shouldn’t have worked — and at first, it didn’t.
Its inaugural 1981 season was met by shrugs. But third-place NBC was so desperate that it kept the show on the air, making it the lowest-rated drama to get a second season.
“Up popped this word ‘demographic,’” Sikking said. “We were reaching people with a certain education and (who) made a certain kind of money. They called it the ‘Esquire audience.’”
Not that the network fully embraced the show. Co-creator Stephen Bochco had regular battles with censors who balked at the double entendres, graphic violence and frank sexuality.
“There was a ridiculous dance you had to do with the censors,” Frost said. “It was like dealing with the hall monitor at school. The network took it way too seriously.”
Frost would go on to co-create “Twin Peaks,” one of several successful alumni, including David Milch (“NYPD Blue”), Anthony Yerkovich (“Miami Vice”) and Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”).
Equally influential was the guerrilla-like shooting style initiated by Robert Butler. Charles Haid, who played Officer Andy Renko, paid particular attention and went on to direct for such series as “ER,” “Breaking Bad” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
For a time, Haid worked for “Criminal Minds,” but says he can no longer contribute to a show that’s so unnecessarily brutal and formulaic.
“On CBS, it’s the same show every night. She’s dead, she’s nude, she’s blond. Let’s find out who killed her,” Haid said. “We never had to do that with ‘Hill Street Blues.’
“That show gave me and others permission to break the mold, but there’s often a price you pay for breaking the mold. The networks don’t want you to delve away from what’s already working.”
That may explain why such few network dramas have been as daring and different as “Blues,” leaving thought-provoking TV to the world of cable. At least this week’s release of “Blues” on DVD shows what the mainstream can produce, providing you have enough renegades on the payroll.
“It’s not bull to say that ‘Hill Street Blues’ is as contemporary as any show you’re going to see,” Haid said. “It’ll be great to see a new generation discover it.”
©2014 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
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