Videophiled TVD: Back on the Beat with ‘Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series’

HillStreetBluesHill Street Blues: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD) – Steven Bochco had racked up over 15 years of writing and producing credits when he revolutionized the cop drama with this groundbreaking series, an ensemble serial set in an unidentified inner city precinct, that he co-created with Michael Kozoll. The culture of poverty, rampant crime, racial tensions and the combustible presence of volatile gangs sets the tone of this big city beat while the handheld camerawork gives it a docu-look and feel unique among primetime shows (and later to be picked up by such shows as Homicide, NYPD Blue, The Shield, The Wire and any number of series). But it didn’t just change the face of police dramas. It set the stage for shows of all genres to present stories that play out over multiple episodes or weave in and out of the season, gave us characters that evolved over the course of the show, and focused more on the lives of the men and women in blue than on the case of the week. It wasn’t about solving a mystery, it was about engaging with suspects, victims, civilians, and each other.

The style and tone is established right in the series pilot, which opens on the defining morning roll call, the noise and jovial chaos of the precinct house—a first on TV cop shows—and the trademark “Let’s be careful out there” (uttered by Michael Conrad) and ends with officers Hill and Renko (Michael Warren and Charles Haid) shot by drug squatters in an abandoned building and left for dead. In between we get Precinct Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), his emotionally frayed ex-wife (Barbara Bosson), a hostage situation and a colorful squad of detectives, uniforms and officers alike, including the indefinable, cigar-chomping Det. Belker (Bruce Weitz), who looks like a derelict and growls (and sometimes bites) like a dog. Veronica Hamel is the hardcase defense attorney who makes Furrillo’s job harder by day and then meets up as his secret love by night and the squad is filled out by Joe Spano, Taurean Blacque, Kiel Martin, Rene Enriquez, Betty Thomas, Ed Marinaro (who joins the cast mid-season) and James B. Sikking as the military vet who runs their tactical unit.

You can spot young David Caruso as an Irish gang member popping up in the first few season and Dennis Dugan guest stars as the self-styled long underwear hero Captain Freedom, an addled innocent who winds up in an unusual relationship with Belker, in a major arc in Season Two. When Michael Conrad found out he had cancer, his character faced it on the show and his death reverberated through the squad as much as it must have through the cast. Dennis Franz appeared in the third season and then joined the cast in its final seasons with a character who was an early draft of his NYPD Blue anchor Sipowicz. And the show’s staff of writers and producers launched the next generation of grown-up American TV, David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), Dick Wolf (Law & Order and spin-offs), Anthony Yerkovich (Miami Vice) and Mark Frost (Twin Peaks) among them. David Milch won an Emmy for his first episode of the series: “Trial By Fury,” the opening episode of the third season. The volatile storyline—the rape and murder of a nun by a couple of thieves—is set in the sweltering atmosphere of a heat wave and a neighborhood fanned by the flames of fury into a veritable lynch mob out for blood.

The show picked up 26 Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Drama Series four years running), all in its first five seasons (Bochco was fired after that and the show never recovered), and while it was never a ratings powerhouse (it was almost cancelled after its first season) it was a prestige program with a desirable demographic. I watched the first few seasons religiously when I was in high school and I am happy to report that the show remains as strong decades later. Smart writing, rich characters, great stories and a superb ensemble makes for an enduring show.

The first two seasons of Hill Street Blues were released by Fox back in 2006 but none of the other seasons have been available until this release from Shout Factory: all 144 episodes and seven seasons on 34 discs in a box set with seven cases (one per season, of course). There’s commentary on four episodes (all carried over from the earlier disc releases) and a bonus disc with new supplements: the hour-long “The History of Hill Street” with Steven Bochco and members of the cast, the 20-minute “Writers on the Hill” with Bochco and staff writers Jeffrey Lewis, Robert Crais and Alan Rachins, and interview featurettes “Benedetto and Buntz” (with Dennis Franz) and “Lt. Howard Hunter” (with James B. Sikking), all produced for this release. Carried over from the 2005 DVD releases are the 50-minute retrospective featurette “Roll Call: Looking Back at Hill Street Blues” with a reunion of cast members Barbara Bosson, Veronica Hamel, Joe Spano, Ed Marinaro, James B. Sikking, Bruce Weitz, Michael Warren and Charles Haid, and the interview featurettes “Belker Unleashed” (Bruce Weitz), “A Cowboy on the Hill” (Charles Haid) and “Confessions of Captain Freedom” (second season guest star Dennis Dugan). The accompanying 24-page book features an essay by Tom Shales along with the episode guide.

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