The ambitious police drama seemed doomed even before it hit the
Test audiences were unimpressed by the gritty pilot that focused on the personal and professional struggles of police officers working in a crime-ridden urban precinct. In fact, many hated it — there were no recognizable stars, the camera was unsteady, the scenes were noisy and confusing, and there were too many characters.
"There's no question that the show was a tipping point in not only how an audience responded to TV but how those of us making TV came to see what we were doing in a very different light," said Steven Bochco, who created "Hill Street Blues" along with partner Michael Kozoll. "It expanded the drama form and the medium. Lots of shows that came behind us might not have had the same success if we had not broken through."
Last week, Shout! Factory released a DVD box set featuring all 144 episodes along with the original pilot, a 24-page book and new interviews with Bochco and cast members Charles Haid,
Before "Hill Street Blues," police shows largely focused on crime solving and the predictable — and inevitable — triumph of good over evil. In these earlier cop shows, little attention was paid to nuance or character development.
But Bochco and Kozoll, armed with actual accounts from interviews with cops about the perils and frenzy of police work, turned the genre on its head by spotlighting the officers and detectives' personal quandaries. The series also strove to mix high drama with dark humor and outrageous situations but all grounded in reality.
"The most important legacy, for then and afterward, was the way the show presented a realistic and not always pretty picture of what big-city police work was like," said TV historian Tim Brooks. "Police shows prior to that were like comic books or fantasies, like 'Starsky and Hutch.' There were lots of nice-looking guys, and they always caught the bad guy in the end. On 'Hill Street,' they didn't always get the bad guy."
Each "Hill Street Blues" episode kicked off with the day's roll call, for the first few seasons overseen by the formidable but fatherly Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (the late
Much like a documentary, the camera work during roll call and some action sequences as well were hand-held, something that had never been done before on a network television series. The series as a whole embraced a grungy and disorderly feel unlike previous cop shows. Characters and extras crowded in front of the camera, and dialogue often overlapped, making it hard to understand everyone.
"It was messy, barely controlled chaos," recalled Bochco, who is developing a drama, "Murder in the First," for
Much of the show's freedom — and survival — came because NBC was in dire straits when the show launched. The network needed a hit and was willing to take more chances in hopes of turning around its ratings slump.
"The unbelievably luckiest part of us doing what we were doing is that we were on a network that desperately needed credibility. They didn't have it," said Bochco. "If we had been on a successful network, I doubt if any of this could have happened."
"Hill Street Blues" also had another touchstone — its melancholy, instantly hummable theme song composed by Mike Post. The theme, whose melodic tone was the opposite of the chaotic action of the show, became a Top 10 hit.
The largely unknown cast, including
Weitz called "Hill Street Blues" the pinnacle of his career. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "And it feels great to be part of something that set a standard and style for hour dramas that live up to this day."