Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Remembering Hill Street Blues - Let's Be Careful Out There!

One of my all time favourite series. Hill Street Blues first aired on NBC back in 1981 and ran for 146 episodes ending in1987. Chronicling the lives of the staff of a single police precinct in an unnamed American city, the show received critical acclaim and its production innovations influenced many subsequent dramatic television series produced in North America. Its debut season was rewarded with eight Emmy awards, a debut season record surpassed only by The West Wing, and the show received a total of 98 Emmy Award nominations during its run.

In 2002, Hill Street Blues was ranked No14 on TV Guides 50 All time TV shows.

Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises developed the series on behalf of NBC, appointing Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll as series writers. The writers were allowed considerable creative freedom, and created a series which brought together, for the first time, a number of emerging ideas in TV drama.

  • Each episode features a number of intertwined storylines, some of which are resolved within the episode, with others developing over a number of episodes throughout a season.
  • Much play is made of the conflicts between the work lives and private lives of the individual characters. In the workplace, there is also a strong focus on the struggle between doing "what is right" and "what works" in situations.
  • The camera is held close in and action cut rapidly between stories, and there is much use of overheard or off-screen dialogue, giving a "documentary" feel to the action.
  • Rather than studio (floor) cameras, hand-held Arriflexes are used to add to the "documentary" feel.
  • The show deals with real-life issues, and employs commonly used language and slang to a greater extent than had been seen before.
  • Almost every episode begins with a pre-credit sequence consisting of (mission) briefing and roll call at the beginning of the day shift. From season 3 it experimented with a "Previously on HSB" montage of clips of up to 6 previous episodes before the roll call. Many episodes are written to take place over the course of a single day, a concept later used in the NBC series,L.A. Law.
  • Most episodes concluded with Captain Frank Furillo and public defender Joyce Davenport in a domestic situation, often in bed, discussing how their respective days went.

Although filmed in Los Angeles (both on location and at CBS Studio Center in Studio City), the series is set in a generic unnamed inner-city location with a feel of a US urban center such as Detriot or Chicago.

The programme's focus on failure and those at the bottom of the social scale is pronounced, and very much in contrast to Bochco's later project, L.A. Law. Inspired by Police Procedural detective novels such as Ed McBain's 1956 Cop Hater, it has been described as Barney Miller out of doors; the focus on the bitter realities of 1980s urban living was revolutionary for its time. Later seasons were accused of becoming formulaic (a shift that some believe to have begun after the death from cancer of Michael Conrad midway through the fourth season, which led to the replacement of the beloved Sergeant Esterhaus by Sergeant Stan Jablonski, played by Robert Prosky); thus, the series that broke the established rules of television ultimately failed to break its own rules. Nonetheless it is a landmark piece of television programming, the influence of which was seen in such series as NYPD Blue and ER. In 1982, St. Elsewhere was hyped as Hill Street Blues in a hospital. The quality work done by MTM led to the appointment of Grant Tinker as NBC chairman in 1982.

There was also a short-lived Dennis Franz called Beverly Hills Buntz, in which Franz's dismissed Lt. Buntz character moves from the Hill to Los Angeles to become a Private Eye, taking along "Sid the Snitch" Thurston (Peter Jurassik) as his sidekick.

The producers went to great lengths to avoid specifying where the series took place, even going so far as to obscure whether the call letters of local TV stations began with "W" (the Federal Communications Commission designation for stations east of the Mississippi) or "K" (signifying a station west of the Mississippi). However, occasionally they would let something slip, such as the use of call letters WREQ, TV channel 6, in the season 3 episode "Domestic Beef". Another indication that the series took place in the Midwest or Northeast was Renko's statement to his partner in the season one episode "Politics As Usual": "Just drop that 'cowboy' stuff. "I was born in New Jersey, [and] never been west of Chicago in my life."

Specific references in other episodes to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio would exclude those locales, while the clearest indication where the program was set lies in brief and occasional glances at Interstate Highway signs, including one sign designating the junction of I-55 and I-90, which is in Chicago.


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