Surveillance Summer Watch: Hill Street Blues, “Presidential Fever” and “Politics as Usual”

This is the newest post in 2011′s Surveillance Summer Watch series featuring Cheers and Hill Street Blues. For the next couple of months, I’ll be writing weekly reviews of episodes from each series’ first seasons, with Cheerson Tuesdays and Hill Street Blues on Thursdays. For more information, see this post and for all the SSW pieces, visit this page.

“…for all its singularity, Hill Street in the end was also commercial television banging up against its limitations, revealing at the moment of its triumph just how powerful are the pressures and formulas that keep prime time close to dead center.”

“Anyone writing about Hill Street Blues has to confront the idea that this series is ‘different.'”

These two statements, written by Todd Gitlin and Steve Jenkins respectively, are the perfect words to frame today’s discussion about Hill Street Blues and its second and third episodes. In last week’s write-up on the series’ very good pilot episode, I finished my discussion with a bit of wondering aloud about the series’ place as both “popular” and “quality.” Those two terms are so often in conflict with one another, especially in today’s television landscape, that it makes Hill Street Blues an interesting outlier, even to this day. As I mentioned, I want talk about the tensions between “popular” and “quality” as I move through the first season (and perhaps a little into the second, since the series didn’t become a massive hit until then). Today, instead of trying to tackle both sides of that moderate contradiction, I want to focus on the “quality” of Hill Street Blues and as Jenkins’ mentions, its “different”-ness.

One of the big questions I have about Hill Street Blues is just how different was it, really? Again, my knowledge of the era in which it was produced and aired is severely less developed than my knowledge of 21st century television, but I’ve been reading a lot as to not look like a complete fool. I think that it is readily apparent that Hill Street was certainly different, fresh and unique when it debuted in 1981; there’s no doubt about it. But how different? There are a number of things, both inside the series’ diegetic world and outside of it, that make Hill Street Blues relevantly similar to what had already been seen on television and certainly has been seen since. Of course, the same is true for the series’ novelty as well, but from my perspective as someone who has basically only heard about how ground-breaking Hill Street was 20 years after the fact, I’m certainly more intrigued by where it shows it is still formulaic and using Gitlin’s words, “dead center.”

It’s interesting, I had the same viewing experience with Hill Street Blues‘ second and third episodes as I did with my viewing of Cheers episodes three through five. Both series surprised me with their quality construction in the initial offerings, but my second go-around with them was much less satisfying. It was during a dead spot of “Presidential Fever” that I started wondering about the question above and similarly thought to myself that I had perhaps overvalued the opening episode. That very well may be the case, but then I remembered my old stand-by response about the quality of second episodes (particularly drama series): They are tough to do and nearly always problematic, if not flat-out terrible. Good pilots not only establish a compelling world with interesting characters, they tell a relatively standalone story that includes a number of obvious hooks that will hopefully pull the audience in. Sometimes it is difficult for series to back out of the decisions made six months prior during the shooting of the pilot, other times it is simply hard to maneuver all the characters into slightly different directions that can be sustained over an entire season or more.

The general issues of second episodes are most definitely at play in Hill Street‘s “Presidential Fever.” The series has over a dozen regulars and isn’t shy about introducing additional new characters in the second episode, which makes it no surprise that the stories feel a bit more fractured here, and not in a good way. Moreover, some of the character beats somewhat repetitive as to keep the audience reminded of what the heck is going on (most notably Frank’s interactions with his ex-wife, which are already problematic and grating), whereas other beats feel tacked-on without much discussion (both Renko and Bobby are back without much hoopla until really late in the episode). In general, the pilot moved swiftly and purposefully through Hill Street Station. The second episode lacks that sense of pace and rhythm, even if the episode still taps into the frantic energy that’s found inside a police precinct. The third episode, “Politics as Usual,” is a substantial improvement and much closer in quality to “Hill Street Station,” thanks to a tighter focus on the emotional stability of the characters instead of the more obvious plotting that comes in “Presidential Fever.”

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But I’ll return to episodic specifics momentarily. After I watched these two episodes, I started really thinking about not only the different-ness of Hill Street Blues, but especially the pasts of its creators. In Gitlin’s chapter on Hill Street Blues in Inside Prime Time, there’s a lot of posturing from the series’ creators Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll about their desire to step outside of the general police procedural, how they couldn’t deal with Standards and Practices at NBC getting in their way — so much so they had a meeting with S&P before even writing the script just to let them know that this series was going to be “different” — and by the end of the chapter, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the way they painted themselves as outlaws in a constraining system. It’s not that what they were saying was untrue, because it wasn’t. Television in the ’70s, especially drama, was very formulaic and rote with its emphasis on catching the bad guy and cracking a little wise. Kozoll had this to say about his desire to never write a police procedural again:

“Because no matter how well intentioned you are when you go out to do a cop show, it’s almost impossible not to end up with a bag of shit afterward. Because we’ve all done those boring, heroic, tired, tired shows, and you’re going to kill yourself and the public doesn’t even want to watch them anymore, and they really don’t address a very serious issue.”

Even after the pilot script was written and the NBC brass enjoyed it (of course it didn’t hurt that some of the new people in charge at NBC had previously worked at MTM, where Hill Street was housed), Bochco and Kozoll fought tooth and nail for the vision of their series. In general, I totally respect them for fighting for Hill Street and battling formula and the assumptions about viewers and what they want to see. And without a doubt, Hill Street deserved to be fought for because it clearly feels “different from the other police procedurals I have seen from that era. But that quote from Gitlin above keeps coming back to me and I continue to wonder about the balance between “different” and “dead center.” Some of the ways in which the series is painted in Gitlin’s book, especially by its creators, makes Hill Street Blues feel just completely and entirely unique and different than whatever else was on the air at the time.

Yet, after just three episodes, two things are apparent to me when considering Hill Street Blues‘ “different”-ness. First of all, is that the series quickly develops a formula of its own over the first three efforts. It might be a formula that was moderately, or even vastly different than the other things that were on television at the time, but it is not as if the series was completely devoid of commonalities, tropes or types that typify television series about police officers. I don’t mean to use formula as a dirty word here because it’s not. All television series have a formula. But some of the ways in which Hill Street is discussed made me consider that it wouldn’t have such an obvious and entrenched one by episode three. Again, this is not the worst thing in the world, it is simply an observation on my part.

Secondly, and this is the most critical I will be of these episodes, it sure seems like Hill Street Blues tries too hard to be “different’ sometimes. The pilot episode had a few moments of odd humor such as Belker’s biting of the suspect, but the wonky jokes and supremely odd personalities are ratcheted up substantially in “Presidential Fever” and “Politics as Usual.” Howard’s ridiculous persona is further defined, Goldblume has a goofy plot involving a stray dog and Belker is even crazier than before. These sort of odd characters make the Hill Street world feel more developed and in certain cases, are funny, but the attempts at humor seem to pull me out of the raw character and city politics focus that I especially enjoy about the series, even in the problematic “Presidential Fever.” There’s some discussion about the humor and personalities in Gitlin’s piece on the series, but much it feels forced. I’m not saying that I need my police dramas to be all misery, all the time, but the tonal clashes that come with some of these bits of “humor” make for problematic sequences. To pull in a modern example, some of the stuff with Belker and Howard reminded me of C Thomas Howell’s character from Southland and how he always feels like he’s part of another, sort of terrible series. Much like Howell’s character there, Belker and Howard have a purpose in Hill Street, but the tonal inconsistency feels like a result of the series’ attempts to be different.

So here’s the question I’ve been thinking about in relation to Bochco and Kozoll: If you’ve been working in the constraints of the system with formula for a fairly long time like the two of them had been before Hill Street, can you really ever break outside of that? Yet again, I’ll emphasize that I think Hill Street Blues is different, but it still settled into a pattern (albeit a well-constructed one) fairly quickly. Both Bochco and Kozoll had been “trapped” in the system in the years before Hill Street, but looking over their IMDb pages, it’s interesting what I see. Kozoll basically faded away pretty quickly after he left Hill Street in season two. Bochco is one of the more famous writer/producers in television history, but he also had the fortune of working with some fantastic writers under him. David Milch is known as the creator force of NYPD Blue and David E. Kelley quickly gained control of L.A. Law, with so many of Bochco’s other post-Hill Street series failing commercially, critically or both. It’s interesting that he never went to pay cable. In Gitlin’s book, Kozoll calls Hill Street the product of “a long series of flukes,” and perhaps that is true. Something I’ll be keeping an eye on moving forward.

Despite my issues with how these episodes unspool and my annoyance with how the series is painted in some ways, there are some good things to be found here, especially in “Politics as Usual.” I’ve spent a good amount of time interrogating the series’ formula, but there are two primary elements present in these episodes that were surely “different” at the time and I enjoyed them both. First of all, the series’ ability to develop and sustain plots across multiple episodes. As you might imagine, the main narrative of “Presidential Fever” is the news that the U.S. President is coming to visit the decrepit neighborhood. This causes all sorts of stress and chaos for Frank and his immediate circle, as they convene a gang summit with the hopes of coming to some sort of agreement as to the president’s route.

Nevertheless, despite the episode’s title, the president does not show up in “Fever,” nor does he make his much-hype appearance in “Politics as Usual.” Instead, the story continues into “Usual” with even more preparation, maneuvering and more. It is still not “resolved” by the end of episode three and I’m unsure of when the Commander-in-Chief will actually make his presence felt. The point is that the big narrative drive of two episodes is A.) not resolved in either of them and thus spreads across both and B.) not even a “traditional” police story. There’s no robbery, no murder, no rape (in the A story, anyway), it’s all about posturing and politicking, which was probably slightly surprising to the 1981 audience. Heck, if a CBS police series did something like this today it would still feel odd or out of character, and even then, that series would probably have to heighten things with a bomb threat or something. Hill Street Blues is very willing to let their unorthodox stories simmer, and I have to give them credit for that.

Secondly, these episodes treat the characters’ emotions and psyches with a sufficient amount of respect. Although Renko and Bobby’s returns are slightly fumbled in “Presidential Fever,” they get much more screen-time in “Politics as Usual” to work out their personal issues. Both of them is disappointed in the other for not coming to visit in the hospital and neither is especially ready to come back to work, which makes their trips in the street especially dangerous. Renko is hiding behind a supposedly injured leg and Bobby is struggling with the fact that he was shot by a white criminal. It’s really enthralling stuff, especially in their final scene with Captain Furillo when he calls them out on all their BS. Renko breaks down in tears and Bobby quickly follows and they eventually realize that neither is particularly to blame for what happened to them and the only way they’ll survive in the future is together.

This nice focus on character is also seen with Frank and Joyce’s relationship, which is both honest and natural. Neither of them can give up any time at work, but they still hope they can find the room for their relationship. It’s a fairly straightforward story, but “Politics as Usual” does a fine job of letting the two of them express concerns without the whole thing devolving into melodramatic histrionics. Finally, despite some of the odd moments when he really flips out, Belker’s relationship with his mother is surprisingly compelling and substantial here. I understand that we never actually see the mother, but Bruce Weitz does a wonderful job with those phone scenes. I hope that upcoming episodes follow the lead of these more character-oriented scenes, as they were definitely the best part of both episodes.

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One final wrinkle I wanted to introduce this week. Because my knowledge of modern television is more developed, I thought it would be sort of fun to compare Hill Street Blues to a newer series and see whether or not certain elements of the older series hold up or who does it better. This week, I wanted to talk just a little bit about the one-episode-per-day structure that both Hill Street Blues and AMC’s The Killing use. Without question, it seems like Hill Street Blues uses this narrative device much, much better and I think there is one obvious reason for it: scope.

With Hill Street, there are so many characters and different plotlines that it feels natural for an individual episode to just handle one day in the lives of these various officers and detectives. It allows us to see them on the job and off of it (at least in some instances), deepening our understanding of who they are as people more than just cops. That recognition of character is Hill Street Blues‘ biggest strength, at least through the first three episodes. There is so much going on and so many different stories to keep our interest that even if three of them are sort of boring, there are at least that many others that are wonderfully engaging. In general, the series’ scope helps both individual episodes and longer-running stories stay interesting and get their just-do in the spotlight.

With The Killing, there is very little scope to the proceedings. There is one primary case in Rosie’s murder, there are only two detectives really investigating it in Linden and Holder and while the case narrative has branched off to a number of other stories, both personal and professional, the smaller focus has been mostly detrimental to how The Killing works on a week-to-week basis. The series made an attempt to widen the scope by including the political elements, but as we’ve seen, the execution of those stories has been lackluster at best, leaving most of The Killing‘s narratives to plod along until something had to happen because there were only a few episodes left in the season. If you’re going to use the one-episode-one-day conceit and you have a mostly tight focus on only a few characters, nearly all of those characters have to be compelling. The Killing doesn’t fit those requirements. So in this regard, Hill Street Blues: 1, Modern television: 0!

Other thoughts:

  • The gang summit was completely ridiculous, but still awesome. The white gang, the Shamrocks, are wonderfully racist.
  • Joyce is offered cocaine in public at one point. The ’80s, ladies and gents!
  • “Don’t think jail, think bail. You stay, I pay.”
  • “You’re standing at the window with binoculars. Why is that such a bad thing?”
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