Surveillance Summer Watch: Hill Street Blues, “Can WWIII Be An Attitude?” and “Double Jeopardy”

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.

Much like I did in this week’s Cheers review, I’d like to take a step back from the big thematic questions and patterns of Hill Street Blues and discuss some smaller, but arguably just as important things. I’m sure I will return to some of the larger concerns in coming weeks, but I didn’t want to force it when there are some interesting topics of conversation found within these episodes worth bringing up — or at least I think so. Because of this, I imagine the review will be a bit shorter than you might be used to, but I hope that’s OK.

Large ensembles are difficult to manage, especially early on in a series’ run. In theory, having a bunch of characters can be a major advantage. More characters means more stories and the sheer number of people found in a series can easily deepen and expand the world and scope. But trying to tell large, sweeping stories doesn’t quite jive with the processes of early episodic television. From the jump, audiences want and need to know who the “main” characters are, what their motivations are and the like. Supporting characters might be eventually more popular than the leads, but it seems to me that there needs to be an establishing of leads, at least at the very beginning.

So often these days, series try so hard to establish 15 characters and their various motivations and locations before really hammering home the three “most important.” This basically applies to any HBO series, wherein the audience is asked to have patience for at least four or five episodes before the characters are all supposed to be identifiable, but I think the recent example of Boardwalk Empire proves that the patience cannot come if there are just too many characters thrown at the audience too quickly. I’d argue that the handling of the character introductions is what turned many off from Empire from the beginning. Game of Thrones, however, did an expert job of slowly working through the characters and their motivations. I might not care about them, but I still respect how the series handled it.

Of course, this problems goes both ways as well. If a series spends too much time establishing the leads, by the time it gets to the supporting characters the audience might have less motivation to care. This feels more like a problem in comedy, but some of the quirky character procedurals like Castle have this problem as well.

Hill Street Blues is a case that sort of crosses all these lines and problems but ultimately isn’t problematic. I know, that doesn’t really make sense. The pilot, “Hill Street Station,” introduced so many characters and honestly, it was a bit difficult to follow who was who. I can only imagine how the 1981 audience reacted to such a process. Not to make fun of the simpleton early ’80s viewers, but let’s not kid ourselves here. But unlike something like Boardwalk where the characters were sprawled out across local spots and time zones, Hill Street benefits from the central location for its characters and the fact that nearly all of them are working in the same profession.

Amid the frenetic chaos, “Hill Street Station” still establishes Frank Furillo as the lead character. He might not be the most interesting, but he’s our entry point into this insane world full of oddballs. The second and third episodes did a solid job of keeping the focus on Frank while also providing interesting stories for others like Renko, Bobby and Belker (only somewhat in his case). And these latest two episodes see the series journey further down the cast of characters with substantial stories for Phil, Goldblume, LaRue and Lucy (sort of). Frank still gets his moments and there are reminders about Renko and Bobby’s issues, but the characters who were highlighted in earlier episodes fade to the back a bit so that the less established folks can endear themselves to the audience. I enjoyed these two episodes just a bit more than two and three, and I think that probably has a lot to do with the characters given stories.

One of the things that intrigues me most about Hill Street Blues is how well it combines both traditionally rote stories with slightly off-kilter, unique angles. I’ve talked about how the series balances novelty with comfort and formula and it seems like the approach to story is one of the most obvious representatives of that tension. Bobby and Renko having to deal with the aftermath of the shooting isn’t a wholly original premise, but the series’ particularly raw approach to the story made it worthwhile. Partner shootings usually happen much later in the series when the audience is already invested in who the characters are and what they mean to one another. But Hill Street dropped into the pilot and has been compellingly exploring the consequences of that action over the next four episodes.

A similar balance between novelty and formula is struck in “Attitude” and “Jeopardy” with Phil, Goldblume, LaRue and I guess Lucy as well. Each of these characters gets more of a spotlight in these two episodes and the series feels a lot better for it.

Phil is quickly becoming my favorite character of the series. From his witty, biting remarks during the roll call sequences to his supremely quiet, reserved reaction to the realization that he’s now cheating on his high-school senior girlfriend with the station decorator, Michael Conrad is turning in a supremely compelling performance despite the fact that his character is so chill. Learning that the relatively old Phil was dating a high school student was weird, but subsequently learning that he is now caught in the middle of a love triangle with an older woman who actually has more of a sexual appetite than his younger lady is SO WEIRD, but so interesting at the same time. And the best part of it all is how Conrad plays the oddity of his character’s circumstances. He talks so quietly and is tremendously calm, yet kind of excited by the fact that he’s involved with two women. Conrad’s work keeps the story from becoming too soapy or melodramatic, and unlike Belker’s barking and biting, Phil’s oddness feels natural and realistic.

Goldblume is probably the character most helped by these two episodes, particularly “Double Jeopardy.” He was the most forgettable character in the first three episodes, but he’s finally given more to do than take care of dogs in the precinct in “Jeopardy.” The episode does a wonderful job of showing how Goldblume works as the crisis interventionist. He gets a call about a jumper, but arrives on scene too late to help matters. He tries to console a friend or relative and ultimately ends up getting harassed by a group of gang members for being too soft. He pulls his gun on them, but he’s clearly totally uncomfortable with it — which makes sense considering he apparently just started loading it. In my research on the series, I kept reading about Goldblume and his liberal ways, but none of that was present in the opening trio of episodes. Thankfully, “Jeopardy” changes that. He doesn’t want to use force and would rather try to save people from themselves than catch bad guys, but he’s buckling under the intense pressure of the street. His uncomfortability is much more compelling than his affinity for dogs, that’s for sure. This

LaRue’s corruption story didn’t quite hook me in episode three, but I loved how the series let it simmer across two additional episodes. I’ve said this before, but I honestly cannot imagine how audiences responded to a three-episode arc about a dick detective being investigated for corruption. The Gitlin book mentioned some of the struggles Bochco and Michael Kozoll had with NBC over LaRue, but I think they ultimately made the right call. Even though we saw that the guesting Dan Hedaya was framing LaRue, it was easy to see why Frank and everyone else in the precinct just assumed he did it. At a certain point, your reputation catches up with you and there’s no way out of it. I’m not sure if this scare will turn LaRue into this obviously “great” person, but it will be intriguing to track that’s for sure. And the fact that the story ended with Frank learning Hedaya’s character actually had TWO WIVES and therefore needed the extra money to support them just made it that much better. How odd.

As the only lead female character working in the police force, it was nice to finally see Lucy given some material. Honestly, it wasn’t much, but her surreal convos with both Phil and Howard at least made her being attacked by the serial rapist mean something. I’m not totally invested in her being injured, but I’m hoping that the aftermath will be more important than the actual event itself, much like with Renko and Bobby.

In any event, the focus on these four characters made for more interesting episodes this week. Great performances all around and some strong writing as well. And again, one of the series’ best strengths is how it displays the impact of the job on the characters’ lives and that is certainly in play with Phil, Goldblume, LaRue and Lucy. The cases themselves don’t really matter, it’s all about what the job does to their psyches. Unfortunately, bad things happen in these two episodes, but it does make for fantastic drama. Let’s hope it continues.

Other thoughts:

  • I thought it was hilariously awesome that after all that build-up across a few episodes, the President cancels his visit. I’m sure that went over well with NBC brass and audiences.
  • I complained about the humor last week, but I enjoyed it a little more this go-around. The use of the thief Malibu was the best part of “Attitude,” as he continued to help the police staff fix things — cars, electrical, plumbing — and yet continued to try to escape at the very same time. I really, really hope Malibu returns.
  • The male characters dressing up in drag as a way to catch the serial rapist was a bit broad, but still made me chuckle just a little bit. Especially the discussion about Belker and his mustache.
  • Howard continues to be the most annoyingly broad character on the cast. Not a fan.
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