Surveillance Summer Watch: Hill Street Blues, “Up in Arms,” “Your Kind, My Kind, Humankind”

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 Cheers on Tuesdays and Hill Street Blues on Thursdays. For more information, see this post and for all the SSW pieces, visit this page.

When I initially heard that Hill Street Blues employed serialization into its story framework, I assumed that it was only a minor element. I mean come on, this is a broadcast police drama from 1981, there is no way that it could really dive into the ongoing narratives that defined dramatic television many years later. Right? Right?

After this week’s assignment, I can definitely say that I severely underestimated how much serialization Hill Street would use and more importantly, how adept the series would be at doing so. “Up in Arms” and “Your Kind, My Kind, Humankind” come to us at the halfway point of the season and storylines introduced in the pilot (Renko and Bobby’s shooting) and just a few episodes later (the film crew’s presence, LaRue’s issues, Frank looking after Hector) are still thumping along at different rates. Obviously, this isn’t a series with a Lost-like dense mythology, but the ongoing threads and beats are still dominant elements of each HSB episode.

In general, the series does a wonderful job of not feeling like a procedural at all. The ongoing character arcs are the most important parts of each episode, but even when there are standalone-y stories introduced (such as Phil’s dealings with the dangerous criminal who was just released from prison), Hill Street Blues knows how to make certain those threads are integrated with a character focus. It never seems like an episode of the series throws out a specific case at the beginning of the episode and then closes the proverbial book on that case by episode’s end. Phil gets his time with the born-again criminal, LaRue and Washington go on a stakeout that allows for more time with the television crew and Belker’s own stakeout turns into a meditation on how female significant others react, ahem, sexually to being in that kind of intense situation. These aren’t cases about police work in the most traditional television sense, they are almost all like little vignettes that tell us just a little more about the people doing this job.

What is compelling about Hill Street Blues and these characters is how odd and unnaturally natural it can all seem. I’ve previously discussed the production team’s desire to make everything “gritty” and “real,” which are buzzwords that tend to drive me nuts. But unfortunately, it is all mostly true. The approach to the serialization is more soap opera than Lost (and I don’t mean that in a bad way, at all), wherein the things that continue to pop up and be important to the week’s proceedings are entirely tied to a character’s arc or relationship with another character than anything plot-related. The season has had two somewhat ongoing “plot” narratives in the president’s visit and the presence of the camera crew. Yet neither one of them has been supremely crucial to matters and instead more or less provided the backdrop that allows for more interesting character focuses.

Take Renko and Bobby’s shooting for example. In the first nine episodes, this is certainly the most dominant ongoing story the series has in its arsenal. But even though the shooting and its aftermath has taken up lots of running time, that time hasn’t really been dedicated to the investigation of it. A few episodes ago, Frank thought they found the shooter and in these two episodes that suspect is released and then subsequently admits his crimes. However, those substantial plot developments are played as much less important than how Renko and Bobby actually react to them.

Before Frank found the suspect, it seemed as if Bobby and Renko were growing more comfortable with their positions and partnership. But ever since Renko identified the shooter and Bobby could not, things have been quickly deteriorating. Renko cannot believe that Bobby does not remember the guy’s face and there’s just a whole lot of resentment building up there. And weirdly, as these two episodes work through whether or not the suspect actually did shoot them, Renko and Bobby’s issues are about something else entirely: their love lives. So although the series is tangentially interested in closing that narrative door, it didn’t let the investigation and procedure leading up to that closing overwhelm the story.

It’s not that Renko and Bobby had moved on per se, but the series smartly explored how their issues related to the shooting manifested in other ways as well. Ever since the two of them returned from the hospital and Bobby received more of a hero’s welcome, Renko has felt inadequate and that carried over to their respective romantic entanglements. Bobby has apparently found himself a nice white girl and Renko is stuck trying to buy dinner for hookers and/or strippers just for some company. One of my favorite scenes of the whole series thus far came at the very end of “Your Kind” when Frank revealed to Bobby and Renko that the suspect admitted to shooting them. Bobby noted that the shooter’s inability to totally remember what happened (because he was drugged out of his mind) terrifies him and he probably won’t sleep any better at night now. The plot is unofficially “over,” but Renko and Bobby’s issues are only going to continue it seems. This focus on the consequences and the psyches of the characters is what makes Hill Street Blues so wonderful.

Moreover, the way the series plays these character moments also assists in making things feel “different.” For example, so many of the Renko and Bobby scenes are so quiet and slightly off-center that it further accentuates the weird place their relationship is in at the moment. Additionally, the relationship between Belker and his woman is just straight-up awkward and somewhat uncomfortable to watch. Belker is a super-intense and moderately insane man in his own right so watching him fall in love is automatically going to be weird, but his female companion is similarly odd. When Belker’s woman starts lusting after him and asking him to be rough, he replies that he cannot do that because he thinks he loves her. There is no romantic score or any score at all, to this scene. Instead, we’re left with the uncomfortable chemistry between these two performers (which I have to imagine was intentional) and whatever it is they are trying to work out. It’s almost cringe-worthy, but you have to imagine that two real people with these personalities would approach this situation like that. In real life, it would be super awkward.

On Hill Street Blues, every conversation is just that, a conversation. It’s not a television-style “conversation” that includes a lot of punchy dialogue or yelling from the performers. These characters just talk to one another at relatively quiet levels and even when they are frustrated or angry with one another, there’s a controlled demeanor to it all. Not only does this approach reinforce the (gulp) realism, but it makes any moment where a character actually does yell or scream feel particularly momentous. Sure, sometimes Frank and Phil seem like they’re trying to audition for a mumblecore film, but the contrast between how they act and the backdrop of the police station makes for really intriguing, albeit sometimes really odd, television.

Other thoughts:

  • Again, I really love how every story is so obviously about a character. Each LaRue story is about how much of a screw-up he is and thus far, the series has done a nice job of hammering home that point without making it too insufferable.
  • On a related note, it was nice to see Washington actually have something to do. He’s spent most of the first episodes reacting incredulously to LaRue’s stupidity, so I guess getting to shoot a criminal in the chest with a shotgun is an improvement.
  • The story with the younger boot getting killed and his partner subsequently deciding to quit the force so he could go make cabinets is another one of those oddly compelling and natural Hill Street Blues-ian things.
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