Surveillance Summer Watch: Hill Street Blues, “Gatorbait” and “Life, Death, Eternity”

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.

Although Hill Street Blues is primarily interested in examining how the stresses of the job impact police officers, it has slowly started to show that it has some interest in more “important” story topics. Earlier in the season when the president was supposed to make his way to Hill Street Station, the series didn’t seem too invested in overtly discussing politics. The interpersonal politics between the area’s local gangs became the topic of conversation in those episodes and although that story was well-executed and had some edge, it did lack a certain political slant. This is fine considering some series tend to stray too far into preaching when tackling those kinds of issues, but as the season progressed and I realized that HSB was more or less good at integrating all sorts of stories into its narrative, I hoped for more.

This week Hill Street Blues responded to my request (30 years later, but you know). When I say the series tackles “politics” I don’t really mean democrat and republican politics. Instead, much like The Wire, Hill Street Blues appears to have some interest in the political maneuvering that happens within the police force itself. Though our media-induced rose-colored glasses of police work makes it seem as if it is all about investigations and catching the bad guys, so much of what creates tension in a force or station is the political aspect. The higher-ups are more or less political figure heads for the boots on the ground, the middle management is filled with people appointed to those positions for reasons other than their past work and at all times (or so The Wire would have me believe) those political elements clash with those on the lower rungs just trying to do their job.

We’ve heard rumblings about Division and the bosses outside of Hill Street Station, but “Gatorbait” and “Life, Death, Eternity” present us with our first real glimpse of the political structure of this fictional force and gives us some insight into the somewhat dysfunctional psyches of those above Frank . When Commander Swanson is promoted to Deputy Chief of Police, his position at Division opens up and Frank is one of the two candidates. What I really liked about the exploration of this story is how the series made it relatively personal. Yes, we finally get a peek at the goofball, somewhat incompetent people who work above Frank, a vision that tells us a little more about the general struggles of this police force and the whole area around it. The streets around Hill Street Station are filled with gangs, violence and crime but the political jockeying between stuffy suits reflects a certain disregard for that kind of entrenched crime. Swanson doesn’t really care about the people on the street.

But you know who does? Frank Furillo. Though this is a story with a political-leaning backdrop, it’s ultimately one powered by the moral code of Hill Street Blues‘ lead character. When the possibility of a promotion comes on his table Frank has to start considering what kind of official he wants to be. Is he real police or is it time to take that pay raise and get the hell out of Hill Street Station? There are a few moments in “Gatorbait” where it feels like he might take hold of the latter position, yet by the end of “Life, Death, Eternity,” Frank realizes that he will best serve the community by sticking around. Of course it doesn’t hurt that throughout “Life,” Phil informs Frank of all the uniforms and detectives who have decided to retire, quit or transfer in the theoretical possibility that he leaves. That kind of outpouring of support has to make a guy reconsider any decision.

However, this story isn’t all about Frank being a guardian angel to the officers, detectives and miscellaneous employees of Hill Street Station (although it does feel like that for a few moments). There are some challenges for Frank to manage here. To support the police’s political positioning story, “Life, Death, Eternity” throws Frank into the investigation of a probably-corrupt City Councilman. The police brass have made it pretty clear that Frank shouldn’t pursue the Councilman if he still wants to join them at Division, but you can imagine that those kinds of threats don’t really go over well with Furillo. He pushes the investigation forward and by the end of “Life,” it is apparent that he isn’t going to get any kind of promotion for a very, very long time.

As a 2011 viewer, I’m not shocked to see a police drama tackle the interwoven corruption and collusion between crooked police and more crooked politicians, but I still thought Hill Street executed this story fairly well. Introducing the possibility of villainous, criminal politicians adds another layer of dysfunction to what is an already messed up police force and police station. By the time this episode is over, we are given a much clearer perspective of the whole institutional fissures in this fictional locale. And it is much easier to see why the streets are so dangerous and why characters who work at Hill Street Station are often jaded and blase about their overall impact. They’ve seen how politicians and upper-level cops act in this city. Again, this isn’t an overwhelmingly impressive storytelling feat (especially from a 2011 perspective), but it does help expand the world of Hill Street Blues and it does provide some context as to why things are so terrible in these parts.

This story also kind of makes this story more depressing (albeit in an entertaining way). For the first 10 episodes, we’ve watched the police force struggle to contain gang violence, serial rapists and all sorts of other heinous crimes — not to mention all the issues they’ve faced within their own precinct. I don’t want to say that Bobby and Renko are bad street cops or LaRue and Washington can’t handle their undercover work, but if there were a scoreboard hanging up in the main room of Hill Street Station, I imagine it would have more losses than wins on it. And to see that the man guiding these misfits in this weak ship is perhaps one of the only traditionally “good” guys around is kind of staggering and depressing. This fictional city is totally screwed. As a Wire fan, I can appreciate that kind of storytelling, but I have to imagine that viewers in 1981 might have been taken off-guard by that a bit. If they watched the initial episodes, they saw characters rarely catch the bad guys. After these episodes, they probably recognized that it was never going to get better. Clearly this is what made Hill Street Blues so appealing to critics at that time and what makes it still relatively enjoyable to watch 30 years later.

Other thoughts:

  • “Gatorbait” further explored the failure of institutions by having Bobby and Renko get mixed up with some supposedly “better” detectives who actually weren’t very good at their job at all. I’m surprised anything gets solved in this city.
  • Watching these two episodes back-to-back brought me some major tonal whiplash. “Gatorbait” features an extended focus on Hunter scouring the sewers for alligators while LaRue and Washington planned to sneak a big fake one down there. It was much funnier than I’m making it sound, trust me. Meanwhile, “Life, Death, Eternity” is powered by a more somber feeling after one of the station’s handymen drops dead out of nowhere. Characters start reflecting on their mortality and questioning what their life really means (spoiler alert: not much). Although I don’t think the series nails it every single time, the odd tonal differences from episode-to-episode or even scene-to-scene make HSB very compelling.
  • I tweeted this last night, but Fay Furillo is honestly my least favorite television character of all-time. I don’t think she’s supposed to be entirely likable, but oh my lord is she so awful. Every episode she has to barge in to the station with her overly shrill shrieking and yelling. It’s so bad that when these two episodes tried to give her an actual, legitimate reason to be shrieking (she has a stalker), I was just hoping for the stalker to win. I feel no sympathy for her and I cannot imagine that ever-changing.
  • Goldblume holding stray animals (this week it was a cat) has to be my favorite running gag. It is one of those weird tonal things that just works.
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