Surveillance Summer Watch: Hill Street Blues, “Rites of Spring” Parts One and Two

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.

Hill Street Blues brings us a two-part penultimate extravaganza with “Rites of Spring.” Last week, I spent most of the post talking about how the series somehow manages to integrate this overly goofy and melodramatic premises into its narrative and after watching these two episodes, I realized that Hill Street did the exact opposite this week. We have gone from oddly-aged love triangles and wonky workplace humor to racism, alcoholism and the possibility of disease. There is still some focus on the lighter moments — Howard and Phil swapping stories about their odd love lives is definitely a season stand-out for me — but generally speaking, “Rites of Spring” has a more serious tone. That is certainly a weird transition to make, but as I’ve said a few times this summer, Hill Street Blues somehow knows how to walk that tight-rope without much difficulty whatsoever.

I wanted to start with LaRue’s battle with alcoholism because I think the series has done a really solid job of weaving that thread throughout the entire season. If we think back to the very beginning of the season, LaRue is doing OK: He’s hitting on Joyce, he’s generally cocky, etc. He quickly falls into hot water with Ralph Maccafee and only barely gets out of that with his badge. In the middle episodes, he appears to rebound with the Saloon-dromat or whatever the hell he calls it, but that ultimately doesn’t work out either. The character hasn’t been as integral to the week-to-week narrative like Frank, Bobby, Renko or even Howard and Belker, but by the time LaRue pops up in this episode with his drinking getting the best of him, it feels like a solid pay-off to his season-long arc. LaRue has really caused nothing but trouble for himself over these initial 15 episodes and it kind of seems like he was using the Saloon-dromat as a way to cope with the fact that he life was going down the toilet. With that out of the picture, all LaRue has is the bottle and that leads to him screwing up Belker’s undercover investigation on the bus.

Like I said, LaRue doesn’t feel like the main character or even one of the characters on that top line and yet the series has done a great job of checking in with him on a regular basis so by the time he stumbles out of control int he first part of “Rites of Spring,” it feels entirely earned. It is not as if the series is doing some sort of special episode about the perils of heavy drinking and then moving on. No, we were told at the very beginning of the season that this guy has a drinking problem that he just barely had under control and as the season progressed, things conspired to create a situation where he is now out of control. On a related note, I like how Hill Street doesn’t become too preachy when dealing with LaRue and his issues. Frank and Washington have been there to give LaRue tough love and the occasional speech or two, but no one really comes to his aid because he has more or less done this to himself. Others aren’t blind to his problems, but they appear to want him to figure it out for himself, which comes off as really realistic for a bunch of middle-aged male police officers to me. This is just really solid, strong storytelling from a series that clearly knows how to sketch out an arc (even a somewhat minor one) and let it play out naturally across more than a half-dozen episodes.

The same can be said for how Hill Street Blues has managed Goldblume’s story in this first season. He’s often felt like an even more minor character than LaRue, but the series has still figured out how to touch base with him every other week or so that we do know more about him than his somewhat annoying desire to rescue every single stray animal he sees (let me clarify: I love animals and also agree they should be saved, but this regularly causes discomfort in the station). In recent episodes, it’s felt like Goldblume was growing more and more overwhelmed with not only his job, but just the general state of affairs in this fictional city.

As the most liberal, bleeding-heart person in the station, it bares to reason that Goldblume is going to be the most impacted by how terrible the crime rates and the poverty are and the series has carried through with that reasonable thought. He didn’t want to carry a gun, almost had a mental breakdown when he was roughed up by some local street thugs, he’s feuding with narcotics officers and can really take it when the people he tries to talk off the ledge jump before he even gets there. This is a city in disarray and it drives Goldblume nuts. Saving puppies isn’t enough, unfortunately.

And now he has a sick son in the hospital. For Goldblume, enough is enough. He can’t help the people in the streets and now he cannot even help his own kid. His life really sucks right now and it is really no surprise that he considers calling it quits. Just like with LaRue, the series sort of sneakily built up this arc to a substantial pay-off in this episode. By the time that Goldblume breaks down, has a few wrenching conversations with Frank and ultimately discovers that his son is going to be okay, all those tears and all that professional waffling was earned. I actually cared about Goldblume and his kid even though the former is probably like the seventh lead and the latter didn’t exist in my mind until just now.

I’m not sure if this experience and the pep talks from Frank will reshape how Goldblume acts when he returns to the Hill, but I’m really intrigued to see if it does. Although they have been smartly parceled out over the season, Goldblume has experienced some pretty heavy, traumatic stuff: Getting beat up/harassed by the gang, people jumping off buildings, having to explain why to little kids, the various hostage situations and his son’s illness. Again, Hill Street did a wonderful job spread out these beats throughout the season, almost without me noticing. While I expected the series to be more inherently and traditionally serialized (and it has been to some extent), Hill Street feels like Mad Men and The Sopranos in moments like this: Individual episodes have their own stories, but by the end of the season, all those singular moments have built to something cohesive and meaningful.

Finally, the series got around to tackling race and racism this week. Though I had no real expectations or indication of how the narrative would progress, I guess I sort of assumed that Hill Street Blues would engage in a racial discourse, if only because of all the critical and award acclaim it garnered over the years. In any event, the series sort of hinted at some racial tension between Renko and Bobby in the moments after they returned to the force, but it never really went anywhere. In “Rites of Spring,” race and racism come to the forefront.

Even as a product of the so-called politically correct 21st century, I was kind of shocked by the racist narcotics officer’s shooting of the black suspect. Television is definitely more racially sensitive these days, but that still felt like a big moment that surely would have thrown many people in 1981 for a loop (I think. I hope.). That kind of violence is sort of staggering and I’m glad that the series is taking it really seriously without being too heavy-handed. And I was certainly happy to see that Washington was finally given something to do, he’s been on the sidelines for too long this season.

All together, “Rites of Spring” is much more “serious” than last week’s two episodes and while I don’t really have a preference as to what kind of story or what kind of series Hill Street Blues should be, I do think it’s impressive that the writers have such a control over their characters and their scripts that they can explore all sorts of stories and tones within the same world. Just as I thought last week’s stories were funny and odd without being too overtly and obnoxiously so, I appreciated how this week’s stories took a more serious route without dipping a toe into the melodramatic or “special episode” pool. Hill Street knows how to strike a balance. Next week: The finale!

Other thoughts:

  • First Fay had a stalker, now she’s been mugged in the street. She does have the worst luck, but I hold out hope that she’s actually just a psychopath making this all up and that she will eventually be locked away because of this. I HATE her so much. I should feel sympathy for someone in her position, but I find myself wondering why the stalker and mugger couldn’t have escalated their crimes.
  • Another note on the character management front: I really like how Frank can fade to the background relatively easy and still feel like the main character. In the aftermath of his dysfunctional promotion possibilities, he had less to do here, but it didn’t really matter. The writers know how to touch base with him without sacrificing other characters’ development.
  • Renko hooking up with his (presumably) night school teacher is just fantastic. Charles Haid is hilariously awkward with women and I love it so much.
  • So Phil ended up not getting married and is now back with his elder beau Grace. That seems like the best choice, but I would have liked to see the series explore that fall-out a little bit more. Bring on the soapy intrigue!
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