Surveillance Summer Watch: Season Finale — Hill Street Blues, “Jungle Madness” 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.

Here we are folks, at the end of our Hill Street Blues road (at least for now). Although I won’t leave you with any massive cliffhangers like the shooting of Officer Joe Coffey at the end of “Jungle Madness,” I hope this final look at the series’ ultimately pretty wonderful first season is just as satisfying. Like I said in the final Cheers post last week, it’s been a fun ride going back through this series, both because I’ve been able to fill in some of the blanks in my television viewing knowledge and because of HSB’s general quality.

Oh shoot, there I go already using that Q-word. I guess we might as well start there, then. At the beginning of this series, I wondered aloud about the visual or thematic markers of quality and how they would (or would not) apply to Hill Street Blues in the case of someone viewing the series so many years later. As I found out when trying to work through some of the other lauded MTM Enterprises products, discussing quality isn’t easy and even identifying in a more specific context is sometimes tremendously problematic. I hate to boil such a complex issue down to such a simplistic statement, but for me, quality almost feels like a “know it when you see it” situation. Obviously there are reasons why I think any series fits a definition of quality – depth, complexity and subtlety in character and narrative most notably – but it is sometimes difficult to apply those kinds of restrictions across genres and in this case, time.

In any event, I ultimately feel like Hill Street Blues is a great, quality drama. Even 30 years later and with my time as a television consumer in what many consider the greatest and most important (especially for drama), I can absolutely see why critics, scholars and eventually audiences grew to love this series. I hate to throw around a word like “timeless,” but there is really very little about HSB that appears out of step with modernity or entirely awkward so many years later. Most of that stems from the fact that the series does a wonderful job of focusing on the characters and their journeys within the police force. Clichéd as it may sound, Hill Street is really just a story about people doing a job. That job might be the one profession beaten into the ground on television (and really throughout all of popular media most likely), but there are still relevant and important stories to tell within the police and law enforcement framework.

Most prominent in the series’ success are the characters and how their stories have progressed across these 17 episodes. I have noted before that Hill Street is really strong at exploring the ways in which the job positively and negatively (but mostly negatively) impacts the lives of those doing it, but it really is worth mentioning again, especially because the two-part finale sticks the landing in that regard completely. More on that in a minute, but I really do think that it is this one integral element that helps Hill Street Blues be fresh and pertinent despite its actual extended shelf life. The characters are difficult to love in the traditional sense, but they have so many different shades and sides to them that over the season, I’ve really grown to care about most of the main cast.If Hill Street aired these episodes today, it seems like they would get a relatively similar reaction or at least not feel entirely aged or old in the 21st century context.

Comparisons are hard, but as far as individual seasons go, this is known as one of the best and I find myself mostly agreeing with that. This is certainly not my favorite individual season of television and I think there are definitely more modern dramas that have produced better seasons – Lost’s first and fifth, Breaking Bad’s third and The Wire’s third and fourth immediately come to mind – but make no mistake: this is very, very good television, particularly in the police drama/procedural genre. Like with Cheers, the fact that I want to plow through the second and third seasons immediately (unfortunately they are the only other ones legally available) RIGHT NOW tells me that Hill Street Blues is A.) good and B.) addicting.*

*This is definitely even truer because the series didn’t become “popular” until its second season. The Gitlin book that I have referenced a few times argued that Hill Street dipped in quality just a smidge in the second season and I’m very intrigued to see if the rise in popularity has anything to do with that perception and if it is actually backed up in the world of the series. I don’t want to make any promises, but I could very easily see the reviews of the series return very soon.

But let’s actually talk about this two-part finale, shall we? As I hinted at above, “Jungle Madness” is really wonderful and very reflective of the series/season as a whole. I would argue that one of the markers of quality and greatness is a finale that brings all the most important storylines to a head in an impactful way. “Madness” does just that. Moreover, the episode accomplishes these goals through a fun, useful conceit that I always, always enjoy. I tweeted this when I was watching the episodes over the weekend, but the episode uses the HEAT WAVE MAKING PEOPLE CRAAAAZY framework to expert precision (just as any good police drama should).

Hill Street Blues season one is all about how this community (and arguably, these people) will never improve or suddenly get “safer.” The heat wave only exacerbates these issues and themes further. Of course most of the people don’t have air conditioning or the finances to be comfortable. And of course the police officers don’t really either. The heat, just like the system itself, plays no favorites when exerting its pressure and force onto people. The citizens are uncomfortable, angry and restless and really, the people of Hill Street Station feel exactly the same. It is basically like a hot-ass powder keg out there and as long-running stories start to come to a close, the heat only ratchets up the pressure and intensity.  It might just be my inherent love for the HEAT WAVE MAKING PEOPLE CRAAAAZY stories, but I think this is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It is just a smart way to frame a finale full of tension, confusion and disappointment.

I really like how this two-parter circles back around to many of the things the pilot set in motion. This is shown in a number of ways, from actual plotlines to general thematic connection. Near the end of the pilot episode, officers are shot in the streets. Near the end of this episode, the same thing happens.* Most of the pilot’s big problems still persist: Frank and Joyce are still fighting to balance their work lives with their (very private) personal lives; LaRue is still struggling with alcoholism and its influence on his professional judgment; Renko and Belker don’t quite know how to be anything but cops.

*Oddly, both instances involved reshoots and storyline alternation. Just as Renko and Bobby were supposed to be dead at the end of the pilot episode, research tells me that Coffey was originally pronounced dead when he was shot near the end of the finale.

In fact, you could argue that the lives of these characters have only gotten worse. Frank and Joyce push their relationship to the brink. After convincing me he had hit rock bottom last week, LaRue somehow fell even further this week. Renko gets dumped and Belker seems even more insane.

Moreover, stories that began a little later in the season reflect this decomposition as well. After putting his neck out for the clearly-racist Weeks, Washington finds himself in very hot water with other police officers and fellow black citizens in the community. Frank takes similar heat from the police bosses above him. Lucy and Coffey’s burgeoning relationship looks to be taking off, only to have Coffey find himself knocking on the door of death.

Taken all together, these characters paint a clear, but important picture about this world: Nothing ever improves. The inner cities are still in ruin, violence still persists, women are ignoring their children and the police department brass is more worried about their racquetball games than figuring out any real solution for the problems. Everyone’s lives suck, period. But it probably doesn’t matter anyway, because no true solution exists. Everyone is basically screwed and there is little that can be done about it. By the end of “Jungle Madness,” there are small victories – LaRue has finally gone to AA, Washington has helped save Weeks’ career and Frank and Joyce don’t actually break up – but only barely. There’s no question that LaRue could fall off the wagon at any moment or that another race-related issue could cause a hoopla in the city and in the department. When going to AA is your season’s biggest “win,” things are bleak. But life, dangerous, messy life, goes on around Hill Street Station.

Other thoughts:

  • Seeing Frank at the AA meeting was a really great twist that I didn’t see coming. However, it makes sense considering his job and the destruction of his marriage.
  • Belker’s undercover work at the criminal black market flea market was really awesome.
  • Renko getting dumped made me really sad. He’s such an intentional clown that it’s really easy to root for him.
  • I was glad to see Lucy get more to do here in the final episodes and I hope that Coffey’s shooting means big things for her in the coming seasons.
  • On the flip side, these episodes were light on Phil and Goldblume, which I guess kind of makes sense considering they had those big moments a few episodes ago. Still, Phil getting a belly dance at roll call for his birthday was comedy silver.
  • This has been such a joy to watch and write about and hopefully, read about. Thanks for reading, tweeting and commenting this summer folks. It’s much appreciated.
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