Hill Street Blues is an American serial police drama that aired on NBC in primetime from 1981 to 1987 for a total of 146 episodes. The show chronicled the lives of the staff of a single police station located on the fictional Hill Street, in an unnamed large city, with "blues" being a slang term for police officers for their blue uniforms. The show received critical acclaim, and its production innovations influenced many subsequent dramatic television series produced in the United States and Canada. Its debut season was rewarded with eight Emmy Awards, a debut season record surpassed only by The West Wing. The show received a total of 98 Emmy nominations during its run.
MTM Enterprises developed the series on behalf of NBC, appointing Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll as series writers. The writers were allowed considerable creative freedom and created a series that brought together a number of emerging ideas in TV drama for the first time. Each episode featured a number of intertwined storylines, some of which were resolved within the episode, with others developing over a number of episodes throughout a season. The conflicts between the work lives and private lives of the individual characters were also large elements of storylines. The series featured a strong focus on the workplace struggle between "what is right" and "what works". Almost every episode began with a pre-credit sequence (or "teaser") consisting of (mission) briefing and roll call at the beginning of the day shift (from season three it experimented with a "Previously on..." montage of clips of up to six previous episodes before the roll call). Many episodes were written to take place over the course of a single day, and often concluded with Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) and public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) in a domestic situation, often in bed, discussing how their respective days went. The series was notable for dealing with real-life issues and employing commonly used language and slang to a greater extent than had been seen before, which brought a sense of verisimilitude to the production.
The filming of Hill Street Blues employed what was, at that time, a unique style of camera usage for weeknight television productions, incorporating techniques such as filming being held close in with action cuts rapidly between stories. Rather than studio (floor) cameras, handhelds were used to enhance this style. Extensive use of overheard, off-screen dialogue aurally-augmented the "documentary" feel with respect to the filmed action of a scene.
Although filmed in Los Angeles (both on location and at CBS Studio Center in Studio City), the series is set in a generic unnamed inner-city location with a feel of a U.S. urban center in the Midwest or Northeast. Bochco had intended this fictional city to be a hybrid of Chicago, Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
The program's focus on failure and those at the bottom of the social scale is pronounced, very much in contrast to Bochco's later project L.A. Law. Inspired by police procedural detective novels such as Ed McBain's 1956 Cop Hater, the show has been described as Barney Miller out of doors; the focus on the bitter realities of 1980s urban living was revolutionary for its time (later seasons were accused of becoming formulaic). Some trace the origins of this shift to the death of Michael Conrad (Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) midway through season four, leading to the replacement of the beloved Sgt. Esterhaus by Sgt. Stan Jablonski, played by Robert Prosky. Nonetheless, it is a landmark piece of television programming, the influence of which was seen in such series as NYPD Blue and ER. In 1982, St. Elsewhere was hyped as Hill Street Blues in a hospital. The quality work done by MTM led to the appointment of Grant Tinker as NBC chairman in 1982.
Pilot: Brandon Tartikoff commissioned a series from MTM Productions, which assigned Bochco and Kozoll to the project. The pilot was produced in 1980, but was held back as a mid-season replacement so as not to get lost among the other programs debuting in the fall of 1980. Barbara Bosson, who was married to Bochco, had the idea to fashion the series into four- or five-episode story "arcs". Robert Butler directed the pilot, developing a look and style inspired by the 1977 documentary The Police Tapes, in which filmmakers used handheld cameras to follow police officers in the South Bronx. Butler went on to direct the first four episodes of the series, and Bosson had hoped he would stay on permanently. However, he felt he was not being amply recognized for his contributions to the show's look and style and left to pursue other projects. He would return to direct just one further episode, "The Second Oldest Profession" in season two.
Season 1: The pilot aired on Thursday, January 15, 1981, at 10:00 pm, which would be the show's time slot for nearly its entire run. The second episode aired two nights later; the next week followed a similar pattern (episode 3 on Thursday, episode 4 on Saturday). NBC had ordered 13 episodes and the season was supposed to end on May 25 with a minor cliffhanger (the resolution of Sgt. Esterhaus' wedding). Instead, growing critical acclaim prompted NBC to order an additional four episodes to air during the May sweeps. Bochco and Kozoll quickly fashioned this into a new story arc, which aired as two two-hour episodes to close the season. In the first series' original ending, Officer Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro), is shot dead during a vehicle stop. However, later on the producers decided that Coffey should remain so scene was edited to him being seriously wounded and taken to hospital. (The character would eventually be killed in the sixth season)
In early episodes the opening theme had several clearly audible edits; this was replaced by a longer, unedited version partway through the second season. The end credits for the pilot differed from the rest of the series in that the background still shot of the station house was completely different; it was also copyrighted 1980 instead of 1981. The show became the lowest-rated program ever renewed for a second season. However, it was only renewed for ten episodes. A full order was picked up partway through the season.
Season 2: A writers strike pushed the start of the season forward to October 29, meaning that only 19 episodes were completed that year. Kozoll was now listed as a consultant, signifying his diminished role in the show. He later stated he was already feeling burnt out, and in fact was relying more on car chases and action to fill the scripts. A less muted version of the closing theme was played over the end credits.
Season 3: Kozoll left the show at the end of season two, replaced for the most part by Anthony Yerkovich (who later created Miami Vice after leaving Hill Street Blues at the end of this season) and David Milch. This was the show's most popular in terms of viewership, as it finished at @21. This was also the birth of "Must See TV", as the show was joined by Cheers, Taxi and Fame. The network promoted Thursdays as "the best night of television on television." Michael Conrad was increasingly absent from the show due to his ongoing battle with cancer.
Season 4: Following his death on November 22, 1983, Michael Conrad's final appearance was broadcast halfway through the season in February 1984 in a memorable send-off episode, "Grace Under Pressure". Det. Harry Garibaldi (Ken Olin) was introduced at the end of the season as a temporary replacement for the disgraced Det. J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin). The show won its fourth and final Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series this season.
Season 5: The show changed drastically this season, entering a somewhat "soap opera-ish" period according to Bochco. New characters included Sgt. Stanislaus Jablonski (Robert Prosky) and Det. Patsy Mayo (Mimi Kuzyk). Det. Garibaldi was now a regular, while Mrs. Furillo (Bosson) became a full-time member of the squad room. Bochco was dismissed at season's end by then-MTM President Arthur Price. The firing was due to Bochco's cost overruns, coupled with the fact that the show had achieved the 100-episode milestone needed to successfully syndicate it.
Betty Thomas won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress In a Drama Series this season. However, at the awards ceremony, recurring imposter Barry Bremen rushed the stage ahead of Thomas and claimed she was unable to attend. He then claimed the award and left the stage, confusing viewers and robbing Thomas of her moment in the sun, although she returned and spoke after the ad break. Presenter Peter Graves suggested that Bremen was "on his way to the cooler."
Season 6: Major changes occurred as Patsy Mayo, Det. Harry Garibaldi, Lt. Ray Calletano (René Enríquez), Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson) and Officer Leo Schnitz (Robert Hirschfeld) were all phased out at the start of the season, and Joe Coffey left near the end. The sole addition was Lt. Norman Buntz, played by Dennis Franz, who had played a different character, Det. Sal Benedetto, in several episodes of season 3. Peter Jurasik played a new recurring character called Sid the Snitch, who was often teamed with Buntz. In a 1991 interview on Later with Bob Costas, Ken Olin explained that these characters were removed so that the new show-runners could add characters for which they would receive royalties. Barbara Bosson's departure, however, was voluntary. She left after a salary conflict with the new executive producer who, according to the actress, also wanted her character, Fay, to go back to being the "thorn in her ex-husband's side" which she no longer was by that time.
The season premiere opened with a roll call filled with officers never before seen on the show, briefly fooling viewers into thinking the entire cast had been replaced. It was then revealed that this was, in fact, the night shift. The action then cut to the day shift pursuing their after-work activities. Another unique episode from this season explained through flashbacks how Furillo and Davenport met and fell in love. This was the first season that Travanti and Hamel were not nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor/Actress in a Drama Series.
Season 7: While each episode of the series starts with the morning roll call, episodes from season 7 breaks away from tradition, showing characters at home or working. The roll call becomes a minor part of the beginning. Some episodes don't show roll call at all.
Officer Patrick Flaherty (played by Robert Clohessy) and Officer Tina Russo (Megan Gallagher) joined this season in an attempt to rekindle the Bates-Coffey relationship of years past. Stan Jablonski became a secondary character part way through this season, and when Travanti announced he would not return the next year, the producers decided to end the show in 1987. The program was also moved to Tuesday nights almost midway through the season after nearly six years to make way for L.A. Law on Thursdays.
This was the only season that Bruce Weitz (Det. Mick Belker) was not nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. Only Betty Thomas was nominated, making her the only member of the cast to be nominated all seasons. This was also the only season for which the show was not nominated for Outstanding Drama Series.
|1||Thursdays at 10:00 pm (January 15 - 22, 1981)
Saturdays at 10:00 pm (January 17 - March 21, 1981)
Tuesdays at 9:00 pm (May 19 - 26, 1981)
|not in the Top 30|
|2||Thursdays at 10:00 pm||#27|
|4||not in the Top 30|
|6||not in the Top 30|
|7||Thursdays at 10:00 pm (October 2 - November 27, 1986)
Tuesdays at 9:00 pm (December 2, 1986 - February 10, 1987)
Tuesdays at 10:00 pm (March 3 - May 12, 1987)
|not in the Top 30|
The series later aired in reruns on TV Land, Bravo, AmericanLife TV, and NuvoTV. It has been running since Sep., 2015 on Heroes & Icons network. Seasons one through seven can also be viewed on hulu.com. Season three can be viewed as streaming video on commercial sites and is also available in many countries from Channel 4 on YouTube.
The producers made efforts to avoid specifying precisely where the series took place; for example, the call letters of local TV stations were obscured to avoid showing whether they began with "W" (the Federal Communications Commission designation for stations east of the Mississippi) or "K" (signifying a station west of the Mississippi). One indication of setting within the show was given by Ofc. Renko's (Charles Haid) statement to his partner in the season one episode "Politics As Usual": "Just drop that 'cowboy' stuff. I was born in New Jersey, [and] never been west of Chicago in my life."
Show writer Steven Bochco attended college at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh. The run-down, shabby, drug-ridden impression of Pittsburgh's Hill District that Bochco acquired was apparently part of the inspiration for the show.
Hill Street Blues refers to the blue uniforms worn by many police officers in the US, and is perhaps an intentional pun on the musical style "blues," which is depressing in its tone ("Hill Street" is the name of the precinct). The phrase is uttered only once within the series, by Detective Emil Schneider (Dolph Sweet) in the first-season episode "Gatorbait". Schneider says it in a slightly mocking tone, in reference to officers Hill and Renko, who he feels are out of their league at a particular crime scene. The precinct bowling team is the "Hill Street Blue Ballers."
Officers are listed by the rank they held at first appearance on the program; some officers later held higher ranks.
Initially, Hill Street Blues received rave reviews from critics alongside dismal Nielsen ratings. Early schedule switching did not help; the show was broadcast once weekly on four different nights during its first season alone but gradually settled into a Thursday night slot. The NBC Broadcast Standards Unit deemed it "too violent, too sexy, too grim." The producers described the show as "an hour drama with 13 continuing characters living through a Gordian knot of personal and professional relationships." John J. O'Connor in a May 1981 review charted its growing popularity and called it "a comfortable balance between comedy and drama". The groundbreaking choice to include African-Americans as mainstays in the core ensemble cast and to feature several inter-racial and inter-ethnic cop partnerships drew notice and praise, as did the overlapping plots and examinations of moral conundrums such as police corruption, racism, alcoholism, and both interpersonal and institutional forgiveness.
Audience reception of certain portrayals of minority characters drew concern, with author Larry Landrum urging skepticism from an audience "already in the ambiguous position of identifying with individuals representing an armed authority." Landrum also criticized the series' frenetic pace as ultimately requiring the use of stereotypes — narrative devices which constitute "an assault on the competence of audiences, obscure reflection on the causes of perceived social, political, and economic problems, and foster fragmented views of everyday life."
Despite these shortcomings the show was very influential, with many others imitating its use of handheld cameras, ensemble cast, and multiple overlapping story arcs lasting for several episodes, set in urban decay. Alan Sepinwall wrote in 2014 that it "is on the short list of the most influential TV shows ever made. Whether through shared actors, writers, directors or through stylistic and thematic complexity, its DNA can be found in nearly every great drama produced in the 30-plus years since it debuted". He compared Hill Street Blues to Casablanca, which was so influential on other films that "if you come to see it for the first time after a lifetime of watching the copies, it could be at risk of playing like a bundle of clichés—even though it invented those clichés".
In 1993, TV Guide named the series The All-Time Best Cop Show in its issue celebrating 40 years of television. In 1997, the episode "Grace Under Pressure" was ranked number 49 on TV Guide's 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. When the list was revised in 2009, "Freedom's Last Stand" was ranked number 57. In 2002, Hill Street Blues was ranked number 14 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, and in 2013 TV Guide ranked it #1 in its list of The 60 Greatest Dramas of All Time and #23 of the 60 Best Series.
20th Century Fox released the first two seasons of Hill Street Blues on DVD in Region 1 in 2006. Both releases contain special features including gag reel, deleted scenes, commentary tracks, and featurettes.
On December 5, 2013, it was announced that Shout! Factory had acquired the rights to the series in Region 1. They subsequently released Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series on DVD on April 29, 2014.
In Region 4, Shock Records released the first three seasons on DVD in Australia on December 4, 2013, and the remaining four seasons on April 30, 2014. On December 4, 2013, Shock Records also released a complete series set.
|Region 1||Region 2||Region 4|
|The Complete 1st Season||17||January 31, 2006||March 25, 2013||December 4, 2013|
|The Complete 2nd Season||18||May 16, 2006|
|The Complete 3rd Season||22||November 4, 2014||—|
|The Complete 4th Season||22||March 3, 2015||April 30, 2014|
|The Complete 5th Season||23||May 26, 2015|
|The Complete 6th Season||22||September 8, 2015|
|The Complete 7th Season||22||January 12, 2016|
|The Complete Series||146||April 29, 2014||—||December 4, 2013|
Beverly Hills Buntz aired on NBC from November 5, 1987 to April 22, 1988. It was a half-hour comedy, a hybrid between light private eye fare and a sitcom. The main character, Norman Buntz (Dennis Franz) quit Hill Street, moved to Beverly Hills with Sid "The Snitch" Thurston (Peter Jurasik), and became a private investigator. Thirteen episodes were filmed, of which only nine were broadcast.
Hill Street Blues has inspired parodies, storylines, characters, and cultural references in numerous media vehicles.
In 1991, Krisalis Software (developed by Simeon Pashley and Rob Hill) released the computer game, Hill Street Blues, based on the TV show. The game runs on the Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS platforms and places the player in charge of Hill Street Station and its surrounding neighborhood, with the aim of promptly dispatching officers to reported crimes, apprehending criminals, and making them testify at court. If certain areas have less serious crimes unresolved, such as bag-snatching, they soon escalate to more serious ones, such as murder in broad daylight. The game is still available for download at computer game sites and outlets, and has received mixed reviews.