'Hill Street Blues' Created Two Eras For TV Drama: Before And After In 1981, NBC presented a new police series that went on to make TV history. Hill Street Blues has just been released on DVD in its entirety for the first time.
NPR logo

'Hill Street Blues' Created Two Eras For TV Drama: Before And After

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/310420401/310452854" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Hill Street Blues' Created Two Eras For TV Drama: Before And After

'Hill Street Blues' Created Two Eras For TV Drama: Before And After

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/310420401/310452854" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


"Hill Street Blues" premiered on NBC in 1981, throwing lots of everything on the screen at once: More characters than TV viewers were used to seeing, talking more rapidly and intelligently than people were used to hearing, while distractions swirled all around. Here from the pilot is the first meeting viewers saw of Hill Street Precinct Police Captain Frank Furillo played by Daniel J. Tarvanti and public defense attorney Joyce Davenport, played by Veronica Hamel. She enters his office complaining about the treatment of a client by the police.


VERONICA HAMEL: (as Joyce) Well, what about it? Is he here or is he elsewhere?

DANIEL J. TRAVANTI: (as Frank) Let's don't get excited, counselor. We're working on it.

HAMEL: (as Joyce) How's this for logic, Furillo? If he's not here and if he's not elsewhere, he's lost.

TRAVANTI: (as Frank) We didn't say that, counselor.

HAMEL: (as Joyce) You've lost my client.

TRAVANTI: (as Frank) Not lost, per se.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Misplaced is more like it.

TRAVANTI: (as Frank) Look, Ms. Davenport, the way it lays out is this. Besides being a pervert your client...

HAMEL: (as Joyce) Alleged pervert.

TRAVANTI: (as Frank) ...your client Mr. Thorpe, because he convinced the duty officer he was claustrophobic, got transferred to County Medical.

HAMEL: (as Joyce) I called County Medical. He's not there, either.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN TWO: Now that isn't necessarily true. A prisoner might be there or might not be there. In an official sense...

TRAVANTI: (as Frank) For that matter, he could be in transit between facilities.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Or he could've gotten on the wrong bus. You know those buses from County lockup are illegibly marked. Francis, you ought to interface with Connie on that one.

DAVIES: "Hill Street Blues" ran seven seasons, ending its run in 1987. For the first time, the entire series has been released on DVD and our TV critic David Bianculli has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: It's very easy, and not at all inaccurate, to divide dramatic series television into two eras: before "Hill Street Blues." Before NBC televised Hill Street in 1981, most continuing drama series were presented as stand-alone, interchangeable hours starring the same characters. Every week, TV Mannix, or Kojak or Baretta would investigate a crime, catch the villains and wait for next week to do it again.

"Hill Street" borrowed from daytime soap operas and presented sequential story lines, which carried over from week to week. There were other innovations, too. Instead of one or two central stars, "Hill Street" featured a large ensemble cast. Camerawork was often hand-held and frantic, more like a documentary. Dialogue overlapped and sounded natural, as in a Robert Altman movie.

Scenes of intense drama sometimes were followed by moments of broad humor. And the crimes themselves, and the solving of them, usually took a back seat to the private lives of the cops, officers and lawyers who populated the show. In other words, "Hill Street Blues" sounds like almost every excellent drama series that's on your must-watch list today.

But back then it broke new ground, although it took a year and a batch of Emmy Awards before it caught on. Before that, the show had a much tougher time getting viewers accustomed to its unusual narrative style. As series co-creator Steven Bochco says in one of the extras in this new box set, "Hill Street Blues" tested through the floor.

But from the very beginning, it was wonderful. Daniel J. Travanti starred as Captain Frank Furillo, a recovering alcoholic who ran a squad of inner-city cops who had plenty of problems of their own. Veronica Hamel played public defender Joyce Davenport, his secret girlfriend, and theirs was one of the most mature and sexy relationships on TV at the time.

The more time viewers spent with these characters, the more they liked them. And that certainly went for Michael Conrad as Sergeant. Phil Esterhaus, who opened that first show - and every show for a few seasons thereafter - by presiding over morning roll call at the precinct and concluding with the same sincere warning.


MICHAEL CONRAD: (as Phil) All right, that's it. Let's roll. Hey, let's be careful out there.

BIANCULLI: By issuing this complete series box set, Shout Factory has given TV fans a chance to revisit, or discover, a major turning point in television history. MTM Enterprises, which until then was known primarily for sitcoms like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," began to dominate drama as well.

NBC eventually used "Hill Street" as a building block for its original Thursday night must-see TV lineup. Producer Bochco went on to "L.A. Law," and another "Hill Street" writer-producer, David Milch, went on to "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood."

The most fun in seeing these shows now - shows that originally ran from 1981 to 1987 - is in recognizing a ridiculous number of now-familiar faces. Not just the leads, which included future "NYPD Blue" star Dennis Franz in two different roles, but the guest stars and bit players too, from Jonathan Banks and Frances McDormand to Jeffrey Tambor and David Caruso.

And there are the box set's extras which include some very nice touches, including Bochco's story about the show's distinctive theme song by Mike Post.

STEVEN BOCHCO: You shoot your pilot. And at some point in there I went to Mike Post, who I had a friendship with and a relationship with professionally, and I said here's this pilot. And I want a piece of music for it that's completely counterintuitive. I want it to be melancholy. I want it to be melodic. And I want it to be very simple.

And I said I really wanted to profoundly contrast what the visuals of this pilot are. He said all right. And, you know, in less than a week he called me. He said come over, come over to my little studio. He had a studio in his house. This is about four block from MTM.

He said come over and I want you to just listen to this thing. So I went over and he played me "Hill Street Blues" on the piano. And I was - I was moved to tears by it. It was perfect. I said that's it. Don't change it. Just the piano, the thing. He said, well, you can't just have a piano. You've got to this, you've got to - no. I love it exactly.

And then so we compromised a little bit here and there but it was essentially that theme. And it was haunting, absolutely haunting.

BIANCULLI: It's really hard for me to accept that it's been more than 30 years since "Hill Street Blues" premiered - especially since, as a work of television, it still holds up so well. It's a terrific box set; so good and so entertaining it makes me hungry for another. Where, oh where, is the complete box set of another MTM classic, "St. Elsewhere?"

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dispatch, give me a 911. Armed robbery in progress...

C's surplus store, corner People's Drive, 124th Street.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.