Let's Be Careful Out There: 'Hill Street Blues' Is Out On DVD TV is full of dramas that are as complex as the best novels or films. But they all owe some debt to the pioneering gritty cop show Hill Street Blues, which has just been released on DVD.

Let's Be Careful Out There: The Legacy Of 'Hill Street Blues'

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. These days, television is full of shows that are as complex as movies or even novels. An old series that helped inspire that kind of television is now out on DVD. Our critic Eric Deggans says "Hill Street Blues" changed TV storytelling 30 years ago.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: This is the moment that launched a TV revolution every week: the police roll call.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "HILL STREET BLUES")

DEGGANS: That kind of chaos was a long way from predictable, by-the-numbers cop shows like "Dragnet." Two producers who had gotten bored writing for stodgy crime dramas like "Ironside" and "McMillan and Wife," came up with "Hill Street Blues." Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll. They tore up the rules of TV. Their show had a huge cast.

The gritty storylines played out over several episodes. The look was taken from movies like "The French Connection." And the hero was an overwhelmed middle manager struggling with stuff old-school cop shows never tackled.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "HILL STREET BLUES")

DEGGANS: Two cops were beaten and had their guns stolen, a posse of officers got ready to take revenge, but Captain Frank Furillo faced down the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "HILL STREET BLUES")

DEGGANS: Speeches like that were crafted by a lineup of great writers who would become TV all-stars.

DAVID MILCH: I'd say, looking back, it's sort of like the '27 Yankees; but at the time, we were just guys scuffling.

DEGGANS: That's David Milch. Writing for "Hill Street Blues" was his first job in TV.

MILCH: There was a coming together of young and ambitious people, many of whom were new to the business and that willingness to innovate was something that was in the air, so to speak.

DEGGANS: Milch eventually teamed with Stephen Bochco to develop "NYPD Blue." Later, he created the HBO series, "Deadwood." Other "Hill Street Blues" writers would produce classic TV series and plays like, "Law & Order," "Miami Vice," "Twin Peaks" and "Glengarry Glenn Ross." But for "Hill Street," they dreamed up cops rarely seen on TV before.

Writers set scenes in bathrooms. A detective character who would typically be a good guy took a bribe. Milch said the show challenged viewers to accept this new social class of cops, warts and all.

MILCH: In general, what "Hill Street" established as a precedent was that these lives are worth paying attention to on their own terms, rather than being portrayed in the storytelling conventions of Hollywood.

DEGGANS: A mostly white department struggled to police poor, often black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Officer Bobby Hill, who was black, partnered with a white patrolman, Andy Renko. They were shot together in the line of duty and then they struggled to work together in a black neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "HILL STREET BLUES")

DEGGANS: The show didn't get everything right. Black and Hispanic criminals were often horrible stereotypes. And the casual sexism in some roles seems jarring today, though it eased in later seasons. But watching this box set, you see early signs of the lovable antiheroes who would later energize modern TV masterpieces like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."

And as a bonus, you can hear one of the greatest catchphrases in television history.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "HILL STREET BLUES")

BLOCK: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic.

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