If you’re enjoying today’s golden age of television drama, you owe thanks to Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll for blazing a trail that arguably began more than three decades ago with Hill Street Blues. As the new DVD collection of this series demonstrates, the show was as groundbreaking as it is entertaining; and if it doesn’t seem that way to you, you’re probably too young to remember just how revolutionary it was in its time.
When Hill Street Blues debuted on Jan. 15, 1981, nothing quite like it had ever been seen on television; certainly, it bore little resemblance to any previous cop show. Instead of focusing on gun battles and car chases, it shined a light mostly on the personal lives of its many characters. Instead of telling one tale that wrapped up neatly at the end of each episode, it offered multiple overlapping and often ongoing stories. Instead of relying on a few stars, it featured a large ensemble of character actors who looked not like Hollywood luminaries but like people you might actually encounter in a city. The program injected more notes of realism by, for example, making extensive use of handheld cameras and including scenes where people talked over each other or where several conversations were conducted simultaneously.
For quite some time, the audience didn’t know what to make of all this. The program tested badly before it debuted and ratings throughout the first season were disastrous. But NBC president and CEO Fred Silverman “got” the show, defended it, and renewed it, giving it the distinction of being the lowest-rated program ever to return for a second season. Then came a shelf full of Emmy Awards, which turned things around.
By the end of its seven-season run, Hill Street Blues had become a huge ratings success and had been credited with helping to rescue NBC’s prime-time schedule. It wound up being nominated for 98 Emmys and winning 26, including four for Outstanding Drama Series. Bochco, of course, went on to create such other classic shows as L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, the latter a direct descendant of Hill Street that starred one of its featured characters, Dennis Franz.
In many cases, great films and TV shows have happened only because creators and directors fought with the powers that be, who pushed for something much more traditional. That wasn’t the case here, though: Bochco asked up front for the freedom to develop Hill Street Blues as he saw fit, and he got it. Moreover, he knew exactly what he wanted, right down to the fonts for the title screen at the opening and the theme song, which he has said he felt should be “counterintuitive”—melodic and sweet.
The results of such strong convictions and attention to detail are in Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series, a 34-DVD package that was released on April 29. It comes with a 24-page booklet and includes all of the show’s 144 episodes (four with commentary tracks). There are also several documentaries, with fascinating interviews with Bochco and some of the series’s stars and writers. The only snooze is the “Gag Reel,” ostensibly a collection of humorous flubs: the joke’s on you there, because it’s not particularly funny and is extremely brief. Maybe that’s because the cast was clearly serious about its work and didn’t make a whole lot of mistakes.