Hill Street Blues: How it changed telly forever
Seminal US cop saga Hill Street Blues is now available on our On Demand service. To mark the event, we look at why it's far more than just another slice of 80s nostalgia.
Oh, it's so easy being patronising about 80s US telly. A naff and innocent era of talking cars, soaps with season-long dream sequences, and shows with names like Jake and the Fatman, The Love Boat and The Equalizer. It took the 90s, with shows like NYPD Blue and The West Wing, to introduce things like complexity, society-spanning themes, flawed protagonists and plots that didn't feature a massive UFO swooping in out of nowhere to kidnap one of the protagonists (as did indeed happen during one episode of rubbish Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys).
Except, this version of events doesn't take into account two things. One, The Equalizer rocked. And two, the show that REALLY changed everything came years before NYPD Blue and The West Wing, and was in fact partly responsible for their very existence. That show was Hill Street Blues, one of the most important TV dramas ever made. A major claim to make, admittedly, but it's true. The programme changed the way things could be done, and was also hated by the execs before it aired in 1981, which is as sure a sign of real originality and quality as any.
Set in an unnamed city (the exact location has inspired a lot of amused speculation, a bit like The Simpsons' Springfield), the show revolves around a precinct and the men and women on the front line against petty crime, gang violence, murders and rapes in the heart of the urban sprawl. Its first breakthrough was in having a massive, ensemble cast – from the heroic, put-upon Captain Frank Furillo to the sweet-natured Sergeant Esterhaus to public defender Joyce Davenport. Interweaving so many individual stories – some dark, some comedic – was wholly original, as was the way the plots affected future episodes, rather than coming to neat conclusions before the credits rolled. It laid the groundwork for every big ensemble show to come after, from The West Wing to Mad Men.
And then there are the themes. Hill Street Blues takes a revolutionary approach to stuff like alcoholism, marital strife, urban loneliness, institutional racism and homophobia, by which we mean it actually covers them. Now, this may not seem a big deal in 2012, when every other TV drama ladles on the incest and slashings and boozed-up coppers with eager aplomb, but when Hill Street aired it was a radical break from the cosy, sanitised viewing of the time. And the show's analysis of union politics and political power struggles, and the trickle-down repercussions for the streets, sowed the seeds for no less a modern masterpiece than The Wire.
If all of this isn't enough to make Hill Street Blues required viewing for anyone remotely interested in the genesis of contemporary, grown-up television, you also get to see a load of future stars in their pimply, peachy-faced prime. In a neat link to NYPD Blue – the show most directly influenced by Hill Street – we get to see David Caruso as an Irish gang leader. Laurence Fishburne's in there somewhere as a pimp, while future Star Trek star Jonathan Frakes is a far cry from all-American hero Riker, playing a drug dealer. Chris Noth (Sex and the City's Big) and Andy Garcia also had early breaks on the show.
So there you have it: a bona fide American masterpiece in a nutshell. Now all you have to do is watch the thing, so you can smugly bring up its importance the next time your mates are arguing over the various merits of The Sopranos, The Shield and The Wire. Just bear in mind they probably won't believe you until they watch it themselves.
The first series of Hill Street Blues is now available to watch On Demand for all customers. Just turn on your telly box and head over to the Catch Up & On Demand section. Then simply select TV for your subscription and search By Channel for 4 on Demand.