Hill Street Blues — Killer TV No 4

hsb6NBC, 1981-87

‘Oh, my gawd! Here it is Christmas Eve, and I’m gonna get shot in a moose suit.’ – Andy Renko

Daniel J Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Michael Conrad, Bruce Weitz, Joe Spano, Charles Haid, Michael Warren

Identikit: Chronicling lives of police officers at a station house in an unspecified US city, exploring their work at the front line of law enforcement and the subsequent conflicts with their private lives.


Creator Steven Bochco was king of the cop show during the 80s and 90s, and this series about the characters in a city police precinct was adored by a dedicated following. US magazine TV Guide once voted it best ever cop show, but today it looks a little polished and tame in comparison to more recent grit fests, such as The Shield or Southland. Unlike those recent cable network shows, which were free of network TV’s censorship and advertising demands, NBC’s Hill Street Blues was a little wholesome to contemporary eyes. But it was still a shift towards more realistic, multi-storylined drama, with handheld cameras, African-Americans among the main characters, slang dialogue, a backdrop of urban breakdown and social hardship, along with a attempt to show characters not always going by the book. Skilfully balancing human drama and a little humour, Hill Street Blues took us through a day at the station from roll-call to late-night sign-off, portraying the officers’ trauma and problems in dealing with prostitution, drug racketeers and killers. There was also a gallery of well-liked characters, from station Captain Frank Furillo and his legal adversary come romantic partner Joyce Davenport, to Detective Mike Belker (who bit those he arrested), SWAT squad Lieutenant Howard Hunter, toothpick-chewing Neal Washington and streetwise Sergeant Lucille Bates. It also gave us a great theme tune, the roll-call segment as an intro to each episode and many powerful stories. The series picked up eight Emmys in its first season (only surpassed by The West Wing), and American network TV wasn’t the same thereafter.

Classic episode: Grace Under Pressure (season 4) – Sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) dies while making love to Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock); Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson) is arrested for prostitution by a rookie cop; and Sandy (Linda Hamilton), the girlfriend of Officer Coffey (Ed Marinaro), is raped.

Music: The series’ famous piano theme was written by Mike Post and was a hit on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Watercooler fact: Steve Bochco followed the huge success of Hill Street Blues by having a hand in creating LA Law, Hooperman, Doogie Howser, MD, NYPD Blue and Murder One – but also the misfiring Cop Rock, a police procedural that combined with Broadway singing and dancing. The series’ theme song, Under the Gun, was performed by Randy Newman and Mike Post was the show’s music supervisor, but the misguided venture was unanimously found guilty of being rubbish by a jury critics and became infamous as one of the mega-flops of the 1990s.

NYPD Blue — Killer TV No 9

600x600bb-85ABC, 1993-2005

‘Andy, I don’t know if you should be a cop, but I think you got a lot of guts.’ – Lt Fancy

‘ Yeah well, for a while there, I was wearing them outside my clothes.’

– Andy Sipowicz, on returning to duty after being shot

Dennis Franz, David Caruso, Jimmy Smits, Rick Schroder, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Kim Delaney, Gordon Clapp, Sharon Lawrence

Identikit: The personal and professional grind of law enforcement at the fictional 15th precinct of Manhattan.


logosMoving on from Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco and David Milch created this much-admired, long-running new show and simultaneously hauled the genre further away from TV’s homogenised world of The FBI, Hawaii 5-O and Madigan. Location shooting, bad language and nudity – the latter of which had the American Family Association frothing – gave the drama edge and depth, and it had a greater level of perspective on the harshness and injustice of police work than was common on mainstream TV at the time. The series hit the ground with sirens blaring. From the pilot onwards, NYPD Blue was focused on the characters. Our first glimpse of the abrasive Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz, another Hill Street veteran) is of him ‘flipping out’ in the courtroom as he loses a case against a mob guy (he appears to have broken the rules in getting Alfonse Giardella to court, anyway). His alcoholism is destroying him and his career, and later Sipowicz drunkenly attacks the gangster. Giardella retaliates eventually by shooting Sipowicz. This storyline, however, is used to give prominence to the characters of Sipowicz and his partner, John Kelly (David Caruso). Kelly is going through an emotionally cutting divorce, and now seems to be losing his work partner too – ‘You were like a father to me, man,’ he tells the unconscious Sipowicz in hospital. Dennis Franz played Sipowicz as the epitome of a hard-bitten New York cop (though with a heart of gold), David Caruso did his finest work here, and there were many standout performances along the way from actors who went onto further excellent series – David Schwimmer, Sherry Stringfield, Daniel Benzali and more. Booze, corruption, marital mayhem and death – NYPD Blue is a powerful drama. It survived Caruso’s departure during season two, with Jimmy Smits stepping in in fine style as Bobby Simone, another character with demons (he’s grieving for death of his wife). Bochco and Milch, with the invaluable input of Bill Clark, a former NYPD officer turned producer, guided the cop show into a grittier, more adult landscape with this indelible series.

Classic episode: True Confessions (season 1, episode 4). No fireworks here, but just a finely crafted episode in which Sipowicz bristles at working for a new boss, the alcoholic, slapdash detective Walker, and Kelly assists a wealthy, battered wife who shoots her husband. The episode, rated by TV Guide in the US as one of the 100 greatest of all time, is also a shock reminder that there was a time when David Caruso used to act, as revealed in the scene where Kelly’s addressing a tenants’ association and chokes up at the memory of his father, who was the victim of a shooting.

Watercooler fact: Dennis Franz was the only cast member to stay on the beat for the entire run of NYPD Blue, appearing in all 261 episodes.

Murder in the First, Fox UK, Taye Diggs, Kathleen Robertson PREVIEW

Murder in the First..Kathleen Robertson as Hildy Mulligan and Taye Diggs as Terry English...Murder In The First
Inspectors Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) and English (Taye Diggs) in Murder in the First. Pics: Fox

Rating: ★★★

Fox UK: starts Friday, 16 January, 10pm

Story: Homicide detectives Terry English and Hildy Mulligan as they investigate two seemingly unrelated murders. The mystery deepens, however, when they find both murders have a common denominator in Silicon Valley prodigy Erich Blunt.

STEVEN BOCHCO is a legendary name in TV crime drama. The US producer and writer has some landmark series on his CV, including LA Law, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue.

If you look at my Q&A with top British author Ian Rankin below, he cites Hill Street Blues as his favourite US crime series of all time. That drama, which ran from 1981 to 87,  had a comparable impact on television viewing that The Sopranos had 10 years later.

With its multi-stranded storytelling and gritty edge, Hill Street Blues so shook up its network NBC that the honchos were disturbed by the initial audience reaction, which labelled it ‘depressing, violent and confusing… There were too many loose ends.’ Those are the words of an internal NBC memo from 1980.

Tom Felton, aka Malfoy, is suspect one

Yet it went on to win eight Emmys in its first season and revolutionised TV narrative. NYPD Blue is still fondly remembered, too.

.Murder in the First..Tom Felton as Erich Blunt...Murder in the First 1, ep. 1 "Pilot".
Whiz-kid Erich Blunt (Tom Felton)

So, news that Bochco, now aged 71, has co-created a new series (with Eric Lodal) should have us all putting out the bunting. Murder in the First is made by TNT in the States and will appear on Fox UK here.

Set in San Francisco, it follows a single case across 10 episodes. Two murders, at first appearing unconnected, land on the desk of inspector Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) and Terry English Taye Diggs). They soon discover that both crimes are connected to Silicon Valley prodigy – and complete git – Erich Blunt.

Harry Potter fans will recognise Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy, as Blunt and immediately start hissing.

Continued…

[Read more…]

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