an analysis of text and context
Helena SheehanThis is part of an unpublished manuscript intended to be published eventually as a section of a chapter on 1980s television drama in a book to be entitled:
It is relevant to lecture 9 of the course on Social History and Television Drama at the School of Communications Dublin City University taught by Dr. Helena Sheehan.
Hill Street Blues presented perhaps the starkest and most sustained picture of the extreme dislocation, fragmentation and alienation of American society today. Not only through its storylines, its characterisation and its dialogue, but also through its very methods of production, it broke new ground in giving expression to the edginess, the intricacy and the turbulence of contemporary urban life.
The surface chaos combined with a deep structure orchestrating interweaving storylines to create a feeling for the complexity and tension of a vivid slice of life in its very mode of construction. It skated on the very edges of television conventions in its narrative structure, its textural density, its linguistic richness, its ensemble casting, its generic re-combination and its verite style of soundtrack and camera movement.
(See Hill Street Blues Episode Guide)
Set in an inner city police station of an unspecified eastern metropolis, it depicted the poverty, the decay and the discontent seething on the underside of the American Dream. Through Hill Street station streamed all the wicked and wounded that a decadent social order could produce: murderers, muggers, madmen, rapists, pimps, prostitutes, porn merchants, drunkards, drug addicts, schizophrenics, sado-masochists, suicides, survivalists, transvestites, nymphomaiacs, vigilantes, loan sharks, street gangs, unhinged vets, random eccentrics, born-again believers and 'space cases' (eg, a guy claiming to be ET).
Crossing their paths were those responsibe for enforcing the law, for maintaining some semblence of order amidst the teeming chaos. The men and women of Hill Street struggled, like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill, to achieve what was at best a holding operation, coping with problems they knew could not be solved. They wrestled painfully, yet plausibly, with the devastation wreaked by the catastrophic dissolution of the social contract with nothing coherent to replace it. They, individually and collectively, reached points of crisis and accomodation in their own efforts to come to terms. They probed the meaning of their experience in a way that was sometimes quite poignant:
(Lt. Goldblume to Capt. Furillo)
Sometimes they were more at risk from each other than from anyone 'out there'. They did violence, often unintended, to each other on many levels and in many situations, most starkly highlighted in incidents in which one of their number committed suicide after feeling humiliated in the hands of their peers. A young rookie hung himself after a sexual hazing. A precinct captain shot himself after group therapy at a command retreat.
The men and women of Hill Street, described by Sgt. Esterhaus as:
(Chief Daniels giving out to Capt. Furillo for not keeping Fay and Joyce in line)
(Chief Daniels on his wife's participation in a political demonstration)
For his part, Lt. Hunter was on much surer ground with guns and tanks than with women. Even when bluffing his way through, he needed to take the one on to the ground of the other to find some way of dealing with it. Describing his brief interlude with Grace Gardiner:
The women too had their problems in coming to terms with their own sexuality and in their personal and professional relationships with men. Certainly Lucy Bates and Fay Furillo constantly found themselves on a rocky road. But they were generally much more honest with themselves and more firmly rooted in reality in dealing with their problems.
Evaluating her prospects on the marriage market, Fay described herself as:
Sgt. Lucy Bates, quite the opposite, functioned as one of the boys in the world of work, highly dependable on the job and well able for the banter:
"They also have urinals." (Sgt. Lucy Bates )
Joyce Davenport, of course, had it all. She was beautiful and intelligent. She was sexually confident and professionally secure. She nevertheless showed that working it all out on a day to day basis, amidst a myriad of personal and professional pressures, was not so easy as it might seem.
For the men and women of Hill Street, memories of the sixties lingered on fitfully and full of contradictions. They were decisively marked by the years of social change. They had an eighties specificity about them. They were not fifties men and women wearing eighties clothes and using eighties technology as were the populations of other series. They gathered into themselves so much that had happened in the preceding decades and in a way that was internal to their characters and not externally tacked on. They were inconceivable in another time and place. They referred to the flux of social change in a way that was organic to their very struggle to be and to do.
Although they actively strove to come to terms with it all, none of them felt able to speak the bottom line on it all. Even Hunter, who seemed to have a fairly unambiguously right wing interpretation of it, sometimes expressed surprisingly ambivalent views on various issues, even about the Vietnan War. Giving a speech expressing his pride in his profession, he compared it to:
In an extremely astute analysis of the success and significance of Hill Street Blues, Todd Gitlin saw it as having caught the undertow of cultural change:
Gitlin Inside Prime Time
NY 1983, p307
They could, nevertheless, see the point of surviving, of bearing witness, of negotiating truces, of wrestling with the burdens of race and class and gender in contemporary urban life. In striving to achieve this, Hill Street Blues has been a healthy point of contact with reality, as true art should be, with its original way of probing the shape and texture of a traumatic turning point of social history.
The strenghs and weaknesses of Hill Street Blues were the strenghs and weaknesses of liberalism, or, to accept Gitlin's terms, post-liberalism. Those who made it eschewed an issue-based approach, arguing that it was not about issues, but set among them. Hill Street Blues tended to be a tight focus on consequences that did not reach out to probe causes. This sort of emphasis on the particularities of experience, without pushing through to the larger patterns making the particularities what they were, constantly bordered on classical liberal cop-out.
The most credible characters made do with a provisional one-day-at-a-time modus operandi, in which the highest achievement was to preserve individual integrity and to provide the best service to the public that difficult circumstances would allow. This, most fully embodied in Furillo, was taken to be the highest wisdom. Anyone who believed that a more global perspective was possible and was committed to radical social change was made to seem deluded and unable to deal with the world in the way Furillo was.
Amidst the rich and various array of characters to come and go and speak their piece, there was never an articulate embodiment of Marxism or of any section of the old or new left. All of human life was not there, despite the impression given that it was.
Nevertheless, short of allowing for the possibility of a higher wisdom, of a more coherent world view, of an alternative social order, it has shown much of what would have to be taken into consideration in arriving at such a perspective, certainly more than any other prime-time American series before or since.
It also dealt with issues, no matter what it claimed, by being set among them with considerable intelligence and integrity. More effectively than any pamphlet, its storylines showing victimisation of a female officer after refusing a superior's advances, impoverished public servants being given vouchers in lieu of pay cheques, behind the scenes manouveuring in a mayoral campaign, cut throat competition for garbage collection contracts and weapons stockpiling among survivalists have given pause for thought about such issues as sexual harrassment, municipal finances, political opportunism, privatisation of public services and firearms legislation.
In the process of doing all this, Hill Street Blues also contributed to the restoration of language to its rightful place in television drama. It recognised what has largely been forgotten, ie, that television is not only a visual medium, but a verbal one as well.
Amidst all their joys and sorrows and all the business of their plea bargaining, drug busting, hot tubbing and primal screaming, its characters spoke vividly and richly, in metaphors that were concrete and specific and yet resonant with satirical and sociological meaning.
The satirisation of typically American psycho-babble was always both funny and insightful. A psychiatric patient making obscene phone calls was:
There have been other exceptions
to the rule, to be sure, both then and since, but perhaps none with the
same density or drive. It is well worth watching again.
Hill Street Blues Episode Guide
Hill Street Blues (a Titles and Air Dates Guide
History and TV Drama>>
<<lectures>> <<aims>><<themes>><<books>> <<links>><<procedures>>
<<Story / Myth / Dream / Drama>>
<<Interrogating TV Drama>>
<<Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories>>
<<Soap Opera and Social Order: Glenroe, Fair City and Contemporary Ireland>>
<<Helena Sheehan>> <<School of Communications>> <<DCU>>