Hill Street Blues cast of Hill St Blues

an analysis of text and context
 

Helena Sheehan
This is part of an unpublished manuscript intended to be published eventually as a section of a chapter on 1980s television drama in a book to be entitled: Hill Street Blueswas a US tv serial which ran from 1981 to 1987.
It was re-run through the 1990s on Network 2 (RTE) in Ireland and Channel 4 in Britain.

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:

Other times it was quite cynical: Sometimes they felt that they were losing their way, that they no longer knew the topography of the territory and could find no maps to guide them: They asked big questions: But they had no answers: Those who claimed to know had only spurious answers, floating far above the nitty gritty of the empirical world: Those who offered global prescriptions were seen to be imposing simplistic formulae on a complex world: The best had more modest prescriptions. The acknowledged the big questions, but they could offer only small answers: Each had to find his or her own path. Others could help or hinder them along the way, but each had to come up with their own set of rules. The guidelines they set out for themselves ranged from: to: There was a pervasive sense of a dangerous world, in which life, limb and psyche were constantly at risk. It was underlined at the end of every morning's roll call as they dispersed to meet the duties of the day. Whether it be Sgt. Esterhaus' gentler cautionary tone: or Sgt. Jablonsky's more aggressive intonation: the sense of menace was clear.

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:

rubbed up against each other in many ways. They had come from varying cultural, racial and class backgrounds. They were of opposite sexes. They held conflicting political opinions. There were often artful ironies in the ways they were played off against each other. In the ongoing battle between the social worker methods of the liberal Lt. Goldblume and the SWAT physical force methods of the conservative Lt. Hunter, Hunter referred to the locals as 'those little cockroaches', bringing Goldblume to ask sardonically: In the quite interesting bonding built up between the redneck Andy Renko and his black partner Bobby Hill, Renko could enjoin Hill in a crisis: The battle of the sexes was something else. Male mystification in the face of female sexuality and men's utter incomprehension of professional women was given ample treatment and strong expression: The erratic and exotic sexual development of some of the male characters was given sustained development over the years. The evolution of Sgt. Esterhaus from his 'Gidget phase with the post-pubescent pom-pom girl' Cindy to his sexual exhaustion in the hands of the exotic, erotic and inexhaustible Grace to 'his second coming with his Tupperware wife' Margaret and back to Grace Gardiner again, was traced with all of the attendant irony it deserved. He finally died in the act in the arms of the insatiabe Grace.

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:

As to Lt. Goldblume, he seemed more mature than most when it came to women, even if the locker room talk joked of sending him an S&M queen or characterised his idea of a good night as 'three hours of public television'. Then, after several years, he seemed to unravel. In a kind of mid-life crisis, he seemed to want to make up for being a sedately married man in the middle of a sexual revolution. His relationship with Gina, a gangster's moll type and the classic fifties cliche of the dumb broad, did not really ring true and did strain credibility.

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:

Early on, she was constantly in a state of self-centered semi-hysteria, bursting into her ex-husband's office, as if her washing machine running over were of greater urgency than gang warfare. She evolved through the series away from her neurotic dependency on men to a growing self-respect grounded in making her own way in the world of work.

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:

She was, however, sexually repressed. She too evolved and showed a capacity to blossom beautifully, even though the right circumstances never quite came together and stayed together for her.

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:

Although Hill Street Blues was the lowest rated series to be renewed into subsequent seasons, it won critical acclaim and a record number of Emmy nominations and awards. It struck a chord with an audience alienated from the pretences of the general run of prime-time television. Since this more educated professional audience was judged by networks and sponsors to have sufficent spending power to be given what they wanted, the series continued for seven seasons.

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 called it "the first post-liberal cop show". He believed that, in putting the basic elements of the programme together in the way that they did at the time that they did it, Bochco and Kozoll floated into a maelstrom point of popular consciousness. Like many other one time liberals, they came to a point in the eighties when they threw up their hands, when they no longer saw a clear path to social change in a system that was so complex, in a world that seemed to have lost its rhyme and reason.

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:

An SUM seminar was described as: Each of the characters had their own distinctive patterns of speech, from the blunt Belcher: to the loquacious Esterhaus, whose roll calls would be full of exhortations against such practices as: Certainly Hill Street Blues stood in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the prime-time crime shows in running counter to the spirit of the Reagan era and refusing to give simple answers to complex questions. It was not inclined to swamp the verbal and visual exploration of the terrain of contemporary experience with flashy images and trendy soundtrack.

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.
 

LINKS
               Hill Street Blues Episode Guide
       Hill Street Blues (a Titles and Air Dates Guide

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