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TV Writers Weigh In On Legacy Of 'Hill Street Blues' As Classic Drama Hits DVD

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HILL STREET BLUES
Michael Conrad, Veronical Hamel and Daniel J. Travanti of "Hill Street Blues." | NBC
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The pilot for the 1981 drama "Hill Street Blues" opens on chaos. Police officers and other employees mill around a drab, disorganized meeting room. Bleary-eyed yet clearly comfortable with each other, the precinct's employees argue, gossip and try to stay awake for the roll call meeting led by Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad). Esterhaus only gradually gets the cops' attention, and throughout the briefing, the camera travels around the room, taking in the scene and quietly identifying some of the characters we'll meet as the episode unfolds. Esterhaus ends the briefing with a line that would become iconic: "Hey, let's be careful out there."

The pilot ends on a similar note. There's a brief scene of people going about their business within the precinct, then Lt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) exits the building, puts on his coat and goes home.

What's most impressive about what occurs between those two scenes is how well "Hill Street Blues" unites many different kinds of moments and characters. The pilot is full of comedic asides, dramatic developments, romantic entanglements and workday exchanges, and there's a lot of conflict throughout, but it all feels of a piece. Over the course of the "Hill Street Station" pilot, the precinct comes alive as an organic entity, one seething with the energy, emotions and agendas of a number of varied personalities.

Not everything about the pilot for "Hill Street Blues," which was created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, stands the test of time: Barbara Bosson's character is excessively shrill, the show doesn't entirely avoid the traps of racial stereotypes and it's weird that the middle-aged Esterhaus dating a high school girl is treated as light comedy.

But an impressive amount of the pilot remains excellent to this day, and it decisively puts to rest the idea that one should watch the show out of respect rather than a desire for entertainment. It wasn't just a fine TV show, it was realistic and respectful of "the job," in the opinion of my late father, a former Chicago cop. Decades later, "Hill Street Blues" remains, as TV writer Margaret Nagle put it, "an intimate epic," one that has influenced storytellers for more than three decades. Below, a dozen TV writers and creators, including Nagle, David Simon ("The Wire"), George R.R. Martin ("Game of Thrones"), Thania St. John and Hart Hanson, among others, talk about the influence the show had on them, on their careers and on the medium in general. (Update: Comments from Shawn Ryan, creator of "The Shield," have been added as well.)

In his contribution, Rockne O'Bannon ("Farscape," "Revolution") cited his love for "Trial by Fury," the Season 3 opener and first "Hill Street Blues" script by David Milch ("NYPD Blue," "Deadwood"). It's set on a hot summer day, and almost every character looks sweaty and grimy (I can't imagine a current broadcast network drama that would let so many of its characters look so beat-up and realistically unkempt on a regular basis). Travanti brilliantly delivers quiet, restrained intensity and panic as Furillo attempts to keep the lid on the neighborhood after a brutal murder sets the cops and locals on edge.

But it would be wrong to single out one performance, given that there are half a dozen percolating story lines and every member of the cast brings his or her A-game. There's the excitement of a kinetic chase scene on the city streets, the comedy of Renko (Charles Haid) and Hill (Michael Warren) helping a man wedged between a toilet and a bathtub, the strange friendship that springs up between the irascible detective Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz) and a male prostitute, and the seriousness of the questionable tactics Furillo brings to bear on the murder suspects. The episode is a great example of the ability of "Hill Street Blues" to mix morality and character development with the mundane yet necessary details of police work. Whatever's occurring on the screen, it's all grounded by a wellspring of compassion for the foibles of human beings.

"As an aspiring writer at the time, ['Trial by Fury'] was the ultimate one-hour lesson in dramatic writing: interweaving multiple story lines, everything ratcheted to maximum conflict and tension, our regular characters pushed to places that reveal new facets about them that we never knew, belly-laugh humor, dialogue that conjures Odets -- both street and almost poetic at the same time," O'Bannon said.

You can see for yourself how well the show holds up: Shout! Factory has put together the first-ever complete DVD set for the venerated series. The set comes out Tuesday and has several extras, including "The History of Hill Street" and new commentaries by members of the cast and creative team. (The first three seasons of the show are also available on Hulu). It's certainly past time that the show got the complete-series DVD treatment, given how influential it remains.

"What was so remarkable was that Steven Bochco created a cop drama that was about characters instead of police work, about the human condition instead of the procedural elements that had been the hallmarks of television police shows up to that point," said Joel Fields, executive producer of "The Americans." "Essentially, the great accomplishment of 'Hill Street' in my view was not about elevating a genre, but about forging a new one."

Simon noted that he views himself as one "branch in a big tree" that starts with "St. Elsewhere" and "Hill Street Blues," both products of MTM Enterprises, an influential production company that helped nurture the rise of quality television in the '70s and '80s. (In his appreciation of "Hill Street," Alan Sepinwall lists a roster of the show's impressive alumni.)

"An awful lot of writing talent came out of those writers' rooms and has moved on to nurture many of the writers who are doing serious work in television drama at present," Simon said.

The full comments from the writers who weighed in on the legacy of "Hill Street Blues" are below.

Shawn Ryan ("The Shield," "Angel," "The Chicago Code," "Last Resort")

"I was in high school when 'Hill Street Blues' came on TV and missed all the hype. Between schoolwork and activities, I missed the show. In later years, I would hear how great it was, but it was much harder to catch up on things you missed then than it is now. As a result, the show just passed me by. Until the mid-90's anyway. That's when I discovered that TV Land was replaying 'Hill Street Blues' -- one episode every night. I began watching. And that's when I discovered what we now affectionately call 'binge watching.'

"A new episode (for me, anyway) of 'Hill Street Blues' every day. Stories that would continue and evolve. You had to have seen the previous episodes to understand and appreciate what you were watching. The character evolution was magnificent. It quickly became like a drug for me. I couldn't wait for the next episode to come, and one always came. So imagine my horror when I tuned in one night and realized that I had seen that episode, that it had been the first one I'd watched. I had run out of episodes. It felt like I'd lost a friend. I wasn't ever going to see another new episode of the show again. I was depressed for a day or two and then just started watching the episodes again, this time trying to pay attention to why they worked so well.

"The characters, the plots, the relationships, the roll calls, the opening credits and that haunting theme song. They were all so good and, as an aspiring writer, made me jealous. I think it's very safe to say that 'Hill Street Blues' was a huge influence on 'The Shield.' I strived to make a show that would compel people to come back episode after episode, to thirst for more. I'll always be grateful to 'Hill Street Blues' for making me feel that way."

Rick Cleveland ("House of Cards," "Nurse Jackie," "Six Feet Under")

"It was the first dramatic series that I remember watching because I loved the writing. I also, of course, loved the writing on 'M*A*S*H,' 'Barney Miller,' 'All In The Family,' 'Taxi,' 'The Bob Newhart Show,' 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' -- and of course 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' and 'Saturday Night Live,' but those were comedies.  

"'Hill Street Blues' felt more real, and grittier than any cop show that came before it. We went from the era of 'Starsky and Hutch' to the era of 'Hill Street Blues.' If not for 'HSB' we might not have had 'NYPD Blue' or 'Homicide.' So, in a very substantial way 'HSB' broke a ton of new ground.

"For me personally, when I heard that David Mamet was writing an episode, I really started paying attention to the writing. At the time I was a young playwright living in Chicago, and anything David wrote was kind of a bible." 

Ken Levine ("Cheers," "M*A*S*H," "Frasier")

"'Hill Street Blues' changed dramatic television forever. It introduced a realism that had never before been seen. One hour dramas tended to be glossy wish-fulfillment fairy tales where crime never paid and the good guys always won at the end. 'Hill Street Blues' was not about reassurance, it was about characters. For the first time you really understood who these crime fighters were, what their lives were like, how difficult and dangerous their jobs were. And the writing was on a completely different plane of sophistication and maturity.  

"'Hill Street Blues' was also a game changer in that the network (NBC) stuck with it despite initial low ratings. The belief that an audience will eventually find and respond to quality was rewarded by the success of 'Hill Street Blues.' And that paved the way for other quality shows that stumbled out of the gate.  As a producer of 'Cheers' in Season 1, I personally owe a great debt to 'Hill Street Blues.'"

Nell Scovell ("NCIS," "Monk," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," co-author of "Lean In")

"Growing up in the late '60s and '70s, I watched a steady stream of variety shows and sitcoms. I have vague memories of watching 'The Waltons' in first run and 'Star Trek' in early syndication, but dramas never gripped me. 'The Carol Burnett Show,' 'Laugh In' and 'Flip Wilson' were my hourlongs. TV was supposed to make me laugh. What more could you want?  

"Then along came 'Hill Street Blues.' I was 21 when it premiered, and I was ready for my first dose of reality and earnestness. There’s no doubt that a big part of the show’s appeal was the portrayal of the two female characters: Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) and Sgt. Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas). One was strong and sexy. The other was strong and funny. (Women still weren’t allowed to be strong, sexy and funny, but two out of three wasn’t bad.) These female characters had big jobs and were taken seriously, just like I wanted to be taken seriously. Betty Thomas was especially important to me -- the dramatic version of Rose Marie from 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.' She was tough enough to be the only woman in a profession full of men.

"In the late '90s, I was one of the early half-hour writers to jump to dramas. I think as much as I enjoyed working on comedies, I knew you could do more with a television show than just make people laugh. And I learned that from 'Hill Street Blues.'"

Mike Royce ("Everybody Loves Raymond," "Men of a Certain Age," "Enlisted")

"I was a cinema production major at Ithaca College during the glory days of 'Hill Street Blues.' I did not have a TV but my best friend did, so on Thursday nights while most people headed to the Commons to drink their nuts off, we were in his room watching 'Hill Street.' It probably speaks equally to our social shortcomings as it does to our fandom, but we knew we were watching something special.  

"I realize now it was like watching an HBO show before there was HBO (well, before there was "'Sopranos' HBO.") Something this good was on television? I have to think that 'Hill Street Blues' is some of the reason I went to four years of film school and came out a TV writer."

Thania St. John ("Chicago Fire," "Covert Affairs," "Grimm," "Eureka")

"'Hill Street' premiered while I was in college and aired through my film school years, so it was a great validation for me during a time when no one understood why I wanted to get into TV instead of film. It was the beginning of high-quality character writing and non-formula plotting that led us into this Golden Age of TV that we're still experiencing now. 

"But the most influential thing about the show for me was the character of Joyce Davenport. A strong female on equal footing with the men in her world, respected by others and integral to the plot. And the added relationship component with Furillo felt real to those of us women who were finding ourselves becoming involved with men we worked with and the complexity of that. Every character on that show had to balance their professional lives with their humanity which really is the true legacy of the series."

Rockne O'Bannon ("Farscape," "Defiance," "Revolution")

"The so-called Second Golden Age of Television we're presently relishing can all be traced back directly to 'Hill Street Blues.' Working backwards: 'True Detective,' 'The Shield,' 'The Wire,' 'Homicide,' 'NYPD Blue' -- all are born from the original big bang that was 'Hill Street Blues.' And those are just the cop shows.  

"What so impressed me as a viewer, and has had the most impact on my own writing, was the way the show was both of-the-street gritty and, in its own unique way, grandly operatic. The characters were both real and larger-than-life. The stories often explored classic human themes told against a backdrop of uncompromising urban decay. In equal measure, startling humor or shocking violence could erupt at any moment. And you never knew which was coming in any given scene.  

"Among them all, the episode that stands above all the rest in my opinion is 'Trial By Fury.' Astonishingly, David Milch's very first writing credit. As an aspiring writer at the time, for me this episode was the ultimate one-hour lesson in dramatic writing: interweaving multiple story lines, everything ratcheted to maximum conflict and tension, our regular characters pushed to places that reveal new facets about them that we never knew, belly-laugh humor, dialogue that conjures Odets -- both street and almost poetic at the same time. It is an example of Hill Street Blues at its very best. And that's saying plenty." 

David Simon ("The Wire," "Generation Kill," "Treme")

"Alas, I wasn't attentive to television drama in those days. I was in college, working on the University of Maryland newspaper and intent on learning a different craft, so I wasn't watching 'Hill Street' or 'St. Elsewhere' in any organized or consistent way. I knew that the writing on those shows was better than what had been on TV before, but I was spending all my time and effort absorbing journalism and non-fiction prose. Had no clue that I would stumble into television writing so much later in life.

"In fact, when ['Homicide' executive producer] Tom Fontana gave me my first script assignment back in 1992, I made sure to get with David Mills, who by then was at the Washington Post [Mills would go on to write for several shows, including 'NYPD Blue,' 'The Wire' and 'Treme.' He passed away in 2010.] That's because I remembered that when we were working on the U.M. Diamondback together years earlier, it was David who would pause in the middle of editing his copy and rolling his pages to watch those dramas on the newsroom television set. He was really attentive to those dramas and what they were doing; he was passionate about those dramas, in fact. I remembered his devotion to that medium, so when offered a script by Tom, I called David. He knew the form, knew exactly the ground that 'Hill Street' and 'St. Elsewhere' had broken.

"For me, the influence of 'Hill Street' and 'St. Elsewhere' both is indirect but important. I'm aware that I'm a branch of a big tree that has its origins in those MTM shows. Fontana and ['Homicide' producer] Jimmy Finnerty mentored me. They were mentored by Bruce Paltrow under the MTM banner on 'St. Elsewhere.' [Writer] Henry Bromell was an alumni of that shop. So was ['Treme' co-creator] Eric Overmyer. And Mills, my earliest partner in this line of work, was mentored by David Milch, who came out of the 'Hill Street' shop. An awful lot of writing talent came out of those writers' rooms and has moved on to nurture many of the writers who are doing serious work in television drama at present.

"So 'Hill Street' is certainly the trunk of a tree that includes me, and I am grateful. And I am sure that the show could not have helped but have a formidable influence on a lot of present television writing. Certainly, it was in the DNA of 'NYPD Blue,' and to a lesser extent, 'Homicide: Life on the Street.' And I know that the episodes of 'Hill Street' that I do remember stumbling on seemed strong and groundbreaking for their day. But I wasn't attentive. It was an industry in which I had no role, expected no role and contemplated no personal stake or connection. And working five nights a week on rewrite and nightshift police reporting in those years, my head was elsewhere. I wish David Mills were around to answer this. But then, I wish he was around for any number of reasons."

Margaret Nagle ("Warm Springs," "Boardwalk Empire," "The Red Band Society")

"I only watched it for the first time a few years ago and had my mind blown. I think the roots of 'The Wire' and 'Breaking Bad' are from the DNA of the narrative storytelling of 'Hill Street.' It is an intimate epic. The narrative has a sprawling intimacy. It's sexy and frank about the best and worst adult behavior. The show is of its time and ahead of its time."

Joel Fields ("The Americans," "Rizzoli and Isles," "Ugly Betty")

"I was just a teenager when 'Hill Street' came on the air, but it immediately became essential viewing among my friends. What was so remarkable was that Steven Bochco created a cop drama that was about characters instead of police work, about the human condition instead of the procedural elements that had been the hallmarks of television police shows up to that point. Essentially, the great accomplishment of 'Hill Street' in my view was not about elevating a genre, but about forging a new one.

"At the start of every episode Bochco's heroes were admonished to 'be careful out there,' but Bochco himself took enormous creative risks with the show, which to me was among the greatest lessons of what he did. Years later, I was fortunate to work with Bochco and am blessed to have him as a friend and mentor. His example of following your creative vision helped pave the way for today's greatest work in television."

Mere Smith ("Rome," "Angel")

"The ripple effect it had on the way stories are told on TV has influenced me profoundly, especially regarding character development and longer story arcs."

George R. R. Martin ("Game of Thrones," "Beauty and the Beast," author of "A Song of Ice and Fire" novel series on which "Game of Thrones" is based)

"I did love 'Hill Street Blues' and watched it every week ... but to my knowledge, it did not influence my own work except in the broadest of senses. I do think it raised the general level of television drama considerably."

Hart Hanson ("Bones," "The Finder," "Backstrom")

"'Hill Street Blues' was the first TV show that I perceived as being 'good' in terms of quality, not just entertainment. Oddly, my much younger self was tipped off by the theme music, which led to the realization that the theme music for a TV series could tip off the audience that the show wasn’t only what it seemed on the surface. That it could have a secret second meaning. In the case of 'Hill Street Blues,' it opened up the idea that beneath all this funny, exciting, compelling drama there was a very real sense of melancholy and mortality. And now for me to love a show, it must have that aspect. And oddly, your timing is extremely apropos because as we move forward to make 'Backstrom,' that combination of procedure, comedy, and melancholy is what we’d like to achieve. 
 
"By the way, my office in the Bochco Building on the Fox lot used to be Steven Bochco’s office. I’m aware of that every day. I have to live with that unspoken rebuke every time I open the door."

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