Sometimes it seems like this police drama is all but forgotten. Later shows such as Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue seem to have all the acclaim. And the show lasted just six seasons, a fraction of the staying power of the Law & Order and CSI franchises.
But it’s still the best and here is why:
1. The many and varied characters.
While many cop shows focus on one detective or a pair of detectives, Hill Street Blues threw a truckload of characters at us. On the police side, there were patrol officers, detectives, precinct commanders and even the police commissioner. Lawyers, judges, gang members, drug addicts, witnesses and crime victims ensured the focus wasn’t just on the police. This was a show about a city, the people who protect it, and everyone caught in the middle.
2. Complex Plotting
On the one hand, it was a procedural where the base plot was resolved each day. On the flip side, there were sometimes season-long subplots that played out bit by bit each episode.
One of the joys of the show is seeing the individual plots and how they are woven together. The perfect example is a Season Three episode in which, the police are not getting paid because of a political logjam, a dirty cop is on the run with a sackful of money, and a British police official is visiting the precinct to show off a bomb defusing robot.
The irony of the police trying to recover money when they’re not being paid isn’t spelled out but the idea nevertheless resonates and adds depth.
3. The Cast
The show is chock full of regulars and guest stars who went onto highly successful individual careers, sometimes as an actors, others in producing and directing.
The star of that episode I mentioned above? Dennis Franz, aka Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue. Franz has his first career television highlight as corrupt cop Sal Benedetto. Also lurking in various episodes is an Irish gang leader played by David Caruso, now of CSI Miami, and Franz’ original partner on NYPD Blue.
Regular cast members included Betty Thomas (Lucy Bates), now a director and producer, James B. Sikking (Howard Hunter) went onto become Doogie Howser’s dad among other great character roles; and Jeffrey Tambor (Judge Watchtel) of Arrested Development,
Guest stars included Michael Biehn, James Cromwell, Lindsey Crouse, Jill Eikenberry & Michael Tuckers (later of L.A. Law), Danny Glover, Linda Hamilton, and Jane Kaczmarek, plus others I don’t have the space to mention.
4. The Talent Behind the Scenes.
Hill Street Blues was a magnet and incubator for talent, starting with show co-creators Steven Bochco (later NYPD Blue, L.A. Law) and Michael Kozoll (from Kolchak, Kojak, Quincy M.E., and McCloud, on to First Blood). But the talent only begins there. David Milch (Deadwood), Anthony Yerkovich (Miami Vice), Mark Frost (Twin Peaks and The Equalizer), prolific screenwriter and playwright David Mamet, Elvis Cole's bestselling creator Robert Crais, and Dick Wolf (Law & Order, et al, including the UK version) were all involved in writing and production.
The show changed the game for crime drama. Before Hill Street, there were police procedurals but nothing as complex and multi-faceted had succeeded. The success of the show influenced or led directly to NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, St. Elsewhere and the slew of medical and fast-paced police shows made later, such as ER.
In conclusion: if you’ve never watched, it’s time. And I didn't even mention the dark humor that gave us characters like Vic Hitler, the narcoleptic comic!
Corrina Lawson is a writer, mom, geek and superhero, thought not always all four on the same day. She is a senior editor of the GeekMom Blog on Wired.com (www.wired.com/geekmom) and the author of a superhero romance series and an alternate history series featuring Romans and Vikings in ancient North America. She has been a comic book geek all her life and often dreamed of growing up to be Lois Lane.