Defines Hard-Reality Television

The success of Hill Street Blues, which featured hard-edged realism and groundbreaking structure, changed the face of television drama and inspired the creation of several popular series cast in the same mold.

Summary of Event

In its review of Hill Street Blues, which premiered on January 15, 1981, Variety noted that the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC) “has obviously come up with the best-crafted series of the 1980-81 season to date. The question is ’do they know what to do with it?’” The show, produced and written by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll under the aegis of Grant Tinker’s MTM Enterprises, MTM Enterprises was a groundbreaking departure from formulaic television drama, and for several months NBC seemed to be at a loss regarding the proper place for the series in the network’s prime-time schedule. Although it garnered immediate, widespread critical praise, Hill Street Blues failed at first to connect with television viewers, and the show’s initial ratings cast doubt over its future as the network moved it from Thursday night to Saturday to Tuesday and back again to Thursday. Hill Street Blues (television program)
Television programs;Hill Street Blues
[kw]Hill Street Blues Defines Hard-Reality Television (Jan. 15, 1981-May 19, 1987)
[kw]Hard-Reality Television, Hill Street Blues Defines (Jan. 15, 1981-May 19, 1987)
[kw]Television, Hill Street Blues Defines Hard-Reality (Jan. 15, 1981-May 19, 1987)
Hill Street Blues (television program)
Television programs;Hill Street Blues
[g]North America;Jan. 15, 1981-May 19, 1987: Hill Street Blues Defines Hard-Reality Television[04410]
[g]United States;Jan. 15, 1981-May 19, 1987: Hill Street Blues Defines Hard-Reality Television[04410]
[c]Radio and television;Jan. 15, 1981-May 19, 1987: Hill Street Blues Defines Hard-Reality Television[04410]
Bochco, Steven
Kozoll, Michael
Frost, Mark
Silverman, Fred
Tinker, Grant
Travanti, Daniel J.

As The New York Times speculated on cancellation rumors and Time magazine wondered if Hill Street Blues was “Too Good for Television?” the 1981 Emmy Awards Emmy Awards solidified the show’s uncertain future. Hill Street Blues won eight of the twenty-one awards for which it was nominated, a record for a weekly series. (It would receive a total of twenty-six Emmys during the course of its network run.) With the show suddenly thrust into a position of high visibility, NBC settled it into a steady time slot Thursday nights at 10:00 and Hill Street Blues began a rapid climb in the ratings as it attracted new viewers to its already loyal first-season audience. By the time it left the air on May 19, 1987, it had become one of the most honored and influential series in television history.

The idea for Hill Street Blues originated with NBC president Fred Silverman. To develop the series, Silverman sought out the team of Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, who between them had worked on such notable police and detective shows as McMillan and Wife, Columbo, and Kojak. Although the two had hoped to leave the genre, they were intrigued by the possibility of producing a documentary-style dramatic series that could break free of the clichéd structure and plotting of traditional crime shows. Inspired by the 1977 documentary film The Police Tapes, Police Tapes, The (documentary film) the pair set about creating a show that would combine complex stories, gritty realism, and a large ensemble cast of relatively unknown performers.

The pilot episode that resulted from Bochco and Kozoll’s efforts was quickly judged by NBC’s Department of Standards and Practices to be both too violent and too sexually provocative in its content, but Silverman backed the partners and gave them a free hand with the show. Scenes shot with handheld cameras, overlapping dialogue, and densely populated scenes in which extras continually walked between the camera and the lead actors gave the show a startling verisimilitude, a quality that reached its peak near the conclusion of the pilot episode when two engaging young officers stumbled upon a crime in progress and were suddenly and brutally shot to death. The murders served notice that Hill Street Blues would not be playing by the conventional rules of television drama a new era in television had begun. (Ironically, the two characters proved to be so popular that they were mysteriously restored to life and incorporated into the cast when the show was picked up by NBC.)


Although Kozoll left the series midway through its second season, Bochco remained until the end of its fifth season, when disagreements with MTM Enterprises led to his departure. Throughout most of the program’s seven-season run, it was Bochco who shaped and guided Hill Street Blues, becoming in the process one of the best-known and most powerful producers in television. Known for his willingness to take risks and his determination to take on subjects generally considered too controversial for television, Bochco charted a course for the show’s development that included plot lines drawn from real-world headlines and character developments that sometimes paralleled the actors’ own lives. Black humor became a hallmark of the show’s style, and the episodes regularly walked a fine line between comedy and the grotesque, evoking laughter with depictions of occasionally bizarre crimes and the vagaries of urban life.

Even among shows with large ensemble casts, Hill Street Blues featured an especially impressive roster of recurring characters, with episodes regularly juggling plots and subplots featuring more than a dozen individuals. At their center was Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), the precinct’s overworked captain. A decent and deeply committed man, Furillo was also divorced and like the actor who played him a recovering alcoholic. His relationship with and eventual marriage to public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) Hamel, Veronica was the show’s primary romantic story line, and many of the episodes ended with a scene showing the pair in bed together. Their complicated, sometimes troubled, two-career relationship set the tone for the adult level on which the series operated, and the ongoing development of all the characters’ emotional lives was one of the show’s most impressive accomplishments. Throughout the course of the seven seasons, the men and women of Hill Street Station fell in love, married and divorced, lost parents and became parents themselves, and dealt with the deaths of colleagues and friends.

This level of complexity was made possible by the show’s groundbreaking dramatic structure. Unlike traditional television dramas, which typically deal with a single plot and one subplot per episode and wrap both up by the show’s conclusion, and unlike daytime and nighttime soap operas, which string out melodramatic story lines over entire seasons, Hill Street Blues adopted a format that resembled the ebb and flow of daily life. Each episode covered one day in the life of the precinct and combined both stories that were resolved by the show’s end and segments of stories that played out over several weeks’ time. Indeed, it was not unusual for the series to return to emotional issues in its characters’ lives that had first arisen a season or two earlier, and no development within the series occurred in a vacuum. Unlike conventional television dramas, in which each new episode finds the characters exactly as they had been the week before, Hill Street Blues depicted events that had repercussions, leaving permanent marks on the characters’ emotional lives.

Hill Street Blues was also uncompromising in the themes it tackled. Over the course of its run, the series dealt with drug abuse, gang culture, street violence, police brutality, political corruption, homosexuality, unwed motherhood, rape, racism, transsexuality, and the sometimes blurry line separating those who uphold the law from those who break it. The show’s sophisticated, intelligent handling of such sensitive issues opened thematic doors that had previously been tightly closed on commercial television, paving the way for other shows that would take their cue from the series.

The first show to follow successfully in the footsteps of Hill Street Blues was St. Elsewhere, St. Elsewhere (television program)[Saint Elsewhere]
Television programs;St. Elsewhere[Saint Elsewhere] which made its appearance in 1983. (Bochco himself attempted an unsuccessful Hill Street Blues clone titled Bay City Blues that same year.) Created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey and produced by MTM Enterprises, St. Elsewhere transferred its predecessor’s format to an inner-city hospital, where a group of doctors and residents coped with a wide variety of social and personal issues in addition to their patients’ needs. Like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere featured an ensemble cast, black humor, and a willingness to take risks. As the series progressed, however, it began to develop its own remarkably original style, undertaking experimental episodes that played with the medium of television itself and offering alert viewers numerous inside jokes and references in its witty, often outrageous scripts.

Bochco’s own successful Hill Street Blues follow-up came in 1986, after his departure from the series. Collaborating with Terry Louise Fisher, Fisher, Terry Louise he created L.A. Law, L.A. Law (television program) which again featured an ensemble cast, controversial issues, and a structure based on the earlier show. Focusing on the lives and careers of the members of a Los Angeles law firm, the show like its subject was slicker than its predecessor, trading the gritty urban realism of Hill Street Blues for the upscale gloss of successful West Coast attorneys. L.A. Law was an immediate and enduring hit, reaching heights in the ratings that neither Hill Street Blues nor St. Elsewhere ever achieved.

Another important, although less direct, descendant of Hill Street Blues was the much-debated thirtysomething. thirtysomething (television program)
Television programs;thirtysomething Both critically acclaimed and frequently vilified, thirtysomething lasted for four seasons and managed to inspire a host of imitators after its demise. With an ensemble cast and a sophisticated approach to complex issues that would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething focused on a group of friends and the events, both large and small, of their daily lives. Whereas its detractors labeled it a series devoted to yuppie angst, its admirers praised the show’s intelligent, witty writing and believably human story lines. Although vastly different from Hill Street Blues in tone and style, thirtysomething shared the earlier show’s devotion to emotional truth in its characters’ lives and made that the center of its focus to a degree rarely before attempted in television drama.

Hill Street Blues also proved influential as the series that catapulted Steven Bochco to a position of power within the television industry. Bochco would go on to produce such series as Hooperman, Doogie Howser, M.D., and the short-lived, experimental Cop Rock, a weekly crime drama/musical that was canceled after only a few episodes. Even Bochco’s failures generated publicity, however, and he remained a shaping influence on television in the years after the inception of Hill Street Blues.

The most remarkable legacy of Hill Street Blues was the level of realism it injected into television drama, an area that had seemingly been limited by its very nature to stories that could be wrapped up neatly within an hour-long format in a medium where controversial subject matter can make a show the subject of boycotts and vocal criticism. That it was able to break free of the clichés and restraints that had defined earlier series was enough to guarantee Hill Street Blues a place in the pantheon of television drama; that it did so with intelligence, complexity, and originality marks it as one of the best and most innovative dramas in the medium’s history. Hill Street Blues (television program)
Television programs;Hill Street Blues

Further Reading

  • Freeman, David. “Television’s Real A-Team.” Esquire, January, 1985, 77-80. Presents an in-depth look at the series’ principal writers and producers during its early years and examines the process behind the writing of each episode.
  • “Hill Street Blues: A Hit with Problems.” The New York Times, May 10, 1981, p. D19. An analysis of the series and the problems it faced during its first season.
  • “Hill Street Joys.” New York, December 21, 1981, 20. Examines the show’s inception and discusses its impact during its first season.
  • Lindsey, Robert. “From Hill Street to L.A. Law.” The New York Times Magazine, August 24, 1986, 30. In-depth profile of Steven Bochco written shortly before the premiere of L.A. Law.
  • Span, Paula. “Bochco on the Edge.” Esquire, May, 1990, 158-166. Lengthy and informative profile of Steven Bochco.
  • Thompson, Robert J. Television’s Second Golden Age: From “Hill Street Blues” to “ER.” New York: Continuum, 1996. Examines the era in television programming that began in the early 1980’s with “the return of the serious, literary, writer-based drama.” Devotes a full chapter to Hill Street Blues. Includes photographs, bibliography, and indexes.
  • “Too Good for Television?” Time, September 14, 1981. Presents a look at the series during its first months.
  • Zoglin, Richard. “Changing the Face of Prime Time.” Time, May 2, 1988, 75-76. Profile of Steven Bochco chronicles his emergence as an influential force in television drama.

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