“Let’s be careful out there…”
The men and woman of Hill Street Station, a fictitious police precinct in Chicago, have found it rather difficult at times to live by their sergeant’s admonition. Steven Bochco’s award winning police drama changed most of the rules for a one hour television drama. Some of Hill Street’s trademark style has become rather ordinary over 20 years later. Bochco protégés now dominate the scene. Dick Wolf (Law and Order), David Kelley (The Practice), David Milch (Deadwood), Scott Brazil …The Shield) and Ken Olin (Alias) all came from the tutelage of Bochco.
Captain Furillo (Travanti) runs one of the toughest precincts in the inner city. The streets are inundated by gang violence. Furillo also often finds himself under fire by city politics, a bitter ex-wife, and even his own girl: ADA Davenport (Hamel). The squad includes veteran sergeant Esterhaus (Conrad), scrappy biter Belker (Weitz), Redneck cop Renko (Haid), playboy detective LaRue (Martin), Gung ho SWAT leader Hunter (Sikking), Detective Goldblume (Spano), Detective Washington (Blacque). A more diverse and entertaining cast has never been assembled anywhere.
Hill Street Blues turned television on its head. It featured an incredible sized ensemble cast. The use of so many characters was a considerable risk. Would the writers be able to provide us with enough meat for each to care what happens to them? The answer was a resounding yes. We cared. We cared so much that Hill Street Blues broke the standing record for Emmy nominations and wins before its 7 year journey ended. Bochco used stories that carefully intertwined each character in a tapestry that never quite ended. Episodes were not wrapped up into tidy little packages of resolution each week. Some storylines took the entire 7 years to tell. He wasn’t afraid to kill off a beloved regular cast member, so we were always kept off guard. No one was invulnerable.
The first season was a little raw. Characters were often caricatures of what they would later become. Hill Street Blues was one of those rare shows that got better with each year. If you remember the final years, this first season will take you a bit unaware. Missing are some of our favorite characters like Norm Buntz and Sid. Still, Hill Street Blues was a diamond in the rough. From the pilot episode you can see the faint glimmer of the brilliance yet to be uncovered. Watching these first shows is like tracing the origins to a great civilization. You can’t help but be influenced by the greatness you know is coming.This is television history in the making. Long before his successful run with NYPD Blue, Bochco established his genius here with Hill Street Blues.
Each episode of Hill Street Blues is presented in its full frame original broadcast format. I am a bit disappointed in the transfer. Hill Street Blues deserved better. There are too many instances of color fading in and out. You’ll find more than a few specks and film artifacts. The picture overall looks washed out too often. Colors seem a little faded. Black levels don’t seem to penetrate at all. Certainly an early 80’s television show will have its share of limitations, but this was an important series. Perhaps later seasons were preserved with more care. Some episodes are better than others. A few of the later episodes appear to be a little better. Still, the DVD looks no better than a good video tape.
The Dolby Digital 2.1 Mono track is marginally better than the video. Fortunately the audio doesn’t need to excel for us to enjoy these classics. Dialogue is always clear, and for me that’s all I care about. Musical cues have always been subdued on this series, so are reproduced faithfully enough here. There is no distortion present that I could discern.
There are two episodes with audio commentaries. Unfortunately Bochco and a couple of cast members don’t offer the insight I was hoping to hear.
The three two-sided discs are found in slim cases inside of a small box. There is no booklet or sleeve available here.
“Roll Call” is a very short look back at the series. There is really no meat to this feature at all.
There is no question in my mind that this is a must own collection. It is unfortunate that such a groundbreaking series did not receive more attention from Fox. While I was pleased that at least a couple of commentaries were included, they were quite dry. I can only hope that future seasons are released with more respect given to the show’s place in television history. The modern drama owes its very existence to this work. Fans should be very happy it’s finally out. But let’s demand more from the best of shows. Such a lackluster treatment is an insult “in the extremus”.
Special Features List
- Episode commentaries
- Featurette “Roll Call”