There still is enough life in "Hill Street Blues" for two or three normal shows, and there is still anger and passion and irreverence in it, too. An advance look at the fifth-season premiere of the NBC series, which airs tonight at 10 on Channel 4, finds all, or much of, hell breaking loose again, and the men and women of the precinct struggling to shore up the barricades.
"Hill Street Blues" is the greatest television series ever about survival, greater even than "M*A*S*H," but now its own survival is in jeopardy. NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff has said that if the ratings fall much more, he will cancel the show, which now comes in lowest rated of the programs in NBC's Thursday night hit parade. Troubles on the hill have been plentiful. Steven Bochco, who created the program with Michael Kozoll and was executive producer, was tactlessly bounced in midseason last year, supposedly for going over budget. Bochco now has a cushy deal with 20th Century-Fox to develop new shows, the first, apparently, a "Hill Street Grays" -- lawyers instead of cops.
Bochco's wife, Barbara Bosson, who played Faye Furillo, recently left the shuff in a testy huff, though a spokesman for MTM Productions insists she may return this season on an occasional basis.
Meanwhile, the four-year winning streak "Hill Street" maintained at the Emmy Awards just ended when the show was upset for the best drama series prize by "Cagney & Lacey," a more orderly, and more sanctimonious, approach to televised law enforcement. That was the bad news for "Hill Street." The good news was that "Miami Vice," which people keep calling the new "Hill Street Blues," won only one major Emmy of the 15 for which it was nominated.
"Miami Vice" has a sensuous, seductive, surface -- it's a TV show with a mise en scene, which sure is a rarity -- but beneath the surface are just more surfaces. Once an episode is over, it vanishes from memory like last week's People magazine or yesterday's USA Today. On "Hill Street Blues," actual stories about human beings still are told. Unfortunately, last season the program seemed to retreat too far into its own cliche's. The smashing glass windows in the station house got to be as tiresome and predictable as the closing cuddly pillow talk by Furillo and Davenport. It all became one long guilt trip.
Changes, understandably, are in the air. The new executive producer, Jeffrey Lewis, said last spring that he thought the show had become too violent, and promised that a new character, "a bad apple," would be introduced into the Hill's scheme of things. That apple will have to wait until the second show; Dennis Franz, as Lt. Norman Buntz, does not appear on the fifth-season premiere tonight, except in the opening credits.
During the 1982-83 season, Franz appeared on several episodes as Bad Sal Benedetto, a corrupt and sadistic cop who was blown to kingdom come. The new character he is playing will also be rotten, but more subtly. Franz phases in as the man is he replacing, Rene Enriquez as Lt. Ray Calletano, phases out. Enriquez will appear in six or seven shows before being transferred to another precinct and promoted to captain.
There are other terribly important developments. Michael Warren (Officer Bobby Hill) has grown a mustache, and Joe Spano (Lt. Henry Goldblume) has shaved his off.
As previously announced, "Hill Street" will not always open with the traditional roll call any more. Tonight's show does open with a roll call, but something's amiss; no one is recognizable. It looks like a summer stock version of the "Hill Street" show. That's because it's the night shift roll call. The episode, "Blues in the Night," follows the characters' lives after dark. The departed Bochco gets a story credit; he and colleagues dreamed this one up before he left.
Life goes on for the Hill Street irregulars in absurd or horrifying ways. Frank and Joyce (Daniel J. Travanti and Veronica Hamel) reluctantly join friends for dinner at a restaurant, a simple event that turns into an excruciating ordeal for them. Sgt. Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas, this year's deserving "Hill Street" Emmy winner) marks time at a kiln with a semiamorous pottery teacher. Officer Andy Renko (Charles Haid) discovers that his country-western singing idol, Bobby Angel, is a raving coke head. The immortal Belker (Bruce Weitz) spends almost the entire episode staked out in a garbage dumpster until, near the end, he gets some tragic personal news.
For the first time, we visit two of the cops' homes, an indicator of things to come in the season ahead. At Renko's place, he confesses a lie to his new bride. And Sgt. Stan Jablonski (Robert Prosky, gruff caller of rolls), who lives alone, spends his private hours saying silent grace at dinner alone, talking back to bellicose pro wrestlers on television, and cautioning his dog, Blackie, against foods that promote flatulence.
Goldblume, meanwhile, has been taken hostage and decorated with dynamite in still another urban confrontation, this one dignified by a splendidly agonized performance from Yaphet Kotto as a deranged activist (but, oh no, there's that awful Chief Daniels urging maximum retaliation and worrying about his political career yet again). Now and then, as when Belker gets the bad tidings near the end of the show, the writers (David Milch, Walon Green and Jacob Epstein) let the characters down, but for the most part, this episode is true to all that was brave and invigorating about "Hill Street Blues" when it premiered four years ago.
A fat man walks into a bar with a knife sticking out of his stomach, violence flares in an alley after one man puts a neighbor's pet into a washing machine, and two cops stage a race to work as dawn finally and mercifully breaks. The Hill still works as microcosm of an insanely perilous universe, the characters still resonate and haunt. If this is to be "Hill Street's" last season, it's not going out on little cat's feet.