In his 2016 autobiography, Steven Bochco, who died Sunday at age 74 after a battle with cancer, describes the episode of “Hill Street Blues” that he considered among the best. It was “Trial By Fury,” the first episode of Season 3, and it illustrates how different the television show was than any that had come before.
One of the stories in the episode — there were always several stories going simultaneously — “was about a nun who had been raped and killed, and the local community was up in arms,” he wrote.
They wanted vengeance, and quickly. It was a real lynch mob mentality. So when the cops finally catch the guy and put him in an interrogation room, he clams up and refuses to confess. [Joyce] Davenport is his public defender. [Capt. Frank] Furillo essentially says to the suspect, ‘There’s an angry mob of three hundred people outside this police station, because they know we’ve made an arrest and they’re thirsty for blood. If you walk out of here, that mob will tear you to ribbons. But I can’t keep you in here unless you confess to the crime.
Terrified, the guy confesses, and later, in his office, Joyce Davenport, the confessed killer’s public defender, confronts Captain Furillo, with a mixture of anger and sadness how he coerced the confession.
“I want you to know,” Davenport tells Furillo, “that what you did today frightens me.”
“I understand,” Furillo responds.
“Do you?” she says.
The last scene of the episode shows Furillo going to confession. “Kneeling,” Bochco wrote in the direction for the scene, Furillo “addresses his Confessor.”
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Furillo says.
Take away the rape, the mob, take away the coerced confession, take away the public defender, let alone a female public defender and take away Furillo’s visit to his priest, and you have something like typical police show of the sort that preceded Bochco’s revolutionary “Hill Street Blues.”
Eliminate also the fact that Davenport, the public defender, is having a torrid affair with Furillo, and his ex-wife, Fay, hangs around the police station nagging him about alimony.
Nothing close to this had ever appeared in a TV drama and certainly not in a police show.
Even its signature opening was totally new. Most older cop shows began with the hero being dispatched to the scene of the episode’s crime.
“Hill Street Blues” opened with a raucous roll call after which Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played by Michael Conrad until his death) would send officers into the streets with a line that became one of the most famous in all of television: “Let’s be careful out there.” He was replaced in the show by Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Stan’ Jablonski (actor Robert Prosky), with his own catchphrase: “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”
Vulture TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz was a boy at the time he watched the program. “I was addicted” to it from the beginning in January 1981, he wrote in a 2012 “Seitz asks” column titled “When Did You Realize TV Could Be Art?”
He wrote that he didn’t understand why until the “Trial by Fury” episode at the age of 12
“For the next few days” after watching it, he “obsessed over it; it wasn’t just the violence and darkness that disturbed me, it was the episode’s refusal to tell me whom to root for … it gave viewers no safe place from which to judge anyone.”
In the history of TV cops, that “safe place” was central. The good guys were always good, the bad guys wound up in prison and both good and bad characters seemed totally divorced from the turmoil over law and order and race that played out in real life from the 60s onward.
The cop show genre in previous TV fare — from Joe Friday in “Dragnet” to Elliott Ness in “The Untouchables” to “Kojak,” to the original “Hawaii Five-O” to “CHIPS” — had “a sharply defined sense of right and wrong,” Ken Dowler, a scholar of popular culture wrote in a history of television police dramas. “There was no blurring of the boundaries between good and evil.” Even though the Los Angeles Police Department had a history of “police brutality, racism and corruption,” he noted, none of this was addressed on the original version of “Dragnet.”
Had the blurring of morality been the only difference, the show would not have revolutionized television. It would not have ultimately led to the multi-episode types of binge-worthy dramas featured today on Netflix and Amazon. Indeed, “Hill Street Blues” is widely considered the precursor of programs such as “The Sopranos,” “West Wing” and “The Wire,” to name a few.
It would not have won 26 Emmy Awards during its run from 1981 to 1987, even though its ratings were often sagging. Bochco followed up with “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.”
Before “Hill Street Blues,” the characters in police shows were one dimensional. They might have quirks, like Kojak, but their idiosyncrasies were harmless and gimmicky. Kojak is famous for saying “who loves ya, baby.”
If they had private lives, we didn’t know about them or know the truth about them. If they had flaws, other than working overtime, we didn’t know about them either. The bumbling “Columbo” was a genius. He talked about his wife but viewers never met her, giving her the distinction “of being the most talked about TV character never to appear on screen,” as many have said.
In “Hill Street Blues,” Furillo was a recovering alcoholic. Detective Mick Belker at Hill Street was a biter — he once bit a police cadet’s nose off. Detective John “J.D.” LaRue was a drinker as well as a womanizer and a relentless pursuer of get-rich-quick schemes.
The old shows usually had one main character that interested viewers and perhaps a sidekick or two. “Hill Street Blues” had an ensemble cast of roughly 13 characters, each with his or her own story. In traditional shows, each episode of the show usually featured a single crime, which was solved, only to disappear from memory in all future episodes. Cops didn’t get shot.
“The idea of almost every other cop show was that the private lives of these folks was what happened the other 23 hours of the day that you weren’t watching them,” Bochco told the New York Times, “and we turned that inside out. “Hill Street Blues” was a show where their personal lives kept bleeding profusely, hemorrhaging if you will, into their professional lives. Where you had ex-wives coming in inappropriately and disrupting proceedings. You had Furillo’s lover getting into horrible arguments with him about the law. And you had an alcoholic, J.D. LaRue. All of this stuff just kept intruding and informing how these men and women went about their business.”
“Hill Street Blues” episodes included numerous crimes and numerous plotlines involving the characters, all at once, which were usually unresolved and then extended into future episodes. Several conversations — as per “West Wing” — might be underway simultaneously. Cops were shot in the very first episode.
“On our scripts,” Bochco once said in an oral history, “we had double columns of dialogue, ’cause we scripted everything in the background. EVERYTHING in the background. We realized we had so many characters that the only way to service all those characters was to have multiple story lines. The only way to service multiple story lines was to let them spill over into subsequent episodes. So half the time, things that were going on in the background were in fact the elements of stories and character relationships that would emerge in the foreground two episodes from now.”
In “Trial by Fury,” for example, the rape of the nun and the confessions weren’t enough for Bochco. When Bochco first saw the script — featuring only that sequence — he felt there was something missing, “some sense of how life isn’t fair,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television.”
“So we added a small story about another murder, of a bodega owner named Rodriquez, who had been gunned down in a robbery. It happens every day on the Hill,” he wrote, “and is far less sensational than the rape-murder of a nun, which is why the bodega murder doesn’t get the cops’ full attention.
“… What we come to realize is that the bodega murder will go unsolved: the price of catching the killer of the nun …. The kind of systemic cynicism that the two stories, side-by-side, exposed dramatically made the hour terrific conceptually.
“It went,” Bochco added, “from being a story that was just about a terrible event to being a story that had an idea behind it.”
The old shows left viewers satisfied. They could sleep well.
“Hill Street Blues” often left them heartbroken.
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