DVD Review: Hill Street Blues (The Complete Series)



Back in the days of the VCR, the guy who ran Raleigh’s Foundation’s Edge comic bookstore explained how he was recording all of Hill Street Blues on SP speed. This was a rather epic task seeing how the 144 episodes meant he’d use 72 VHS tapes. That also meant he had to have over 6 feet of shelf space to delay his collection. The award winning show didn’t get rerun as much as Cheers in syndication over the last three decades. Fox only released the first two seasons on DVD. I was a bit jealous that the comic bookstore guy could watch all of Hill Street Blues. But there’s no more need to be jealous since Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series has arrived. All seven seasons in a boxset that’s only 4 1/2 inches wide.

The legend of Hill Street Blues is that it should have been a show fated for the “Brilliant, But Canceled” dumpster when it debuted in 1981. Steven Bochco (LA Law) and Michael Kozoll (First Blood) created a TV show that seemed like a Robert Altman film. The camera wasn’t steady. Characters talked on top of each other. This wasn’t Dragnet. The critics raved about the show, but the first season was a ratings disaster. Why wasn’t it taken off the air like Cop Rock? Because NBC didn’t have any hits in the post Super Train era. The show received 21 Emmy nominations which thrilled NBC. Amazingly enough, viewers began to flock to the show so it was highly rated for its sophomore season. The show became the anchor when The Cosby Show, Facts of Life and Cheers arrived on the network.

Before Hill Street Blues arrived, dramatic cop shows were mainly made by Jack Webb (Dragnet), Quinn Martin (Streets of San Francisco) and Aaron Spelling (S.W.A.T.). Their versions of cops were rather heroic and two dimensional. Their personal lives were only brought up in the show when it had an obvious impact on the plot. If anyone on Hawaii Five-O showed up with a girlfriend, she was going to either die or be con artist. Rare did cops have regular problems of the heart, wallet or conscious. The show’s focus was on the case and the criminals. Rarely was their time for the cops to relate to their role of being cops. There had been police shows that focused mainly on the cops, but they were sitcoms such as Barney Miller and Car 54, Where Are You? The hour long dramatic show didn’t want to give cops real lives until Hill Street Blues opened the station’s garage door.

What made Hill Street Blues radical was its huge cast and the ability to share the spotlight between them. Anybody could be the star of an episode. Sure Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is in charge of the Hill Street Station house, but he’s not even in control of his life. His ex-wife Fay (Barbara Bosson) constantly dropped by the station looking for her child support or just to relate problems with their child. Even when he gets home to relax, he’s got public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) tugging him. The stable force in the building is Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad). The huge man always ended the morning meeting with “Let’s be careful out there.” He was concerned about his officers and enjoyed life. Conrad would pass away from cancer in the middle of the fourth season. He was replaced with Sgt. Stan Jablonski (Robert Prosky). He was a nice career officer who knew everyone with a beat in the city. Sgt. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano) was the empathic man who tried his best to understand all those around him. He was the man on the phone in hostage situations because of his calm attitude. Lt. Howard Hunter (Doogie Howser‘s James B. Sikking) is the uptight and egotistical leader of the SWAT team. He’s hilarious when he tries to relate from his superior mindset. Lt. Ray Calletano is the second in charge who always looks worried.

The beat cops set the pace of the show. Officers Andy Renko (Charles Haid) and Bobby Hill (Michael Warren) are the perfect mix. Renko is a rather country boy while Hill is a suave urban guy. Amazingly enough, the two don’t get along all the time. They do have their bumpy times over their seven seasons in the squad car. Officer Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas) gets better storylines when Officer Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro) arrived in the second season. The pair had this quasi-married couple feel to them as their relationship grows.

Perhaps the true unsung heroes of Blues are undercover detectives J.D.LaRue (Kiel Martin) and Neal Washington (Taurean Blacque). These are two characters that could have had their own show instead of being ensemble players. This pair of black and white buddies working the neighborhood vices were the immediate forefathers to Crocket and Tubbs on Miami Vice. Anthony Yerkovich who created Miami Vice wrote for Blues. They even bust a few people that ended up getting arrested in Miami a few years later. Detective Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz) is the madmen of the office. He’s like a mad dog when provoked. He gets in trouble for biting suspects. He’s amazing comic relief. During the sixth season, Lt. Norman Buntz (Dennis Franz) arrives. He’s a no nonsense cop. But he looks familiar since earlier in the series, Franz played the crooked Officer Sal Benedetto. What’s amazing is how Franz plays both characters with such different attitudes with the same haircut.

There’s no need to break down the various episodes or tantalize you with story arcs. The police made the show irresistible to watch. They would bust a few colorful characters, but no guest stars outshone the badges.

Hill Street Blues remains fresh after 33 years. There is still an excitement to the action. The personal messes remain current because the characters are timeless. While this show has inspired NYPD Blue and The Wire, the series remains distinct. No recent show has done this better. Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series is a masterpiece in a small boxset.

The video is 1.33 full frame. The transfers bring out the grime and dirt of the aging Hill Street station. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The mix is set up so you can hear all the various voices in the station house.

The History of Hill Street Blues (61:53) delves into the development of the show. Steven Boccho gives away lot of secrets. He admits that the station was based his time in Pittsburgh. Another big revelation is Fred Silverman desired a show that was really about the cops and not the cases on NBC. This should be Silverman’s legacy at NBC.

Audio Commentaries on four episodes include the voices of Bochco, Sikking, Spano, Weitz, Haid and Dennis Dugan, Writer Jeffrey Lewis and Story Consultant Robert Crais.

Interview with the Officers includes talks with Dennis Franz, James B Sikking, Bruce Weitz, Charles Haid and Dennis Dugan. Franz discusses playing two different detectives on the show. Dugan was the original street superhero Captain Freedom. Dugan has gone on to direct many of Adam Sandler’s movies. Don’t watch this segment until you’ve seen all of the Captain Freedom episodes.

Writers on the Hill (20:33) deals with the scripts that made the series special from the normal cop shows. It’s a little master class from Boccho.

Roll Call: Looking Back on the Hill (51:19) reunites many of the cast members for a round table chat in a soundstage. Everyone can’t make it, but there’s Warren, Haid, Bosson, Spano, Weitz, Hamel, Sikking and Marinaro. Everyone loved the pilot and swore it wasn’t going to get picked up by NBC. This appears to have been shot in 2005.

Gag Reel (0:38) is short but plenty of Belzer going nuts.

Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series finally allows fans of quality TV to completely watch the great series in proper order.

Shout! Factory presents Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series. Starring: Daniel J. Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Michael Conrad and Michael Warren. Boxset Contents: 144 episodes on 34 DVDs. Released: April 29, 2014.

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