“Do you remember Hill Street Blues?” A few weeks ago, my husband Peter and I were reminiscing about old TV shows. Both of us agreed, Hill Street Blues was one of our favorites. Our conversation jumped to the characters: the unruffled police captain Frank Furillo, level headed detective Neal Washington, and the articulate sergeant Esterhaus who concludes each morning roll call with the adage, “You be careful out there.”
We each had a particular scene that stuck in our mind. Who could forget detective Mick Belker who relished raw onions and growled when in pursuit of malevolent suspects? Or what about Lieutenant Howard Hunter, inherently suspicious of anyone with a foreign name, who always wanted to shoot first and talk later? Googling online to find one episode to watch, just for old time’s sake, I learned the entire seven season series is available on Hulu. My intention, to watch the show as a research project, to ascertain in which city the series was supposed to take place and whether the story lines were as good as we remembered. They were. And we were hooked. As soon as Lieutenant Hunter spoke his first lines, it was evident that he could easily swap out his navy baseball style cap for a red cap with the initials MAGA, and he’d fit right in to present day.
Unfortunately for all of us, the many problems confronting police as well as advocates of social justice remain. The series Hill Street Blues handled many of these issues in the early 80’s with remarkable sensitivity. Most of the members of the TV Land Hill Street Police Department have compassion for the less fortunate members of their community. They put their lives on the line to combat crime. Overworked and underfunded, they try to work within the system. Too bad we haven’t managed to make much progress in real life.
For readers who have never watched Hill Street Blues, it was a one of the first multi-story line television dramas that featured an ensemble cast and used hand held cameras to capture the gritty texture of life in an imperfect world. The setting, an unnamed city, represented all cities that were struggling with many of the issues we still struggle with forty years later. Urban decay, gang warfare, immigration, an overworked welfare system, neglected children, displaced seniors, racism, greed, and corruption: are just a sampling of the topics the Hill Street Blues tackled in 146 episodes. In their very first year, the series received eight Emmy Awards including Outstanding Drama Series. Over seven seasons they continued to wrack up numerous nominations each year resulting in a total of 26 Emmy wins.
Outside scenes for the pilot were filmed in Chicago. Subsequent filming took place in CBS Studio Center and on location on the streets of Los Angeles. The intent, was to make viewers believe the Hill Street Police Station might be located in one of several cities— Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New York or Chicago. Inside the police station, the diversity of the force and the suspects they arrest is eye-popping. Particularly when looking at the many faces as each episode begins: old, young, fat, thin, tall short, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian and a somewhat equal number of women to male officers, the producers seem to have made a point of hiring a wide variety of extras to populate the Hill Street Station. Unlike most Hollywood productions, these are not “pretty people.”
This got me to contemplating who or what was missing if the same series were to be re-introduced in 2021. While there are women on the Hill Street force, there are no women in leadership roles, particularly women of color, although officer Lucy Bates ( the only performer on the series to be nominated for an award each and every year as best supporting actress and 1985 winner ) does eventually get promoted to the rank of Sergeant. Public Defender Joyce Davenport is admired by her colleagues for her intelligence, but is also ogled for her “good legs”.
LGBT characters are not present and although Asian Americans are on the force, none have a lead role. No men of color serve in high profile leadership roles within the police department and governing administration. Several lead characters are Jewish, but there are no Moslems.
Immigration status issues chiefly pertain to Mexico and South American countries, thus missing are immigrants that might be arriving from war torn regions of Africa or the Middle East. Lieutenant Ray Calletano is second in command, but maybe if the show was ever reprised he should be Captain. That would enable Frank Furillo, affectionately known as Pizza Man by his lover Ms. Davenport, an opportunity to sail off into the sunset and get that much needed break he deserves. Or maybe he could take over as Police Commissioner and run things the right way, without all the political maneuvering.
What captivated me most about the Hill Street Blues officers was their empathy for their colleagues and the community. They wanted to do a good job. In real life, 2021, many of our cities are served by underfunded overworked police departments. We still have a long road ahead of us to get things right. It takes courage to see the humanity in attempting to remedy injustice with compassion.