In the 1980s, television drama broke new ground with the creation of a police series that decided to change it up from the traditional style of hour long shows.
Debuting on NBC in January 1981, Hill Street Blues was the brainchild of Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, and the producers were given a lot of control to create a police procedural that took drama tv down a different path.
With a main cast of 15 characters, this police series was a one where everyone had a storyline, and that catching the bad guy was just as important as showing the reality of everyone’s life on the job.
Bochco and Kozoll and their writing teams created styles which are now a standard in tv lexicon but were all started here, including having multiple storylines in an episode, showing events happen in one day, using unique camera angles to give the series the style of a documentary and used many real-life issues and slang in a greater amount than had been seen on television previously.
Every episode began with the role call of officers arriving at the station for their shift. Led by Captain Frank Furillo, the teams would be assigned their tasks in an unnamed US city, modelled on Chicago or Detroit, although the series was filmed in Los Angeles.
The team of officers would be shown dealing with their day, crimes and the court system, but kept the focus on the individuals, and not on solving the crime – from racism to alcoholism, interracial relationships to friendships, the series carved out the realities of 1980s America. Each episode would usually end with Furillo and his girlfriend, public defender Joyce Davenport discussing their jobs at the end of the day.
Hill Street Blues was the first series awarded eight Emmys in its debut season and has made the list of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of all time. In its seven years, the series was nominated for 98 Emmys.
I watched this series regularly and had my favourite characters, including those played by Betty Thomas, Ed Marinaro, Dennis Franz, Bruce Weitz and Veronica Hamel. It was a unique show where storylines were intricate and interesting and where it was the norm to make a difference, make a mistake and show how they dealt with the stress of the job.
The series ended in 1987, but its influence carries on today with the way tv dramas are scripted and shown – an intricate pathway that has become the gold standard.