I remember a dull Thursday night back in 1981 when I turned on this new show on NBC. It opened with a group of cops in a meeting at the start of the day’s shift. The desk sergeant – a tall, balding, polysyllabic fellow – gave his troops the day’s marching orders, concluding with a directive from Division forbidding non-sanctioned, non-departmental-issued weaponry. So the officers dumped their illicit gear: Saturday night specials, derringers, brass knuckles, nunchucks, switchblades, billy clubs, even a sawed-off shotgun.
Then, for the first time, we viewers heard the sergeant say those famous words: “All right, that’s it. Let’s roll. And hey – let’s be careful out there.”
And then everyone retrieved their contraband and went on with their day.
Thus began “Hill Street Station,” the pilot episode of Hill Street Blues.
I was hooked.
This was the world of Steven Bochco, producer of Hall of Fame classic shows Hill Street, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and others, shows that can legitimately be said to have changed the face of television.
Bochco, 74, died April 1 of complications from cancer after years of treatment for leukemia, including a stem-cell transplant in 2014.
His beginnings in television were with quality projects, as a scriptwriter for Ironside and Columbo. Steven Spielberg directed Bochco’s season 1 teleplay and script for Columbo, “Murder by the Book.” Bochco segued into producing at MTM Enterprises, creating Paris for CBS, which was Broadway veteran James Earl Jones’ first TV series. From there, he co-created Hill Street for NBC with Michael Kozoll.
Hill Street and NYPD Blue were a strong pivot away from the Jack Webb model of cop show, where the men in blue were stalwart do-gooders – and, times being what they were, the women who wore the shield wore skirts and heels, carried their firearms in purses, and only wrote traffic tickets and ran the switchboard. Webb’s shows were practically video press releases for the Los Angeles Police Department, and the LAPD loved him so much, it gave him a cop’s funeral – and retired Joe Friday’s badge number.
Hill Street was set in an unnamed city in the northeastern United States, a place that bore a melange of elements: the Hill District of Pittsburgh, near where Bochco attended college at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University); police cars that had livery similar to that of the Chicago P.D.; seedy neighborhoods in Los Angeles, where the show filmed on location; street names from Buffalo, N.Y., hometown of producer Anthony Yerkovich and showrunner David Milch.
And few of the cops in Steven Bochco’s world were models from a recruiting poster. Some of them were lazy, some cut corners, some were thieves, some were corrupt. The tentpole character of NYPD Blue, Andy Sipowicz, was a racist bastard and a mean drunk. Over the course of the series, Sipowicz traveled a Job-like redemptive arc that turned him into something resembling a full human being.
In the Hill Street pilot, Officers Bobby Hill and Andy Renko go out on a domestic call, something Officers Malloy and Reed would do any number of times on Adam-12. They find an angry wife threatening to stab her daughter … because she caught her having relations with her husband. Hill and Renko settle things with a little street justice: They tell the daughter to stop walking naked around the house, tell the husband to behave himself and keep his pants on, and tell the wife I know you work hard and you come home tired, but try to show a little attention to your man, hey?
Then they leave and go outside and find their car has been stolen.
“Wow,” I said to myself, watching at home. “This is a rough neighborhood. They steal police cars!”
Dyspeptic Renko is furious at this indignity and becomes more so when he finds all three of the pay phones they try to use to call the station house are busted. Hill is more cautious, recognizing their vulnerability. His caution is sadly validated when they enter a building to find a phone and interrupt a trio of junkies – and promptly get gunned down.
That wouldn’t have happened to one of Jack Webb’s cops. And if it had, Sgt. Friday would have caught the shooter by the end of the hour. On Hill Street, they didn’t even find out who did the shooting until half the season had passed. And our shooter confessed because he now was branded as a snitch, making it untenable for him to be out on the streets.
After that pilot, I had to watch Hill Street again. It was on an odd schedule, Thursdays and Saturdays, but I followed wherever it led. Episode 2 picked up six months later, with Hill and Renko out of the hospital and returning to The Job. Renko had initially been slated to die from his injuries. Actor Charles Haid had been in another pilot and did Hill Street as a favor to Bochco, a fellow classmate at Carnegie; he wasn’t expecting to join the series. NBC executives, however, thought the pairing of Hill and Renko was golden and grabbed Haid for Hill Street when his other pilot wasn’t picked up.
Hill Street went from low ratings to grand success, winning 26 Emmy Awards out of 98 nominations in its seven-year run. That success gave Bochco the clout and freedom to create other hits, such as L.A. Law and Doogie Howser, M.D., and some outright flops, like Capital Critters, Bay City Blues and Public Morals, which was instantly canceled after only one episode. There also were noble failures, like Hooperman, Blind Justice, Brooklyn South, Murder One, and City of Angels (ER in the ’hood, the first medical drama with a predominantly Black cast).
And, yes, the infamous Cop Rock.
The germ of the idea for Cop Rock was making Hill Street into a Broadway show. Bochco took a lot of brickbats for daring to marry the two and bring them to television, but the likes of Glee, Smash, and Rise show that he was, once again, far ahead of the curve.
For my money, Cop Rock has always been unfairly maligned as a bad show. The really bad musical that debuted that same year was Hull High, over on NBC. Don’t remember it? Lucky you. You should be glad you don’t.
Sure, the juxtaposition of musical numbers with Bochco’s gritty drama didn’t always jibe. Musicals are by their very nature kind of goofy, and the only thing I fault Cop Rock for was not being goofy enough. Like the moment in the pilot where a jury turns into a gospel choir, singing He’s guilty / He’s guilty / And the time has come / To put this boy away. Or the cheeky nods to other shows, like when Victor Sifuentes and Abby Perkins of L.A. Law casually walked through the lobby of the Los Angeles County Courthouse.
The main storyline through Cop Rock was about a White detective who flat-out murdered a Black suspect, and went to trial with a bogus defense that the dead man – who was handcuffed behind his back – tried to kill the detective with an Uzi. In the end the detective, who never once thought he did anything wrong, was acquitted.
This was in 1990, 23 years before #BlackLivesMatter.
Bochco’s shows frequently examined the fairness of policing, and the race-and-class divide in America. On NYPD Blue, precinct commander Lt. Fancy handled his racist detective Sipowicz by treating him to a meal at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem and told him he was being treated like any other customer no matter how much of a bigot he is (and let him know that maybe they didn’t spit in his food before they served it to him). An L.A. Law episode had a Latino ex-gangbanger on trial for assault and robbery, but his lawyer discerned the real culprit was the guy’s brother, a golden boy who cracked under the strain of carrying his entire family’s hopes on his back. Not that they were going to let him off the hook; the family agreed the ex-gangbanger would take the rap so the “good” son could go on to a great career and get out of the ’hood. (The lawyer quit rather than facilitate the charade.)
And in the Brooklyn South pilot, a Black man shoots up the street in front of the precinct house, killing several officers and civilians, all White. Once in custody, the girlfriend of one of those dead officers kicks the wounded shooter, causing him to die. His family demands justice; the Internal Affairs investigation finds nobody at fault.
This was in 1997. #BlackLivesStillMatter.
Bochco’s reputation took a hit after Cop Rock was canceled. He was once asked, why not drop the song-and-dance stuff and just do it straight? He responded, “I’ve done that show. It was called Hill Street Blues.”
And then he comes up with NYPD Blue. Go figure.
By his lights, NYPD Blue was different in that it was a deliberate attempt to bend, if not crack, the unbreakable strictures the network censors put on broadcast TV shows. Bochco had a point that under those limits, network TV couldn’t fully compete with cable TV; it had to at least offer PG-13 levels of sex and violence.
But I always felt NYPD Blue was old wine in a new bottle. Just setting the show in New York automatically seemed stale to me. We were getting a fresher take on police drama with Homicide: Life on the Street, which debuted earlier in 1993 but never got the ratings or network support NYPD Blue did.
Post-NYPD Blue, Bochco dabbled in web series and turned his attention to cable over network television, feeling that he was out of sync with the network way of doing business.
It was network TV’s loss. Bochco keenly saw how the world and policing were changing, with cops moving from a protector’s mentality to a warrior’s mentality.
After all, the Hill Street sergeant who told his charges “Let’s be careful out there” died. The watchword of the man who replaced him? “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”
That was in 1984. Once again, Bochco was ahead of the curve.
Kelvin Childs is a freelance writer. He writes about TV shows, movies and comic books for CBR.com.