Getting the blues

One needn’t be too much the curmudgeon to argue that we live at a time of decline in popular culture.

For example, there is increasingly little reason for any adult American to visit a movie theatre between January and September.   In our time, American cinema has almost entirely surrendered to adolescent stupidity – grinding out big-budget “blockbusters” substitute the technological magic of computer graphics and surround sound for plot, character development, and competent acting.

It’s easy to blame this on Hollywood.  Like the rest of contemporary America, Hollywood is plagued by the forces of corporate capitalism run amok.

But it’s more than that.  Our kids have too much discretionary income, not enough homework, and too little parental supervision.  No wonder they flock to the multiplex to experience the latest movie version of a comic book.

The strange thing, though, is that – at the same time our movies are sinking into a slough of pubescent mindlessness – America is also experiencing a new “golden age” of television.  Whether via cable or streaming over the internet, we can now see some of the most intelligent, well-acted, adult entertainment ever produced.  Even the old broadcast networks occasionally get into the act, with smart, edgy shows like “The Good Wife.”

When you consider how recently television seemed awash in cheap, trashy “reality shows,” that’s remarkable.

Television’s present abundance owes a lot writers, show runners, and directors who – thirty years ago – came into contact with one of the great, pioneering TV shows of all time.

If you’re old enough, I could take you back to that show by playing three, slow notes on a piano.  One note, they one full tone down, then the first note again.  Repeat.

Mike Post’s unforgettable theme to “Hill Street Blues” – the seven-year series which brought NBC back from the financial brink and formed the capstone to the network’s original, Thursday night “Must-See-TV” lineup.

“Hill Street Blues” was an extraordinary departure when it first aired, in January, 1981 – five days before Ronald Reagan took the oath as President.  Prior to HSB, cop shows were essentially police procedurals – more or less dolled-up versions of “Dragnet.”   A crime was committed.  Cops gathered clues.  By episode’s end, the bad guy was or, sometimes, killed in a shootout.

Casts were small.  Interior sets were Spartan, but clean.  Street scenes were often dark, but seldom dirty.  

Our heroes, the cops, were clean-shaven, clean-living, and more or less neatly dressed.  If they had private lives at all, they were for off-duty hours.

We still have cop shows like that – from “Law & Order” to “CSI” to “NCIS.”  The cops are decent, hard-working people.  Their offices are relatively tidy.  Harsh realities are still mainly outside – on the street.

Not so on HSB.

The main interior set was teeming with life, permeated by the disorder of the streets.  Cops, clerical staff, public defenders, witnesses, and a steady stream of arrestees collided in the precinct’s large, but always over-crowded space.  

In an odd way, the HSB set was a mother of sets on “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom” – two Aaron Sorkin hits which owe a enormous debt to Stephen Bochco’s breakthrough style.  There’s a lot of plate glass, so a scene in the precinct captain’s office – which would, on most older shows, have been a bit claustrophobic – takes place against a background of constant, crowded activity.

Hill Street’s characters – featuring eleven principals, all played by relative unknowns – were rich, flawed, and complex.  Captain Furillo, the beau ideal of a leader is a recovering alcoholic with a difficult divorce.  The precinct’s tough guy, Mick Belker – a diminutive plain-clothes cop with a penchant for biting aggressive perps – must frequently interrupt booking a suspect to take a call from his worried, Jewish mother.

Plots didn’t wrap up neatly at the end of an hour.  Some story lines ran  through multiple episodes – others for whole seasons, or even longer.  We’re accustomed to such complex writing now, but in 1981, it was a risky departure.

“Hill Street Blues” brought inner-city poverty and crime into our living rooms and bedrooms.  The precinct’s cops dealt endlessly with gang rivalries, underage prostitution, domestic violence, and the pervasive curse of drugs.  

It was a harsh world which many Americans would rather have ignored.  On HSB, we couldn’t look away.  We cared too much.

“Hill Street Blues” is finally available on DVD in a single, well-produced, seven-season box set.  I bought it last week, and I’m already near the end of Season One.

I loved this show in the ‘80s.  What’s surprising is that – despite the big hair and lack of desktop computers and cell phones – it’s even better today.

And, at $130 from our friendly neighborhood e-tailer, it’s a bargain.

Consider watching a few episodes with a teenager who considers the latest Spiderman movie great entertainment.  What could it hurt?

Oh, and let’s be careful out there.


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