Does this new DVD box set capture the birth of modern TV drama? It's hard to imagine "NYPD Blue," "ER," "The Sopranos" or "Sons of Anarchy" without the creative freedom first charted by 1981-87 NBC sensation "Hill Street Blues."
Just pop the first of the 34 full-series discs (from Shout Factory) into your DVD player, and see it swirl -- this urban precinct house of teeming traffic, raucous crosstalk and general chaos. People come and go, joke and rage, flirt and fight. Uniformed officers corral suspects as undercover cops growl and bite (yes, bite), while a steely public defender insists her "pervert" client be called "alleged pervert."
And that's just the first 10 minutes.
TV had never seen such a churning atmosphere, not in '70s single-plot star-driven police shows such as "Kojak" and "Baretta." Those pre-cable days were more prone, anyway, to the escapist likes of "Charlie's Angels." So "Hill Street Blues" was a bomb exploding a tidy landscape. Its story threads continued week to week, through a sprawling ensemble cast and continuing guest stars. Adult humor mixed with crime horror. Euphemisms such as "hairbag" and "rat's bladder" spewed forth. Recording it all: hand-held cameras and mics whipping around like heads swirled by the cacophony.
Viewers learned to take it all in. Television learned to let it all hang out.
"How far can you go, how real can you make it?" recalls Charlie Haid, who played "Hill Street" cowboy cop Andy Renko, then started directing "Blues" descendants from "NYPD Blue" to "Breaking Bad." Haid would have artistic freedom because people like "Hill Street" creators Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll hadn't had it on shows such as CBS' 1976 "Delvecchio." They filled their new police precinct with "all the stuff that we had never been allowed to do before," Bochco recalls in the DVD set's bonus features. They got away with it because NBC was a floundering network, desperate to grab viewers' attention. "They hire you, at risk in a way, of your creativity, and they let you do it," as Haid describes by phone discussing the DVD release.
"I don't think 'Hill Street Blues,' as originally done, would be on network television now," Haid says. "We were not handsome enough to be on television. We were a bunch of mutts." Not always heroic mutts, either: Dennis Franz made his mark as a corrupt cop on "Hill Street" 10 years before "NYPD Blue" stardom. Look at the second episode: That's a baby-faced David Caruso, later Franz's "NYPD" partner, playing an Irish gang leader. His scene is simultaneously translated into Spanish at the precinct, the kind of messy overlap that TV had studiously avoided.
The premiere of "Hill Street Blues" doesn't neatly introduce itself. It just opens the door on a world already in progress, trusting us to make sense of it. It's hard to convey now how groundbreaking that was for TV in 1981 -- and how it influenced all that came after. "For me," Haid says, "the show gave me permission for the rest of my career to be as creative as we were then."
HILL STREET BLUES
Series After 1981's premiere of this character-laden precinct chronicle, cop shows would never be the same. But neither would TV drama itself -- thereafter more true-to-life in content and style, thanks to NBC's textured ensemble. Its seven seasons and 144 episodes made stars of Daniel J. Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Michael Warren, Bruce Weitz, Betty Thomas, Dennis Franz and, not least, co-creator Steven Bochco ("L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue") and writer David Milch ("NYPD Blue," "Deadwood").
Extras Hourlong series history packed with interviews and insight; writers' featurette; other bonus features retained from 2006 double-sided-DVD sets of Seasons 1 and 2 (cast reunion, commentaries). Plus, 24-page essay/episode guide booklet.
List price $200 for 34 discs (discounts to $130), out Tuesday from Shout