Season One’s 17 episodes set the template for what was to unfold over the series’ seven seasons; they offered a deft mix of comedy and drama, flawed characters dealing with issues like alcoholism, loneliness, divorce and prejudice, and an encompassing portrait of an American city fully as rich as any offered on television – or in any other medium for that matter. Hill Street Blues also boasted one of TV ‘s best theme songs, in the days when those were standard on all shows, in Mike Post’s melancholy and bouncy concoction.
Only the first two seasons have been released on DVD thus far; ostensibly the others won’t follow because of poor sales, which would be a shame, because season three, when writer David Milch (Deadwood) joined the series is fully as good as the first two seasons. (After its stellar first three seasons, the show became somewhat calcified and mostly backed away from taking chances with its characters but it never became uninteresting.) The show was also unique in what it did with its myriad characters in terms of its sharp storylines, which often ventured where no cop show had gone before. African American cop Bobby Hill (Robert Warren) had to deal with his partner’s Renko’s prejudicial attitudes when he dated a white woman; later on Hill got involved in police politics when he took on the role of union representative for his fellow black cops, who had specific grievances related to their race and their 'place' in the precinct's pecking order. In one key episode, and pretty much the only one where Lieutenant Ray Calletano ( the late René Enríquez) was featured so prominently, Calletano lambasted the audience at an awards dinner in his honour for lumping him in with his fellow Latins, assuming he was Puerto Rican or Mexican when he was actually Columbian. In another episode, early in season one, Belker had to deal with an anti – Semitic cop who had it in for him. And one groundbreaking episode dealt with a cop, who was witness to a mass murder in a gay bar and had to decide if the price of fingering the killers was worth coming out and essentially destroying his career, not to mention losing his wife and son. I can’t recall, until The Shieldaired, any show before Hill Street Blues, which was so aware of its characters’ racial, ethnic and religious differences, even within groups. That’s something that plays a larger role in American life, even post – Barack Obama, than is commonly admitted.
Hill Street Blues also offered some terrific actors a chance to shine in the series, including Jennifer Tilly as a gangster’s moll, Ally Sheedy as a sexy schoolgirl and Jeffrey Tambor as a cross dressing judge. (It was in later in the show’s run that Dennis Franz guested on the show, in two very different cop roles, a prelude to his famous turn as Andy Sipowicz on Steve Bochco’s overly flashy and less impressive follow up cop series NYPD Blue.) .
The show’s critical acclaim is also one reason that NBC renewed the low rated series for a second season and a timely reminder that, back in 1981, ratings were not the be all and end all of things, unlike today where shows get yanked after one or two episodes if the numbers are not deemed high enough by the network suits. In fact, Hill Street Blues was not only the lowest rated pilot episode ever picked up by a network to that date, it was renewed for a second season even after finishing 89th out of 99 shows, mainly because NBC head Fred Silverman liked the show. Today it wouldn’t stand a chance.