''Ten-thirteen'' is the police-radio code for ''assist patrolman.'' Too bad there isn't a signal for ''assist writers,'' because ''Hill Street Blues'' needs help badly.
That's what Tom Buckley wrote in the New York Times when the TV cop show Hill Street Blues premiered in January 1981. Here's some more of his brief review...
An effort has been made to achieve a sense of gritty reality with tight hand-held camera shots, garish lighting and the technique used by Robert Altman of having the characters frequently step on one another's dialogue, further confusing an already choppy script.
Most - all? - critics vehemently disagreed with Mr. Buckley, which caused the show to attract a cult following, get renewed for a second season despite very low ratings, set the record for most Emmy nominations in TV history, and begin its second season with a respectable position on the Nielsen chart. (Though its ratings improved, the show never finished a season in the top twenty.)
I recall watching the first episode of Hill Street Blues thirteen months into the 1980s. I had expected to see a run-of-the-mill '70s-style cop show with predictable dialogue, cookie-cutter car chases, shootouts you could set your watch to, and scantily-clad women, backed by some loud, obnoxious theme song. Instead there was witty dialogue (kind of half David Mamet – half James L. Brooks), the occasional car chase, shootouts you didn't see coming, and a cast primarily comprised of people who look like they work at a police station, not on a police show. Another offbeat touch was a melodic, jazz-influenced theme song by Mike Post.
Hill Street Blues was born – conceived? - when producers Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll were approached by NBC to make a cop show - but they didn't want to make a cop show, so the trade-off with the network was for more artistic control. The show takes place in the Hill Street precinct, which is the most crime-ridden area of the city. The name of the city is never revealed, though. If you did some police work of your own - references to the coasts, cars driving toward Interstate 90, and television station call letters that begin with a W imply it takes place in the Rust Belt, somewhere around Chicago or Detroit. Steven Bochco attended college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, home of a run-down district known as The Hill, which might have had an influence on the show.
In June of this year, right around the time I started binge-watching reruns of the show online, CNN asked a panel of television critics and college professors (who study media) a question. They wanted to know what the most influential TV show of all time was. Most of the intelligentsia asked said it was Hill Street Blues, because it paved the way for realistic (note: not reality) shows that appeared later (almost all on cable). Programs like St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Breaking Bad. These shows were also influenced by the Hill Street Blues model of multiple, overlapping storylines that last several episodes, as opposed to the traditional one hour story where everything gets neatly wrapped up at the end. Today's cable shows don't have to filter their language like the '80s trendsetter did (“Sit down, hairball!” “Book this piece of dirt.” “What are you looking at, dirtbag?” “Stupid jerk!”) Despite language restrictions, the show has held up remarkably well. The only times it feels out of date is when its characters answer pagers, talk on pay phones, and read newspapers.
Surprisingly, despite the fine quality of the performances, no Hill Street Blues cast member went on to success after the show ended. Two possible exceptions might be Betty Thomas, who directed films such as The Brady Bunch Movie and Private Parts, as well as Dennis Franz, who was a regular on Steven Bochco's '90s cop show, NYPD Blue. Some guest stars did go on to notoriety, though (Mimi Rogers, Lauren Holly, Frances McDormand, Ron Silver, and Forest Whitaker to name a few).
David Caruso occasionally appeared as the leader of the Shamrocks, an Irish street gang. I prefer those quirky performances to his later work (a tough but sensitive cop on NYPD Blue and a Dirty Harry-wannabe on CSI: Miami).
Some people writing online about Hill Street Blues have claimed that the show's quality went downhill in its later seasons. Personally, after watching almost all the episodes (sans Season 4 and the latter half of Season 5, which weren't available) I'd say that's true with a small “t”. Seasons 2 and 3 seem to be the best ones, and were the two seasons I followed the show faithfully. The reason I stopped watching the program consistently in its later years was that I wasn't as intrigued by it, as the novelty had worn off. The quality was still great, though.
Submitted for your approval (wait, wrong show). I mean, previously on Hill Street Blues...
This episode is from Season 2. It marks the debut of the Captain Freedom character...
The World According to Freedom
A few episodes later, this is the final chapter of the Captain Freedom storyline. From what I've seen, it's the standout of the series...
Freedom's Last Stand
Dennis Franz joined the cast in the show's sixth season and injected some new life into the program. He played the dedicated, non-congenial, basically honest, but rule-breaking Detective Norman Buntz. (It was his second run on the show - in Season 3 he played a corrupt cop for a few episodes.) In the episode below, there's a scene that may be one of the most disturbing ever shown on regular broadcast TV. It's of Buntz's partner, Detective Rodriguez, begging for his life before being murdered. The link to this episode was recorded from an airing on Britain's Channel 4, which may explain why that scene is cut out (UK censors tend to edit violence the way US censors edit sex).
What Are Friends For?
The first three seasons of the series are on Hulu (after that, you have to go to the Wikipedia page for the list of Hill Street Blues episodes, then type the title of an episode into a search engine). As I mentioned before, Season 4 and the latter half of Season 5 aren't available in cyberspace – beware of sites that claim otherwise. The show's first two seasons were released on DVD, but due to poor sales the other five weren't.
Wikipedia Page for list of Hill Street Blues episodes
As mentioned earlier, no Hill Street Blues cast member enjoyed much success after the show ended in 1987. Not even Kiel Martin, who played shady detective J.D. LaRue. Before the show he almost beat Jon Voight for the lead role in Midnight Cowboy. After the show he ended up in this short-lived sitcom, Second Chance, on the fledgling Fox Network. (The show also stars a young Mathew Perry who later starred in Friends.) Here's the opening of the first episode. And yes, this 1987 sitcom correctly predicted that Muammar Gaddafi would die in 2011 (it was only three months off). Kiel Martin died in 1990 of lung cancer.
Here's an interesting blog article about Hill Street's captain, Daniel J. Travanti...
In the mid-eighties there was a one hit wonder who went by the moniker Stacey Q...
Then Stacey Q became a Buddhist and dropped out of the limelight. (Good for her).
A couple of years before her Madonna-esque hit, Two of Hearts, I had heard her on WLIR, the “New Wave” station in New York (well, Long Island). Her band was called SSQ, and they sounded like an updated version of Ellie Greenwich or the Ronettes. I liked it - here's the longer version of their song, Playback. The shorter version is better – punchier. I'm only linking to the longer version because of the video, which has a real early '80s New York feel to it. The video of the shorter version just has a picture of the band dressed in Devo-type outfits as the song plays.
Actually, this video of the longer version has scenes from the movie Liquid Sky. That movie was released around the same time this song came out. Ever seen it? It's about... I forgot. I think it's about a UFO that lands on the Empire State Building. And aliens make it so that every time people have an orgasm they disappear into thin air. I remember telling the plot to a boss I had years ago and she said, “I guess only men were disappearing.” (Must have been pre-Anita Hill office banter).
The film had a lot of heroin use in it, too. I think there was an actress in it who played both a man and a woman – 2 different characters. There's a scene where the man receives fellatio from the woman. A versatile performer.
Some critics voted Liquid Sky the worst movie ever made. It's kind of a punk version of Plan 9 from Outer Space, which most critics think is the worst movie ever made.
Okay, okay – enough of this. Here's SSQ...
SSQ (Stacey Q) Playback – (Long Version)
A forgotten song from a forgotten singer. We always cover what's hot here at the Herald.
What? Oh, all right...
So what if the Internet ruined my childhood dream of becoming a successful newspaper publisher? Who cares if it enables the government to keep tabs on every move we make? Who cares if it's made us all anti-social misfits who block real life out and are hypnotized by our smart phones?
It enabled me to find out what obscure band from the late '80's had a song I heard on the radio once - 25 years ago - that had the lyric, “She's from New Jersey – she wants to be an actress”...
(Actually, this song sounds like something that Dieter from Sprockets would listen to. Remember that Mike Meyers character, the host of a pretentiously arty German television show from Saturday Night Live?)
Death and Life in Nob Hill:
From July's short-lived revival of the Herald newsletter, so it's old news if you're reading it here: Lynn at Nitecap told me she's closing its doors in mid-September. She was thinking of having the last day on Friday the 13th, but everyone would have to stand as all the chairs would be gone by then. I suggested she make it really dramatic and have it on 9-11. She decided to have it on September 12 (the birthday of SF Herald writer Ace Backwords, though that wasn't the reason she chose the date). Come on down and say goodbye to 20 years of San Francisco's best dive bar. Located on O'Farrell at Hyde.
Oliver Nisch informs me that his Italian-style Iron and Steam Espresso Bar opened in late July in the front window of the Hi-Lo Club (which itself opened a little over a year ago). He says the focal point of the espresso bar is a fully restored Gaggia lever machine from 1954, which uses beans from Chromatic Coffee in San Jose. Decaf available. Oliver's at 1423 Polk Street, not far from Moka Coffee, which replaced Royal Ground Coffee about a year ago.
In early September I heard a guy named Mark Liebovich being interviewed on the radio about a new book he's written called This Town, which is about how corrupt Washington D.C. has become. His name rang a bell. Then I realized he was a writer for the San Jose Mercury News who wrote a 1997 article about the Silicon Valley Review, which was a 'zine I published before the San Francisco Herald. As it turns out, he's now the New York Times Magazine's Chief National Correspondent. Good for him. He was a nice, self-deprecating guy as I recall. Here's a recent interview with him...
One last song before we go: From 1993 (20 years ago!), here are British grunge rockers Adorable with their semi-hit Homeboy...
All right, one more song before we go. I think these grunge rockers were from Seattle. And I think I saw them open for Michael Penn (Sean's brother) at a free concert in Union Square (right near the St. Francis Hotel, where I was conceived – I was born nine months – in New York - after my parents' honeymoon in San Francisco). I think I did see them. And I think the lead singer went up to some chick who was standing next to me and started talking to her. Anyway, also from 1993 (I think), here are The Posies with Dream All Day... (Better song than video)...
OK. One more last song before we go. Wow – this one is almost 20 years old. It's from 1996, and doesn't even really qualify as a one hit wonder. I don't think it was quite a hit, but got some decent radio airplay for a week and then was gone. The singer appeared on The Tonight Show and showed Jay Leno some of her paintings, as she is an artist in addition to being a singer/songwriter. Guess who it is? Of course you didn't. Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Patti Rothberg performs Inside....
There's a reference to the movie Fear Strikes Out in the new Good Clean Fun comic. My comic is so sophisticated that you have to research things out before reading it. More info on that movie...
My old friend Ken Vollmer emailed me today to express his disbelief that it's been 40 years since the Pete Rose - Bud Harrelson Major League Baseball brawl.
That fight was terrible, though not as terrible as the acting in this furniture commercial featuring Pete and his trophy wife, Kiana Kim...
You have to hand it to old Pete, though. He was born in Cincinnati, was a hero for the Cincinnati Reds, and now does commercials for furniture stores in Cincinnati.
He really is Mr. Cincinnati. As loyal to that town as they come.
Well, except when he left the Reds to play for the Philadelphia Phillies because they offered him more money. But hey, nobody's perfect. Especially Pete.
Haven't cruised by God's Gym in Oakland for a while. I wonder if it still exists. I sent this picture to my godmother, Patricia (the one who doesn't want me to refer to her as my godmother, she wants me to call her “a friend”), and she wrote back: “I always knew God was in Oakland.”
R.I.P. - Cal Worthington.
When I was a kid, every year our family flew out of New York and landed in Los Angeles to visit Disneyland. And every year I remember watching LA TV and seeing Cal Worthington's used car commercials (featuring Cal in a cowboy hat telling viewers, “This is my dog, Spot” - but Spot was always a monkey, a pig, a bear – never a dog). Here's one of them...
In between New York and California, I spent a year in Oklahoma. And like yours truly, Cal Worthington did the old “Grapes of Wrath” thang and left Oklahoma to move to California. Except he had a lot more success out here than I did. Actually, unlike me, he was quite an impressive fellow...
We'll end this bit about Cal with an excerpt from Ken Levine's blog...
Cal was pretty much the last of our local TV pitchmen. All markets had them. They were colorful characters who sold everything from cars to carpeting. They wore outlandish costumes and had various shticks. There was some car dealer in Minneapolis whose tag line was, “Bring the wife so we can dicker.”
Of course, back in those days you had either the three networks or a few independent channels. There was no thousand channel universe. And how were these non-network stations going to fill 20 hours of programming every day? For the most part they did it with old movies. You could find John Wayne on at least one station at any given day and time. And sure enough, just when he was about to shoot the bad guy, there would be smiling Cal Worthington riding in on a pig. You don’t get that pleasure with Netflix.
Cal Worthington was 92 (I’m sure marked down from 98). He was an original and reminder of simpler more innocent times. R.I.P. Cal. Here’s a sample of his commercials (or should I say “Spots?”)
And finally, Haighteration.com is reporting that Jeremy Fish's Pink Bunny statue in the Lower Haight is being demolished to make way for a new CVS Pharmacy.
So long, Pink Bunny. We'll miss you.###
Update 9/1: Haighteration.com is reporting that someone stole the Pink Bunny in broad daylight before it could be demolished. Hoo-ray!!!!!!!!