Frost Fridays: Hill Street Blues

Without Hill Street Blues, there is no Twin Peaks.

That’s not only because Hill Street Blues had such a major impact on the police procedural TV genre, which Twin Peaks is heavily indebted to; or because Hill Street Blues was, like Twin Peaks, one of the first TV shows to receive such critical praise that it spawned decades of like-minded shows. The simple fact is that without Hill Street Blues, Mark Frost may never have been in a position to help create Twin Peaks in the first place.

Proto-Prestige TV

So what was Hill Street Blues? Well, in the hive-mind brevity that only Wikipedia can produce:

The show chronicled the lives of the staff of a single police station located on the fictional Hill Street [community], in an unnamed large city… Each episode featured a number of intertwined storylines, some of which were resolved within the episode, with others developing over a number of episodes throughout a season. The conflicts between the work lives and private lives of the individual characters were also large elements of storylines.

The show ran from 1981-87, but its gritty, dark representation of inner-city trials and tribulations owes a lot to the similarly-styled crime and thriller films of the 1970s. If you think of Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and Chinatown cleaned up enough for 80s broadcast TV, you’re on the right track. That 70s look and feel extends throughout the show, from the shooting style and lighting right down to the presentation of the characters. There’s little of the 80s neon, hair styles, or flashy outfits that came to define a contemporary show like Dynasty.

But for a show that owed so much to the previous decade, it was most known for its innovation. Tackling hard topics like drug abuse, domestic violence, police corruption, and the interplay between politics and life on the street, Hill Street Blues always presented a morally grey world where its characters were forced to choose between helping a bad person do a good thing, or punishing a good person for doing a bad thing. Allowing the personal lives of the police officers to come into play – especially as it concerned the captain of the precinct, Frank Furillo – added even more nuance and competing dynamics into the storylines. Compared to the cop shows that had come before, it presented a more realistic and therefore troubling picture of life for those who serve and protect.

It wasn’t just the storylines that innovated though. The use of handheld cameras (now made so ubiquitous by “reality-style” shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation) added a level of dynamism to the visual structure of the show. Similarly the precinct itself felt real thanks largely to the audio, where off-screen conversations could not just be heard, but sometimes overwhelmed what the characters on-screen were saying. The show, even by today’s elevated standards for TV, has a unique, eminently watchable energy to it, as if you were a fly on the wall for each early morning roll call:

All that innovation added up to a ton of critical accolades, even if audiences didn’t initially flock to the show in droves. The first season of Hill Street Blues won eight Emmy awards, which wasn’t bested until The West Wing in 1999. TV critics of the time roundly praised the show for not just its audio, visual, and storyline elements, but for the performance of its cast, which was large and diverse, and capable of providing bits of comedy gold amidst the usually heavy drama of the show.  But whereas the show did well with critics, TV audiences never quite warmed up to it the way they did for Dynasty. Though ratings were strong enough to keep the show around for seven seasons, the later years saw the departure of many of the show’s anchors, including co-creator Steven Bochco, who went on to create LA Law, NYPD Blue, Doogie Howser M.D., and even ABC’s West Wing competitor, Commander in Chief.

Bochco’s exit from the show left open the position of the chief story editor, or what we’d now call the “showrunner.” And into it stepped one Mark Frost.

The Early Contributions

Mark Frost hadn’t just walked up to the studio and been handed the reigns of one of NBC’s biggest critical successes though. He’d already been writing on the show since the third season. And in that time he’d developed a keen understanding of how the show worked and what made its characters tick.

After watching a few episodes of the early seasons to get a feel for the show, I watched Mark Frost’s first contribution from the third season, “Requiem for a Hairbag” and was struck by how well Frost connected the show with his own style.

The episode’s main storyline begins in media res, part of a much larger story arc involving a corrupt officer who’s died of an overdose, a political feud between a city councillor and the police commissioner, and Captain Furillo’s attempts to navigate all the crises while keeping his officers and his own career protected. In other words it’s an episode that’s deeply invested in the characters, stories, and atmosphere that the show has created.

But it also has some distinct touches that Mark Frost, and Twin Peaks, fans will recognize. At one point there’s a look inside of a safety deposit box, revealing illicit drugs and clues as to an unravelling mystery. There’s a funeral scene with a speech dedicated to the deceased where the rest of the cast is the actual focus. There are a few jokes that feel distinctly in line with the Mark Frost sense of humor that shows up in something like On The Air. And interwoven throughout are a few tender and quirky character moments not unlike a quick, coffee-and-pie focused conversation between Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman.

All of these identifiable Mark Frost touches weave seamlessly into the larger storyline, interacting and building upon the larger story. The episode is a testament to Frost’s well-tuned ability to step into a show, contribute to the showrunner’s vision, while adding his own personal touch.

Frost wrote three more episodes in that third season, before being promoted to “Story Editor” (an “associate showrunner” status) for season four, while also contributing to a number of stories and teleplays. This fourth season revealed more of Frost’s fingerprints, including a growing interest in the touchy social topics of the day. This included domestic violence, which showed up several times, and would eventually become an integral, if hidden, part of Twin Peaks.

The Frosty Years

For the start of season five, Frost was in as “Executive Story Editor” and the show was officially his to work with. Unfortunately Frost had been dealt a not so wonderful hand.

Michael Conrad, who played Sergeant Esterhaus, had died in the middle of season four. The imposing, tough-but-fair-minded Sergeant had seemed to embody the show’s dedication to balancing the positive and negative aspects of policework. His gravitas helped anchor the show’s moral viewpoint of trying to helping people but also, as the Sergeant made a point of saying every roll call, to be safe “out there.” While it’s unfair to hold a single character responsible with holding the glue of a series like Hill Street Blues together, for some Sgt. Esterhaus’ death signalled an end of the show as it was originally designed.

Season five, the only one in which Frost had this showrunner position, performed reasonably well with fans, pulling in about 16.6 million viewers a week – good enough for the 30th position in the Nielsen ratings – but struggled to reach the heights of earlier seasons. Compared to the “Requiem for a Hairbag” episode that started Frost’s run on the show, the episodes are a little less thrilling, a little more stilted, and a little more forced. Like many other shows entering later seasons, a bit of the impetus behind the show seemed to have faded by season five.

There are definite highlights showing Mark Frost’s strengths and abilities as both a storyteller and showrunner though. This includes a memorable episode “The Rise and Fall of Paul the Wall,” which balanced dark comedy (an overweight mobster dying in the police basement, forcing the entire team to come and lift him out), personal drama (one of the series’ stars, Detective Belker, is assaulted by a set of homeless people while undercover, driving him towards revenge), and nuanced investigation (a self-defence shooting that quickly evolves into a planned homicide). The script wasn’t written by Frost, and it doesn’t have much of his trademark dialogue or timing, but it’s a well-written, well-polished, and very fitting episode of the series. As a continuation of what creators Bochco and Michael Kozoll had in mind, it’s practically seamless.

Unfortunately not all of season five had such a clear connection to the original premise of the show. In the last episode of the season, Officers Hill and Renko are charged with escorting a bear around town. The bear, somehow outside a cage and standing next to school children for several minutes of the episode, is a mascot for the police force and part of a community outreach program. At one point it takes a bite out of a bystander and Officer Renko is forced to shoot the bear. It’s a silly, dramatically overdone storyline that is both intentionally and unintentionally funny. You get a sense that the original Hill Street Blues might have made a strong political statement on police outreach as public relations versus actual community policing. By this point though, the show is content to have a bear appear, and squeeze the audience for a few laughs along the way.

Twin Peaks fans might recognize this weakness as well from the second season, after Leland Palmer had died. As plot line after plot line was added, hoping something would stick, very little felt connected to the original core of the show. In both shows, the fault didn’t lie with Mark Frost, who as showrunner (and co-showrunner), had to juggle a number of internal and external forces on the shows, but the reaction in both seems similar: when all else fails, try to entertain with something goofy but accessible. For Twin Peaks, it was pine weasels. For Hill Street Blues, it was bears. Not being a TV writer myself though, it could just be part of the universal playbook for a show running short of ideas. Wildlife. As much wildlife as possible.

The Groundwork is Set

After season five, Mark Frost departed Hill Street Blues as a writer, and shortly thereafter, he first met David Lynch. Within a few years, they’d written the screenplay for One Saliva Bubble together, and then shortly thereafter, the script for what became Twin Peaks.

As I’ve already mentioned, quite a bit of the expertise Frost had developed on Hill Street Blues made its way into Twin Peaks. But perhaps more than anything, it had put him into the good books of TV executives. He’d worked his way up from writer to showrunner on a major, accomplished, and widely lauded TV series. And even if he hadn’t managed to halt the show’s decline, he’d been able to see it through with an eye for developing interesting characters, managing a writer’s room, and selecting some excellent scripts, like “The Rise and Fall of Paul the Wall”. That experience helped pave the way for ABC to greenlight Twin Peaks.

More than just impacting the production of Twin Peaks though, Hill Street Blues provided a ground work for future Mark Frost projects. Charles Haid, who played Officer Renko (he who shot the bear), appeared in a number of future Frost projects, including Storyville, and as a director on Buddy Faro. The courtroom scenes from Hill Street also formed the basis for future iterations in Storyville, and The Deadly Look of Love. Similar to how Eraserhead provided a good foundation for many of Lynch’s future works, so did Hill Street Blues give a good idea of what Mark Frost would do in the future.

So for those Twin Peaks fans who are looking for a way to learn more about the other half of Lynch/Frost productions, Hill Street Blues is an easy place to start. The show is fun, engaging, well-acted, and a tonal fit for fans of Twin Peaks. Best of all, for Americans at least, it’s easily accessible, as the entire show is available to stream on Hulu.

So do yourself a favor and check out this classic, genre-defining show. And hey, stay safe out there.


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