Sunday, January 13, 2008

Salute to TV writers: ‘Hill Street Blues’

Two shows made me want to write for television: “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere.” I studied them talmudically, ever since my college days. I’ve got every episode on tape.

With those drama series, I also started paying attention to the writing credits. And I became aware that “Hill Street Blues” drew its storytellers from the wider world of letters: Novelist Robert Crais, movie writer Walon Green, literature professor John Romano, magazine journalists Robert Ward and David Black, newspapermen Christian Williams and Terry Curtis Fox...

In my mind, the “Hill Street” offices must’ve been like a literary salon, with people sitting around discussing nuances of language and narrative.

Came to find out, the “Hill Street” writing offices were chaotic. The scripts were always behind schedule. Sometimes it got so bad that a boss would gather all the writers and say, “Okay, you write Act One, you write Act Two, you write Act Three, you write Act Four.”

Speaking of chaos... the chaos of the modern American city was one of the great narrative themes of “Hill Street Blues.”

I’m streaming a 2-minute audio clip from the very first scene of the very first episode. This kind of “roll call” scene would become a hallmark of the show, even after the passing of Michael Conrad, who portrayed Sgt. Phil Esterhaus.

But listen to this first one. Study how, in just a couple of pages of dialogue, Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll set a tone for the entire series, including its acidic sense of humor and its racial frankness.

Click here to hear it. As I said before, I’m streaming audio (not video) for a purpose: to put extra focus on the words. And on the writers who put them to paper.

This pilot episode – titled “Hill Street Station” – was originally broadcast on January 15, 1981. Bochco and Kozoll won an Emmy award for the script.


Brian Lindenmuth said...

I LOVE Ward.

Don't forget the Robert Ward was a novelist as well. He had written 4 of them before joining up with Hill Street Blues and has written 4 since. Last years Four Kinds of Rain was one of the best books that I read.

I interviewed him at that time and found him to be very generous with his answers.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thank you, Brian. And don't be so self-effacing... you could've linked to your Bob Ward interview. I wouldn't have minded. (Especially since these posts are all about celebrating TV writers.)

I didn't realize Ward was a Baltimore guy.

I missed my one chance to work with Ward. In 1995, after my first year out here, Ward called and offered me a freelance script on "New York Undercover." But I was tired and itching for a visit back East, so I passed.

I never did meet him in person.

DeAngelo Starnes said...

Taking time out from football to post this.

Dave, this a great, great service. To those who wrote the words, because I know they like that kind of shit, and those who wish to write.

Education like a mug.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ I appreciate that, DeAngelo. We should study this words, just like people study books.

offby1 said...

Interesting. I was utterly in love with "Hill Street Blues" when it first ran, but lately I've been afraid to revisit the shows -- afraid that they wouldn't be as good as I remembered. That's in contrast to "The Wire", which I am confident will hold up for decades.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ "Hill Street" holds up, big-time. I myself started to really get into the show in Season 3 (when Milch joined the writing staff). But Seasons 1 & 2 are the only ones on DVD... and they rock. They crackle.

Funny things is... they seem slow, pace-wise. Twenty-five years ago, "Hill Street" seemed to be bursting at the seams with stuff. Now, post-"ER"... I kept thinking, "Wow, they could've tightened that."

Anonymous said...

Dinner trivia. Milch and Anthony Yerkovich are from Buffalo, NY (as are Tom Fontana, Patrick Hasburgh, Alfonse Ruggiero, Diane English---and yours truly.)

So in the third and subsequent seasons, the writers so often used actual street names from Buffalo that our local media was convinced the show--which never specified the town it was set in--was based on the home of the Bills.

They've been running HSB on the American Life Network---right before LA Law.

And I am also a firm believer that television--which in its highest form IS a novel--needs to be shown in a DARKENED ROOM with THE PHONES OFF, to catch how really textured it is.

On a blog, with no visuals is a good start.

--Jorge Reyes

--Jorge Reyes

Andy said...

Interesting reading!

I am the webmaster for a Hill Street Blues website and as you can see, I still have to do a piece on the shows writers (amongst other things).

The website is my hobby and takes a lot of time to research (especially as I live in England) and so, I wonder if any of you more knowledgeable gentleman would be prepared to put together some words on the subject?

I am very happy to give credit; the trouble is so far I have had no other help to give credit too!

Regards Andy

Undercover Black Man said...

Milch and Anthony Yerkovich are from Buffalo, NY...

Yeah Jorge, the Buffalo connection is deep. Yerkovich, Milch and others opened a restaurant called the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica. Cool spot, great food, manly decor. I've seen celebrities in there. (Carol Burnett, Meg Ryan...)