Surveillance Summer Watch: Hill Street Blues, “Film at Eleven” and “Choice Cut”

This is the newest post in 2011′s Surveillance Summer Watch series featuring Cheers and Hill Street Blues. For the next couple of months, I’ll be writing weekly reviews of episodes from each series’ first seasons, with Cheers on Tuesdays and Hill Street Blues on Thursdays. For more information, see this post and for all the SSW piecesvisit this page.

This week, I have a few unconnected things to talk about in regards to the latest two episodes of Hill Street Blues. There is really no reason in trying to convince you that I have major thematic concerns to consider. Let’s just talk about some television, why don’t we?

Regular and drastic tonal changes are really tricky. Bouncing from gritty, intense personal drama to somewhat absurdist comedy isn’t that easy to pull off and in the first few episodes of Hill Street Blues, it seemed like the series wasn’t doing so. Episodes two and three felt particularly problematic in their use of comedy, which led me to write that the series was trying a bit too hard. After making it through episodes six and seven this week, it seems like those early issues were more reflective of the typical problems that plague the initial post-pilot offerings and less part of a consistent pattern of awkward tonal clashes. Last week’s episodes were a bit more straightforward and dramatic, but both “Film at Eleven” and “Choice Cut” feature a number of truly funny moments that are followed up by heavy dramatic scenes.

“Film at Eleven” spends a lot of time discussing a possible criminal suspect who is referred to as “the vampire.” Throughout the running time, characters make light of this guy’s weird alleged desire to bite people. Even the generally stoic and humorous Frank gets in on the action, especially once Joyce decides that she’s going to represent the vampire. It’s really kind of odd for the first 45 minutes or so and then right at the end of the episode, it is revealed that the vampire has hanged himself in  his cell. Out of the blue, he’s dead. The jokes stop, but no one seems particularly upset or apologetic for what they said, even if they are shocked by what just happened.

Meanwhile, “Choice Cut” is sort of the inverse of “Film at Eleven.” The primary thrust of the episode is traditionally dramatic because there’s yet another hostage situation happening.* While Frank spends a lot of time and energy trying to talk the young Hector out of killing hostages and keeping Howard Hunter from using all sorts of Russian weapons to stop the “crisis,” the rest of the cast is morphing around the outskirts of the hostage talks, doing goofy crap like stealing massive piles of meat from one another. Because oh yeah, the hostage situation takes place in a grocery store. Hector brings the hostages into the meat cooler — which, as a grocery store employee, isn’t as cold as this episode makes it out to be, but that is neither here nor there — and then requests coats. Moreover, there’s a scene near the midpoint of the episode that features Renko picking apart a pig (I think it’s a pig, anyway) while Bobby looks along in somewhat disbelief. Later, LaRue and Washington still this big piece of meat. WHY NOT? “Choice Cut” also features

*I don’t want to continue to take the series to task for the “originality” charge, but this is the second time in the first seven episodes that the primary procedural element is a hostage situation. Both of them are well-played, sufficiently intense and generally interesting, but it’s definitely something to point out. This criticism doesn’t feel like a product of time, as I imagine audiences in 1981 would have been well-versed in the narrative conceits that come with hostage drama. HOWEVER, I guess one could argue that the series’ use of the hostage situation twice in seven episodes is a reflection of how dangerous this unnamed city is. There are stick-ups and hostage-takings all the time! 

Oddly, I think these two tonal differences work better than the instances in previous episodes because they’re so disparate. Episodes two and three weren’t particularly dramatic or particularly funny. But a suspect nicknamed the vampire and Renko picking apart a sizable pig in a meat cooler are relatively hilarious, just as the vampire hanging himself is relatively sad. The more overt tension between the two tones, the better, at least in Hill Street Blues‘ case.

Additionally, these moments seem to flow more naturally from the characters than the gags in the second and third episodes. I like Belker, but he was completely unhinged in those early episodes (he’s much better now). Hunter is still a super-broad character, but at least he’s believable in his broad-ness. Otherwise, the running jokes about the vampire seem like they’d pop up pretty quickly in the police station, just as Renko’s meat-loving ways feel realistic for the circumstances he found himself in. I could totally buy that police officers, especially in the early 1980s, would crack jokes at the vampire’s expense and make time to eat some choice cuts when stuck standing around doing nothing at a stand-off. Although these moments are meant to be comic relief, they actually give us a nice look into the lives of a police officer. It can be monotonous and sometimes the only way to mix things up is steal big hunks of meat from one another at a grocery store hostage situation.

The other primary thing I wanted to talk about this week is the series’ use of ongoing plots. I think it is safe to argue that the biggest development of the pilot episode was Renko and Bobby being shot, but the series has been very resourceful in letting the aftermath of the shooting play out. Episode two nicely explored Renko and Bobby’s damaged psyches and temporary desire to not be partners anymore, but then suddenly in “Film at Eleven,” there’s a possibility of discovering who actually shot them in the first place. I have to imagine that 1981 audiences assumed that the shooing plot was over and frankly, so did I. My assumption was that the fact that the force didn’t find Renko and Bobby’s shooter was kind of the point. This is a dangerous, difficult neighborhood, cases don’t get solved, etc.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the developments in these two episodes are bad. I really liked how the entire precinct tries to protect Renko and Bobby from the truth in “Film at Eleven,” as it really went a long way in showing the kind of respect and admiration everyone has for the two of them. They wanted to get it right before bringing Renko and Bobby into the room. And then came the line-up sequence, which is one of my favorite things the series has done thus far. Charles Haid’s performance in the moment that he *supposedly* recognized his shooter was just wonderful. But even after all of that, Hill Street Blues wasn’t done with the story. In “Choice Cut” there are rumblings that maybe Renko was wrong in his identification of his would-be murderer, which only further complicates the case and the character.

No matter how the story plays out, I’ve really enjoyed how the series’ has handled it. Although Bochco and Kozoll admitted that they didn’t want to bring either character back in the first place, they’ve done a nice job of making the consequences of Renko and Bobby’s shooting a dominant, but not overbearing element in these opening episodes. This is a great example of serialized storytelling within the procedural format, which surely seemed a bit crazy to viewers — and network executives — in 1981. A lesser series would have built a traditional “special episode” around it and then moved on. Here, the pain lingers and the questions do too. Good stuff.

Similarly, these two episodes have a running story connecting them together in the TV documentary coverage. Interestingly, the TV crew’s placement within these episodes isn’t actually that integral to the story or altering to the visuals of the series. Nine times out of 10, when a series uses the “documentary film about the characters” gimmick, the episode is then presented through the documentarian’s eyes. But there is none of that here, perhaps because the shooting style of Hill Street Blues is frantic and loose anyway, or perhaps just because the series wanted to be different. And again, the TV crew doesn’t even play that much of a role in the episodes either. They are around, they cause a few problems, but there’s no big pay-0ff. I guess that is both intriguing and disappointing. I’d suggest that “being different” isn’t a good enough reason to blow off the crew’s presence, but I’m not really sure I wanted to see an ER-style episode from the eyes of the TV crew anyway. So expectations subverted and not especially upset.

Because of the nice tonal changes and the focus on Renko and Bobby, I think these are my two favorite post-pilot episodes. This episodes are probably a bit more plot-heavy than the more character-centric episodes of last week, but they go together well. After all four, it feels like HSB is really finding its rhythm, both with plot mechanics and character development. I’m excited to see where it goes from here.

Other thoughts:

  • After lots of time in the spotlight in last week’s episodes, Phil, Lucy, Goldblum and LaRue are less central here. Also, I thought Lucy was attacked at the end of “Double Jeopardy?” Huh.
  • Wikipedia tells me that there is some pay-off with the documentary crew in episode nine, so I guess I’ll be talking about the overall purpose next week.
  • After seven episodes, I think Renko and Bobby are my favorite characters. Individually, they’re fine, but as duo, they really pop. After that, I like Phil, Frank and Belker, in some order. Howard Hunter still bothers me, but I think that’s probably the point.

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