Surveillance Summer Watch: Hill Street Blues, “I Never Promised You a Rose, Marvin” and “Fecund Hand Rose”

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 pieces, visit this page.

I really wish I had some big theme to discuss this week, but I just don’t. I’m not sure if it’s just the way I’m watching these episodes or how they were actually composed, but “I Never Promise You a Rose, Marvin” and “Fecund Hand Rose” don’t really go together or cover the exact same kind of bases. “I Never Promised” feels like a nice follow-up to last week’s second episode, “Life, Death, Eternity” and based on my Wikipedia-related research, “Fecund” seems like the catalyst for the season’s final narrative push. These two episodes conclude some stories and begin others, leading me to stress out over how I would write about them together. Not having seen the episodes beforehand, I guess I was bound to run into a problem like this.

The one dominant element in both of these episodes is Phil’s wedding to his 18-year old bride Cindy. I’ve probably said this before, but I find it kind of amazing that Hill Street Blues‘ most dominant love triangle involves two people in the early 50s and an 18-year old girl. Not to go all Chris Traeger on you, but that literally makes no sense based on the typical rules we apply to television. Nevertheless, Phil’s dueling relationships with Cindy and his older muse Grace have been really intriguing to follow for a number of reasons.

First of all, Michael Conrad is (was, I guess) a really weird performer that it is hard not to pay attention to him. I’ve noted his odd line delivery before, but he gets particularly flummoxed in his quiet ways when having to deal with the women in his life. There’s something inherently awkward about listening to a much older man talk about his 18-year old lover and those feelings are exacerbated further with Conrad’s performance. Secondly, I think the series’ writers made a smart move in keeping the younger girlfriend off-screen for so long. She makes her first appearance in “Fecund” when she’s walking down the aisle, but up until that moment, my mind was racing about what she could actually be like. Is she super-ugly? Does she have some terrible birth defect? What would compel her to date such an older man? By keeping her away from our eyesight and forcing us to rely only on Phil’s presumably rose-colored view of her, there was a chance for anything to happen. That was a really nice approach to take from Bochco and Kozoll.

One of the ongoing things I’ve tried to address is whether or not Hill Street Blues was/is actually “quality” or “different” from the kinds of television it followed and I’m curious about how this love triangle plays into that question. Love triangles inherently feel soapy in nature and in the past were often regulated to the kinds of genres that aren’t necessarily identified with the “quality” or “distinctive” moniker. This is of course certainly less true these days, as many “quality” programs like Lost or Battlestar Galactica had no issue with deploying some sort of multi-sided love situation. Because I am still unfamiliar with so much of television pre-Hill Street, it is impossible for me to say that the series was the first to integrate a love triangle into its more complex, complicated character development, but it certainly feels like that argument could be made.

This is particularly true because this love triangle is as weird as I mentioned. But at the same time, the beats of the issues between Phil and his two women are not that original or dissimilar from what we would see on a soap opera to begin with. As the one caught between two lovers, Phil has been repeatedly seen agonizing over which woman to choose and why. As his wedding to the younger Cindy draws nearer, he begins to have classic cold feet and has to turn to the bottle in hopes of feeling a bit better by the end of “I Never Promised.” “Fecund Hand Rose” feels very melodramatic and soapy, as Grace tries to seduce Phil in the roll call room by revealing her naked body to him. And later during the actual wedding, Grace appears near the doorway, causing Phil to be unable to say the magic words before ultimately succumbing to nerves, fear, confusion, etc. by passing out on the pew. “Fecund Hand Rose” is built entirely around the wedding. If you separated those beats from the rest of the series and put the ages of the characters more in line with one another, this love triangle would fit right in on The Young and The Restless or something. I honestly don’t mean that as a bad thing, I have no problem with Y & R.

If Phil’s lady problems are soap opera-esque, then Frank’s struggles with Howard Hunter are out of a workplace sitcom. I’ve mentioned before that some of the series’ characters often feel like they’re part of an entirely different kind of series all together and early in the season, the writers had some difficulty balancing those characters and the tonal transitions that came with them. Late in season one’s run, it feels like Bochco, Kozoll and the rest of the writing staff (and the actors, really) have managed to grab hold of the tone and characters like Howard. Last week’s “Gatorbait” was a glorious showcase for the character and his ability to seem like a short-sighted, shoot-first kind of lunkhead and that continues to be the case in “I Never Promise You a Rose, Marvin.”

He’s received his PANDA Urban Tank and the resulting mayhem he causes with it can not be underestimated. Watching Howard pitch his ideas for the PANDA to the the very-charmed police brass while Frank sits in with an exacerbated look on his face is lovely, but watching Howard bring the PANDA into the streets and subsequently destroy a citizen’s car, only then to have the PANDA stripped, gutted and dumped in the river is beyond awesome. Not only do these sequences reiterate the series’ positions that the police higher-ups are dysfunctionally inert and the city’s streets shockingly difficult to manage, but they also deliver a substantial comedic punch as well. This is an odd, probably bad comparison, but at times, the Howard-Frank relationship mirrors the Dwight-Jim dynamic from The Office. Though Frank doesn’t overtly play pranks on Howard, he stands idly by while Howard makes a massive fool of himself in his attempts to impress the bosses. Like I said, it feels like an oddball workplace sitcom — and a good one at that. Hill Street Blues might be a police procedural, but it succeeds because it can easily slip into other genres and approaches. Hill Street Blues manages to combine some really disciplined, slow storytelling and character work with these more overtly flashy and enjoyable stories. This balance between convention and invention is one of the series’ best qualities.

Other thoughts:

  • Frank officially loses any chance of a promotion in “I Never Promised,” but he doesn’t seem to care. He’s such a hero!
  • I couldn’t really find much room for it in the body paragraphs last week or this week, but LaRue’s laundromat/bar mash-up business plan is one of the best/worst of all time. It’s almost like Ryan’s WUFPH.COM — this series is The Office!
  • Dan Hedaya’s Macafee returns here, needing protection from the department he tried to screw over. The character is so sleezey, but so endearing in a way. I’m perplexed by him.
  • This just in: Fay Furillo still sucks.

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