Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Steven Bochco: Singin’ the Hill Street Blues

I can’t pretend I ever met the late Steven Bochco, who died last Sunday at the much-too-early age of 74. But I certainly saw him in action. Back in 1982, I was sent by Theatre Crafts magazine to look in on a hot new TV show, Hill Street Blues. This hour-long NBC dramatic series about daily life in an inner-city police precinct had made its debut in January 1981. At first it attracted few viewers, but by fall it had collected a record number of Emmy awards. Bochco, the series co-creator (as well as its frequent writer and producer) personally earned two 1981 Emmys, for Outstanding Drama Series and for scripting the premiere episode. Later he won additional prizes for such classic shows as L.A. Law and NYPD Blue.

Back in 1982, though, Bochco was still the new kid on the block. He was not the central figure in my magazine piece, which focused not on the show’s scripting but on its pioneering technical aspects. That’s why I hung out mostly with supervising producer Gregory Hoblit, who introduced me to the show’s editor, art director, and sound mixer. But in the halls of the Hill Street Blues production office, Bochco was very much in evidence. Still under 40, he was a lively (and live-wire) presence. When I arrived, there was a pick-up game of baseball going on in the narrow hallway, with Bochco a spirited participant. I quickly skedaddled to avoid being beaned. 

It was Greg Hoblit (who has gone on to have his own career as a producer and director) who clued me in to what made Hill Street Blues different from any cop show that had gone before. From week to week, a number of story strands played out simultaneously, with no tidy wrap-up at the end of the hour. This realistic approach also affected the show’s visual and auditory stylistics. Hoblit remembered being handed a pilot script “that in its very essence seemed to call for things being down and dirty and messy. It had a jumble of people—a boiling of cops and street people inside that precinct. It had colloquial dialogue, incomplete sentences, random thoughts, non-sequiturs. And out of that came an inclination to make the film look grimy, to make it look like a Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon.” That’s why the show’s cinematographic choices played up a gritty, grainy look. Hoblit said he’d told veteran cameraman William Cronjager that he wanted the film “to look like the negative had been rolled out on the deck in the morning and a truck had run over it, then stuck back in the camera and shot.” The result won the show one of its first eight Emmys. 

A distinctive sound design was also part of the mix. With its multiple overlapping of background tracks, Hill Street Blues was a constant hubbub of telephone calls both close and far away, along with police sirens, typewriters, and human voices. This cacophony made its point about the chaotic atmosphere of a big-city police station. And by avoiding time-consuming “shoe-leather” shots of actors crossing to a ringing telephone or walking from car to doorstep, the show’s editor was able to capture the action’s frenzied pace. 

I can’t resist ending with an amusing anecdote. In the Hill Street offices, I came upon the show’s young location manager, whom I recognized as a  UCLA graduate-student colleague of mine. When I mentioned his PhD in English literature, he motioned me to be silent. As he put it, if word got out, his reputation on the set would be ruined. 

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