Hill Street Blues, from a time when I cared about such matters


Thanks to my friend Bluegill, this Hill Street Blues video retrospective was an hour well spent, and mind you, I don’t often have warm and fuzzies to heap on the pastime of television viewing.

This said, I’m forced to concede the impact this series had on me when I was in my early 20s, beginning during my final years in university, then through my first two European trips. More than anything else, working multiple part-time jobs hastened my deepening separation from the inert act of “watching” television.

My beloved M*A*S*H came to an end in 1983, but triage remained in order, so I’d set the VCR for Hill Street Blues, Cheers and the PBS weekly news recap called European Journal. Apart from documentary films about history, geography and politics, that’s about all the television I watched. Since the late 80s, the number of newly conceived series I’ve become attached such that I’ve seen more than a few episodes probably numbers fewer than a dozen, most of them British. To each their own; I prefer reading, and so it goes.

Still, Hill Street Blues was influential to me, even if I’m hard-pressed to explain exactly why; sheer quality, realism and the ensemble cast surely factor into it. Aren’t they enough? It probably says something about the state of my brain at the time that Kiel Martin’s sleaze ball J.D. LaRue was my favorite; an actor and a character, both battling demons.

I could go on and on, but won’t. Will I go back and watch these episodes again? Honestly, I’m not sure. By the end of the retrospective, melancholy gripped me. I haven’t always been good about separating art from life, and when the series first aired, my life was not at all to my liking. Seeing Phil Esterhaus, Joyce Davenport and Belker for the first time in decades brought me to a place of sepia and elegies. I could feel the black dog’s presence even as he stayed safely off screen. These days, I try to stay away from dark shadows. We’ll see.

Which reminds me: I believe Sgt. Jablonski’s tag line was as good as his deceased predecessor’s: “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”