Hill Street Blues, the Show That Arrested the Decline of Tv, Finally Fades to Black

updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Hill Street Blues was a national IQ test. And America passed. This one show proved once and for all that we TV viewers are not (a) dumb, (b) uncouth, (c) lemmings or (d) all of the above. Hill Street Blues let us show the network bosses that we do have taste. Dammit.

The show changed television. And thank goodness it did. Hill Street created a new genre: a drama with comedy, a police show minus macho, a series that had the guts to let dialogue overlap and plots dangle—a series that let us figure things out for ourselves. Hill Street directly cleared the way for the latest darling of the critics, L.A. Law—both share Steven Bochco as a parent. But the show did much more. Oh, why not go all the way: Hill Street began the new Golden Age of television and opened the door for every courageous, quality show on the schedule—The Cosby Show, Moonlighting, Family Ties, Max Headroom, The Golden Girls, Miami Vice, St. Elsewhere....

How Hill Street did all that is a simple matter of economics. The series was born to mournful ratings on Jan. 15, 1981, but desperate, third-place NBC stuck by it under the rule of Fred Silverman and later under Grant Tinker. Finally, Hill Street rewarded NBC's gamble by rising in the ratings and attracting a class audience. Meanwhile, with help from a certain Mr. Cosby, NBC leapt to No. 1. And thus TV proved—to hell with H.L. Mencken—that you can go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

But soon the Hill will be history. On Tuesday, May 12 at 10 p.m. EDT—seven seasons, 147 episodes and 26 Emmy awards after they began—TV's finest will gather for their last roll call. There will be no neat and clean ending. Hill Street Isn't like that and neither's life. In an episode called It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, the station house burns but crime continues.

On that show, Dennis Franz as that slime-covered softie, Lt. Norman Buntz, will give Chief Daniels what he long has deserved: a hard punch. Norm will be fired but that's okay; he's headed West to be spun-off in Beverly Hills Buntz, a pilot produced by Hill Street's last bosses, Jeffrey Lewis and David Milch.

Others will fend for themselves. Daniel J. Travanti, who played Capt. Frank (Pizzaman) Furillo, the most moral man in America since Abe Lincoln, plans to make movies. His mate and the victim of beeper interruptus in many a bedroom scene, Veronica Hamel as Joyce (Counselor) Davenport, already is working on two TV movies. Kiel Martin—as John LaRue, the detective who could resist no booze, no bet and no bimbo—has a future in film. Bruce Weitz as Mick Belker, the cop who really took a bite out of crime, is working on a pilot for a series called Mama's Boy. Betty Thomas as Sgt. Lucy Bates has a pilot called Too Many Cooks. And James Sikking as that neurotic Rambo, Lt. Howard Hunter, has a pilot, too.

May the cast of Hill Street never suffer unemployment or typecasting. They're too good: Charles Haid as the drawling, whining Andy Renko. Michael Warren as his buddy Bobby Hill. Joe Spano as the touchy-feely Henry Goldblume. Barbara Bosson as Faye Furillo, every man's nightmare of an ex-wife. Rene Enriquez as the oversensitive Ray Calletano. Robert Prosky as that cuddly bowler, Sgt. Stan Jablonski. Taurean Blacque as the calm, cool, toothpick-chomping Neal Washington. Trinidad Silva as the wise gang-leader-turned-lawyer Jesus Martinez. Barbara Babcock as the loving and loose Grace Gardner. Ed Marinaro as good Joe Coffey. And the late Michael Conrad as Phil ("Let's be careful out there") Esterhaus. They were all so decent.

But waste no tears, sing no blues. Hill Street dies an honorable death. Maybe the show wasn't quite as good in its last seasons, after co-creator Bochco was fired, reportedly for spending too much money. Maybe we'd finally seen enough of even this great show. Or maybe we just need to laugh these days. "It was a wonderful seven years," Bochco told the world after the obits were in, "and it's time." True.

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