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Requiem For Best Tv 'Blues'


It's only a TV show, not Dickens.

Who's to say, though, that future generations will not look back on "Hill Street Blues" and other TV finery as true chroniclers of their times?

"Hill Street Blues" has been the TV show of the 1980s, the one that set the standard for NBC as the network of the decade, the one that also finally ran its course with Monday's announcement by MTM Enterprises that the 1986-87 season will be the show's last.

Its ratings have slipped. Even winding toward a May 12 finale in its seventh season, though, "Hill Street Blues" remains upper-echelon TV. So cancellation--before full decline sets in--is almost a happy occasion. Where is it written, anyway, that a successful series must be eternal, hanging on like an aging ballplayer or extended past its prime like "Saturday Night Live" or the 10th rehashing of "Rocky"?

There are good memories. "Hill Street Blues" is aired globally as part of the Americanization of world TV. So viewers everywhere now know Daniel J. Travanti as Capt. Frank Furillo, Veronica Hamel as Joyce Davenport, Michael Warren as Bobby Hill, Charles Haid as Andy Renko, the late Michael Conrad as Phil Esterhaus ("Be careful out there") and so on and so on through the list of charter and transient characters.

When you think about it, "Hill Street Blues" is not a bad image of America to present, if you value truthfulness. The urban America of "Hill Street Blues" can be scarred, ugly and cruelly unfair, but it's also trying to improve. Overbaked characters? Overcooked themes? You can quibble about the details, but not the essential honesty.

"Hill Street Blues" did not start out as "Hill Street Blues." Its Jan. 15, 1981 pilot--an astonishingly fine TV movie whose downbeat story showed that police could be instruments for social change--was initially named "Hill Street Station." But NBC wanted something sexier, like "Jungle Fuzz" or "The Blue Zoo," and finally went for "Hill Street Blues" only as a compromise.

So much of NBC's success in the 1980s is owed to Grant Tinker that it's sometimes overlooked that "Hill Street Blues" arrived at a time when NBC was still headed by the much-maligned Fred Silverman. Tinker was then still president of MTM, the company that produces "Hill Street Blues."

It's ironic that Silverman, who had given America such hot jiggle as "Charlie's Angels" while at ABC, should turn out to be the savior of Emmy-lavished "Hill Street Blues," whose ratings were initially so bad that its renewal for a second season was considered doubtful.

It has never been a true blockbuster. If other shows made better Nielsens, though, none made better conversation. That was thanks largely to Steven Bochco, who created the series with Michael Kozoll and was its executive producer until he was fired by MTM in 1985, allegedly for being impossibly demanding and incurring extraordinarily high production costs. Kozoll had left after the first season.

Labels like "good" or "bad" should be applied carefully. The definition of a "good" series is a series that you like. Yet "Hill Street Blues" will find plenty of support as the best police series ever.

It gave the genre a new look and texture: a first-rate ensemble cast in a blighted, Eastern ghetto setting whose dark, brooding melancholy was often relieved by a nervous, police-house humor.

Along with that excellent cast and Mike Post's haunting theme, it was the overlapping dialogue and hand-held cameras that became the "Hill Street Blues" signature. There was an undertone of peril, a feeling of always being unsettled and on the edge.

But unlike most other series that look good, style was the means for "Hill Street Blues," not the end. What really set "Hill Street Blues" apart was its writing and perspective. Crime was seen not as merely a chain of unrelated events but as a pattern of society, a condition so deep and profound that it often seemed to overwhelm the police characters of "Hill Street Blues" and even to shape their personal lives.

The show presented no easy answers, either in its approach to crime or for the personal relationships that layered and filled out its characters. As in real life, problems lingered and loose ends loosened.

Given the enormous obstacles in TV--the limitations of time, budget and talent--it takes luck and a sort of genius to create and sustain a series that excels and is not ordinary. The hat fits Bochco, who is now at 20th Century Fox producing the scintillating "L.A. Law" on NBC.

It's curious how things work out in TV. If not for "Hill Street Blues," there would not have been MTM's conceptually similar "St. Elsewhere." And Bochco would not have had the clout to get "L.A. Law" on the air. And Dennis Franz would not be making "Beverly Hills Buntz," an NBC pilot that spins off his cop character from "Hill Street Blues" as a private eye. Beverly Hills Buntz ?

Be careful out there.

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