In the beginning, there was "Hill Street Blues." The groundbreaking series that debuted in 1981 wasn't the first hourlong program on TV, but it did herald the dawn of a new television era. Nominally a cop show, set in an inner-city precinct in either an unnamed Eastern metropolis or one of the circles of hell, "Hill Street" was as different from a standard police procedural as "The Mickey Mouse Club."
"Hill Street" wasn't just a drama, nor could it be labeled a comedy. Week after week for seven seasons, it was its own manic hybrid, a dramedy that simultaneously raised the bar for serious storytelling and bulldozed the barrier that kept funny stuff separate. Situation comedies like "MASH," "The Days & Nights of Molly Dodd," and "Taxi" were altering the shape of TV comedy. "Hill Street Blues" would do that for drama.
Twenty years later, at a time when "Survivor's" return and the birth of its ugly stepchildren, "Temptation Island" and "The Mole," will be attended by a tsunami of hype, examining "Hill Street" might seem like an exercise in nostalgia. It isn't. The dramedy has matured as a genre and expanded as a pop cultural phenomenon, so much so that understanding it is a key to television's real survival.
When the dust settles and all the islands have washed away, the audience will surely tire of the contrived situations of so-called reality TV. Then they'll turn, as they have consistently, to dramedies that present existence burnished by a skilled storyteller. The princes of television are the writers, who cite a variety of influences. The reasons dramedies have endured are what makes Dickens still a great read: Good stories, well-told, peopled by complex characters, are irresistible. While attention-grabbing fads come and go, a rare, ticklish breed of programs that audiences make weekly appointments with keeps ticking, beating so steadily that it has come to seem like prime time's telltale heart.
Just picture that heart as a bit cracked. The '90s were the age of irony, when every human experience became a New Yorker cartoon. Stuff happens (popularly expressed in a cruder way) became a bumper sticker, a T-shirt slogan, a worldview. Guided by this mantra, Americans took what in another era would have been a presidential crisis and decided to enjoy it as a dirty joke. As the quipsters who ruled late-night television judged everything grist for satire, "American Beauty"--a movie that somehow found the wickedly funny side of adultery, suicide, voyeurism and materialism--was chosen best picture of the year.
Of course, dramedies are thriving. By already seeing the world as sometimes sad, sometimes laughable, they were ahead of a perceptual shift that came to that big, noisy, population bump, the baby boomers, as they matured. With insight that could be summed up as, "don't sweat the small stuff," someone who's survived four decades learns to find life's vicissitudes somewhat ridiculous. Television that can stir the emotions but knows when to wink is ideal for today's wizened audience.
"Hill Street Blues' " innovations were many, including jumpy camera work, overlapping dialogue and story resolutions as melancholy as its soundtrack. Among its startling departures from the conventional episodic shows that preceded it was a skillful blend of drama with bizarre humor.
On the mean streets around the Hill Street station, citizens were shot at and raped, robbed and held at knifepoint. In the midst of this major mayhem bloomed Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), a detective with a bum's wardrobe. (Was he working undercover or did he just enjoy looking and smelling that way?) When displeased, he'd crouch on his haunches and growl like an angry yard dog. Within the perfectly mad universe of equally odd yet believable characters writer-producer Steven Bochco created, Belker was foxy, a little dangerous, possibly crazy and hilarious.
The juxtaposition of the tragic and comic continues to surface in new television shows and be refined in established ones, yet the dramedy remains a black art, as valuable as gold in the hands of alchemists like "The West Wing's" Aaron Sorkin, so over the top in the work of David E. Kelley on "Ally McBeal" that it's proven capable of spawning its own mutants.
The more we see of TV's seriocomic cocktails, the louder are the echoes of other voices, other media. With the luxury of more time and space, and without the tyrannical structure that forces a mini-climax before each commercial break, a number of contemporary novelists have built critical and popular followings telling tales that range from sorrowful to silly. Anne Tyler has done it, as have T.C. Boyle and Larry McMurtry. But the master of prose dramedy is, arguably, John Irving.