The ascension of the kings of television part one: Bochco and Kozoll’s Hill Street Blues

How did we get from Dallas to Deadwood? In a new three-part essay series, Paul of Chin Stroker VS Punter explores the evolution and role of the show-runner and how it paved the way for our ‘Golden Age of Television’.

The 1981 Hill Street Blues pilot was unlike any TV drama that had ever aired on US network television. Created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll the show elevated the tired genre of police procedural and created a quality drama model that pervades the industry to this day.

According to Professor Robert Thompson, “There is no Sopranos without Hill Street Blues,” who adds that creators Matt Weiner (Mad Men), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and David Chase (The Sopranos) should all “wake up every morning and send a thank you note” to that show. Here, I’ll explore some of the creative changes Bochco and Kozoll brought to television drama as well as the creative ‘new wave’ of quality drama Hill Street Blues ushered in, as well as the changes in how shows were marketed to and consumed by audiences as a result. Finally, by exploring the effect the work of Steven Bochco, David Milch and David Chase had on the industry, I’ll try to determine to what extent the ‘writer is king’ when it comes to quality drama.

Bochco had worked on shows like Ironside, Columbo and McMillan & Wife for Universal, so when a struggling NBC were looking for a writer for a new cop show they approached him with an offer. As Bochco himself said “I didn’t particularly want to do another cop show. Mike Kozoll didn’t particularly want to do another cop show. But [the Network] were insistent that that’s what they wanted. Michael and I agreed that we would do it on one condition: We’ll do this pilot for you on the condition that you’ll leave us completely alone to do whatever we want. And (the network) said ok.”

The pilot episode of Hill Street Blues was truly unlike anything on TV at the time, Bochco and Kozoll blended genres to craft something that felt fresh and unfamiliar. And in essentially creating what would become a new format/genre of televisual drama, it was no surprise they would take a season to find an audience (or rather take the audience a season to acclimatise to their new style). Procedural cop dramas and drama in general had always had the same basic format, with tropes audiences had come to recognise. This traditional ‘beginning, middle and end’ self-contained episodic format allowed for easy-to-distinguish ‘black hat’ and ‘white hat’ characters – and audiences accepted ‘bad guys were bad’ and ‘good guys were good’ just… well, because. These two dimensional characters inhabited worlds where the good guys (usually, if not wholly white males) were faultless bastions of virtue and the criminals were all simply born bad. Their tales were resolved within a single episode and then forgotten with no enrichment of character or consequence.

Hill Street Blues changed all these tropes and more, combining crime drama genre with soap opera, and mixing in some comedy to further subvert the TV drama rules – to create something brand new. “We did stuff in that show I’d never seen before anywhere. We stuck intensely powerful melodrama side by side with almost slapstick farcical fall-down clowning. It took audiences a full year to figure out what the hell we were doing,” said Bochco. It wasn’t just the genre hybridisation Bochco and Kozoll brought to the table but well written, believable characters with multiple motivations for their actions. The cops were fallible human beings that didn’t always crack their cases and the criminals were often driven to crime due to social issues rather than being ‘evil for the sake of it’. The producer of The Americans Joe Fields said: “What was so remarkable was that Steven Bochco created a cop drama that was about characters instead of police work, about the human condition instead of the procedural elements that had been the hallmarks of television police shows up to that point.”

In addition to the mix of genres and better developed, three dimensional characters, Hill Street Blues gave audiences a new and more cinematic style of television. And, most importantly, the narrative was serialised so that stories could overlap and continue over several episodes – if not for whole seasons. In Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, Glen Creeber notes that what Hill Street Blues did, was create a more dramatic texture for television that offered greater character diversity and more variable tone. “Going even further than soaps,” he adds, “many of the narrative strands were left open to be taken up in later episodes whilst others simply trailed off unresolved. Thus Hill Street achieved its dense textures and lack of resolution to difficult problems for an audience who sensed the complexity of things in the historical world.”

This new type of serialised television would go on to dominate our television channels and, in later years, define our multi-platform viewing habits. In addition, it would help push shows that were driven by a writer/creator – and make them household names in the process.

Read part two: LA Lawyers, gangsters in crisis and the HBO boom