Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Let's be careful out there

When you write the TV column at a newspaper, everyone in the newsroom wants to bend your ear about their favorite show. (And, in return, I'm always bugging our Knicks beat writer about starting a campaign to get Isiah Thomas fired.) Yesterday, I got hit up by a couple of "Grey's Anatomy" fans, who had loved the latest episode but still felt like Meredith is the least interesting character on the show. Marian and I finally got around to watching it last night, and I think this was one of the stronger ones of the season -- and Meredith was a big reason why. I've seen so many actors and actresses have award-baiting crying jags that I've become numb to them, but Meredith's freak-out in the supply closet was so well-played by Ellen Pompeo that it really got to me. Every now and then, she provides evidence for why she gets to have a show named after her.

Today's column was an easy one: a review of the "Hill Street Blues" DVD set and how one of the greatest dramas of all time hasn't aged that well. But even if most of it seems terribly cliched in light of all the shows that have imitated it over the last 25 years, there are so many great moments that I felt they deserved a list. In no particular order...

  • Two different breakdowns by J.D. LaRue, who was usually played for laughs but could slay you when things got serious. The first is after Harry Garibaldi gets murdered over his gambling problem, and J.D. starts destroying the men's room at the local bar because he knew Harry was in trouble and didn't do anything. I just remember him curled up in Washington's arms saying, "I'm not drinking, I'm not drinking, I'm not drinking..." The other was in one of the last episodes of the series. A perp tries to shoot LaRue in the face, but his gun misfires three times in a row. J.D. spends the rest of the episode on a comic high, but in the last scene, Neil finds him sitting alone in the locker room, crying because, "I almost died today, and I've got nobody to talk to about it."
  • At the end of David Milch's first episode, "Trial By Fury," Furillo bends the law severely to put away two thugs who raped and murdered a nun, and feels guilty enough about doing it to go to confession. (Ten years later, nobody on Milch's "NYPD Blue" would feel nearly that guilty about doing far worse to the Constitution.)
  • From the David Mamet episode: Officer McBride (Mamet's wife, Lindsay Crouse, whose inclusion in the episode was a prerequisite for Mamet taking Milch's dare to write it) is feeling troubled about killing an armed robber, until Norm Buntz gives a her a pep talk that compares her to a hero in a war.
  • More Dennis Franz, but in a different role: bad cop Sal Benedetto reaches the end of the road by taking hostages in a bank and killing himself while being videotapes by a police robot.
  • The death of the Pickpocket With Many Names. By this point in the series, it had become almost a joke that Belker was the Angel of Death, that anyone he got close to would die in his arms in the middle of the street (Captain Freedom, the gay informant). Still, I liked this scene because it brought an end to the series' best running gag by finally having the guy tell Mick has real name.
  • Speaking of running gags paying off: Buck Naked gets almost all the way through testifying as a prosecution witness when his need to expose himself gets the better of him.
  • The best Hill and Renko domestic disturbance scene of all time: the two have to find a way to get a cow out of an amateur butcher's top-floor apartment as the guy explains to them that cows "got no down genes!"
  • An old con Esterhaus put away as years ago is on the verge of getting out and starts sending the Sarge letters that seem threatening, but when the two meet up, he wants to hug Phil and thank him for turning his life around. One of the best early examples of how the show always tried to go against your expectations.
  • Five words: Vic Hitler, the Narcoleptic Comic.
  • Five more words: Jeffrey Tambor in a dress.

Any other "Hill Street" fans out there care to pipe in? This is just off the top of my head.

1 comment:

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

That Milch episode with the nun was the first episode of regular TV series I saw that actually shook me up and changed the way I looked at TV and life. I was truly, truly disturbed by it. I'd grown up watching 60s and 70s movies, so I wasn't unaccustomed to hard-hitting explorations of social problems (poverty, police brutality, Constitutional issues). But I didn't know that TV could go there in quite that way.

Sure, "All in the Family" and other Norman Lear series dealt in topical issues, but they were comedies, and the topical stuff was front and center; it was part of the reason people watched the show. The real revelation of "Hill Street" was that you could weave that material into an ensemble drama so that politics and sociology could not be separated from the characters and their plots. Other TV series had attempted this before -- "The Defenders" and "Police Story" come to mind -- but never so completely.