In 1981, Hill Street Blues broke the mold of what the hour-long television drama could achieve. Creators Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll had a considerable amount of creative freedom to take Hill Street Blues wherever they wanted, and the direction they took the show involved a deeper and more emotional look into the stories they told and the characters they created. Bochco and Kozoll didn’t constrain themselves by having each episode tell a single story. Given the large ensemble of characters that Hill Street Blues had, the show naturally had a large collection of stories to go with them so Bochco and Kozoll experimented with how episodes could be structured. Hill Street Blues would become one of the pioneers of serial TV. Stories would no longer be confined to a single episode and could be expanded over multiple episodes, allowing for a deeper and more intimate exploration of themes and characters. The characters on Hill Street Blues had flaws and were battling serious, relatable, problems like divorce, alcoholism, and depression – the show didn’t focus on police officers, it focused on people who happened to be police officers. Hill Street Blues changed the way television shows could tell stories and in the following years, many shows would build on the elements of that made it so influential and create something equally influential and groundbreaking. In 1993, two cop dramas would air that would show the clear signs of Hill Street Blues’ influence, but would approach their material in different ways: Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue.
“Hey, ipsa this you prissy little bitch.” – Detective Sipowicz
Steven Bochco would also co-create NYPD Blue. As with Hill Street Blues, he desired the creative freedom to take the show where he wanted. He felt the network hour-long drama was fading, and the only way to rejuvenate it was to create a more mature kind of show. One that pushed at the edges of what a network drama could get away with in terms of violence, language, and sex. To create the show that would push these boundaries, Bochco teamed with David Milch, who he had previously worked with on Hill Street Blues, and who, in later seasons of the show, would become the showrunner. They would do such a good job that the show would be labeled by some as soft-core porn. But the show was a success and whatever controversy it created only added to its growing audience.
The first episode of NYPD Blue introduces us to David Caruso and Dennis Franz as NYPD detectives John Kelly and Andy Sipowicz, respectively. Both Caruso and Franz had appeared on Hill Street Blues several times throughout its run, Caruso as a gang member and Franz as two characters, Sal Benedetto and Norman Buntz. Here, Franz’ Sipowicz is an aggressive alcoholic who goes too far to try and arrest a mobster named Alphonse Giardella (Robert Costanzo in a wonderfully hammy performance). After being suspended, Sipowicz heads to the bar, and after downing a couple shots picks up a prostitute and they go to a hotel room. It turns out Giardella has set Sipowicz up and, roughly half way through the pilot episode, Andy Sipowicz gets shot multiple times. Of course, this is nothing new for Bochco, who had two main characters gunned down in the Hill Street Blues pilot episode. But while Sipowitcz is arguably the breakout character, the pilot focuses more on Caruso’s John Kelly – on his relationships with Sipowicz and his ex-wife, the start of his relationship with fellow officer Licalsi, his determination to avenge the attempted murder of Spiowicz. And the end of the episode suggests a complicated arc surrounding his character when it is revealed that Officer Licalsi has been ordered by the mob to kill Kelly. It’s an exciting hour of television, filled with violence, sex, complicated characters and conspiracies. It moves at a fast pace, and focuses heavily on emotion. But how does it compare to the pilot for Homicide: Life on the Street?
“The board. Open cases are in red. Closed cases are in black. You look up there you know exactly where you stand. About how many things in life can you say that?” – Al Giardello
Homicide: Life on the Street is inspired by Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, a book by Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon. Simon’s book details a year he spent shadowing the detectives of the Homicide Unit of the Baltimore Police Department, with several of the cases Simon detailed for his book being the inspiration for plots for Homicide (such as the murder of Adena Watson, introduced at the end of the pilot episode). Homicide provides a much more grounded and realistic look at a police procedural. While NYPD Blue is a larger-than-life, sensational look at police and detectives, Homicide feels smaller, more intimate and more human. Like NYPD Blue, Homicide utilizes a handheld directing style taken from Hill Street Blues. Unlike NYPD Blue, where the hand-held direction increased the high energy level, the technique made Homicide more grounded and realistic.
It is also a very dialogue-driven show, often showing detectives just talking to each other – talking about the mysteries of the universe such as the Lincoln assassination or why men always bring something to read when they go to the bathroom but women don’t or when did the Italians become the Italians. Homicide is exceptionally well written, and quite funny. And it doesn’t hurt that Homicide has an incredible ensemble of actors from Richard Belzer as John Munch, to Jon Polito as Steve Crosetti, to Ned Beatty as Stanley Bolander, to the fantastic Yaphet Kotto as Al Giardello. Of course, it would be Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton, who would become the show’s breakout star. And Kyle Secor plays Tim Bayliss, a newbie to the station, and as the episode ends, he gets his first case – the murder of a little girl.
Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue shows two different ways of approaching a police procedural. And these two shows are interesting in where they stand in their creator’s careers. David Milch would go on to work with HBO on such projects as Luck, John from Cincinnati, and the critically acclaimed, but tragically short-lived, Deadwood. And David Simon would also go on to work with HBO, creating such respected series as Treme, Show me a Hero, The Deuce, and The Wire, a show that many critics consider the greatest TV show of all time that has many similarities to Homicide. These two series are part of the stepping stones that lead us to the golden age of television that we find ourselves in now.