By Cory Barker
Hill Street Blues
Season 2, Episodes 12 and 13: “Of Mouse and Man” and “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement”
Original airdates: Feb. 11, 1982 and Feb. 18, 1982
Previously on Hill Street Blues: Frank survives the Sullivan Commission, but only barely so. Super-dolt Captain Freedom parishes after butting his way into one too many crime scenes. Renko, Bobby and Belker work at a bar as part of an undercover assignment.
Folks, I’d like to tell you that I found another way to tie this week’s double-shot of Hill Street Blues together, as I have every week thus far. But, I have not. Sometimes—in fact, more often that not—episodes are not related. No reason to force the issue or make wide-ranging interpretations and evaluations that simply are not there.
The one thing that I will say is that after a string of episodes that were quite interrelated on the plot level, both “Of Mouse and Man” and “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement” are mostly standalone affairs. One or two threads carry over from “Mouse” to “Zen” but those threads are native to this pair, not the longer stories that played out over the previous three or four efforts. While I enjoy Hill Street Blues‘ work with serialized storytelling, the show tells quality singular, procedural-y stories as well. These episodes aren’t without problems but it is important to reinforce how elastic HSB can be with its stories, on both the macro and micro levels.
”Of Mouse and Men” is a really good episode of procedural television, yet, it also personifies both the best and worst of that storytelling form. From the beginning, we are clued in that this isn’t a “typical” episode of the show by one crucial detail: This is the first episode in season two (and I believe the whole series to this point) that doesn’t begin with a roll call sequence. Instead, “Mouse” starts on the dark, wet streets, with patrol cars everywhere. Frank arrives on the scene to identify a high-profile victim, public defender Pam Gilliam. Gilliam’s death causes a major stir at the station and beyond. As one of her closest friends, Joyce is quite the mess in the aftermath of Gilliam’s death. And because of both her position, race (black) and location of the crime (in Blood territory), Frank and the detectives wonder if the crime had a larger intent to it.
In a lot of ways, this murder creates the episode that I hoped the street gang murder/torture/robbery event in “The World According to Freedom” would spur on. Meaning, much of the episode’s best and meatiest material stems directly from that single event. It becomes a catalyst for Joyce to have an emotional breakdown and reconsider the validity and purpose of her job — and almost pushes her to quit. It reintroduces the setting’s dangerous gang problem and recontextualizes it a little with some racial concerns. And it creates a situation that requires some emphasis on police procedure in hopes of finding the murder weapon that is presumably hidden somewhere in gang territory. Some of these off-shoots of the initial event are given little more than surface mention or attention but doing so at all underscores how unfortunate Gilliam’s death was and how important it is to catch her killer.
Most impressively here is what the woman’s death does to Joyce. After spending much of this season listening to Frank complain about the stresses and inequalities of his job, this event forces Joyce to be the one to open up — and break down. Though I think the show has a slightly troublesome treatment of women, the characterization of Joyce doesn’t often fit into that problematic representation. She’s a strong, intelligent woman who regularly discusses how crucial her job is, both to her personally and society at large. And she’d prefer not to get too emotional (in fact, Frank’s often the more sensitive one in the relationship, which is a nice role reversal, especially for the early 1980s).
Therefore, her broken demeanor here is purposeful and that much more powerful. To this point, we’ve never seen her in such a demoralized state. The lack of makeup and let-down hair are nice touches but I especially liked how intensely calm Veronica Hamel’s performance began, making the character’s eventual explosion of emotion pretty powerful.
Moreover, the episode’s interest in exploring the effectiveness of public defenders and the legal system was handled very well. Joyce had her outburst and crisis of confidence that nicely mirrored the rant that Frank went on earlier in the season—dueling scenes that emphasize the hopeless nature of both of their jobs—but the script smartly added two different plots that required Frank to make deals in hopes of finding more information. So as we listen to Joyce breathlessly describe worthless her job can be letting criminals walk, the cops are forced to finagle those sorts of agreements just to make an arrest in the crime that has her so beaten down in the first place. Those parallels aren’t necessarily subtle but they speak to the unfortunate realities of trying to make real arrests and grab hold of “justice,” whatever that may be.
When the story continues into “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement” and Gilliam’s murderer is released on a technicality and there’s a suggestion that the cops screwed up the investigation, the hopelessness of all sides of the justice system is glorified. Criminals are on the street because lawyers on all sides try to protect their clients above all else, while the cops are, theoretically, trying to take down the biggest evils, resulting in more deals, pardons and sometimes even poor investigation decorum. The show positions the criminal’s release as a travesty and there’s no real question to whether he didn’t commit the crime he’s accused of, yet there is a prevailing feeling that no matter what anyone on any side does, these kind of thing is going to keep happening (and it will).
Thus far, this second season has in a lot of ways been about emphasizing that point, as simple as it may be, and pushing characters into corners where they have to get past that simple reality. Frank and Joyce have both wanted to quit, and only time will really tell how they recover. Goldblume had to go into the street and get his ass beat to feel like a real cop again. Belker watched an idiot like Captain Freedom die hopelessly trying to make the streets safer. Neal almost lost his badge because of a minor technicality when trying to put one of the city’s worst criminals behind bars. Most everyone has been pretty ineffective, but only because that’s the nature of their job.
Still though, “Of Mouse and Man” stumbles a bit because of the episode’s catalyst: Pam Gilliam. We’ve never heard of her before, so this episode requires a good deal of exposition explaining who she is, why she matters and more. The exposition isn’t awful or even bad, it’s just prevalent, particularly for a character that many people seem to have known relatively well. Simply put, the story would have been more effective had we known about Gilliam before. But that’s sort of the nature—and the challenge—of a procedural story. This episode does a sufficient job in moving through the exposition economically and paying Gilliam the correct amount of reverence but still, it could have been better.
“Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement” is a less successful episode than its predecessor, mostly because it doesn’t have that strong narrative and emotional through-line to power it. As I have discussed before, when the show crafts episodes with a half-dozen (or sometimes more) individual stories, the quality really depends on how many of those stories hit and how many miss. I’d say that there are more hits than misses in “Zen” but no story outside of the continuation of the Gilliam investigation is that powerful. On paper, there are a few good stories with long-term character consequences here: LaRue falls off the wagon and Renko struggles as Bobby spends more time with his fellow black officers. Unfortunately, the former isn’t given enough time within the episode and the latter, which carries over from “Mouse,” partially comes out of nowhere.
Ever since LaRue has gotten sober, I’ve been waiting for him to take a drink. That’s a sad admission but with television alcoholics, that’s really the big card the writers have to play. You make someone an alcoholic so that you can get them sober, only to pull them down again. In any event, LaRue has been a ticking time-bomb all season and I actually like how the show has handled it. At times when it seemed almost assured that he would drink, he didn’t, and in this episode, there isn’t some MAJOR event that drives him to actually take the plunge. That’s a realistic portrayal. It doesn’t take the death of your father or partner or losing your job to start drinking. When you’re an alcoholic, the danger is always there. But still, there weren’t enough scenes dedicated to this story. LaRue (and Washington) isn’t given enough to do on a regular basis but it is especially unfortunate that he still can’t make the A-plot when his defining story is playing out. Maybe that will change in the future, though.
Renko’s minor breakdown without Bobby is also solid in many ways. I love that Bobby is getting wrapped up some of the racial politics involved with being a cop—something that will hopefully create better, larger stories in the future—and Renko’s somewhat-childish reaction to losing the attention of his friend/almost caretaker is in-line with the character we’ve seen thus far. However, it was a bit odd to see Renko suddenly approach his sister and father, and learn all this about his family history. I understand that we can’t learn information if the show doesn’t present it to us and I appreciate the show’s attempts to make it seem like we’ve never seen or heard about these characters because Renko spends so much time with Bobby* but the scene between Renko and his father with the former screaming the latter about letting him down felt a little out of nowhere. It was well-acted by Charles Haid, and well-written but maybe rushed.
Despite those moderate-sized issues, both stories could pay off in the future. I have to imagine that LaRue’s descent will continue, as will Renko’s petulant outbursts without Bobby. However, I assumed that Belker would struggle in the aftermath of Captain Freedom’s death and the show didn’t explore that in either of these episodes, so who knows. Sometimes, stories exist for standalone, procedural means, I guess.
- Belker had a mouse in his pocket. Coffey accidentally killed it. Sometimes, this show’s humor is very amateurish.
- Goldblume spends these episodes dealing with a terrible and violent landlord, with the help of a young law student played by Edward James Olmos. It’s fine.
- This Week in Phil’s Sexual Exploits: The drought ends! Grace reappears in “Zen” and the two have a nice row over the sexual partners she had before him, which, apparently, included the Green Bay Packers offensive line. He’s not happy.
- This Week in Roll Call Gags: These seem to be running out steam. “Mouse” is lacking in the “gag” department thanks to the dread around Gilliam’s death and “Zen” phones it in with genital herpe and locker room fighting bits. Belker humps a punching bag. So.