Review: Hill Street Blues, “Blood Money” and “The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue”

HillStreetBluesTitleCard

By Cory Barker

Hill Street Blues
Season 2, Episodes 2 and 3: “Blood Money” and “The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue”
Original airdate: Nov. 5 and Nov. 12, 1981

Previously on Hill Street Blues: In the season two premiere, former gang leader Jesse John Hudson (guest star Danny Glover) returned to the area, claiming to be reformed — but Furillo, Belker and company don’t buy it. Phil hooks up with Grace again. Frank turns 40 and wants Joyce to commit to a real, long-term relationship and she unfortunately declines. 

One of the biggest challenges cop shows face is calibrating the characters’ emotional attachment to their work or the people they happen to interact with while doing it. Do the cops care too much about the job? Do they not care enough? What are the consequences of their investment? Oftentimes, shows attempt to have it both ways: Certain characters care too much, others too little. That dynamic is an easy way to evoke tension between characters, to do “special” episodes about That One Victim/Criminal The Detective Likes Just a Bit Too Much and toggle through disparate story types without much struggle. On an episode-by-episode basis, this is usually fine, but can sometimes look more problematic when we glance at a number of episodes at once (for example, it sometimes felt random when Stabler or Benson really cared about a particular case on SVU and outside of the cop drama, we saw this phenomenon with House and his patients for years). 

Unsurprisingly, Hill Street Blues does a better job than most at balancing the investment of its characters. This is helped by the fact that the show has a massive cast at different levels of the police hierarchy, thus giving them different shades and perspectives on the realities of the job. Yet at the same time, the show’s writing staff made a fairly visible effort to sketch out those dissimilar perspectives that also often relate back to larger stories that HSB tried to tell on a weekly clip. After watching just over 20 hours of the show, it’s apparent to me that Bochco, Kozoll and company wanted to explore what happens when cops care over an extended period of time, especially in such a decrepit, run-down neighborhood. However, those folks also obviously felt compelled to tell stories about how the overall damage done to the fictional area in which the Hill lies impacts the officers working there. That give-and-take relationship is paramount to the Hill Street Blues formula, and from what I’ve seen, a number of cop dramas that came afterward.  

The quality of the show’s execution of these kind of stories and themes is on full-display in the second and third episodes of season two, “Blood Money” and “The Last White Man on East Ferry Avenue.” The former is organized around characters who maybe care a little bit too much, while the latter focuses more on how the downtrodden state of the community influences both citizens and police officers to take harder, more cynical stances. Although these episodes have somewhat oppositional viewpoints on how one should perhaps do their job, neither is presented as more correct than the other. In fact, both philosophies are shown more in a negative light than a positive one. The characters who have personal connections to informants, victims and even criminals are shown making substantial mistakes, which puts them right alongside their fellow officers whose more detached approach leads to similarly awful results.

Ultimately then, Hill Street Blues openly acknowledges a few things about police work: There’s not one way to do it, and in a location like this one, most ways the cops try to make it work fail anyway. But unlike later, more overtly grim and cynical offerings like The Wire or even HomicideHill Street never lets its cynicism run roughshod over the characters, the tone or the themes (or at least it has yet to do so to this point in my viewing experience). There is certainly a place for David Simon’s “audacity of despair” on television, and I would suggest that even Simon knows how to couch some of that smothering oppression, but I quite like the way HSB manages to present its storylines with great combination of gravitas and realistic levity. I’ll probably make these comparison more than once, yet I cannot help but see Hill Street Blues‘ DNA all over TNT’s Southland. The latter is definitely less ambitious and features less comedic interludes (at least in terms of constructed situations and zany humor; you won’t see an orangutan hanging around with Ben Sherman next season on Southland); however, the portrayal of the realities of the job is of the same piece, or at least has the same impact on me. 

“Blood Money” is really all about what happens when those on the force get too close. In a story that carried over from season one, the Hill is trying to stop the robberies of local cab drivers so Goldblume joins Belker in undercover pursuit of the assailant, who has been seen wearing all sorts of different costumes. Of course, instead of using his new undercover status to help find the criminal, Goldblume immediately saves a frail white woman from the unwanted advances of a few black gentlemen. Before long, he’s helping her up to her apartment, revealing his true identity and falling into an affair. 

One of the things I enjoy most about this show is that plot developments almost exclusively stem from recognizable character reactions. So here, Goldblume taking too much of an interest in this woman’s life, and then lusting after her, works because viewers who have seen previous episodes know that he wants to save everyone (well, and every thing, based on all those animals he saved in season one). Even though this all comes out of nowhere in this episode — we never knew Goldblume was unhappy at home or anything — it’s a natural extension of his personality. Creating plot developments out of pre-known character traits is how a show should build episodes, but that doesn’t mean it happens all the time. It does on Hill Street Blues

Elsewhere, Washington and LaRue struggle with putting together the truth behind information obtained by a long-time informant. The informant claims to have seen a murder and uses that information to extort money out of the detectives. Washington, who’s been known to be more forgiving than most of the other characters not named Goldblume, keeps pushing the informant for more information even though he appears to be using the money to A.) Get blasted and/or B.) Skip town. Eventually, he and LaRue figure out that the informant actually committed the murder and was trying to run away with his son. There’s a sense here that the detectives were blinded by their vague-but-still-obvious relationship with this snitch, something that surely happens quite a bit on the force. They bring him in and there’s no real harm done, but this is a short little story that further enforces the fine line these cops have to walk. 

“The Last White Man on Ferry Avenue” explores that fine line even more by raising the stakes quite a bit. Two extremely intense situations unfold in this episode (a shoot-out/hostage situation and an acceleration of the Jesse John Hudson (Danny Glover) story) that put certain cops in a tough spot where they have to make judgment calls. After an older man named Poppovich gets into a scrum with the neighborhood minority gang and sort-of-accidentally shoots one of them, Goldblume and Hunter are called to the scene for the stand-off. With the victim bleeding out on Poppovich’s sidewalk and him inside with a shotgun, Goldblume and Hunter argue over tactics: Nice-and-easy or guns-a-blazin’. Goldblume’s pitch works and he puts himself in the line of fire to save the kid, only to find him dead anyway. All for nothing. Goldblume makes his way into Poppovich’s house and the two discuss the decaying neighborhood, its changing racial profile (hence the episode title) and what jail could mean all before the perp gives himself up. 

Meanwhile, the Hudson investigation speeds into a whole new gear thanks to Belker’s undercover help, Virgil (who I identified as a snitch last week, but it turns out he was actually a cop). Virgil and Belker find some ammo that Hudson helped steal in the darkness while he promotes a local artist event to the media, but unfortunately, Furillo pushes too hard. Belker wants Virgil out of a heated situation, assuming Hudson would snuff out the young undercover cop. Frank refuses because he wants more, concrete information. The result? Belker is proven correct: Hudson kills Virgil without even knowing exactly who he is. Belker tells Furillo that Virgil’s death on his hands, to which Frank replies: “They all are, Mick.” 

Two big events, two big choices and basically two similar results. Goldblume steps up, faces danger and still can’t save a kid (who, admittedly, is likely a gang member). Instead, he talks the guy who just shot the kid off the suicide ledge. That’s his job of course, but there’s something inherently backwards and debilitating about watching a kid bleed out and then saving the man who killed him. Goldblume tells Howard that he had to lie to get Poppovich from killing himself, but his speech to the perp about being in a metaphorical prison in that neighborhood seemed entirely earnest to me — especially considering Goldblume tried to quit the force in season one because he was overwhelmed with the declining nature of all things. This is a man who cares so much that even when he tries to be cynical or detached, he ends up backing into saving someone anyway. The state of this community makes it easy to be both cynic and savior in a lot of ways, and Goldblume manages to be both.

In that same fashion, Furillo lets his desire to stop a community virus from spreading get the best of him. The problem is that desire or caring doesn’t always result in the best kind of police work (at least on TV). There is a great deal of passion behind Furillo’s eyes anytime Hudson’s name is mentioned, and he even tries to lock him down with some low-level charges, television code for RECKLESS, EMOTIONAL POLICE WORK. But “Avenue” doesn’t stop at problematic procedure, so I’ll be curious to see how Virgil’s death impacts Furillo moving forward — particularly considering he is without his support system in Joyce. 

Care, or no care, it doesn’t really matter on Hill Street Blues. Chances are, things are going to end fairly poorly (or as Bochco liked to say, messy) anyway.

Other thoughts:

  • I think I’ll use this space to keep track of a few important running gags: Roll call bits and Phil’s sexcapades. In these two episodes, we learn the following at roll call: The orangutan is still around and is named Baby and that someone drilled a peep-hole into the female powder room. As for Phil’s sex life? He was back with Grace in the premiere, only to separate from her again in the second episode and return to the boring, loving arms of his ex-wife. That dude cannot make up his mind.
  • I’m going to also address any big changes I see in the show’s approach to season two (i.e. is it broader, more accessible, etc.?). Let’s call it the Hill Street Sell-Out Watch. This week’s report: These episodes had a sizable amount of broad comedy in them (that’ll happen with an orangutan around) and Poppovich shooting the kid was in poor slow motion. However, the show did both of those things multiple times in season one as well, so it’s hard to say things have changed that much. And there are still few standalone stories here. So our Sell-Out Meter is at zero. 
  • Faye Furillo was the most annoying character in the first season, and one of the more annoying characters on any drama I can remember watching. That’s not the case in season two, as both the writers and Barbara Bosson found a better rhythm for her. She’s actually a little bit charming and warm, instead of a screeching terror. 
  • Danny Glover is really good as Hudson: Intense, motivated and the right combination of crazy and smooth. I know that the character doesn’t stay around too much longer and that makes me sad.

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