By Cory Barker
Hill Street Blues
Season 2, Episodes 4 and 5: “The World’s Second Oldest Profession” and “Fruits of the Poisonous Tree”
Original airdates: Nov. 19, 1981 and Dec. 3, 1981
Previously on Hill Street Blues: Furillo’s reckless desire to get Hudson locked up inadvertently causes the death of undercover cop Virgil. Phil and Grace split (again), and Howard moves in. Goldblume cheats on his wife.
For me, one of the hallmarks of a great drama is how much comedy is present. That might sound slight counter-intuitive, particularly in today’s era of antihero-led, gritty cable dramas. However, the best dramatic shows know how to create comedy from those grimy situations, and most of the time, that comedy comes more from the characters (and the audience’s familiarity with them) than any obviously constructed situation. Those moments of levity are integral to stepping away from the high stakes but they also reflect how well a writing staff knows its characters. Many of today’s great dramas—Justified, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc.—do this pretty well.
Hill Street Blues is most certainly a Great Drama and it uses comedy in a purposeful, character-based way. Yet one of the things that makes HSB slightly different from many of the greats that have come after is that the comedy is more prevalent and almost sitcom-like at times in how situational it can be. The character-based comedy is present, and surely will only become more identifiable as I move through the series and grow more familiar with the characters, but oftentimes, HSB uses broad and even physical comedy to create laughs. The minor novelty of this approach is charming, even now—although it can, at times, take away from the more dramatic goings-on.
Obviously, this approach is all about the balance between the dramatic and the comedic, and partially about the balance between the broadly comedic and the more character-based comedy. The first season featured a few episodes that were overrun by broader comedic beats that created odd tonal dissonance. That happens when a show is still trying to figure itself out. This second season, at least thus far, has succeeded at keeping things in-balance. Somehow, even with a three-episode arc for an orangutan, I can say that.
The big improvement with season two’s episodes and what I saw with some of the less successful season one efforts is that Bochco and his team figured out how to calibrate both the amount and purpose of the comedic elements. At times in season one, the physical gags or the wacky lines came mostly apropos of nothing, and characters like Belker, Renko, Howard, and Phil felt like they were on an entirely different show than Frank and everyone else. So far in season two, those characters have been toned down a bit and the comedy has stemmed more from who they are, other than what they have done. Belker’s still crazy, Renko’s still a blow-hard and Howard and Phil still say ornate, inappropriate things about sex and the like. However, those traits have shined through more naturally.
This week’s double-shot of Blues goodness, “The World’s Second Oldest Profession” and “Fruits of the Poisonous Tree” embody the show’s wrangling of drama and comedy quite well. Both of these episodes feature powerful dramatic moments of violence, passion, and more—some of the best scenes to-date, honestly. And at the same time, these episodes feature scenes dedicated to an orangutan being honored for her service and others with most of the characters fretting over the Monday Night Football score while attending an important hearing at the courthouse. Half an episode before the season’s primary antagonist gets gunned down by his former lawyer, a woman he beat the hell out of, there’s a two-minute scene dedicated to how weird Belker’s food orders are.
One of the big things I have noticed about these first five episodes is how the show uses the Roll Call sequence as a short comedic set-piece, almost as if HSB were a comedy, building to a big joke pre-credit sequence. This happened in the first season as well but it has been more prominent (and frankly, better) in season two. The Roll Call teasers work so well as comedy bits because they are almost entirely character-based. Michael Conrad’s line delivery as Phil sets the table and a bunch of cops riffing one one another, not paying attention to Phil’s directions, is simply an easy way to craft short bursts of comedy that seem natural to the characters as we know them. Even the season premiere and its massive shoot-out created laughs because of the various characters’ reactions to said shoot-out.
These two episodes also put a comedic emphasis in the teaser as well, although with a slight exception. The opening moments of “The World’s Second Oldest Profession” are probably the most overt attempts at “THIS IS FUNNY: LAUGH” comedy of the season, with Baby the orangutan being honored for her work at the Hill, an event that includes Belker putting a police jacket on her while two buxom ladies from a local zoo come to take Baby to a safer environment. Bruce Weitz’s (Belker) facial expressions make the sequence funnier, but there’s something inherently humorous about a grown man trying to put a jacket on a monkey. It’s just fact. The Roll Call scene in “Fruits of the Poisonous Tree” is both funny and purposeful story-wise, as it sets the table for the episode’s odd (but amusing) focus on the cops not getting to see the football game most of them have bet on.
When the second half of “Oldest Profession”‘s teaser turns its attention to the death of undercover cop Virgil (killed by Hudson in episode three), the change in atmosphere and vibe in the station is palpable. Instead of building to a joke like all the other teasers thus far, this one ends on a somber note, with Phil praising Virgil’s work and strongly urging everyone to “be careful out there” (never has that been more needed, or true) as the rank and file look on. Creating the storytelling convention of “teaser = jokes” makes it even more powerful when that convention is subverted. And again, it is fairly impressive that within a short three- or four-minute sequence, the show goes from orangutan putting a jacket to a dark reminder of job’s costs. That tonal transition is something the show couldn’t always pull off in the first season but it works swimmingly here.
The transition from drama to comedy and back again is on display throughout these episodes, at times even within singular scenes or stories. While Virgil’s death and Frank’s poor decision to try to take down Hudson without evidence hangs over all of “Second Oldest Profession” like a black cloud, things get even more depressing for Lucy. The Hill engages in “Operation Jezebel,” a directive where the street cops round up all the hookers in hopes of getting them to leak out any information on Hudson, and Lucy finds herself in quite a precarious position with one young streetwalker. Lucy chases her down, and the youngster begs Lucy to let her take one more hit of smack before having to deal with withdraws in jail and Lucy does it, only to watch the girl immediately pass out with her life in the balance. As Lucy pouts around considering her questionable actions, Renko, Bobby, and Coffey mouth off and playfully torment the hookers.
These actions only play out over a few short scenes but the dichotomy in emotions on display is both well done and realistic. No one else knows what Lucy did so they aren’t necessarily paying attention to her sorrow and regret. And even if they knew, I’m not sure Renko, Bobby, and Coffey would really know what to say or how to comfort her anyway. The three of them are often horsing around, ranting and raving. Here then, are scenes that balance the dark and the light and do so through established character traits. Again, these scenes are short and not particularly memorable for any real reason. Nevertheless, they reflect the subtle ways Hill Street Blues mixes comedy and drama.
A similar combination of tones and styles is on display throughout “Fruits of the Poisonous Tree.” Washington and LaRue make a big arrest of serial mugger Maxwell Jenkins but unfortunately accomplish this goal through illegally obtained evidence, or what’s known in legalese as fruits of the poisonous tree (hence the episode’s title). Simultaneously, Belker is charged with being overly physical with a criminal he tried to arrest. This leads to duel hearings in front of a judge, of which most of the cops attend (partially for support, partially to save face). Both of these cases could result in dismissal for the policemen, meaning the stakes are damn high. Washington in particular is worried about what could happen to him and Frank is certainly concerned about how the illegal activity of three of his best men will look to the already skeptical brass.
And yet, throughout these hearings, “Tree” keeps returning to the other event happening at the same time: Monday Night Football. Renko doesn’t want to know the score while he’s stuck in the courtroom, mostly because he has a boat-load of money on the game. At one point during the proceedings, Joyce and company are behind close doors watching the game instead of prepping case materials. Best of all, near the end of the hearing, the criminal Jenkins asks the judge for the score of the game solely to troll Renko, who dejectedly screams out “NOOO” as if his mother had been shot and then sadly notes, “He has ruined my personal existence.”
Free of context, these events seem silly, and really not even that funny. But because I’ve grown to know these characters pretty well, their actions make complete sense. Renko loves to bet on things, and especially enjoys complaining about the most minor of injustices, so of course he’d whine about not being able to watch MNF while his colleagues’ careers hang in the balance.
Moreover, the goofy focus on a random football game doesn’t actually take away from the emotion of the hearing itself. Near the end of the episode, Washington and Frank discuss the former’s future and how one mistake could be the end of his career. It’s one of the best scenes in the show’s first 22 episodes and both Taurean Blacque and Daniel J. Travanti are tremendous in it. The comedy doesn’t disrupt the drama, and vice versa. The two sit alongside one another without much trouble at all.
Finally, I’d point to one story in “The World’s Second Oldest Profession” as key to the show’s ability to mix the comedy and drama. In the first three episodes of the season, Phil was visited by an old friend named Mac. Each time, Mac offered Phil some sort of getaway-type deal: camping trip to a cabin, tickets to a sporting event, etc. In “Profession,” Mac turns up, asking Phil to lunch, something Phil has apparently never done in his years at the Hill, a random, but charming detail. At lunch, Phil finds out why Mac has been making all these offers: He is gay, and he is in love with Phil. Mac lovingly describes how he’s dreamt of Phil’s strong hands, and how he believes that Phil has someone else inside of him. Phil, of course, does not react particularly well to this news. He tells Mac that their friendship is over, storms out, and spends the rest of the day at work paranoid that everyone thinks he might be gay.
This story balances comedy and drama perfectly and elicits complex reactions. For a prime time drama on NBC in 1981, the open discussion of male homosexuality certainly wasn’t the norm, which makes Mac’s coming out party compelling in its own right. But there’s more to it than that. Both Michael Conrad and Sandy McPeak bring this slightly off-kilter energy to the scene so that Mac’s speech and Phil’s reaction are somehow both powerful and a smidgen amusing. Don’t get me wrong: Someone coming out of the closet isn’t “funny” and Phil’s exasperated response is closed-minded for sure. Nevertheless, the details of Mac’s speech and the way it causes Phil to re-evaluate his own wordy, warm ways are amusing. There’s a fine line to walk here, and somehow the script and the actors manage to keep things on that line. Hill Street Blues is doing a lot of that in its second season.
- My focus was obviously on the comedy here but I need to again mention that Hudson took a bullet in the back in “Profession.” I’ll miss Danny Glover and frankly, I think the story ended a bit too soon. Right before the shooting, Frank had chosen to keep pursuing Hudson despite word from the top that he could lose his job, which is a story I wish would have continued.
- In back-to-back episodes, Lucy allows a young girl to overdose on drugs and almost die and then shoots a young murder. I assume the show is going to keep up with that story so it will be interesting to see if she has a breakdown or “hardens” because of those experiences.
- In more positive news, Joyce gives in to Frank’s desires and kisses him publicly. I love how the whole station stops and stares in celebratory fashion. They’re so happy for their boss.
- This Week in Phil’s Sexual Exploits: Well, other than Mac coming out to him? Phil gets back with Grace (again) in “Profession” and the two have a pregnancy scare in “Poison Tree.” Phil is actually disappointed that there will be no baby, especially after Grace says that they can name it after him: Phil Free Mason Esterhaus Jr. FREE MASON.
- This Week in Roll Call Gags: Mostly covered this but there’s a long speech about new rules regarding pet waste in the city. You know, because.
- Random guest stars this week: CCH Pounder as one of the hookers and Jeffrey Tambor as the sleazy lawyer Alan Wachtel.