Review: Hill Street Blues, “Cranky Streets” and “Chipped Beef”

Never trust any Gerry who spells their name with a G.

By Cory Barker

Hill Street Blues
Season 2, Episodes 6 and 7: “Cranky Streets” and “Chipped Beef”
Original airdates: Dec. 10, 1981 and Dec. 17, 1981

Previously on Hill Street BluesEarly-season villain Jesse John Hudson (Danny Glover) is gunned down by his former lawyer. Lucy lets a hooker shoot-up, only to watch her die, and then is forced to take out a younger murderer. Frank and Joyce reconnect, and make it official. 

One of the biggest things that made Hill Street Blues revolutionary when it first began was the emphasis on the personal lives of its characters. The show certainly wasn’t the first-ever to follow cop characters home, or to focus on more than the open-and-shut case in front of said characters. Nevertheless, the manner at which Hill Street interwove the characters’ personal stories with their professional struggles was met with great praise in the early 1980s and is still quite admirable watching the show more than 30 years later. 

What impresses me so much about the way HSB balances the personal and professional is that the show features a large amount of sneaky exposition. We learn a whole lot about these characters through them talking to one another, explaining certain circumstances at home or what have you. Rarely do we actually go home with them. Yet, despite what the flow of dialogue might look like on the page, the show does a superb job of never slogging into didactic territory. I’ve talked about the quality direction and the fluidity of movement, elements that definitely play a part in this success. But Hill Street‘s approach to stories, particularly the way most episodes are built around the uniforms and undercovers out on the street, in their cars, etc., also assist in the show’s strength in this arena.

Most episodes are fairly light on plot — especially on the “police procedure” front — and instead use basic assignments as catalysts to get the characters out and about and most importantly, talking. It stands to reason that characters on a stake-out will start sharing war stories or dumb problems with one another; that’s the reality of the job. Plus, as the show goes on and I become more familiar with the characters, I have grown to recognize the value in paying attention to how characters say things as a form of real development. I know that Renko is going to overreact to almost everything and take it all personally, just as I know that Howard and Phil’s respective verbosity speaks to who they are. And in all situations, it never really feels like the characters talking about their lives is impeding plot movement. For a show about cops, Hill Street Blues is light on action and suspense. This a character-based affair through-and-through.

Though the show is always at least partially driven by the personal issues of the characters, this week’s double feature, “Cranky Streets” and “Chipped Beef,” is particularly centered on the ways in which these people bring their problems to work, or perhaps worse, let those problems negatively impact their professional responsibilities. 

Never trust any Gerry who spells their name with a G.

Unsurprisingly, these two episodes tell multiple little character stories and do so through initial simple plot-based angles. The officer union’s struggle with City Council over pay and benefit increases sets some of the characters on edge throughout both episodes but never dominates much of either episode’s running time. “Cranky Streets” also features a classic cop show conceit with Bobby and Renko asked to serve as training officers for other cops trying to make it on the Hill. That thread is more prominent as “Streets” comes to an end and powers much of the action in “Chipped Beef” — a story construction that highlights the show’s solid handle on serialization — and yet still doesn’t overwhelm matters with any melodramatic machinations. The focus is still most certainly on how these events affect the people. 

The training sequences in “Cranky Streets” are particularly enjoyable. Bobby is partnered up with an older officer named Gerry, a man who helped get him started elsewhere but fell out of favor due to some rough behavior in the wake of his wife’s death, while Renko is buddied up with a younger, attractive Latina woman named Estella. As you can imagine with Bobby and Renko, these stories play out quite differently. While Bobby tries to keep the clearly-unstable Gerry hinged on tight, Renko pushes hard to impress Estella, a courtship that involves convincing her to pat down LaRue and Washington while they are undercover as bums.

Renko and Estella’s love connection is shockingly not meant to be, as his practical joke sends her speeding away and asking for a new mentor, a reaction I thought was a bit extreme. However, the beat ended up being fairly purposeful considering it resulted in one of the better scenes of the episode with Phil confronting Renko about his mistreatment of his pupil. Instead of reacting with his typical faux-masculinity, Renko breaks down and admits that he’s having more personal problems than he has let on: He’s worried about the union strife, is too heavy to pass an upcoming physical and is even too scared to apply for the sergeant’s exam.  Estella isn’t much of a character and the story ends a smidgen too abruptly with Renko giving her a flower as an apology but the story is still a fine example of how the show uses easy premises to tell short, but useful character stories.

Bobby’s time with Gerry is given much more time to percolate and as a result, is a much better story. It’s clear from the beginning that Gerry is a good cop, he saves a few folks from a bound-to-explode car, but it’s similarly apparent that the guy is a bit insane. Though Frank and Bobby both have history with the guy and are willing to massage his bubbling temper, it really isn’t enough. Gerry’s hostility escalates throughout the episode: He scrums with a mouthy bystander after saving the people from the car, rages at his young daughter on the phone at lunch and eventually fatally wounds a suspect at the scene after the suspect throws a bottle at him. 

Unlike Estella, Gerry is a better-formed character* but his appearance here is similarly-used to tell us more about the kind of person Bobby is. As the straight-man to most of Renko’s irrational outbursts, Bobby hasn’t been given a whole lot to do of substance in these first 20-some episodes, so it was certainly nice to see this story play out. His loyalty to Gerry begins to waver near the end of “Cranky Streets” and yet, Bobby still lies and claims that Gerry rightfully defended himself against the bottle-throwing assailant. More egregiously, Bobby convinces Renko, Lucy and Joe to all go along with his story, putting all their careers in jeopardy simply out of respect for the man who got him started on the force. 

*Despite all its strengths, the show still struggles a bit with its portrayal of women. Only one of the three females in the regular cast, Joyce, is particularly complex and most of the ladies in the guest-cast are regulated to Hooker or Angry Wife Yelling at Crime Scene territory. Definitely something I’ll be keeping my eye on as we progress through the second season.

Again, this is a pretty straight-forward story that I’ve seen before and I’m sure audiences in 1981 had seen. However, it is well-executed in “Cranky Streets” and nicely carries over to “Chipped Beef,” where Bobby’s loyalty starts to rub against his desire to do the right thing. I appreciate that the writers chose to stretch this across two episodes because it allowed the impact of Bobby’s paranoia and pressure really sink in. He is noticeably jumpy through “Chipped Beef,” knowing full-well that Frank is smart enough to figure out what the hell is going on with Gerry’s case. Eventually, after a staunch lecture from Frank, Bobby decides to protect those who were willing to protect him and changes his story. 

Bobby’s struggles with Gerry dominated the A-thread in these episodes but there were multiple smaller stories about the personal impacting the professional in both efforts. One thing that I enjoy about the show’s approach to these character-based beats is the varying lengths and tones. As I’ve said before, the show gets a lot of mileage out of telling all sorts of different types of stories at once, a skill that is most certainly on display in these two episodes. The Bobby-Gerry story takes up a great deal of two episodes. Meanwhile, these episodes also feature a solid little runner about Washington dealing with his girlfriend Jill, who supposedly went out to Los Angeles to try to make it big but he finds hiding out just down the street near the end of “Chipped Beef.”

WHAT IS THIS NEW-FANGLED MACHINE?

Meanwhile, other stories, like Coffey’s struggle with Guido, an older member of his lower-class neighborhood or the officer’s attempts to save a friendly man from jail because of an out-of-state warrant, are well-executed in just one episode (“Cranky Streets”), while others that are little more than three-beat gags, such as Belker’s random undercover assignment that requires him to dress as a rabbi and learn how to use an ATM, wrap up quite quickly in even shorter fashion (“Chipped Beef”). And even others, such as Frank’s issues with Faye over how their son will be parented now that she is engaged, are brought back from previous episodes with the expectation that the viewer will remember certain details. I expect audiences to remember moderate-sized details like this when they can also dine on procedural stories that open and close within an individual episode. However, Hill Street Blues has no problem keeping the episodic closure limited and the ongoing character stories more central. 

By telling so many stories of different styles, tones and lengths, Hill Street Blues deepens its characters and avoids drawing much attention to its dialogue-heavy formula. Therefore, even when certain stories aren’t that well-developed, such as Renko’s issues with Estella or even Belker’s undercover fun with the ATM machine, they are still mostly entertaining, purposeful and distinct from whatever scene came before. 

Other thoughts:

  • Faye’s new man Hal Massey drops dead at a dinner event basically honoring him, temporarily turning her back into the manic shrill I recognize from the first season (although at least her emotional reaction here is warranted). I’m not sure where this story is going, and it was a bit odd that Massey was introduced and almost immediately offed. The various officers discussing what kind of meal was served at his death dinner was pretty humorous, which contrasted nicely with the final scene of “Chipped Beef” where Faye broke down in Joyce’s arms. Great first meeting. That’s not going to be awkward.  
  • I believe “Chipped Beef” features the first real reference to Belker’s mother, who was a big part of the first season. He’s trying to convince his mother and father to go on a cruise with his sister, who is unsurprisingly weird and vicious as well. This runner is funnier, and probably even weirder, than I’m making it sound. 
  • I’m hoping that the controversy with the union and the City Council swells in future episodes. There were references to a possible strike, which I think would be a very compelling story to tell with these characters. 
  • This Week in Phil’s Sexual Exploits: Nothing. No Grace this week either. I’m empty inside. 
  • This Week in Roll Call Gags: Some male officer is placing clear plastic food wrap on the toilet seats in the women’s restroom. Those cads! 

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