By Cory Barker
Hill Street Blues
Season 2, Episodes 8 and 9: “The World According to Freedom” and “Pestolozzi’s Revenge”
Original airdates: Jan. 14, 1982 and Jan. 21, 1982
Previously on Hill Street Blues: Bobby gets into hot water with Frank for lying about the actions of his trainee, Gerry. Faye’s new man Hal Massey drops dead, leaving her shell-shocked. Belker discovers an ATM.
Ambition is tough to manage. When ambitious television shows like Hill Street Blues get things right, when all the disparate elements come together in a peculiar but consumable package, there is very little that can compare. However, when those various pieces do not fit together, the disharmony is equal parts obvious, troubling and compelling. Messy aspiration is still more engaging than shoulder-shrugging down-the-middle content.
Most of the time, the ambition of Hill Street Blues does not result in discord or wide inconsistency. A small story might not work, or a comedy gag might fall flat—but that’s about it. Unfortunately, both “The World According to Freedom” and “Pestolozzi’s Revenge” display a show at odds with itself in ways I haven’t really seen in the first handful of season two episodes (it was present a smidgen in season one). While there are certain stories in both of these episodes that start strong or even develop throughout an entire episode, most of the promise is overwhelmed by messier stories and scenes elsewhere. “Freedom” and “Revenge” strain to keep the pathos and intelligence of darker, meatier A-stories because the supporting plots are filled with mediocre comedy. And the one story that runs through both episodes is legitimately the worst thing Hill Street Blues has done to this point. So apparently, the positivity grinds to a halt this week.
“The World According to Freedom” is the most disappointing episode of Hill Street that I’ve watched thus far. The first few acts of the episode are strong thanks to a stirring sequence right after the opening credits where Frank, Goldblume and many others visit a horrific crime scene. As Frank gets the rundown about the crime, which included robbery, vandalism, rape and murder, the clashing of sounds is really powerful. The description is the primary sound but in the background, the mix includes the crunching of glass, Lucy trying to quietly calm down a rape victim and a whole lot of silence. The sequence is both intense and calm, fantastically capturing the aftermath of a trauma. HSB isn’t a particularly LOUD show but it is often very hectic due to the naturalistic sounds of a busy police station or street. Still, this scene’s muted horror stands out, and I think purposefully so, against the frenetic energy typically pumping through the show’s veins.
After that scene, I was convinced that “Freedom” would be a strong chapter singularly powered by that event. And at first, I was proven correct. When he returns to the Hill, Frank is on a warpath like I’ve never seen him before. Instead of his typical quiet-to-loud explosion of emotion, he’s simply unhinged. He tears everyone in his eye-sight a new one and calls for a gang-leader summit (something that happened in season one) even though he’s been told this isn’t the best plan of attack. Other officers in the station are sickened by what they saw, or what they heard about and it appears that all resources are going to be dedicated to finding the gang members who took part in these heinous crimes.
…and then soon after, the episode cuts to Renko and Bobby on the street, making fools of themselves for blowing Belker’s under-cover operation. Bobby rips his new leather coat and starts irrationally bitching about it, while Belker attempts to wrangle the constant horn-blowing coming from the nearby car. This is somewhat-amusing bout of comedy is clearly intended to alleviate the tension from a multiple rape/homicide but it simply does not work. Though I’ve praised the show for mixing tones and styles within each story, there’s always a chance that an episode won’t successfully balance those tones and styles; this is one.
By the episode’s halfway mark comes, it is clear that “Freedom” thrives when the action is focused on the big case and centered in the station, and wilts whenever it goes elsewhere. Frank eventually brings in the gang leaders for the summit and more or less rips them a new one just like he did his staff. Frank’s threatening nature is so impressive that the gang members seem legitimately stirred and Howard even praises him.
Meanwhile, the downstairs holding cells have just been refurbished, so they smartly decide to stick LaRue in there undercover with a few criminals in hopes of getting them to leak any pertinent information. It starts amiable enough and then suddenly, one of the prisoners convinces the other to hang himself instead of ratting, causing LaRue to reveal his identity. This story isn’t given a whole lot of time to develop but the image of the man trying to hang himself in the cell with a shirt while the other laughs and LaRue panics is evocative.
This all works really well. But for some reason, “Freedom” introduces the episode’s namesake character: Captain Freedom. Yep, while Belker attempts to take down a criminal covertly, a man in a red and green lycra suit/mask jumps into the fray and “helps” (i.e., the guy gets away). Belker arrests the idiot, brings him back to the station and the episode comes to a complete stop so Freedom can espouse about why people should do more good, which apparently includes: hugging our kids more, putting gum wrappers in our pockets and driving less. This is not the sort of thing I would expect from Hill Street Blues but even as some sort of Greatest American Hero commentary, it falls flat—especially when Belker and others start to believe what Freedom is saying. The whole sequence is too obvious and feels imported in from a much worse (and less cynical) show. I don’t mind HSB having heart, in fact I think it has a lot. However, this just fails.
The episode ends with Frank arriving on the scene where they’ve caught those responsible for the gruesome crimes and it is revealed that the leader of one gang ratted out his own, who happened to be super-young kids. Frank, clearly overwhelmed by the vicious nature of these kids, immediately calls his son from a payphone. Daniel Travanti does great work in the scene, returning Furillo to his typically-calm state while still evoking heavy emotions, yet, it’s a false resolution to a story that could have—and should have—been more powerful. Had “Freedom” not bounced around so much and perhaps pulled back on the multi-thread story a little it could have been the strongest episode of the season. As it stands, it’s a messy effort with a great deal of wasted promise.
It could have been worse though: Captain Freedom could have returned for more episodes, and maybe ruined another solid “big” storyline. Oh wait, that’s exactly what happened in “Pestolozzi’s Revenge.”
“Revenge” is a lot like “Freedom”: There’s a compelling Frank-centric story at its core but that story is under-cooked so moderately funny comedy pieces and Captain F**king Freedom can have their respective time in the spotlight.
This time, Frank finds himself in the middle of a major grand jury investigation on corruption. The chief asks him to set up a fake saloon in the South Ferry precinct as a way to catch the supposed-shenanigans happening there, a task that is both an honor and a dangerous burden. But before Frank can even get started, he’s subpoenaed to talk in front of the grand jury (known as the Sullivan Commission) and most of the details of his conversation with the chief are public record. Unsurprisingly, Frank doesn’t take to well to being caught in the middle of a politically-motivated smear campaign. Hill Street hasn’t gotten too far into the corruption side of things thus far and I am curious to see how political Bochco gets as this story continues.
But again, this is all ruined by scatter-brained stories elsewhere in the episode. Renko and Bobby are stuck in yet another comedic runner, this time with Renko wrecking two different police vehicles and losing his gun. The vending machine guy Lou blows a gasket when he finds out that someone has damaged his (apparently) prized possession again. Coffey and Lucy squabble like a married couple in the aftermath of the former having sex with a married woman. Only the Coffey-Lucy story is that compelling, if only because the two directly address their sexual tension in a charming, blunt fashion. Renko and Bobby’s misgivings are amusing but overly-familiar (as in the last episode familiar). Throw in a super-short story with LaRue running into a bartender he had a little fling with while he was a drunk and you have four stories that aren’t offensively bad but still pretty flimsy.
Worst of all is the aforementioned return of Captain Freedom. This time, he tries to convince Belker and company that he is a secret federal agent working for the government in hopes of discovering how urban police forces deal with the madness and it’s just so silly. Theoretically, I’d be interested in a story about a masked crusader trying to “take back the streets” because the police force is too overwhelmed to do it themselves. HSB does a fine job of exploring how outnumbered the Hill is and perhaps that was Bochco’s true intention with the story. Thematically, it makes some sense. But in execution, it doesn’t work. Freedom is too earnest and typically-harder characters like Belker are too charmed by said earnestness. In his two appearances so far, Freedom is too busy spouting cliches that the show doesn’t even have the time (or desire) to get into making him fit in with those themes.
Ultimately, both of these episodes are slipshod messes. “The World According to Freedom” is the stronger of the two but could have been so much more. “Pestolozzi’s Revenge” is only saved by the Sullivan Commission thread, which is mostly set-up. The rest feels like disassociated threads that were left on the white board slapped together into one episode. Nonetheless, few cop shows in 1981/2 would try to balance a depressing rape/murder story with a comedic superhero citizen story within the same episode. Ambition doesn’t always work—but it counts for something.
- This Week in Phil’s Sexual Exploits: Nada, AGAIN. We’ve gone four episodes with barely a mention of Grace and/or Phil’s night moves. I don’t know what to do with myself.
- This Week in Roll Call Gags: The lackluster vibe is present in the teasers as well. “Freedom” features next to nothing, while “Revenge” features a troubling amount of sexist behavior from Phil (and most everyone else) as he describes the body of a female officer who did a drunken strip-tease at a wedding the night before. Legitimately troubling.