By Cory Barker
Hill Street Blues
Season 2, Episodes 14 and 15: “The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded” and “Some Like It Hot-Wired”
Original airdates: Feb. 18, 1982 and Mar. 25, 1982
(This week’s review is going to be shorter than normal. Moving and so forth.)
Previously on Hill Street Blues: LaRue falls off the wagon, and almost blows an important sting op. One of Joyce’s fellow public defenders is murdered but Frank and company have to cut the suspects free because of a minor technicality. Bobby gets wrapped up in a African-American interest group, leaving Renko to sulk and eventually, turn to his family for support.
Throughout my reviews of Hill Street Blues‘ second season, I’ve talked about the show’s various strengths, from character development to serialization to tonal balance. It’s safe to say that the show is A.) really good and B.) really good at a lot of different things. While individual episodes of HSB often display most of the show’s strengths, the episodes I watched for this week’s review are almost certainly the best exemplars of what makes Hill Street so darn superb.
Freed from some of the lesser storylines and big misses on ambitious swings that plagued the middle portion of the season, “The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded” and “Some Like It-Hot Wired” play like a culmination of every quality story that’s been floating around for the last half-dozen episodes. There are few viewing experiences better than watching an episode (or more) of a great show when disparate stories purposefully come together in satisfying fashion. Both of these episodes fit that bill, for sure.
The biggest strength of this double-bill–indeed, these episodes are quite connected story-wise–is that they don’t drop the ball on some of the more powerful stories that came right before. Earlier in the season, the show was having a smidgen of trouble with executing long-form stories about certain compelling ideas. These threads would be introduced in one episode and suggest substantial shifts in character or story, and then be dropped by the opening credit sequence of the very next episode. The lack of follow-through with the mass murder story from “The World According to Freedom” still sticks in my craw, and even the introduction and peril of Captain Freedom was for naught because his death had no real impact on Belker, the character closest to him. The show spent the better part of three or four episodes on the Sullivan Commission but you wouldn’t know it by watching the episodes that came directly after.
Don’t get me wrong, Hill Street does a great job, better than most contemporary shows, of upholding a certain consistency in character. Yet, the intriguing plot elements that are often eschewed away can be frustrating. In that regard, the show still holds tight to both its generic and era conventions.
Here though, there is no frustration because both episodes focus on the murky aftermath of crucial events that I discussed in detail last week: Public defender Pam Gilliam’s death and the subsequent wonky investigation, LaRue’s tumble off the wagon, Bobby’s new political career and Renko’s strained relationship with his family (including Bobby). Each of those stories worked well in the previous two episodes, even though they did come mostly out of nowhere, and thankfully, Steven Bochco and his team decided to expand those threads further.
Last week, I expressed some annoyance with how much reverence characters paid to Pam Gilliam, a character that we never met. What I enjoyed about these two episodes is that the writers used Gilliam’s death as a spring-board to tell good stories about the characters that we do know and care about. That’s an easy trick for writers to use but I would much rather be able to point out and enjoy a trick instead of rolling my eyes at some overwrought dialogue regarding someone I’ve never seen. Though those episodes last week did a little of this, both “Degraded” and “Hot-Wired” pushed it much further. Not only did Gilliam’s death force certain characters to continue to reevaluate their professional goals, the investigation into her murder also stumbled forward. Carrying the story onward this way pays the still-unseen character respect without making a dumb spectacle of it all and makes for good stories in the aftermath.
The investigation sequences in “Degraded” and “Hot-Wired” aren’t as powerful as last week because they sort of repeat the beats about deal-making, which is what happens when both the characters and the audience already know that the culprits have been successfully identified. Nevertheless, “Degraded” introduces a nice wrinkle with the corrupt tipster with good intentions. A local taxi driver has a perfect story and can identify the criminals quite easily, so perfectly and so easily that Ray and Frank get suspicious. Amusingly, it’s revealed that the driver and his girlfriend, a clerk at another police station downtown, used departmental info to craft the story, in hopes of collecting the reward and ridding the streets of the criminals. There’s an honor to the driver’s honest dishonor that I found charming and Frank’s interrogating of the driver further reflects the importance of finding real evidence for Gilliam’s murder.
More powerful though, is Joyce’s story in “Hot-Wired.” Last week, she floated the idea of quitting because of all the deal-making and hypocrisy surrounding her public defender position. In this episode, she finally snaps, inside the courtroom no less, and almost finds herself in contempt of court. Her rage and desire to quit unfortunately corresponds with Frank having just heard Phil, Ray and Henry do their fair share of complaining, causing Frank to tell Joyce to more or less suck it up. You can imagine how well that goes over. Though Joyce eventually doesn’t quit and instead simply takes a two-week vacation in hopes of figuring it all out, this multi-episode story worked really, really well. Veronica Hammel is quite good when portraying Joyce with more fire in her belly, particularly when paired with the even-keeled Frank, and the impact of Gilliam’s death appears to be permanent.
Because of the time period, network and general state of television, there’s no way to say that Hill Street is/was as interested in exploring institutional corruption like The Wire would later be, but over the last half-dozen episodes or so, both Frank and Joyce have faced challenging and ultimately frustrating circumstances that have caused them to realize that no matter how much work they put in, or how much good they do, the system is flawed, if not broken. In that regard, both the Sullivan Commission story and Gilliam’s death have had important stamps on this season’s thematic foci. I just hope that Joyce doesn’t forget her struggles as quickly as Frank seems to have.
Meanwhile, LaRue, Bobby and Renko’s personal difficulties were given there just-due in the running time, instead of pushed aside for goofy Belker plots or nonsense with idiots in costumes (I’m still pretty bitter about Captain Freedom, as you might be able to gauge). LaRue’s journey back to sobriety thankfully didn’t involve a lot more drinking or melodramatic stumbling around. Instead, he begged for the things that mattered: his job and his friendship with the fellow cops. While LaRue’s issues still feel a bit light and unexplored in comparison to how the first season treated them, I’m happy that they were taken seriously and there were very few clichés put forth. If anything, LaRue’s journey is just that, and hopefully it will continue to play a major role in the final few episodes.
Similarly, I loved how these episodes treated Bobby and Renko’s relationship like it truly is: the most stable and ingrained on the show. Because of that fact, Bobby’s new role with the coalition put real strain on his connection with Renko, who obviously is so emotionally stunted that he cannot operate without his partner. The two squabble their way through both of these episodes, with Bobby failing to listen to Renko’s rant about his family troubles because he’s too worried about talking about his political frustrations. Unsurprisingly, they bicker like an old married couple and when Bobby gives up his position with the coalition, they make compromises like an old married couple. Their reconciliation at the end of “Hot-Wired” is one of my favorite moments of the season. It’s just so goofy, awkward and honest. Their connection doesn’t make much sense, but it works for them, screwed-up handshake and all. And of course, Renko’s going to need Bobby even more moving forward since his father is dying of cancer. So again, a good story is, by all indication, continuing. Smart.
With these last few episodes, it feels like Hill Street‘s experimentation period, at least for this season, might be over. Gone are the goofy supporting characters and tonal dissonance. Replacing them is a renewed focus on the core characters with challenging, moving stories. All other things aside, this is what the show does best.
- Goldblume, dejected from not making LT, goes and gets himself shot in a hooker-related sting operation. He’s less enthralled by this injury than he was when he got his ass beat in the street a few episodes ago.
- I like Belker but I can’t help but notice that he has been less prominent in the last four episodes, all of which that have been better than the four or six that came before, where he was around more. Just sayin’.
- This Week in Phil’s Sexual Exploits: Grace tries to get him back, but Phil is still heartbroken over her previous partners and because he thinks all she wants him for is his body. He spends most of “Hot-Wired” fretting over his stolen Buick. Pimpin’ ain’t easy.
- This Week in Roll-Call Gags: There’s a cheap meat sale at a butcher shop! And the Hill officers are forced to wear official police hats, instead of their ridiculous choices, which are two of the better jokes in that pre-credit slot we’ve seen in a while.