Review: Hill Street Blues, “Personal Foul” and “Shooter”

By Cory Barker

Hill Street Blues
Season 2, Episodes 16 and 17: “Personal Foul” and “Shooter”
Original airdates: Mar. 25, 1982 and May 6, 1982

Previously on Hill Street Blues: Goldblume gets shot after trying to be a hero. In the aftermath of Gilliam’s death, Joyce considers quitting her job. LaRue struggles to get back “in” with the other officers after falling off the wagon. Bobby quits his appointed post with the black officer coalition, mostly because it’s causing him too much trouble with Renko, who has a dying father. 

In today’s television landscape, we’ve come to expect either one of two approaches from our penultimate episodes of quality dramatic television: 

  • Table-setting, moving chess pieces around the board, etc.: Lots of characters being put in places they need to be and plot being situation for the finale’s explosive events. These episodes can be less engaging than typical “great” episodes and are viewed as something like necessary evils so that finales can be as good as possible. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the pre-finale episodes like this is Lost
  • Powerful conclusions, the climax, etc.: This approach, which seems particularly prevalent on contemporary cable dramas, eschews waiting until a season’s final episode for all the cray stuff to happen. Instead, the penultimate episode is used as the all-important climax where the big stories come together, leaving the finale as a lower-key denouement. The best example for this sort of approach is probably The Wire, though Game of Thrones has certainly tried it. 

Those approaches, which I enjoy and appreciate quite a bit, are, of course, more relegated to a certain kind of show. With shows that have a strong procedural story engine, penultimate episodes often don’t worry about conclusions at all. Even today, there are many shows that produce penultimate episodes with a typical case that begins and ends within that episode, with no tangible connection to the antepenultimate episode or the finale. Although less appealing to me personally, this tactic is obviously A.) fine and B.) popular. 

I went into my viewing of the antepenultimate and penultimate episodes of Hill Street Blues‘ second season with these three techniques in mind, and that’s probably a good thing because “Personal Foul” and “Shooter,” while not as strong as the two episodes that preceded them, are actually built with elements of all of these said techniques. There is some slight table-setting in play here, though not to the scale that we’ve seen on bigger, more mythology-based shows like Lost. Likewise, there are a few character-based stories that appear to be concluding in these episodes (though again, not in such a substantive, demonstrative way). And finally, there’s a good amount of procedural action on display in “Personal Foul” and “Shooter,” some of which unfortunately undercuts the intense, emotional momentum of the previous three or four episodes.

I’ll reserve judgement until I see the season finale for next week but it sure seems like Hill Street played its big storyline cards in the middle of the season with the Sullivan Commission, Gilliam’s death, Captain Freedom and LaRue falling off the wagon. Last week’s double-bill brought a lot of that stuff to a head and onward, while this week’s episodes are more standalone–and frankly, lightweight–than the show had been working with in its recent history. The drift back towards more playful fare isn’t my favorite decision but the stories and scenes that are playful here are less goofy and zany than the truly problematic stuff from the season’s middle section and therefore, they fit much better alongside the dramatic portions of “Personal Foul” and “Shooter.”

Nevertheless, what works best in these episodes is carried over from those really great efforts I discussed last week. And what I like best about those holdover stories is that none of them are especially dominant in “Personal Foul” or “Shooter,” and instead they transition nicely to the background, where characters and their darker problems can fester about while some fairly silly things happen as well. 

For example, one of the more prominent storylines of the last half-dozen episodes has been Bobby’s dalliance with the black officers coalition. He ultimately quit because of the pressure and how other officers, particularly Renko, viewed him. I would have liked to see Bobby keep the job so that the show could more directly engage with some of the racial tension in the station house and on the street but I did enjoy how “Personal Foul” subtly explores race, and puts Bobby directly in the middle of that conversation. He and Renko come across a domestic dispute in-progress* and quickly discover that the abusive husband is actually a laid-off black cop. The discussion doesn’t go too much into detail, but there’s some solid bits about redundancies that may or may not be racially motivated. And unfortunately, Bobby and Renko can’t stop the man from finding his wife and kid after they’ve been stashed away, leading to a murder-suicide and an orphan child that takes a quick liking to Bobby.

*The show has a number of these and while I’m sure they are easy to write and create quick tension, I’m curious if there was any larger intent on the writers’ part with the sheer number of them. They almost always go the same way, though this episode takes it to the extreme.

Again, what I like here is that this story’s connection to Bobby’s seasonal arc is not totally obvious. He doesn’t spit some useless, lame dialogue at Renko about how he shouldn’t have quit the coalition or even reference the coalition at all. Instead, we’re left to extrapolate a little about the politics of the world, as displayed in the show. 

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Similarly, Joyce’s mental fragility in the wake of Gilliam’s death continues to play a role in “Shooter.” The episode’s procedural thread focuses on the detailed search for a murder weapon that killed one cop and injured another, even though it was supposed to be destroyed by a police clerk (spoiler: it wasn’t, and instead, it bounced around multiple folks through re-gifting, pawning, theft, etc.). This leads to a discussion about guns and gun control between Frank and Joyce where she reveals that she’s actually carrying a gun handgun now. She has the license and everything. Frank is visibly uncomfortable with this decision but also knows that he can’t really do much about it, and probably understands anyway. Gilliam’s death has Joyce pushed into a corner. If she can’t–or better, won’t–quit her job, at least she can protect herself better while doing it. 

There are two stories here that I think fit both the “chess piece” and “conclusion” approaches to penultimate storytelling: LaRue’s recovery and the slow death of Renko’s father. Both stories have been given small amounts of burn over a number of episodes–frankly, I’m still disappointed about how little the show has explored LaRue’s alcoholism–and both get more time to inch closer to their respective climaxes in “Personal Foul” and “Shooter.” LaRue’s story feels more “completed” if you will, considering he goes from being the black sheep on the Hill Street Station basketball squad in “Foul” to playing a big role in finding the gun and culprit in “Shooter.” There isn’t any flashy celebration of LaRue “making it right,” so maybe there is more to come, but it still seems like he’s back on track. 

The slow, painful death of Renko’s dad is another story, however. His condition continues to deteriorate, which is sad, but not especially compelling. Renko is sort of beat up about it, sort of not, which again, isn’t that great. Still though, it’s clear that the show is putting things into motion so that Renko’s father can pass away and the younger Renko can have his immature emotional blow-out. Maybe then the story will work. 

Despite my lack of interest in John Renko’s death, it’s yet another piece to the season’s big thematic puzzle, which is something that I have addressed previously but is becoming more clear to me now that we are near the end. Amid all the shenanigans, undercover costumes, Captain Freedom noise and all sorts of other things, this season of Hill Street, and probably the whole show, has explored just how much being a public servant (police officer or public defender) takes from you, and perhaps just how little it gives. All of the main characters are dysfunctional individuals. Frank, Joyce and Bobby have quit or almost quit. Neal almost lost his job. LaRue fell off the wagon. Goldblume was beat up, shot and passed over for a promotion – then got divorced. Lucy accidentally caused the death of a young girl, then had to shoot a young boy. Coffey, Phil and Belker are really the only three main characters that haven’t faced some treacherous trauma but hey, at least Belker is crazy. 

Even non-essential characters back up this theme: The public defender Gilliam lost her life. Renko’s dad is about to lose his. The laid-off cop in “Personal Foul” killed himself and his wife and left his son an orphan. A handful of other cops have died in the line of duty. I often accuse the show of being too zany and tonally inconsistent, but thematically, there’s some real darkness, or at least realness there. It’s a cynical look at police work, but a logical one. 

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And with that in mind, I could stomach some of the more goofball stuff in these episodes. The centerpiece of “Personal Foul” is a basketball game (!) with Hill Street Station on one side, and a gang All-Star team on the other. This is hilarious, dumb and awesome, all at the same time. The show does good stuff when the gangs are involved, so the introductory quasi-summit about the game’s ground rules (including a gun check at the door and diplomatic immunity [just for the night] for those who attend) was great, as was Howard’s constant needling of Frank to forgo the immunity and simply round up every gang member in sight (which, I think, was all of them). Somehow, the game ends with Bobby Hill going Teen Wolf on the gangs, only to have a guy shoot his last-second likely-winner off the rim. Yeah, I mean the guy shot Bobby’s ball with a gun. Completely dumb, but fun. And big props to the cast, who, by all accounts, played the game themselves. Guys and gals have skills.

Likewise, “Shooter,” an episode mostly about finding a gun, somehow finds time to allow Howard to stage a gun convention and pester many of the characters about FIRST STRIKE ESTATES, the luxury abodes for those hoping to survive the nuclear holocaust. I’m rolling my eyes and laughing at the same time. For whatever reason, I found that those stories played nicely with the more serious concentration on guns and gun safety elsewhere. It was odd and a little uncomfortable, but it worked. 

Headed into the season two finale, there aren’t many big questions. But I suspect some of these characters will face one final challenge or two before it’s done, and more sacrifices will likely have to be made. Until next week!

Other thoughts:

  • Belker finds love after going undercover at a smut film theater. No word if Fred Willard was in attendance. 
  • This Week in Phil’s Sexual Exploits: No Grace, no sexual exploits. Bummer.
  • This Week in Roll-Call Gags: Mostly set-up this week. Phil has some fun introducing the sting at the Pussycat House in “Personal Foul,” but mostly urges the men to be careful amid warming temperatures in “Shooter.” Unfortunately, he was right. 

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