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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Milch Studies - Hill Street Blues, Season Six (Part Two)

Censor notes, recycled plots, and (just maybe) the secret origin of Shipwreck.

More on Lt. Norman “Guido” Buntz

  • Dennis Franz plays Buntz’s voice higher than you’ll recognize from his Andy Sipowicz role.  Buntz and Sipowicz do share that same, vaguely Chicago-ian accent, however.
  • Actors Dennis Franz and Joe Spano will have a similar relationship almost twenty years later when playing different characters on NYPD Blue.  Spano plays a detective sickened by Sipowicz’s rule-bending, which is exactly how Spano’s Lt. Goldblume reacts to Buntz’s antics for much of this year.
  • While Franz always played Andy Sipowicz as indifferent towards fashion, Lt. Buntz does attempt to be stylish.  Check out those fantastic ‘80s suits and skinny ties Buntz wears to impress the ladies.

Hey, Isn’t That…?
  • Dan Laurie, the dad on The Wonder Years, guest stars as a fellow public defender who invites Frank and Joyce to dinner.  His drunken wife embarrasses him during the meal, revealing that she knows he hires a hooker to feed him dog food.  (More on censorship on the series below…)
  • Michael Richards guest stars as one-half of a con artist team, nearly beaten up by elderly Sergeant Jablonski, who foolishly used his own money during the sting operation and lost it.
  • Jeffery Tambor has a recurring role as a judge with political ambitions.  Amazingly, Tambor was already old enough to convincingly play a judge 30 years ago.
  • Chris Noth, who looks like he’s twelve, appears at the end of the season as a new uniform cop.  Another name from Law & Order you’ll recognize is Dick Wolf, who writes several episodes this year.

Approved By Broadcast Standards & Practices
Sometimes it’s fun to watch these old episodes just to see what you could and couldn’t get away with on TV during this era.  The issue of television violence was a political football in the ‘80s, and as absurd as it sounds today, public concerns about violence did influence the content of television in this era.  Just recently, I discovered that one reason why CBS ditched The Incredible Hulk was over concerns about its “violent” content.  (Imagine someone showing those execs something like the Netflix Daredevil series!)

Hill Street skirts around the violence issue in off-putting ways.  One rule is that if someone is shot, stabbed, or even hit with a crowbar, the camera always cuts away before you see the actual impact.  Given the limitations with TV editing at the time (there was no way to cut the episode together digitally), this leads to some awkward edits.  And if someone is shot and killed, the camera is careful not to show the body.  Dead bodies do occasionally appear -- one episode has the beat cops replacing morgue workers on strike and collecting bodies from apartments -- but you can’t show a body that’s a recent victim of violence.

Other noticeable moments of censorship…characters “whiz and moan” instead of “piss and moan”…a country star idolized by Officer Renko snorts cocaine right in front of him, but the camera abruptly cuts away…and any specific terms relating to sex are danced around.  Lt. Hunter, for example, is concerned that he’s only made “one kind of love” with his new girlfriend.  And that storyline had to cause problems with the censors…his girlfriend is actually transgender, possibly the first transgender character on television.  No specific terms are used, but it’s made clear that she was born a man and now living as a woman. 

Quick Thoughts
  • The storylines are very clearly invented by television writers and rarely inspired by anything that happens in real life.  We have standard TV tropes such as the preppy suburban kids who enjoy killing homeless people and the mental hospital that releases a serial killer, along with Sgt. Mick Belker conveniently having a new undercover mission each week.  The Belker plots grow more ridiculous as the weeks go on, and are often just resolved by him breaking character, growling, and declaring that the person annoying him is “busted, barf-breath!”
  • Hill Street is also uninterested in the details of investigation, or how an interview would actually be conducted.  (Bill Clark’s input is unquestionably missing; there’s almost no representation of how a cop thinks or would actually conduct an investigation.)  Plus, all of the suspects automatically get a lawyer, who in every single case, happens to be Joyce Davenport.
  • Milch, to his credit, does indicate in more than one episode that the men serving under Frank Furillo can’t stand his wife.  In the episode “In the Belly of the Bus” Joyce even threatens to challenge a criminal’s confession to a cop murder, due to a mostly unrelated deal she’s worked out for him.  I think in previous years the writers would’ve used this plot to showcase Joyce’s unwavering devotion to her principles, but in these later episodes, Joyce is more openly a nuisance.
  • One of Milch’s earliest episodes as a writer had him killing off Sgt. Mick Belker’s father.  His first episode as showrunner has him killing off Belker’s mother.  This is significant because the gruff Sgt. Belker talking to his elderly parents on the phone was a recurring bit in the early years, an element that exposed his more human side, and Milch has gone out of his way to end it.
  • Another example of Milch refusing to write cops (especially bosses) as pure heroes is in the season premiere, when the deputy chief of police is openly rooting for a mentally ill black activist to kill himself, figuring that everyone would be better off.
  • “Two Easy Pieces” features a plot that’s nearly identical to a Season One episode of NYPD Blue -- a young minority cop is forced to shoot a suspect, but the suspect’s gun can’t be found, and there’s no concrete way to prove the young cop’s story.  Also, the second episode of NYPD Blue’s sixth season features a recycled Hill Street plot -- an alcoholic older cop is caught with hooker and involved with a shooting he swears is clean, even though he was drunk when the incident occurred.
  • The Season Three episode of NYPD Blue that had Sipowicz and Medavoy going undercover as Hasidic Jews seemed like a silly Hill Street Blues story to me…and I was right.  Sgt. Belker also goes undercover as a Hasidic Jew this year.
  • Addicts of some variety appear in almost every episode with a David Milch writing credit.  One of the younger cops who appears early in the season is a gambling addict, and his compulsive behavior gets him killed.  Other addiction plots involve the revelation that the mayor’s son is a heroin addict, that a new batch of drugs is instantly killing its users, and Sgt. Bates is taking in young Fabian, the son of a heroin-addicted prostitute.  Fabian opines that his mother must love heroin more than she loves him, so he knows this is nasty stuff that he’ll never touch.  And while it’s depressing to know that Milch wrote these stories while living as an addict…he was also writing the same material in 1999.  If you’re writing about the same inner demons in 1982 and 1999…this might make me a jerk, but I’m not nearly as sympathetic towards your plight.
  • I’m increasingly convinced when watching these episodes that the Mick Belker character inspired Chris Claremont’s interpretation of Wolverine.  Not only does Belker growl like an animal whenever he’s angry, but he’s also a loner-by-nature with a sensitive side, and a clearly defined moral code.  Plus, he’s short, he’s a brawler, is constantly chomping on a cigar, and his foul mood is only tempered by the love of his lady.  Now, it’s possible that this is a coincidence, or even that Wolverine served as the inspiration for Sgt. Belker (he did debut five years earlier), but I think the more “evolved” Wolverine from the ‘80s likely owes some debt to the character.
  • Another series I think owes a debt to Hill Street is the Sunbow-era G. I. Joe cartoon.  I know that sounds utterly ridiculous, but the camaraderie between the mostly male co-workers, and the exasperated reactions of the few females in the room, remind me of the earlier episodes of G. I. Joe.  And one of the classic characters on Hill Street, Detective JD LaRue, seems like a clear influence on the character of Shipwreck in my eyes.  I know what you’re thinking -- “Jack Nicholson!” -- but the specific personality attributed to Shipwreck is virtually identical to the loveable con artist we see on Hill Street.  And actor Kiel Martin even has a hint of Nicholson in his delivery, so it’s not as if the similarities are hard to notice.  Any time I see JD LaRue make a quick dollar by renting someone else’s dog out for a music video shoot, tricking a coworker into eating a roach, or trying to save a buck while buying Belker’s wedding gift, I can’t help but to see Shipwreck in the stories.  I need help.

Next Time: The cast of NYPD Blue grows prettier and prettier.


  1. So Mick Belker was secretly a samurai at heart? ;)

  2. They even share the same sideburns and beard stubble. I don't know if Belker ever ended up with a female, teenage sidekick, though.

  3. I'm glad I found this. I was a Belker fan when I was a kid AND an Xmen fan. Recently I've been watching episodes here and there and it hit me while driving to work today..."Is Wolverine based on Belker?!"


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