I Wanna Be Your Joyce Davenport
Hill Street Blues Roll Call
When I was sixteen, I wanted to grow up to be Joyce Davenport. Which should only be considered as tangentially related to the more time-consuming, slightly grubby, but realistic process of learning the law and attempting to practice same; in my fantasies I’d arrived already, civil-rights bona fides clutched tightly in my impeccably manicured hands. I suppose if I didn’t admire Veronica Hamel’s performance so much, I could fault her for being the prototype for the babe-a-licious lawyer trend that so permeates courtroom drama to this very day, but Joyce is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. She may be gorgeous, but she’s still a fighter. As a geek raised by a hippie, it had not been lost on me that being a lawyer would be one place where liking to read a lot would not be looked upon as an obscure social disease, and I had already been raised to believe that Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren were great heroes.
My junior year of high school was punishing, though, and so was the thought of so much more school. Besides, I knew myself enough to know that if I did not have my own Pizza Man to lambaste for improper procedure, knowing stuff like “fruit of the poisoned tree” wouldn’t be half as fun. I was a strange girl, pondering make-up sex in the spring of 1990, when the most talked-about tryst involved Brenda and Dylan at the prom in a fancy hotel suite. Although still an idealist as the decade changed, I could already see that there were some decisions I wasn’t going to have to make, and the whereabouts of my cherry on Prom Night was one of them, damn it. (Although, to be completely honest, I’d have been more comfortable in that room with Dylan discussing entrapment precedent at that time in my life. Not to mention that my family was more in Lucy Bates’ class than the Walshes, and could not have spent that much for a dress that was going to lie crumpled under a hotel bed. But a person likes to be asked.)
Hill Street Blues was a constant in my family life before I ever watched an episode. My mother and father always arranged for a Thursday-night cease-fire when they squabbled so they could spend that time together, and my brother and I soon learned that the quickest way to Get It was to pick a fight on Thursday. My mother explained that every episode followed on the other, so they needed to concentrate to be able to understand everything, which is mind-blowing when your usual favorite is — was it ChIPS or The A-Team by then? Doesn’t matter; there was chasing and blowing up, and not enough woman power for my budding feminist taste. The Star Wars people have Joseph Campbell to teach them about the power of myth; everything I ever learned about storytelling I got from Steven Bochco, who I still sort of think of as ’Uncle Steven, ’ although my actual Uncle Steven wasn’t such a good influence on me. Because he’s how I learned that the stuff on TV and movies started as stories, almost like mine, but probably a little better, and one of the people that wrote those stories was a guy named Bochco, who they paid, actual money to come up with stuff that was funny and sad at the same time, a combination I didn’t understand till I saw for myself. It wasn’t just my parents either: the show was such a monster that the theme song got played on the radio sometimes. That was how I learned being a writer could be a job, although finding out in such a grand manner has led to my expectations being dashed almost ever since.(I suppose I thought library books were assembled by fairies.)
ROLL CALL 1990: by the time I let Mom talk me into spending my own time on the Hill, even the Thursday Night Truce couldn’t save my parents’ marriage (and even if it could, the show had been off the air for a few years). They both had new spouses that I was trying to invent relationships with, I was adding new bodily anxieties to the ones I was born with, and although I still did well in school, I was facing the fact I was no longer Hundred-Percent Girl that wiped up the intellectual floor with everyone. It was a surprisingly perfect time to watch a show where a crazy guy insisted he was Captain Freedom, a superhero who came to the struggling, unnamed metropolis via Mars and latched on to the growly but secretly softhearted Detective Belker. I still resisted; I didn’t want to like a cop show, a genre I envisioned as wall-to-wall chase scenes and arrests and cheesy, Captain-Kirk-style fight sequences, or maybe as Barney Miller, where goofy old guys ate ’funny’ brownies. But Hill Street Blues wasn’t like that — though as the series went on the writers did increasingly rely on the crutch of putting “our guys” in mortal peril, the first few times it really resonated, and forced me to deal with my television-nurtured expectancy that nothing happens to heroes, who in most shows walked away unharmed as their cars exploded into fireballs.
As I mentioned before, I envied Joyce’s beauty and confidence and her fight to make a difference, though it shocked me initially that neither her efforts nor Furillo’s, were always successful, as when the suspect for the shooting of regulars Hill and Renko was released in season one’s “Your Kind, My Kind, Humankind” episode. The failure to get a conviction went against
everything I’d seen on television at that time. But it was really the great cast, (although many people have a lot to say about the camera style giving everything a realistic feel, or the approach to racial diversity — still one of the finest I’ve seen) that endears this show to its devoted fans. Sergeant Esterhaus’ parting words ’ “Let’s be careful out there,” — establish him as the squad’s guiding spirit, a softhearted uncle to Furillo’s perfect dad. Hill and Renko play a lot of comedy while still solving a lot of inner-city problems and running up against some of the tensions inherent in being a “salt-and-pepper” team in a city where a lot of the people in handcuffs are black. J.D. La Rue is a cable character before his time. (Picture The Wire’s McNulty with a bit less charm, on a network leash, and after a few more years of bad food, get-rich-quick schemes and late nights, and you have a pretty clear portrait of J.D., low-rent hipster slang and all.) Beneath his raunchiness, bitching about ’The Job’ and alcohol problem, he is a good guy way down deep ’ even if he is also, along with Howard Hunter and gang leader Jesus Martinez, one of the show’s moral wild cards. La Rue’s partner, Detective Neal Washington, is more straightforward, but he makes up for it being almost epically cool no matter what without coming off as just a “sassy black guy”. Hunter, although his politics distress me about 98% of the time (and only partially because his obsession with “immigration status” leads me to think after retirement, he wrote the RNC platform) is reminiscent of Barney Fife on steroids, again and again attempting to give the world the benefit of his experience, only to have his gun go off in his pocket. Lucy Bates may be half in love with her boyish partner Joe Coffey, but that doesn’t mean she’s in the market to take any crap. She is another trendsetter, in that she usually keeps up with the guys at work and socially. Sometimes she worries about not being treated like a woman, but mostly she fights hard to keep her level of acceptance and respect.
Henry Goldblume is as clean as La Rue is dirty. He is the Bayliss of the ’80s. He is, in my opinion, too soft for his line of work, but like the Homicide character that follows him, he is compassionate and dedicated, both to working the cases and to the other people in the stationhouse. He can be capable of great wisdom and insight, although from time to time his protestations about the modern city being a cesspool and his threats to leave the police department make him seem more cowardly than kind. He’s tougher than he looks most of the time, which is good, because he’d have to be.
Probably the most important character in forming my sense of the world as I moved from apple-polishing A-student to ink-stained wretch is Chief Fletcher Daniels, played with hearty condescension by Jon Cypher. Daniels may work for the department, but he is not po-lice. He may be in charge, but he is not a hero. He is small-minded, concerned about his own image, xenophobic, and sexist, and therefore, almost as instructive about the nature of authority and power as my own struggles with bureaucracy years later, Indeed, his getting sucker-punched by rogue cop Norman Buntz in the series finale is a moment I recall with an almost physical pleasure, even though at the time I believed myself too nice to inflict that sort of thing on anyone. I suppose Hill Street was educational television, because it was one of the first shows I ever saw that took me beyond appearances. Mick Belker may look scruffy and threaten unspeakable violence to a suspect, but he can be the softest touch in the squad when it comes to somebody’s hard-luck story. Jesus Martinez may be the hard-edged leader of Los Diablos, but he still helps his grandmother get to the clinic sometimes. (I think HSB must be a profound influence on David Simon’s “Balmerverse;” the sensibility on NYPD Blue, Homicide’s contemporary, is far more us-versus-them and dedicated to drawing a clear line between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys.)
And so my obsession with urban narrative began, though I took it into the closet for a while, because, like my taste for seventies soul, it didn’t fit with the dominant aesthetic, and because my creative-writing teachers dismissed the detective story as too “genre” to contain the insights of our budding souls. I told myself I’d get over it, put aside those childish things in my responsible quest to write the New Yorkeriest stories this side of the Mississippi. Although it seemed that not very much happened to the people in those stories, I was convinced that my private tastes were vulgar and unsubtle. Rather than abandon them utterly, though, they acquired the glamour of most forbidden fruit, and I, closeted crime freak, read my mother’s Joseph Wambaugh novels (whose narratives of the ravages of middle age in a dangerous job, can read just as well as Updike, and you don’t have to guess where the funny parts are — well, I didn’t, but my humor is dark for a civilian). I read Elmore Leonard, caper-plotter extraordinaire, and the masters like Raymond Chandler and Daishell Hammett as well as the father of the procedural, Evan Handler, a.k.a. Ed McBain. In George Pelecanos, I found a writer that got the music thing as well as the crime thing, and in David Simon I found true crime with a heart, a mind, and a writing style. (I will always be grateful to him for cutting short my Ann Rule phase. I’ve not been able to touch her stuff since; though I thought it fed the same craving, it was fast-food in a world of filet mignons.)
I finally abandoned the thought that genre equals gutter and “came out” with my obsession for murder and mayhem and the culture of those who try to protect us from it. I learned to love Richard Price, who can wring the pain and the poetry out of dying New Jersey urban centers in a way that I wouldn’t be surprised got Faulkner-style respect one day, if corner boys ever get the literary pull of migrants and sharecroppers — although I doubt that the prolific Price will take the time to sit and hold his breath until that day arrives. For all that, his would just be a name I would have never heard if my parents had had different television viewing habits.
So maybe the watchdog groups can be right sometimes. Maybe it’s not “just television.” Maybe, in some small strange way, for some of us strange people, television is destiny. Rather than restrict it, though, maybe we should make sure it reflects as much about life as it possibly can.