In June 1985, TV Guide published a cover story called “Why Hill Street Blues is Irresistible.” It was written by Joyce Carol Oates. The police drama’s fifth season had finished airing a few weeks earlier, and Oates could hardly believe what she had seen. She began by reminding her readers what TV was usually like: “Television was entertaining, often highly diverting, but not intellectually or emotionally stimulating, like serious literature. Until a few years ago, my husband and I did not even own a set.” But Hill Street Blues changed all that. Oates called the show “a forum for timely, provocative issues,” with a diverse cast, moral complexity, and “Dickensian” inner-city blight. She also mentioned, in a paragraph that NBC’s programming executives must have been happy to read, that it was “one of the few television programs watched by a fair percentage of my Princeton colleagues.” Today, Oates’s colleagues don’t just watch television. They write books about The Sopranos (at least twenty so far), and teach courses (at Harvard, in the sociology department) on The Wire. Her article is a blueprint for what is now a thirty-year-long love affair between television and the intellectual class.
Hill Street Blues elicited the response it did by changing the way stories were told in prime time. Up through the ’70s, prime time television was episodic. Each episode of a show like Dragnet introduced a narrative and then resolved that narrative in time for the closing credits. Jack Webb, Lucille Ball, Starsky, Hutch — from week to week these characters reappeared on the screen as though newly born, blissfully unburdened of everything but the flickering present. By the early ’80s, though, it was clear that something needed to change. The arrival of pay and cable television stations, as well as home video equipment and rental chains, had eaten away at ratings. ABC, CBS, and NBC needed to inspire new kinds of loyalty in their audiences. They did it by making the stories longer, and by giving their characters memories and futures.
Hill Street Blues stretched storylines over several episodes or even entire seasons, and used its large cast of cops, lawyers, and spouses to stack tangled plots on top of one another. The show also introduced the single-camera style to prime time, trading the usual trio of stationary shots for a mobile point of view that could slide erratically from one character or storyline to another. It was slow going at first: “My wife is confused,” one programming director complained, “and she is a smart broad.” But producers Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll were careful to keep things under control — no more than four stories were allowed at once, for example — and in its second and third seasons Hill Street Blues was the highest-rated series on NBC.