Welcome to Summer Of Reruns. For the next few weeks in my column for l’étoile, I’m going to devote this column to looking at several shows and looking at why they’re important; not only in the history of the medium, but also why they’ve stuck around.
Before I begin, let’s do a little word association. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear these names…
– Vince Gilligan
– Matthew Weiner
– Darron Linderhoff
– Kurt Sutter
– David Chase
– David Milch
– Aaron Sorkin
– David Simon
If you’ve watched any TV over the last few decades, then those names should have made you think of (in order) Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Lost, Sons of Anarchy, The Sopranos, NYPD Blue (or Deadwood), The West Wing, and The Wire. The reason for this is pretty clear. We live in the age of the show runner; where a singular force (be it a writer, producer, or director – usually, but not necessarily, the show’s creator) is associated with the tone and temper of a show, for good or ill.
While this is a relatively new idea in the world of television, the concept of the show runner – a singular guiding force for a show – has its roots in the film world. In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, film critic and historian Peter Biskind mentions that the French auteur theory that came in vogue in European cinema in the early 1960s (thanks to the films of the nouvelle vague and the film criticism in Cahiers du Cinéma) started to take hold in Hollywood in the mid 1960s, thanks to American film critics (Andrew Saris and Pauline Kael in particular) adopting it wholesale and using it in their writing. The auteur theory states that the director of the film is considered the sole author of the work – regardless of the contributions of the producers, screenwriters, actors, or whomever. While this was (and still is) a controversial way of looking at film criticism, the auteur movement did inspire the directors of the 1970s in particular to create works that bear their own unmistakeably individulalistic stamp (think Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdonavich, Martin Scorcese, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, Roman Polanski, and the early films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas).
In the case of television, the auteur theory wouldn’t really catch hold for a while. While there were some show creators (such as M*A*S*H creator and head writer Larry Gelbhart and producer James Komack who helmed Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico and The Man) who tried to put their own individual stamps on their shows, most shows in the 1970s would still default to being team efforts that were collectively put together. Even All In The Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were not so much works of a singular individual but rather calling cards for the house styles of Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions and Moore and Grant Tinkler’s MTM Enterprises.
It would take television almost two decades to catch up Hollywood’s obsession with the auteur theory and find a way to make it work on the small screen, with the birth of the modern day show runner heralded by two shows. Both were cop shows but took very different approaches to the material. Both were populated by a diverse ensemble of actors. Both heavily relied on the inherent nobility of being a police officer while contrasting it with the minutiae of day-to-day office life. Both would lift the veil on the characters lives outside of their jobs. Both would see their showrunners do everything in their power to make the show on their own terms and keep their vision for it undiminished by meddling networks. And both shows would be hailed with awards and critical hosannas, and would pave the way for future showrunners to work in the medium.
In short, Barney Miller and Hill Street Blues made television safe for show runners.
Debuting on ABC on January 22, 1975, Barney Miller was the first show out of the gate. Centering around the offices of the 12th NYPD Precinct in Greenwich Village in a New York City in the throes of recession and economic degradation, it told the story of the titular precinct captain (played by Hal Linden), the detectives and policemen that served under him (many of whom would rather be doing anything else but police work), the colorful crooks and complainers that came through the precinct’s doors, and the bureaucratic red tape that he had to deal with on a daily basis. Though the show was co-created by Theodore J. Flicker and was heavily influenced by frequent director Noam Pitlik, the show bears the unmistakable stamp and world-view of writer and show-runner Danny Arnold. As much known for his backstage dramas as he was for his brilliant scripts (he would often keep the cast after the taping was done till 3AM or later with re-written scenes and re-shooting other ones to get the exact tone that he was looking for), Arnold’s greatest show took a balanced, if comedic look, at the pleasures and pains of public service. Over the course of its eight seasons, Barney Miller would win one Best Comedic Series Emmy, a host of Golden Globes, and the Peabody Award.
Meanwhile, writer Steven Bochco was knocking around Hollywood writing episodes for various shows (Columbo, McMillian & Wife, Ironside, Delevecchio and others) as well as co-writing the screenplay for Silent Running. In 1978, he was hired as a writer for MTM Enterprises, who at the end of the 1970s was stepping away from its signature comedies (in the wake of The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s ending in 1977). Bochco wrote for MTM’s acclaimed dramas Lou Grant and The White Shadow, but he longed to create his own show. In 1979, his first show Paris (which showed a police captain – played by James Earl Jones – not only on the job, but also his home life and his side job as a professor of criminology) received great notices but was cancelled after one season. It was then that MTM paired Bochco with fellow writer Michael Kozoll to create a police drama for NBC (where Tinker had become president of the network). What they created was Hill Street Blues, an unflinching police procedural that centered around the cops at a police station and their day to day lives at work and at home. Since it’s debut Hill Street has been routinely acclaimed as one of the greatest television shows ever made; a groundbreaking show that has gone on to define the prime time drama and influence virtually every drama made in its wake.
At first glance both Barney Miller and Hill Street Blues are two wildly different shows, and for that matter two wildly different takes on the police procedural. Yet even though both shows are co-creations, they all have a very singular point of view and set the role of the modern show runner as we know it. Here’s how both shows changed the television medium.
* Urban Decay – If you’ve been reading my Mad Men pieces, then you’ll know that one of creator Matthew Weiner’s pet themes was how New York changed in the 1960s from glittering metropolis to beleaguered urban disaster, while California became the new mecca for America. Both shows (Barney Miller in particular, since it’s set in then present day New York) show the logical endpoint of where the 70s took many inner cities particularly in the eastern half of the country (Hill Street was always cagey about saying exactly where it took place, even going so far as to obscure any identifying traits within its inner city, but it was clear that it happened anywhere from say Chicago eastbound). This grittiness infected and influenced every single moment of the two shows; lending an uncanny amount of verisimilitude to the proceedings. Even the way both shows were shot gave credence to this. Barney Miller was a standard multi-camera sitcom but always composed of close ups of the actors or wide pans that took in the run down set, while Hill Street was shot primarily with handheld cameras lending a documentary feel to the proceedings.
* The Clubhouse and The Outside World – Both shows had very iconic sets that heavily played into the show. In the case of Barney Miller, it was the heavily detailed confines of “the old One Two.” Every square inch of that set led the show to have an ironclad sense of realism, which would be occasionally invaded by the telephone which would connect the cast to various spouses / lovers / friends / etc. In the case of Hill Street, while the precinct was detailed and used the pre-show roll call sequence to galvanize the sense of place, the outside world was a stronger presence, not only in following the cops out onto their beats, but seeing their home lives as well; a notion that Bochco developed while working on Paris. Many episodes ended with Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) and his erstwhile lover public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) discussing current cases and events in the episode.
* Whose Show Is This Anyway? – While both Barney Miller and Hill Street Blues had leading men in Hal Linden and Daniel J. Travanti respectively, both shows were ensemble pieces filled to the teeth with richly drawn characters that the audience came to love (in the former, think of the great Abe Vigoda and Jack Soo as Detectives Fish and Yemana respectively; in the later the iconic Michael Conrad as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) and care about as much as the leading characters. Both shows would eventually develop repertory companies of actors that would appear again and again in each show. As to how they used their actors, that’s a different story. While Hill Street was sympathetic to all sides to a point, it could be very narrow minded in its view of anyone not immediately attached to the precinct. By contrast, Barney Miller had one of the most diverse group of characters ever – racially, economically, and socially speaking; even deftly handling a supporting officer coming out as gay with deftness (and accuracy as Arnold consulted with the Gay Media Task Force over the best way to handle it while being respectful). The sheer size of both ensembles led to both shows weaving multiple plot lines per episode and counting on the audience to keep it all straight. Hill Street would also took the serialized nature of prime time soap operas like Dallas and apply those storytelling techniques to keeping plots going over multiple episodes, not necessarily resolving within in one episode.
* A Singular Vision… – While they were both co-creations and had teams of writers as most television shows have (more on that in a minute), both are widely regarded as singular visions of one person. In the case of Bochco, that meant creating a show that balanced the professional and personal lives of his policemen. In Arnold’s case it meant a show that took a humanistic look at the inner nobility and camaraderie of the job of being a police officer in the face of a city in decay (as performed by one of the most diverse ensemble of characters ever in television history). While Bochco reveled in the grittiness of urban life, Arnold tried to find the nobility hidden within it. Both shows also had their share of controversy: Bochco and Kozoll (aided and abetted by Tinker and then NBC Programming Director Brandon Tartikoff) fought to keep the show on the air uncompromised, while Arnold would constantly rewrite and reshoot his and his team’s scripts to get the exact tone that he wanted.
* …But They Had Help – As I mentioned, though both shows were co-created and the singular vision of one man, they were team written. Barney Miller had Tom Reeder, Chris Hayward, Tony Sheehan, and eventual Night Court creator Reinhold Weegie. Meanwhile, Hill Street Blues would have a murderers row of iconic writers who would go on to create and work on other iconic dramas; including Anthony Yerkovich (Miami Vice), Dick Wolf (Law & Order), Mark Frost (Twin Peaks), Lee David Zlotoff (MacGyver), David Mamet (The Unit), and of course David Milch (who would become show runner once Bochco was fired by MTM in Season 5 and would then co-create NYPD Blue with Bochco years later).
* The Legacies – Both Hill Street Blues and Barney Miller have changed the face of television. In the case of Hill Street, it would set the template for virtually every television drama ever to come in its wake. As for Barney Miller, it serves as the ground floor of the dramedy and would pave the way for shows particularly in the 1980s that would blur the lines between comedy and drama (think Moonlighting, The Wonder Years, Frank’s Place and others – all of which would not have been possible without this show). Both shows would give the wings to the show runner, giving them the strength to fight with producers and/or networks to keep their shows on and uncompromised (such as the battles Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, Diane English, and Roseanne Barr all endured in the 80s over Designing Women, Murphy Brown, and Roseanne respectively).
The first three seasons of Hill Street Blues and select episodes of Barney Miller are available on Hulu. The complete runs of both shows are on DVD courtesy of Shout! Factory.