For me, Hill Street Blues has always been the gold standard of cop shows. I was one of those kids who grew up fascinated by everything to do with the police; mesmerized by flashing lights, eyes drawn to any squad or officer that passed by, and inventing countless variations of cops-and-robbers with my cousins and friends. But best of all were the cop shows. ADAM-12, Hawaii 5-0, Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, McCloud, Kojak, Columbo, and SWAT thrilled and provided endless plot ideas for creative, idealistic, go-get-the-bad-guy, cop-loving kids to incorporate into play.
By 1981, most of those shows were off the air or soon would be. While they had been entertaining when I was much younger, at sixteen I understood them for the fantasy world they were and had long since left them behind. I bored easily with the campiness most seventies action TV offered and my interests were drawn elsewhere. And then came Hill Street Blues. Hill Street Blues was something new and very, very different. The sets were gritty, the dialogue more authentic, the humor dark and the interplay between characters timed to feel real. It had Veronica Hamel. I was hooked. I wanted to be a cop again.
What I liked most about it was the humanness displayed in each character. Most lead cop characters in past shows I grew up on seemed to be larger-than-life and cocky, the hardest and smartest guy in the station with infallible instincts. Whether they got the job done with irreverence or stoicism, there was no question justice would surely be served before the end credits rolled.
On Hill Street the cops were different. Any one of them could be heroic but fear-driven, compassionate and callous, brilliant and insecure, and often all in the same episode. Personalities clashed, friendships bloomed and died, and rivalries developed. They were often torn between doing the right thing and doing what it takes, and it seemed that, as often as not, the fruit of their best efforts was failure as they struggled against the troubles of a decaying neighborhood. They grew cynical. They were human.
The one character who seemed most controlled, most pragmatic, and most wise was the station commander, Captain Frank Furillo. Frank was calm in a storm. He had the respect of cops and criminals alike. He held himself to a moral code where doing the right thing was his sole option. Furillo seemed a more classic rendition of the unperturbed, straight-shooting, stoical TV cop of old: Buttoned-down, squared away, and all business on the Hill.
And Frank Furillo was an alcoholic. A drunk in his own words, years of sobriety and recovery notwithstanding, he preferred to not sugarcoat his worst self. He was an addict, and addiction is what this column is really about.
The hard drinking, hard living - or formerly hard drinking, hard living - cop is sort of a regular in TV, cinema, and literature. Not long after I discovered Hill Street I was bored and found my Dad's copy of The New Centurions and was introduced to the world of Joseph Wambaugh. Sugarcoating is not his style, either, and he had been writing cop fiction through the eyes of someone who had lived the Job with other flesh-and-blood cops long before Hill Street Blues and its even grittier followers emerged. It was fiction that examined the human condition through the eyes of its guardians, and the effect of on the guardians.
That police officers experience addiction (most often alcohol and drug) rates greater than the general public is something often reported, apparently taken for granted, but virtually never substantiated. While researching for our recent series on depression and police officers, that assertion popped up repeatedly but nothing beyond anecdotal support for it was found. I imagine the rates of alcoholism are no higher, and I hope lower, than that of the general public. I just do not know. I certainly hope drug addiction rates are far, far lower, but again, I just do not know. What is known is cops are often a very different breed than the people they protect, and strikingly similar all at once. Police officers are human beings long before they join the force, feeling all the same emotions, experiencing the same fears and stressors, and often going through the same problems.