Television has undergone tremendous cultural renaissance in recent times with more quality being showcased, targeted at a more discerning adult audience. TV genres change and develop in line with the constant changes in the culture or the historical periods in which the genres are being produced. Genre analysis includes gaining understanding of the evolution of genre with passage of time. Typically, TV police drama has been a conservative genre with a characteristic unending struggle between good and evil. The conservative genre has thus consistently explored popular concerns, contemporary folk devils, and social mores (Nichols-Pethick, 2012). In the same breadth, the TV police genre has treaded the thin line between realism and an upbeat depiction of the police force. It has been a genre that has been subject to harsh stereotyping and tokenism. On the one hand, the TV police genre is a highly versatile and flexible genre with the ability to deal with the loss of central characters and address rather sensitive social issues.
Current television programs have characteristic higher production values with more advanced plot-lines, strong dialogue together with fully developed character roles (Miller, 2012). The police genre has experienced significant evolution over the last 3 decades, from Hill Street Blues (1981-87) to NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) in present day.
It is important to analyze the Hill Street Blues because it is the series that inspired lots of subsequent police dramatic television series, including NCIS. It is worth reviewing Hill Street Blues because it revolutionized the TV police drama in the sense that it proved that it was possible to produce a crime drama with high level quality and sophistication that was only known for featuring length cinema (Nichols-Pethick, 2012).
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how the TV Police drama has undergone tremendous evolution from Hill Street Blue to NCIS in terms of storytelling, style, as well as gender politics in TV police drama.
Hill Street Blues
Hill Street Blues is an American police drama series that aired on NBC from 1981 to 1987. Its hallmark is that it introduced the ensemble cast into a police drama. The show strived to reinvigorate the contemporary TV police drama by adopting a humanist, documentary-like approach that strike a balance between police procedural aspects and a nuanced depiction of the cops’ private lives as well as personal travails. The quality of script writing, acting, as well as camera work in Hill Street Blues inspired a generic shift in the television crime drama.
Hill Street Blues was set in a natural chaotic police precinct in unnamed eastern crime-ridden city which probably symbolized the decline of United States’ inner city during President Reagan’s era. The show adopted a “tele-verite” style that had characteristically overlapping dialogue along with distracted camerawork (Miller, 2012). The main actor of the series, Captain Frank Furillo, was in charge of the dilapidated Hill Street police station with responsibilities to supervise overworked police officers, deal with dangerous criminals, and manage a tangle city bureaucracy besides having to cope with a combative ex-wife while sustaining a secret love affair with a liberal public defender, Joyce Davenport (Tasker, 2010).
Each episode of the drama features a series of intertwined storylines, some of which were exhausted within the episode, but most were developed over in a number of episodes that followed in a season. As such, Hill Street Blues was not limited to self-contained episodes, where the case had to be resolved before rolling of credits (Nichols-Pethick, 2012). Most of the plots consist of the conflicts between work lives and private lives of individual characters. The action is given a documentary feel through a closely-held camera and rapidly cut action between stories together with much overhead and off-screen dialogue. Instead of studio cameras, the production used hand-held cameras.
Hill Street Blues also challenged the conservative stereotypes of the traditional TV police show in the sense it included a diverse police force consisting of women and people of color (O’Donnell, 2007). In addition, the show depicted aspects of police corruption and the realistic tensions between the police fore and ghettoized minorities.
In Hill Street Blues, abrupt editing together with temporal discontinuity are utilized to give the audience a feeling of being led through the show’s narrative by an omnipresent camera eye. There is occasional use of handheld camera shots as well as frequent use of rolled focus which serve to draw attention to the medium, and in so doing reminding the audience that it is experiencing art (Nichols-Pethick, 2012). This establishes aesthetic distance. Hill Street Blues made use of contemporary rock soundtrack, stylized camera angles and rapid-fire editing.
The narrative complexity of the Hill Street Blues is evident from the beginning in the sense that it presents a number of stories at ago (Miller, 2012). “Film at Eleven” episode from season I, carries five stories with a total of twenty-nine identifiable characters. The five stories unfold virtually simultaneously in a rather contemporary urban setting. While the main story has a definite story time of approximately six months, the rest of the stories take less time. Vagueness in terms of storey time is thus characteristic of Hill Street Blues (Nichols-Pethick, 2012). The discourse structure takes approximately one day, where an episode opens with routine roll call at seven o’clock and ends with some sort of late-night conversation between characters. Thus, the sequence of events is portrayed chronologically, developing from morning through evening.
Hill Street Blues follows television drama culture of seeking to answer the little questions (i.e. who really committed the crime under investigation?), but leaving the big questions defiantly unanswered (i.e. how can law and order be restored to society?) (O’Donnell, 2007). The show also exploits television’s tenedency of posing questions over and over again but it complicates everything by posing several questions to the viewer at the same time, in so doing intermixing the necessary narrative pieces for reaching answers, while leaving a considerable number of those pieces (Tasker, 2010).
In Hill Street Blues, there is a classical melodramatic battle between order on the one hand and chaos on the other, which unfolds on three interactive levels: on societal level (where evil represents violent crime or political corruption); on interpersonal level (where evil is represented by behaviors undermining the work of the group), and on personal level (where evil is in the form of insanity or insufficient personal disintegration, or failure to cope with the crisis) (Miller, 2012).
Undercover detectives such as Crockett and Tubbs were clad in typical expensive designer clothes and drove in flashy cars meant to boost their undercover drug dealer image. The show’s two leads were interracial male buddies, which were designed to show that differences in race, culture, and background can indeed be overcome through a genuine shared commitment to the police work (Miller, 2012). As such, Hill Street Blues introduced the viewer to a gritty police drama from the perspective of character relationships, not merely heroes and villains
The evolution in storytelling, style, as well as gender politics in TV police drama that had been introduced by Hill Street Blues significantly evolved over the years as evidenced by modern-day shows like NCIS (Tasker, 2010).
NCIS series casts a team of investors with special assignments to deal with a host of criminal activities that involves Navy personnel and the Marines. This entails the whole gamut of crime, from serial killers, fraud, unauthorized absences, to international espionage (O’Donnell, 2007). The team is led by a retired Marine gunnery sergent, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, and a collection of colorful detectives and lab workers.
Today’s audience, which NCIS targets, is more analytical and quality-oriented than that of Hill Street Blues back in the 1980’s (Miller, 2012). NCIS was an adult police drama with unique R-rated language, partial nudity, and brought a fresh sense of gritty urban realism to the entire police genre. NCIS features spectacles of all kinds: explosive, natural, urban and sexual (especially in the form of characteristic cut-ins of unnamed erotic dancers or bikini-clad young women) (O’Donnell, 2007). The series address a number of high profile cases such as the death of presidential military aide, bomb and terrorism scares, kidnappings, and stolen sensitive data. Similar to Hill Street Blues, NCIS does not make use of two-dimensional heroic figures with typical car chases, hip comments, as well as black and white depiction of good cop versus bad guys (Tasker, 2010).
NCIS has a characteristic nature, complex treatment of the personal drama of the cops’ lives, which typically involves on-job romance, infidelity, alcoholism, racism elements craftily interwoven with a rather gripping procedural plotting. There is a strong relationship between the show’s characters and their rather believable and real backgrounds (O’Donnell, 2007). Also, there is use of rapid montage sequences that juxtapose movement, ocean waves, and pursuit. The police genre makes use of identifiable spectacular sceneries. It has a distinctive narrative, which strikes to reconstruct events, use forensic formats based in the laboratory accompanied with sidebar explanations of the featured techniques and phenomena (Tasker, 2010). Furthermore, modern-day TV police genre features specialist units that demonstrate certain areas of expertise to the viewer.
This paper has demonstrated how the TV police drama has undergone tremendous evolution from Hill Street Blue to NCIS. The two cop shows have similarities in the sense that they have high production values, multi-stranded narrative, use narrative enigma, and are character driven or ensemble cast. Modern-day cop shows are more graphic and often aired after 10 pm for the adult audience. The cinematic representations have also dramatically changed and make use of such new features as split screen editing, extensive camera angles movements, aerial shots, low key lighting, filters and rapid/slow motion effects. The current police drama genre is a product of a well-executed formula, created in a commercial with dependence on repetition and reliability. Finally, television programs have significant impact to the society in that they serve to modify or build a perception among the viewers. In particular, TV police dramas have changed significantly over the years and affect the manner in which real police, criminals, and the public behavior in real life (Nichols-Pethick, 2012).