Bochco’s Brooklyn South: Hill Street Blues Gone Blah

Sixteen years ago, Steven Bochco rubbed the TV cop show in the gutter and made it fresh. Hill Street Blues had a ragged look, a layered sound, a penchant for double-entendres, an adroit movement between criminal stories and domestic intrigue, and a smoky feel for moral ambiguity among ghetto cops. It mixed farce with melodrama, often enough to the advantage of both. It featured African-Americans who weren’t mascots, women who weren’t beautiful, actors in their 30’s and 40’s, and characters with immigrant names like “Renko” and “Goldblume.” It acknowledged social divides of race. It sometimes caricatured the poor but rarely puffed the police, either.

Sixteen years later, after L.A. Law and N.Y.P.D. Blue , comes Mr. Bochco, now partnered with David Milch and William Finkelstein, with Brooklyn South (CBS, Mondays, 10 P.M.), accompanied by a full bucket of hype about gritty truth on the urban frontier, complete with prefigurations of the brutalizing of Abner Louima. The hype that drenched the entertainment pages came from critics eager to convince themselves that there’s life in dramatic television yet. In truth, Brooklyn South is a cop show-no big deal, and self-cannibalizing at that.

Some of the differences are manifest from the start. Tune up your V-chips, America. Language, for one thing. In the far-gone early 80’s, Hill Street had to fight to get the word “crap” in. Sometimes censorship led to a certain ingenuity. Censors tried to keep Capt. Frank Furillo from telling public defender Joyce Davenport that she “gives good succor,” and the producers told NBC that that was a perfectly good English word, just see any dictionary. The need for euphemism led to “dog breath” and “hairbag.” By contrast, on Brooklyn South , the word “asshole” leaps out of one mouth after another with the greatest of ease.

In the sense of blood and guts, Brooklyn South is visceral, and yet, in a popular culture of movie-administered shock therapy that has become routine, the shocks no longer shock. In the pilot, the bad guy who shot a cop in the head sent a small spray of brains out of his skull, but this was-in network parlance-“tasteful,” the spray being barely detectable. (Had it not been for the hype, no one would have noticed.) In the third episode, we were treated to several medium shots of a corpse whose genitals had been shot off. The point was to scare a teenager into breaking with a gang of drug dealers. You could defend the horror, the horror, as a means by which one cop gets to terrify the youth into going straight-only to set him up be to murdered, throwing the cop into a short-lived crisis of conscience. There has always been a certain crudity in Mr. Bochco’s idea of style, but it was moderated in the first year of Hill Street by the more writerly hand of co-creator Michael Kozoll. Mr. Kozoll and Mr. Bochco divorced, and Mr. Bochco’s penchant for toilet jokes remained. In the current atmosphere, crudity consists of getting away with disgusting pictures, trying to keep up with advances-if that is the right word-in movie makeup techniques. If this is progress, its name is television.

Mr. Bochco is now a certified auteur, so he does also knockoffs of himself. Each Hill Street episode began with a roll call, wherein Sergeant Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) gave special orders composed of whole sentences, in effect setting the agenda for the rest of the show, while the hand-held camera roamed around the room, catching byplay in the ranks. Mr. Conrad is dead, and today’s sergeant is younger and more beautiful, but the same hand-held camera is moving among the rank-and-file. What began as innovation has ended as shtick.

Perhaps the new show should be called “Brooklyn 11210.” The Brooklyn South cops are prettier, younger, WASP-ier, blander than Hill Street ‘s, except for the one Hill Street holdover, James B. Sikking, formerly the right-wing buffoon Lieut. Howard Hunter, now resuscitated as a sleazy but apparently effective internal affairs investigator. The cops are mighty white for a largely black precinct, which is not only unrealistic, but surely limits the dramatic possibilities. And if, as it appears at this writing, the killing of the show’s Colin Ferguson-like bad guy was an act of private vengeance, for all its prescience in depicting police brutality, it has nothing to do with the Abner Louima case.

There’s something complacent about Brooklyn South , as if, since the public rightly believes police work to be indispensable in a civilized society, the cops have to be cardboard heroes. Formula remains the network rule. The entertainment machine turns its realism into a stunt and keeps the medium juvenile.

Note on Hollyworm

Speaking of hype, Dreamworks’ The Peacemaker features a noble lunatic driven to radioactive extremities by the sniping murder of his wife and child in Sarajevo. “I am a Serb, I am a Croat, I am a Muslim,” says this nonpartisan terrorist, the only character in the film who is certified free of wisecracks. We see this Everyvictim being promoted to political leadership in a scene set-as the supertitle reads-in the “Bosnian Parliament, Pale, Bosnia.” But if your Serbo-Croatian is rusty, you may not note that a banner marks the setting as the Republika Srpska-Serb Republic-in the Cyrillic alphabet, which is indeed the one used by Serbs. So the sign unreadable by most English-speakers is explicit where the supertitle is murky. This terrorist ready to render the East Side of Manhattan uninhabitable in his crusade for justice is a Serb. A signal to cognoscenti that somebody involved with this production actually knew that the victims of snipers in Sarajevo were overwhelmingly Muslims and the shooters were Serbs? Evidently, after the scene was in the can, somebody at the last minute thought it diplomatic to whitewash the Serb side.

Bochco’s Brooklyn South: Hill Street Blues Gone Blah