Wednesday, May 19, 2010


John McFetridge

Do you remember when Hill Street Blues was first on TV? It was a revelation in many ways but one of the big things about it was the way it blended what I’d call soap opera elements with police procedural and moral dilemmas.

I’m thinking about an early episode in which a couple of guys broke into a church, stole things and raped and murdered a nun. They were caught, but there was no evidence beyond the possession of the stolen items.

Joyce Davenport, the public aid lawyer represented them and wanted to make a deal. An angry mob gathered around the police station. Captain Furillo demanded a full confession.

Joyce refused and said there was no way they’d get a conviction for the murder with the evidence they had so they’d plead to a lesser charge.

Furillo said, okay, you’re right, we won’t get a conviction on the murder with the evidence we have and we’re not interested in the lesser charge. Your clients are free to go.

And Joyce freaked and said the mob outside would rip them apart and Furillo said, yeah, well, if they confess to the murder they get to stay safe in a jail cell. Joyce said he was using the threat of a lynching to extort a murder confession and Furillo said, damned right I am.

I had all kinds of mixed feelings about that. The cops have to play by the rules but the bad guys have to be caught. He was extorting a confession. Was he going too far in breaking the rules? If he was so certain these guys were guilty couldn’t he get more evidence legally? The show didn’t offer any easy answers.

The next day one of my co-workers asked if I’d seen Hill Street Blues and I said, yeah, and she said, “Do you think Frank will get back together with Fay?”
I said, “What?” No idea what she was talking about until I remembered that throughout the episode Captain Furillo’s ex-wife, Fay, was in the precinct and when he had the fight with his girlfriend, Joyce Davenport, he and Fay shared a very understanding look.

At the time, angry young man that I was, I dismissed this soap opera aspect (and my co-worker) as silly and unnecessary, something network TV was forced to stoop to for ratings.

And later I realized (once again) how wrong I was.

The advertising industry on Mad Men, the mafia wars on The Sopranos, the backroom politics on The Good Wife – they’re only ever half a story. Without the soap opera elements, without Don and Betty, Tony and Carmela and Alicia and Peter those shows just don’t have the emotional depth to be interesting week after week.

The question, “Will their marriage survive?” hangs over every episode. It’s the drama version of, “Will they get it on?” the sexual tension that so many comedies are built around.

This is probably incredibly obvious to you, but I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Crime fiction has had a few famous couples as well, like Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man and Spenser and Susan Silverman and MacMillan and Wife and Hart to Hart on TV (and I’m sure lots and lots more, please feel free to inform me in the comments), though it never really felt like any of those marriages were in trouble (and I haven't read all the Spenser's, did they ever get married?).

Noir fiction, though, usually has the loner male and the femme fatale we just can’t trust. And it usually ends badly. Really bad for her and mostly bad for him.

Are there any couples that stay together in noir?


Declan Burke said...

I remember that Hill Street Blues episode vividly, it made quite the impression on a young man. As I recall, I was all in favour of Frank's style ... and I can't really argue with him now, either.

Cheers, Dec

Paul D Brazill said...

Good post. That episode of HSB made a strong impression on me too. still gets the bood boiling a bit.

I think the realationships in noir are usually those of cronies and sidekicks. Mind you, Tom Ripley and his wife stayed together through the books . And she was French.

Scott D. Parker said...

Wow. You're recent posts and the thinking in my head are so similar I'm beginning to think I'm sub-letting my brain to you. In noir, it does seem that loners and fatales make up the bulk of the character population. I think that's a result of the style of the fiction. Maybe not so with mystery fiction. Ever since I wrote the piece for our little experiment, I've been working through those characters to see if there isn't a place for a modern-day Hart to Hart or Nick and Nora. I think there is.

Dana King said...

Sorry I'm late to the party here; I've been away.

That was one of the most memorable HSBs in a long and distinguished string. That, and episodes like it, was what made first think there could be more to "mysteries" than solving the crime; how it was solved, and its resolution, were at least as important.

I used to have the same concept as you used to about the "soap opera" aspects; now I disagree with myself. Soap operas are manipulative of the readers'/viewers' emotions; shows like HSB evoked those same emotions. It's much better.

I've been thinking about this lately as I've read some standalone thrillers by a novelist whose PI stories I enjoy very much. The thrillers, to me, are weak, because he manipulates emotions instead of evoking them. The problem is, that's what people want. GREY'S ANATOMY is a much more popular show than was HILL STREET BLUES, in part because it tells you how to think. HSB left that up to you, and people don't seem to want that level of responsibility.

Not noir, but a crime fiction couple who stayed together--my personal favorite couple--are Steve and Teddy Carella from Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels.