Regarded as a hallmark in American dramatic television. First dramatic series to incorporate long shots, hand-held shots and continuous story lines. Nominated for 21 Emmys for its first season--a record, despite having low ratings.
The theme music, written by Mike Post, became a hit song on its own and won a Grammy. Post said that when he was writing the theme, he first wanted the music to match the gritty visuals he was shown. He then decided to do the opposite, to create a theme that was beautiful and serene, that "took you away" from what you were seeing.
NBC executives supported the series in its infancy, despite a lack of viewers. In 1981 it became the lowest-rated series ever renewed for a second season. It also wasn't renewed for the entire season, just for ten episodes. It was only picked up for the full season after ratings improved.
The exterior shots of the Hill Street station were those of an actual Chicago police station. Now no longer used by the city, it was at one time the home of the 7th District, located near the old Maxwell Street Market, and is called "The Hill Street Blues Station". It is used by the University of Illinois-Chicago police. During Prohibition this precinct had the reputation as the most corrupt in the U.S. Its captain once had to distribute his personnel roster to mob bagmen who delivered the weekly payoffs, because they were handing out money to every cop in the place indiscriminately and cops from other stations were showing up on payoff day.
The pilot script said the show took place in an unnamed Midwestern city. Throughout the show's seven-year run, the exact name of the city was never mentioned, although there were hints as to its location. The police cars were based on those of the Chicago Police Department, while the officers' uniforms were based on that of the New York City Police Department. Neither city has a precinct known as "The Hill", although Pittsburgh, PA (where series creator Steven Bochco attended Carnegie Institute of Technology, now known as Carnegie Mellon University), does. In addition, the City Hall shown in the series, is actually that of Philadelphia, PA. Also, several times characters talk about how they're going to or just came from "the shore", which is a term used by East Coast (mostly New York/New Jersey) residents referring to the "Jersey Shore", which is a beach resort area. On the other hand, at several points some of the elevated train cars that pass through the city can be seen with "CTA" painted on their sides. "CTA" stands for Chicago Transit Autority.
Originally Hill and Renko were supposed to die in the shooting in the drug house in the first episode. When it was decided that the series needed more uniformed cops to justify its title, several finished or in-production episodes were re-worked to show that both had survived and to bring them back. Other uniforms' parts were expanded as well.
The opening credit sequence was shot in Chicago, while the episodes themselves were shot in Los Angeles. Location scouts said it was hard to find Los Angeles locations for the show because they could not have visible palm trees. Most of the "grittier" exterior scenes were shot in the grimier parts of downtown Los Angeles, which has the look of a decaying Midwestern or Northeastern city. At least the first episode (possibly as many as the first three) was shot on-location in Chicago.
Contrary to popular belief, it was Renko who was supposed to have died in the shootout in the pilot, while his partner Hill survives. Charles Haid was originally a guest star in the pilot, as a favor for Steven Bochco. After he shot the "Hill Street" pilot he shot one for a proposed NBC hospital dramatic series, but it wasn't picked up by the network. He then asked Bochco if Renko could be resurrected and made into a regular in the series.
A hallmark in the development of television drama, this was the first straight drama to incorporate multi-episode story arcs and sweeping narrative, which had heretofore only been used in soap operas. Now all dramas use this technique, from Game of Thrones (2011) to Pretty Little Liars (2010), and this can all be traced back to this series.
The title refers to the blue uniforms worn by many police officers in the U.S., and is perhaps an intentional pun on the musical style "blues," which is depressing in its tone ("Hill Street" is the name of the precinct). The phrase is uttered only once within the series, by Detective Emil Schneider in Hill Street Blues: Gatorbait (1981). Schneider says it in a slightly mocking tone, in reference to officers Hill and Renko, whom he feels are out of their league at a particular crime scene. It should be noted, however, that the precinct bowling team is the "Hill Street Blue Ballers."
During the course of the various episodes, 17 precincts are named: Hill Street, Polk Avenue, Midtown, Von Steuben Avenue, North-East, St. James' Park, Michigan Avenue, Washington Heights, South Ferry, West Delavan, Fillmore, South Park, Preston Heights, Castle Heights, Richmond Avenue, Farmingdale and Jefferson Heights.
The producers went to great lengths to avoid specifying where the series took place, even going so far as to obscure whether the call letters of local television stations began with "W" (the Federal Communications Commission designation for stations east of the Mississippi) or "K" (signifying a station west of the Mississippi). However, a station identified in multiple episodes is WREQ-TV, Channel 6, indicating that the series is set east of the Mississippi River. Another indication that the series took place in the Midwest or Northeast was Officer Renko's statement to his partner in Hill Street Blues: Politics as Usual (1981): "Just drop that 'cowboy' stuff. I was born in New Jersey, never been west of Chicago in my life."
In an episode that would never get made today, J.D. Larue (Kiel Martin), a 35-year-old cop, pursued a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old Catholic-school girl (Ally Sheedy. However, when the girl finally let Larue know she was also interested in a sexual relationship, he thought better of it and (somewhat reluctantly) turned her down.
Steven Bochco would produce another show after this, L.A. Law (1986), which took this series' place on the Thursday night line-up. That show was designed to be like "Hill Street" quality wise--an adult show about professionals that pushed the envelope, but more mainstream, more ratings-friendly and more popular. Bochco's plan worked, the show was critically acclaimed like "Hill Street", but stayed in the top 20 for most of its run, unlike "Hill Street."