Regarded as a hallmark in American dramatic television. First dramatic series to incorporate long shots and 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 instead 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 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 Dept., while the officers' uniforms were based on that of the New York City Police Dept. 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. However, in the episode Hill Street Blues: The Young, the Beautiful and the Degraded (1982) Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) mentions to Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock) about their "weekends at the shore". "The shore" is a term used on the East Coast to refer to the beach resort area of southern New Jersey; someone living in Chicago would have no need to use that term, as it refers to the seashore, which Chicago doesn't have.
Contrary to popular belief, it was Renko alone 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 series creator 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.
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 reworked to show that they had survived and to bring them back; other uniforms' parts were expanded as well.
Though it was never officially established in which city the show took place, it was long thought to have been Chicago. In fact, at least one location shot included an elevated train with the letters "CTA" on the front. "CTA" stands for "Chicago Transit Authority".
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 now called "The Hill Street Blues Station". It is now used by the University of Illinois-Chicago police. During Prohibition, this precinct had a reputation as the most corrupt in the US. Its captain once distributed his personnel roster to the Mafia 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 opening credit sequence was shot in Chicago, while the episodes themselves were shot in Los Angeles. Location scouts said it was hard to find L.A. 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 L.A., 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)
Series creator Steven Bochco named the show after an area of Pittsburgh, PA, known as "The Hill", near where he went to college at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now known as Carnegie Mellon University).
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 TV 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 Ofc. 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, [and] never been west of Chicago in my life."
The title refers to the blue uniforms worn by many police officers in the US, 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, who 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."
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 the soaps. 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.
During the course of the various episodes, 17 precincts are named: Hill Street, Polk Avenue, Midtown, Von Steuben Avenue, North-East, St James's Park, Michigan Avenue, Washington Heights, South Ferry, West Delavan, Filmore, South Park, Preston Heights, Castle Heights, Richmond Avenue, Farmingdale and Jefferson Heights.
Producer/writer Steven Bochco was fired from this show due to differences with his staff, and due to the fact that the show struggled in the ratings, even though he was the main creative force behind it.
'Steven Bochco' (v) would produce another show after this, L.A. Law (1986), which took this series' place on the Thursday night lineup. 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."