American television managed to produce two influential police shows in the 1980s. Hill Street Blues showed that you could make a police show like a soap opera and create engaging drama. Miami Vice showed you could make a police show like a commercial for the humanoid species homo yuppicus and actually have people watch it week after week. Hill Street Blues works still today (better in fact than most of its stiff successors); Miami Vice could only be watched through the irony filter even in its heyday. But Miami Vice did leave its mark and survive for four years. Not so its inevitable imitators, The Insider and Hollywood Beat. Having seen Hollywood Beat reasonably fresh, I thought it was a shame that it died without even a single full season behind it, while Sockless Sonny and Token Tubbs went on and on. For one thing, it never took itself too seriously.
In place of Miami Vice's calculating cynicism Hollywood Beat threw in a lot of banter and comic routines between its pair of undercover cops (Scalia as an ex-military, superficially sophisticated tall hunk and Acovone as a shorter, bit bohemian everyman). Their hit-and-miss funniness occasionally clashed with the level of violence and the sleaziness of the themes (drug abuse, prostitution, black market babies), but then consistency was mostly to do with the look and the sound of the series, rather than its content. In every episode the idea was to cram the screen with a lot of glitter and what ever was deemed to pass as cool or trendy at the time: music video-style montages of Hollywood street life; axiomatic use of new-wave pop and AOR (e.g. "Roxanne" for hookers, "Girls on Film" for photo shoots etc.); retina-roasting fashion of the day by heaps; the protagonists dropping passing comments about some latest yuppie craze or making a big scene about going "to buy a Springsteen album" (I'm still not sure whether that wasn't a paid advert trying to make sure Brucie moved a few more thousand units of Born in the U.S.A.); and a regular stop at a hip bar run by a gay ex-footballer. So it was no less calculating than Miami Vice, only fluffier in its approach. However, that is not what really holed it under the waterline.
Style rarely compensates for weak content, and Hollywood Beat was a very uneven series. Between the almost baroque pilot, which nicely balanced kitsch and grit, and the genuinely tense last episode concerning a take-over of the police station, the stories were often nothing more than generic, violent games of cowboys and Indians played by grown-ups (physically at least), full of superficial conflict and morals, tough but sympathetic superiors and simple-minded ruthless criminals whom the good coppers have to dispose of without mercy, because the bureaucracy and the system can't hold them. It is the kind of stuff that can be exciting at a certain age, but which most people grow out of - and fewer yet base their world view on. You need something more to make it seem anything but naff, and Hollywood Beat really couldn't manage that (nor did Miami Vice).
So looking back from two decades on, Hollywood Beat appears much like its title tune sung by Natalie Cole: slick and superficial, trying very hard to be hot and exciting, but really being only "surface, surface, surface". It is a product and a picture of a time, now fortunately in the past. Still, with its role model and coming from Spelling's schlock factory, it could have been really awful...
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