Lets take a look at an oddball spin-off of a very important TV series… Since this is a spin-off you will need some background on the source show so lets dive into this.
In 1981 Hill Street Blues entered the television arena and changed everything… even if it was not noticed at the time.
With Hill Street Blues you had something that television had never experienced. Hill Street was more or less the brutal chaos of films such as The French Connection or Dirty Harry combined with the continuity driven storylines of soap operas all shot in a documentary like fashion. This might sound mundane but remember that at this point NOTHING like this had ever been attempted on TV.
Hill Street was dark, intense, ruthless and most of all unpredictable. Usually in a cop show no matter the danger the main characters might be in you know they are going to come out okay or they will get rescued. In Hill Street Blues nothing was ever what it seemed. Main characters will get killed randomly (this being police work it added realism), main characters did not always (usually didn’t) do the right thing and most of all they were beyond flawed people. Alcoholism, drug abuse, insanity, rape and social issues were regular features and the show really pushed what was acceptable on TV in terms of graphicness.
The language, the violence and nudity were unlike anything TV had allowed (or would allow for many more years). Hill Street Blues paved the way for shows like Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, The Walking Dead and The Sopranos among others.
All of this led to what you might expect… no one watched the show when it was on the air. Every single one of it’s 7 seasons Hill Street Blues was on the verge of being cancelled.
Most police dramas like Kojack or Ironside would give you a complete story in the 50 minutes of it’s runtime and anything you missed you really didn’t need for the story. Hill Street was highly serialized and you had to watch the entire series to follow most of the storylines. This was a turn off to viewers as were the fact that the show was shot hand held (NOT shaky cam though), used realistic overlapping dialog which sometimes make it hard to follow (this was intentional), there were between 15 and 17 main characters depending on the season and Hill Street dealt with issues that a prime time audience was not ready for.
You had a male cop being gang raped, you had a cop get his throat slit by a hooker out of nowhere, you had another cop attempt graphic suicide, you had a cop get trapped under a collapsed building and being forced to eat this fellow (dead) officer to stay alive etc… this was not a fun 70’s style cop show at all.
I mentioned that no one watched the show so how did it last 7 seasons? Because it basically shit out Emmy’s. The first season of Hill Street Blues it was almost dead last in the ratings for ALL OF TELEVISION… but then it went to win more Emmy’s that season than any other show in history until The Sopranos in 1999. With that kind of backing NBC just could not cancel it.
Eventually after 7 seasons the show had run it’s course but NBC was not done. In Season 5 Dennis Franz joined the cast as Norman Buntz and was a regular until the series finale where he punched out the police chief on live television (stemming from a season long story about Buntz being thought to be corrupt and stealing a suitcase full of cocaine).
Now, Franz was not new to Hill Street when he started in season 5 though. In season 3 he guested as ANOTHER character… the super corrupt Det. Sal Benedetto but that character committed suicide. The producers loved Franz so much they had him come back as a different character 2 years later and that is who we will be talking about.
After Norman knocked out Chief Daniels teeth on live TV he was done as a cop but NBC was not done with him. He and Hill Street supporting character Sid Thurston (Babylon 5‘s Peter Jurasik) would move to Beverly Hills and become private eyes… in a comedy…
Beverly Hills Buntz was a very strange spin-off in that Hill Street Blues was a hard edged dirty grimy gritty police drama and these characters now get a new show that is a light, fun half hour comedy.
Jarring is a good way to put it. Who thought this was a good idea, I don’t know. Also that this coming after the ending of the main show perhaps it would be more accurate to call Beverly Hills Buntz a continuation rather than a spin-off.
Norman and Sid would arrive in Beverly Hills and get into shenanigans with their neighbors in the office building, get involved in burglary cases, ferret out bank robbers etc… this was nothing like Hill Street Blues though.
Here was the problem… Beverly Hills Buntz felt like it was trying so hard to NOT be like Hill Street Blues that it alienated the people who would have followed the very popular Buntz character and it also leaned into the fact that Norman WAS from Hill Street so much that it was off putting to people who did not watch that show.
To be fair to the series though while the first four or five episodes are kind of rough the series did start to find it’s footing shortly after though.
Too bad NBC canceled it just as it started to work.
Also of note is that the pilot of Beverly Hills Buntz was shot three times by three different directors to the point that no one was happy with it.
Beverly Hills Buntz as a show was doomed from the start. The abrupt change in format and tone was turning off viewers as was the fact that NBC had zero idea what to do with the show. They took this laugh track free comedy (with some drama elements in it) and put it on Saturday Night in a block with The Golden Girls and other straight up sitcoms and wondered why no one was watching it. After nine of the thirteen shot episodes aired, NBC quietly pulled it and never looked back.
If you are a fan of Hill Street Blues it is worth looking for bootlegs of the series as Norman is the same character and it’s kind of fun to see him in more comical, less dour settings.