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A Bad Back and Looking Back

By RD Heldenfels Published: January 23, 2006

Sunday evening I picked up a box, took a step and felt a sharp, harsh twinge of greeting from my lower back. Since then I have been communing with a heating pad and learning all the different ways it can hurt to move.

As a result, I have been working at home today. I have some stuff backed up on the DVR, but I have instead been dipping into the first season of ''Hill Street Blues,'' due out on DVD soon.

I have a long, loving connection to the show. As a semi-new TV critic, I saw the original pilot, which had an even more shocking ending than the show that aired. (Hill, Renko or both was supposed to die, but they were such strong characters, the show instead kept them around.) In those days, I did other newspaper work as well as TV writing, and I was on a night shift. I bought my first VCR -- a gigantic, expensive Betamax -- so I could tape ''Hill Street Blues.''

Three episodes into the DVD, my admiration is for the most part as strong as ever. Oh, I have reservations. The Hill-Renko relationship looks more sudsy now -- not merely a partnership but an overwrought romance. And, as television has gotten faster in the years since it premiered, it doesn't feel as frantic as it did then. And its cluttered, heavily populated setting has been imitated by so many shows, it's not as startling to the eye.

But other parts are better than ever. In scene after scene, actors convey layers of emotion with an expression; things don't have to be spelled out in the dialogue. The writing is for the most part crisp, balancing humor with pain, and the characters are almost all finely drawn. It's good to have it back.

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