Sunday, November 21, 2010

Underrated TV on DVD #19: Police Squad!

As promised, here's an epilogue to last week. Tomorrow, we move on, I promise!
Series: Police Squad!
Years: 1982, six half-hour episodes
Creators: Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker
Stars: Leslie Nielson and Alan North

The Concept: An absolutely absurd goof on cop TV shows like “Dragnet”, and storytelling conventions in general.

How it Came to be Underrated: The creators had sold it based on nothing but the opening credit sequence, but ABC got cold feet when they realized how bizarre the actual show was going to be. (ABC complained that you actually had to watch the TV set to get the visual jokes.) It was cancelled after six unheralded episodes, only to be reborn five years later as the “Naked Gun” movie series.

Sample Episode: 1.1, “A Substantial Gift” or possibly “The Broken Promise” (the narrator doesn’t agree with the onscreen title)
Writer: Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker
The Story: Nielson and North investigate a stenographer who killed her boss and framed another man for the murder. They get their gal (but first they kill off half the city.)

Why It’s Great:

  1. The creators made this between making Airplane and Top Secret for the big screen and they brought over their trademark lightning-fast pun-heavy wordplay. “We think we know how he did it.” “Oh Howie couldn’t have done it, he hasn’t been in for weeks.”
  2. Every episode, Frank would get stumped and bribe a shoeshine-guy-turned-stoolie who always had an inside line on every case.

    After Frank paid him off and left, someone from another profession would discover that the stoolie was equally knowledgeable about other topics… In the first episode, a priest slips him a twenty and asks “What do you know about life after death?” Here’s a visit from a later episode:
  3. I hadn’t seen this show since I fell in love with early “Dragnet”, which just makes it funnier. As always, Nielson’s trademark deadpan delivery is flawless: “We’re sorry to bother you at a time like this, Ma’am. We would have come earlier but your husband wasn’t dead yet.”
  4. Every episode respected the cop-show tradition at the time of ending the episode with a laugh and a freeze frame, but the actors just faked the freeze frame, even if it meant having to endure scalding coffee cascading down their hands:

How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice DVD with lively commentaries on half the episodes

What the Remake Did Wrong: All of the other examples of “The Original was Better” Week have been foreign shows that were unwisely adapted for US TV. This one is an American show that lost a lot of its charm when it made the jump to the movies. The movies were mildly funny but they don’t prepare you for the absurd pleasures of this show. It didn’t help that they replaced the very funny North with America’s sweetheart, O. J. Simpson.

But Don’t Take My Word For It:

2 comments:

Judy said...

I do love a good deadpan. And yes, it would have been hard to make a much worse re-casting choice than OJ Simpson!
(By the way, in (2), I assume you meant "bother" instead of "borrow" when you quoted: "We're sorry to borrow you at a time like this...", yes?)

Matt Bird said...

Indeed! Thanks, Judy. It's fixed. I'll attempt to blame autocorrect, somehow.