OOO! OOO! Judge Bill Gibron loves this underappreciated early '60s sitcom.
There's a hold-up in the Bronx/Brooklyn's broken out in fights…
The word "classic" does get overused. Originally, it was applied to something that met with a kind of universal praise. You had to have consensus behind you, not a rambling blog beset by every nostalgic rambling you had from your formative past (if that was the case, the Hudson Brothers' Bonkers would qualify for yours truly). No, the title is meant as a final tag, a benchmark label—all of which leads to the statement that Car 54, Where Are You?, the early '60s TV show by Sgt. Bilko creator Nat Hiken, is one of the great classic sitcoms of its time. Along with other greats like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and Your Show of Shows, it expanded the idea of comedy on the small screen while setting the standard for broadcast wit's next fifty years. Don't believe it? Just take a look at the 780 minutes of manic merriment provided on this DVD collection of the show's first season.
Facts of the Case
Though presented out of chronological (read: broadcast) order for some odd reason, all 30 episodes of Season One are indeed present and accounted for. The main premise centers around the 53rd Police Precinct, a harried police station run by stressed out Captain Block (Paul Reed, Fitzwilly ) and featuring a bunch of bumbling patrolmen—most incompetently, Sgts. Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne, Pet Semetary) and Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross, The Bellboy). The former is a confirm bachelor (and many of the episodes revolved around his unmarried status). The latter is the prototypical henpecked husband, his nagging wife Lucille (Beatrice Pons, Mother's Day) a constant source of sour defeat. Together with fellow officers Ed Nicholson (Hank Garrett, Serpico), Leo Schnauser (Al Lewis, The Munsters), and Anderson (Nipsey Russell, The Wiz); they struggle to make the big city a safer, if not more sensible, place.
The presentation, spread out over four discs (and, rumor has it, in some sort of determined "fan-favorite" order), is as follows:
• "No More Pickpockets"
• "Quiet! We're Thinking"
• "The Gypsy Curse"
• "Love Finds Muldoon"
• "Who's for Swordfish?"
• "Toody's Paradise"
• "The Beast Who Walked the Bronx"
• "The Courtship of Sylvia Schnauser"
• "The Taming of Lucille"
• "Toody and the Art World"
• "Boom, Boom, Boom"
• "Toody and Muldoon Crack Down"
• "Home Sweet Sing Sing"
• "Catch Me on the Paar Show"
• "I Love Lucille"
• "Something Nice for Sol"
• "The Auction"
• "Today I Am a Man"
• "How High is Up?"
• "Change Your Partner"
• "Muldoon's Star"
• "I Won't Go"
• "Get Well, Officer Schnauser"
• "Thirty Day Notice"
• "The Sacrifice"
• "Christmas at the 53rd"
Car 54, Where are You? remains one of the most underrated sitcoms of all time. It earns such a sad reputation for many reasons. First, it didn't last very long. Managing two complete seasons before being cancelled, it is seen as a noble failure instead of an unfairly dismissed success. Second, it can't (?) compare to creator Hiken's original hit, Sgt. Bilko. For many, the Phil Silvers vehicle is the gem and this is just the jeweled remnants. Third, its filmed format made the show seem old fashioned, what with "live audience" participate becoming the rage. Finally, it is often seen as a "gimmick" show, since star Ross was obsessed with sticking his nightclub shtick (aka the "OOO!OOO!" response) into almost every scene. Add that to the fact that future Munsters Gwynne and Lewis were part of the company, as well as the now recognizable supporting cast and the series is viewed as a stepping stone, not a permanent TV monument.
But Car 54, Where are You? is actually one of the most sophisticated comedies from the early '60s. It dealt with contemporary issues (the decay of New York neighborhoods, the fall of the big city), focused on the lowly working man instead of the suburban or continental, and it was one of the few shows to offer a fully integrated cast with little or no distinction between the colors. When co-star Nipsey Russell and his beautiful African American wife show up at a fellow patrolman's wedding during "The Courtship of Sylvia Schnauser," no one bats an eye. But at the time, with the United States still reeling from the initial flames of a growing civil rights movement, it had to be stunning. Today, any question about the guest list would seem dumb and dated. Back then, such mixing must have been shocking to the home viewer.
Similarly, Car 54 wasn't afraid to play it smart. In the now classic episode "The Taming of Lucille," Toody and Muldoon are assigned to a Shakespeare in the Park event in which part of the Bard's classic Taming of the Shrew is seen. Almost immediately, our round-headed buffoon becomes a patrolman Petruchio, trying to whip his disgruntled wife into shape. From name checking the 1961 World Series to offering up guest stars like Hugh Downs and Wally Cox, the series tried to stay in the "now" even when it was offering up standard stage show bits and quasi-cartoon characters. Indeed, the biggest novelty in the show was Hiken's desire to mix the broad and burlesque with the everyday and downtrodden. These were not successful men, but hard working Joes who fussed through their weekly rituals while looking for just a little relief. While it's hard to champion the order these episodes were put into (is "The Gypsy Curse" really a high ranking fan favorite? Hmmm…) it's not hard to see how hilarious it all is.
From a technical standpoint, Car 54, Where Are You? looks really good. The black and white full screen image (1.33:1) is nicely preserved with a remaster that avoids going overboard on the contrasts while keeping the image nice and sharp. Sure, there are a few age issues along the way, but none that will bother your antique TV mentality. As for the sound situation, there is not much that can be done with old Mono mixes from 50 years ago. The Dolby Digital presentation is decent, but hardly definitive. Again, it's hard to imagine what more the company could do. Finally, the only bit of added content is a interesting little interview with former cast members Charlotte Rae (who played Sylvia Schnauser) and Hank "Ed Nicholson" Garrett. Conducted by admitted Car 54 junkie Robert Klein, it is a nice, nostalgic bit.
All running order issues aside, Car 54, Where Are You?: The Complete First Season is sensational. It stands toe to toe with other bits of well known TV lore while cutting its own peculiar, if pleasing, swath. As for its influence on contemporary comedy, it more or less invented the workplace laugher, offered up dozens of actors who would go on to shape the next 20 years of sitcoms, and argued that personality and place trumped made up punchlines and passable slapstick any day. Some may argue over its reputation or authority, but the truth remains that, no matter the final verdict, Car 54 is a…classic. It deserves the title as more than just nostalgia. It earns it with every enraptured audience member.
Not guilty. A terrific TV…classic!
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