Judge Daniel MacDonald is so deadpan he can laugh with a straight face.
"Like a midget at a water fountain, I was going to have to stay on my toes."—Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen)
Sometimes referred to as "dumb humor," Police Squad! embodies a particular brand of comedy that creators David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams scored big with in Airplane!, building on the works of comedy greats like Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles). Full of sight gags, deadpan dialogue, and double entendres, Police Squad! is a parody of cop shows from the 50s, 60s, and 70s like Dragnet and The Streets of San Francisco. For whatever reason, the show didn't connect with audiences and lasted a mere six episodes before its cancellation, only to be resurrected in movie form with The Naked Gun six years later. (With the part of Detective Norberg handed to some football player named O.J. Simpson. What ever happened to that guy?) Now, Police Squad! The Complete Series gets some long-overdue love on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen, Scary Movie 4) is a hard-boiled, no nonsense cop who will go to any length to solve a case. Together with Captain Ed Hocken (Alan North, Serpico) and Detective Norberg (Peter Lupus, Mission: Impossible), Drebin goes undercover as a locksmith, engages in close-range shootouts, searches for clues at the lab, and buys information from the local shoe shine man, all in the name of justice.
Of course, this is all presented in a way completely serious to the characters, and completely hilarious to the audience. No pun is too obvious, no action too far over the top as the creators fearlessly pursue the laugh like Drebin pursues criminals.
All six episodes are presented on one DVD:
I first saw The Naked Gun when I was eleven, on a hotel room television with my parents, and although some of the jokes were over my head, and many were not age-appropriate, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen (and I still do). A few years later, I discovered it had come from a short-lived television show, which I sought out, found at a local video store, and rented many, many times. The jokes never got old, and the humor was so dense there always seemed to be something new to discover.
Imagine how pleased I was, then, to discover Police Squad all over again with this fine DVD presentation.
It's hard to believe that this kind of lowbrow humor once aired, albeit briefly, on network television. I can only imagine how a channel-flipping viewer would react to a program where the show title spoken by the narrator was different than the one on the screen (a running joke in every episode—see the show titles above), and each episode's "Special Guest Star"' is killed during the opening credits. It's more of a "love it or hate it"' brand of comedy than an acquired taste, a risky choice to go up against Magnum P.I.
The show was expected to do well, though: Paramount touted it as their next big hit, and the cast was primed for a long run. It was disappointing, to say the least, when the ratings numbers dropped with each week, although one of the Zucker brothers mentions in a commentary track that it would have been difficult to maintain the quality over 22 episodes, and that in a way he's glad it didn't catch on.
The sets, lighting, and complex plotlines are all familiar from the cop shows being aped, and the shooting style is impressively ambitious compared to today's programs. Many scenes are shown almost entirely in one take, from one angle, a necessity for some of the jokes to work; it must have been a major pain for the actors. Crack up at the end of a four-minute take, and you can't just redo the one line.
The brothers Zucker and Jim Abrahams had cast Leslie Nielsen in his first comedic role with Airplane!, and discovered in him a kindred spirit. Nielsen is a natural at appearing clueless but not stupid, able to deliver the most absurd dialogue with a ruler-straight face. Nielsen gives an ego-less performance, willing, for example, to perform a scene in a dentist's office with froth and spit spraying out of his mouth, never hinting that he's in on the joke. The rest of the cast does fine work as well, but Leslie Nielsen is Police Squad!, and it's hard to imagine the show without him.
DVD is an ideal way to enjoy Police Squad, as many of the funniest aspects of the program are the running gags: the aforementioned guest stars, the fact that Drebin constantly runs into static objects when parking his car, and especially the freeze frames at the end of each show, where Frank and Ed would freeze but life around them would keep on going, leading to escaped criminals and spilled coffee. It's fun to see how these things are altered from show to show.
While the picture quality's not perfect, audio is a pleasant surprise—remastered into Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, this is certainly the best it's ever sounded. The original mono soundtrack is also included for purists and one-eared viewers.
Given that Police Squad! is a failed TV show, this DVD set is absolutely packed. First up is a nine-minute interview with Leslie Nielsen. He recounts how disappointing it was for everyone involved when the show was cancelled, and has an interesting theory as to why it didn't work on television but made for three successful movies. Definitely worth checking out.
There are commentary tracks on three episodes, two of which are with the series creators, and the third with writer Robert Wuhl (actor in Batman). The tracks are funny and informative, with Abrahams and the Zuckers obviously sharing a common sense of humor, still finding their work funny after all these years.
Apparently the studio considered editing together parts of the show's run into a feature film, and "Behind the Freeze Frames" shows an extended freeze frame scene that was to be used in the film. The Zuckers, Abrahams and Producer Robert K. Weiss provide commentary; it's a funny scene but goes on a bit too long.
Two casting tests are included, VHS-quality, for actors Alan North and Ed Williams. Interestingly, Williams does a scene performed by Nielsen's character in the show, making me wonder if perhaps his character was the originally to be the star?
The Photo Gallery is a forgettable assortment of sets and props (is its inclusion a joke?), while the List of Celebrity Death Shots offers some insight into where the show might have gone had there been further episodes. The Gag Reel is a fairly standard collection of people blowing their lines, although one shot features Nielsen very nearly getting beaned by a falling glass lampshade. Finally, "The Production Memo Highlights" give a glimpse behind the scenes on a Zucker production, with notes on the removal of controversial dialogue, dress code, and a sad memo announcing the show's cancellation.
Overall, it's about as comprehensive a set of features as one could expect for such a short-lived series.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I mentioned, if this type of humor is not your particular brand of whisky, you really won't like Police Squad!. You may groan, you may roll your eyes, and you may even smack whoever made you watch it, but you probably won't laugh if you're not already inclined.
Also, picture quality is less than great on all episodes, with dirt occasionally marring the picture and colour saturation alternating between rich and faded, but it's hard to tell if this is the best that could be done with the source material or if too much was stuffed onto one disc.
For those who love it, this DVD is a fitting tribute to a bastion of comedy. And for those who don't, well, you should just go do something else then. Highly recommended.
Cleared of all charges, and free to patrol the streets again.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Robert K. Weiss (on "A Substantial Gift" and "The Butler Did It")
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