|Police Squad: The Complete Series (1982)
Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Alan North, Ed Williams, William Duell, Peter Lupus, Rex Hamilton
“We're sorry to bother you at such a time like this, Mrs. Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn't dead then.” – Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen)
What’s the record for the shortest-running television show to inspire a feature-length film? Online research doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but one has to presume that “Police Squad!” must be among the contenders, given that it only survived for six episodes but still led to the three-film “Naked Gun” franchise. What’s that? You say you didn’t realize that “The Naked Gun” was based on a TV series? Well, as noted, the fact that it only lasted for six episodes is a pretty good excuse for not catching it, although it has gotten some airplay on both ABC and Comedy Central over the years, thanks to the success of the films it inspired. What’s more surprising, really, is that it’s taken this long for “Police Squad! The Complete Series” to emerge on DVD.
Created by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams (“Airplane!”), “Police Squad!” stars Leslie Nielsen as Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant, Police Squad. It looks like a real cop show from the ‘70s, and it broadly parodies just about every series in the genre, starting with the opening credits. The show is trumpeted as being “in color,” for one thing…not such a great achievement in 1982…and as the actors are introduced, it’s with completely outrageous shoot-out scenes. For instance, when Alan North – Captain Ed Hocken – gets his credit, he’s firing like a madman as a man on fire runs by. Each episode also claims to star Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln – he’s shown turning around in his booth at Ford’s Theater, brandishing a gun and presumably shooting back at John Wilkes Booth – and cites a special guest star…but the guest star is killed during the credits and never actually appears during the episode itself. (Beneficiaries of this quick paycheck included William Shatner, Robert Goulet, and Florence Henderson.) And lastly, the title of the episode appears onscreen…but the voiceover invariably reads the name of a completely different episode. All this before the show even starts!
In the series, Nielsen plays Drebin completely and totally straight, unlike the character that became more and more buffoonish as the films progressed. This no doubt owes to the fact that “Police Squad!” came right on the heels of “Airplane!”…which is to say that the TV series built on the pre-existing style of that film. It’s much more effective that way. Without the show’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge the humor in their lines, they’d never be able to get away with exchanges like these:
Sally: Well, I first heard the shot, and as I turned, Jim fell.
Drebin: Jim Fell's the teller?
Sally: No, Jim Johnson.
Drebin: Who's Jim Fell?
Ed: He's the auditor, Frank.
Sally: He had the flu, so Jim... filled in.
Drebin: Phil who?
Ed: Phil Din. He's the night watchman.
Sally: Oh, if only Phil had been here...
Upon its cancellation, a spokesperson for ABC revealed that “’Police Squad!’ was cancelled because the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it,” which is to say that the jokes tended more toward sight gags than the average sitcom; in response, TV Guide rightfully declared this to be “the most stupid reason a network ever gave for ending a series.” Then again, you can kind of see where ABC was coming from with that statement when you consider the scene with police scientist Ted Olson discussing with a child how fish have gills but animals on land can’t breathe in the ocean…and as he’s giving the speech, he’s attempting to hold a cat underwater.
When you get right down to brass tacks, though, the cancellation of “Police Squad!” is one of the greatest travesties in television history. Hyperbole, ahoy? Not even. The half-dozen episodes of the series are, pound for pound, as funny as any sitcom six-pack you’d like to put up against them. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine that the show could’ve maintained its consistency for more than a season, if even that long, but it doesn’t change the fact that these six episodes are the gold standard of TV comedy.
Although at one point during an audio commentary by creators David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Robert K. Weiss, someone accurately observes, “Guys, this is fast becoming the dullest commentary ever released,” things pick up considerably as the episode progresses. Probably the most interesting story told during any of the three commentaries is about how John Belushi actually filmed a “guest death” sequence for the series; the footage has seemingly vanished, but it involved him drowning…although Belushi’s original suggestion was that they show him with a needle sticking out of his arm. Funny guy, that Belushi…particularly since he O.D.’ed only a few weeks after filming his sequence. We also get a new interview with Leslie Nielsen (though, sadly, no audio commentary), a featurette about the show’s standard closing gag (a fake freeze-frame, where half the cast would still be moving around), casting tests, a gag reel, and a photo gallery from the producers’ personal collections. The funniest extra, though, is the collection of actual memos received by the show from the network, including one which reveals that the word “lubricant” was off-limits in 1982. Ah, what an innocent time it was…