Image B- Sound B- Extras C
"Scavenger Hunt," "Homeland Security, Pt. 1," "Homeland Security, Pt. 2," "Reverend Gigg LeCarp," "Officer Smiley," "Reading Ron," "Rick from Citizen's Patrol"
by Ian Pugh As often as "COPS" is used to validate political arguments regarding the police (on one side as a constant reminder of heroism, on the other as a constant reminder of excessive force), the show is rather useless in serious discussion because it filters out the mundanities in a cop's line of work in favour of only the most titillating footage--which is exactly what's kept it on the air for twenty years. As appalling as it is that "COPS"' lowest-common-denominator brand of entertainment has integrated itself into pop culture, if it is truly "guilty" of anything, it's not that it has outright created a new generation of John Waynes and Harry Callahans (or William Kunstlers and Ron Kubys), it's that it pares down the idea of the police into something that's up for easy generalization. The attempt to throw them in a positive light is obvious, but it all depends on your own worldview: cops are either infallibly virtuous or infallibly corrupt.
The reality-series sheen makes it an obvious target for mockery, but most parodies of "COPS" fizzle out because they go the too-predictable route of directly inverting the supercop antics. "Reno 911!" deftly avoids the problem by revolving around cops who, beyond their self-awareness as reality-TV icons, have vague traits but no definitive personalities. The deputies are comically awful at policework, yes, but only when the situation calls for it; oftentimes, they're thrown into the role of the competent straight men, able to do their jobs to the precise degree that it allows whomever has centre stage at a given moment--be it the officers themselves or the guest stars/perps--to perform their own brand of hilarious antics. Trudy Wiegel (Kerri Kenney-Silver) is a lonely nutcase; Lt. Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon) is a closeted homosexual; Travis Junior (Robert Ben Garant) is an inbred hick--some of the time, at least. They're more concepts than characters, thus opening up a plethora of outrageous scenarios and, moreover, denying us the ability to categorize them. The reason why the current big-screen spin-off Reno 911!: Miami is terrible is because the concepts are so tethered to their unique brand of chaotic television--not that blowing up a 22-minute episode of a TV series to feature-length automatically results in failure, but to put these characters in any situation that necessitates a consistently linear plot is to force them into consistent personalities, effectively limiting the opportunities for humour.
But the show itself is like a frenzied juggling act of sketch/improv comedy, more interested in attacking our perception of law enforcement as dictated by popular entertainment. The first episode on Paramount's new sampler DVD "Reno 911!: Reno's Most Wanted", "Scavenger Hunt" (1.3), starts us off subtly: with passes to the execution of a serial killer as the grand prize for the officer who can arrest the most suspects with a predetermined list of quirks ("crackhead with a wig," "perp over 6'5"," etc.), the deputies set out to win by any means necessary while still operating within a twisted code of honour--they won't plant evidence, but they will order a pizza from across town in order to arrest the extremely tall delivery boy for a speeding violation. Attempting to find "good cop" and "bad cop" within that far-fetched premise, "Reno 911!" encourages us to look past cliché TV stereotypes and contemplate what goes into the job--not to mention the ethics of entrapment.
The series eventually casts a wider net, implicating us all in the ignorant assumptions we hold on a variety of topics. The rest of the episodes on the "Reno's Most Wanted" platter prominently feature guest stars from rival public TV shows and police organizations, presented as interlopers in the deputies' fragile world of delusional self-importance--and, of course, they usually end up being psychopaths. No one needed another indictment of televangelism (2.5, "Reverend Gigg LeCarp"), but find an attack on cultural paternalism and S.W.A.T.'s steers-or-queers view of law enforcement in "Officer Smiley" (2.3), wherein a prim-and-proper English constable visits Reno, thought by the locals to belong to some cute-'n'-cuddly Mary Poppins world--only to witness him indulging in a particularly brutal form of street justice. "Reading Ron" (3.4), meanwhile, sees a Mr. Rogers pastiche (Brian Unger) bringing his kids show to the department's daily routine, where he is frustrated by the unfriendly atmosphere of drugs, violence, and prostitution. A clever take on anti-subversion in children's entertainment, the episode wonders aloud how much one can (and should) candy-coat this maddening world for the benefit of our young in explaining the utility of the police to them. And then there's "Rick from Citizen's Patrol" (4.4), in which the titular do-gooder (a spectacularly restrained Paul Reubens) beats the Sheriff's Department to the punch in his expert analysis of recent serial slayings. Frustrations mount as this form of intellectual one-upsmanship escalates; when it is revealed that Rick himself is the killer, the deputies are more relieved than horrified ("He's not smart at all--he did it!"). The whole thing oddly amounts to a comedy-of-errors version of David Fincher's Zodiac.
Still, the best episode on offer in this collection--and the one that best represents the show's intentions--is probably the two-parter "Homeland Security" (1.12-13). Here, a government "field team" visits the Sheriff's Department to train our heroes for terrorist situations. The deputies are eternally enthralled by these strangers from a higher authority--and in that sense they essentially become the American viewing audience, i.e., those who ensure that the cop genre, in all its permutations, will forever remain popular and controversial. Chasing after criminals, roughly interrogating them, tackling them to the ground...for those who don't actually live in that culture, these are actions that seem forever at arm's length--and when bundled together for the idiot box, we'll lap it up and accept it as the gospel truth. Of course, in the end it's all sensationalist bamboozlement--no points for guessing that the field agents are really just scam artists who want to clean out the department's evidence locker.
Released to capitalize on Reno 911!: Miami, "Reno 911!: Reno's Most Wanted (Uncensored)"* appears to have been rushed to production: the full-frame transfer pixellates at severe movement--a problem considering the mock-"COPS" vérité aesthetic--while the DD 2.0 stereo audio sounds strangely muffled. Considering that this is a greatest hits compilation, the disc contains only a light helping of extras, starting with "Top 10 Calls" (15 mins.), "the deputies' favorite calls" as chosen from various episodes throughout the series that aren't included in this collection. They've got some real classics on board--such as "Weasel in the Wall," a self-explanatory masterpiece of subtle sound effects and facial expressions--but they feel somewhat arbitrary when isolated from their original context. The second and final supplement is "Live Musical Performance" (4 mins.), featuring Dangle, Wiegel, Williams (Niecy Nash), and Jones (Cedric Yarborough) at some never-explained concert singing "Don't Steal Cable," a typically exaggerated musical number that leads us on the long road from cable theft to prison rape. Obnoxiously in-your-face trailers for "South Park: The Complete Ninth Season", "The Comedy Central Roast of William Shatner", and "Mind of Mencia: Uncensored Season 2" cue up on startup. Originally published: March 7, 2007.
*Touted as "uncensored," the disc only de-bleeps the curse words, keeping middle fingers and nudity blurred--the latter, however, is a matter of necessity to retain the reality-show pretense and of course to hide the fact that no one is genuinely nude on camera. (On a hilarious, unrelated note, faces are sometimes blurred, too, but only when a perp is played by one of the regulars.)