Some people would say that doing a parody in 2003 of the Fox network’s proto-reality series ”Cops” is an idea whose time came and went at least a decade ago. Others of us say, Aw, shaddup and hooray for ”Reno 911!” The show follows a fictional Reno police precinct headed up by Lieut. Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon), a cop bureaucrat so comfortable with his own quirks that he had his pair of khaki short shorts specially approved by headquarters (he claims they allow him more mobility to be a ”crime-fighting cheetah”). The sexually ambiguous Dangle also lets it all hang out when he goes under ”deep cover” to entrap drug-dealing prostitutes by squeezing himself into a skintight pink minidress and spike heels.
When the series premiered in July, ”Reno” looked like a one- or two-joke stunt, a smartly sustained ”Saturday Night Live” sketch. The other officers were familiar TV-comedy stereotypes: the ”sassy” black female officer (Niecy Nash’s Deputy Raineesha Williams); the hot-headed Latino (Carlos Alazraqui’s Deputy James Garcia); the slutty blonde (Wendi McLendon-Covey’s Officer Clementine Johnson). Like ”Cops,” ”Reno” is shot with handheld cameras, and its officers occasionally acknowledge their presence — especially when they’re doing something illegal, such as beating the bejesus out of a guy dressed as a milk shake, working outside a fast-food restaurant. (The cops felt he disrespected them.) The show’s most peculiar and original character, the woefully lonely Deputy Trudy Wiegel (Kerri Kenney), likes to confide things to the camera, comparing her relationship with Lieutenant Dangle, for example, to that of ”brother and sister — but like a brother and sister who have sex.”
As this series has evolved, its format has proven remarkably expansive and emotionally rich, using parodic elements to explore these characters and place them precisely in a social environment. It’s clear that one aspect of ”Cops” that the ”Reno” creators found fascinating is its focus on working- and lower-middle-class settings. Members of the ”Reno” squad can find themselves standing on parched front lawns near squalid little houses, questioning perps like the zonked guy who’s hopelessly watering his dead, brown grass with water from a dribbling hose. A couple of ”Reno” cops go to a fictionalized version of Nevada’s real legal brothel, the Chicken Ranch — called ”the Chicken Hole” here — to grapple with a fastidious nerd who’s freaked out because there’s no employees-must-wash-hands sign in the bathroom; this in a place that’s ”covered in fluids,” he says plaintively.
In one of the most flat-out-funny episodes, Deputy Jones (Cedric Yarbrough), a black man, has decked Garcia for making a racist comment and is reassigned as a school crossing guard. Instead of being humiliated, Jones loves the job — he’s out in the sun flirting with cheerleaders, the students’ moms, and a comely algebra teacher. Each of his coworkers comes to visit him and is startled by the fun Jones is having. On ”Reno 911!,” everyone gets his or her pleasure where he or she can.
For a while now, filmed, deadpan sketch comedy has been the preferred way to go for laughs among a wide variety of intelligent smart-asses (as opposed to intelligently dumb ones, like the ”Jackass” jackasses). These range from Christopher Guest’s sustained feature-film put-ons to cult TV series like the great ”Mr. Show,” the fecund ”Kids in the Hall,” and the two projects that Lennon, Kenney, and Robert Ben Garant created and which I admit I ”got” but never laughed at, ”The State” and ”Viva Variety.” Even at their most obtuse, all of these ventures were better than 98 percent of conventional sitcoms, which goad both their studio and home audiences to bray approval.
”Reno” was originally developed for Fox two years ago but was shelved; given what the network did to ”The Tick” and ”Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” the series is better off on Comedy Central. Fox would not likely have gone for the recent plot in which the squad vies for two tickets to an execution by making up a competition in which they must arrest perps with specific characteristics: The suspect must be wearing a wig, possess crack and/or a tattoo of an animal — and it’s ”double points if they’re Jewish.” A squad car passes an old lady, and one ”Reno” stalwart mutters, ”That’s a wig, but I don’t wanna plant crack on her.” Though it’s ripe with bad taste, ”Reno 911!” does have its standards.