Maybe the oddest thing about the television show Reno 911! was how little work needed to be put in for a mid-2000s cable TV stint to become something unique and inventive. The show was founded mostly on a collection of whims by alumni of the infamous mid ’90s sketch comedy troupe The State, specifically Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver, whose endeavor Viva Variety had ended shortly beforehand on Comedy Central. Simply put, it’s a fake cop documentary about the Reno Nevada Sheriff’s Department, only the police aren’t depicted as heroes. Instead, they’re portrayed as magnificent buffoons.
After some initial attempts to package it as sketch comedy, Reno 911! turned into a show based almost completely on ensemble improvisation. This framework would remain one of the more iconic qualities of the show throughout its six-year, 88-episode-long run. Originally intended as a comedic companion to the show Cops, the Fox network — who aired Cops — passed on the show mainly because of its overall weirdness, but also in part to a pilot scene in which two men, a cop and a suspect, kiss. However, Reno 911!’s absurdity and supposed “edginess” were also its greatest charms, and just because Fox wouldn’t take a risk on a cheaply made mockumentary didn’t mean the show was lost forever. Two years after Fox withdrew, Comedy Central signed on.
The primary source of Reno 911!’s humor derives from the idiocy and incompetency of the officers themselves. They fail in their attempts to extort and harass citizens, they draw their guns at the drop of a hat and they constantly become the victims of their own ineptitude. Although composed of a wide variety of characters, no single officer is a stranger to the show’s absurd brand of fantastic failure. They are all, in their own ways, quite shitty people. Some are racist; some are misogynist; some are greedy; some are all that and more. The criminals outsmart them rather easily, either through simple distractions — playing off the officers’ flaws and prejudices — or with bizarre forms of trickery and deception. The cops often display a disturbing leniency with the law (blackmailing, bribery and beatings are common). Each is dangerously reckless and helplessly moronic, often to the detriment of innocent bystanders. On occasion, the police department’s shenanigans turn darkly fatal.
Among cop shows, though, this particular program becomes important when you look at how few police shows level any form of critique or humor at the police themselves. Sure, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has some decent moments and a few lovable hooligans, but even then, the police remain the heroes, the ones standing on the moral high ground.
Few mainstream shows, if any, depict the American police force as they are seen by a substantial portion of Americans. They refuse to show the police as a community of enforcers who view themselves in opposition to the community-at-large, as a group whose job becomes not to protect the citizenry but to safeguard their own personal interests (one need only look at the Justice Department’s multiple diagnoses on police departments nationwide, including Ferguson’s, to see a confirmation of this truth). With each police procedural, they stay on the side of justice and safety. And they always have been on TV, since the days of Adam-12 and Dragnet.
Even if it’s intentions weren’t explicitly political or critical, Reno 911! counters this history by making cops the butt of the joke. Not only that, it confronts matters other cop shows shy away from, and it does so with a dark sense of humor. Now the show’s brand of comedy, which derives mostly from the irreverent improv conducted between the actors, wasn’t dissimilar to many of the racier, raunchier cable comedies that thrived in the 2000s. Sure, at its best it was much smarter and sharper than something like South Park and its nihilistic pseudo-realism was more entertaining than Jackass. But like many dark comedies, it didn’t possess a particular moral compass or politics. Let’s just say I wouldn’t go so far as to label it satire.
Yet what brings it beyond the status of Family Guy-esque bro humor, whose only possible “they-make-fun-of-everyone” defense wore thin some time ago, is the fact that all this darkness comes to us with a uniform and a badge. It’s dark comedy in a very specific environment, with a purpose and position. The best laughs come at the expense of the police, who never seem competent or well-intentioned. Not to mention that criminals often revenge themselves against police brutality and maltreatment in fantastical, satisfying ways.
In a time when the role of the American police force has come under such scrutiny, few television programs decide to address these issues from this perspective. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a skillful show in its own right, sticks to the tried-and-true dynamics of workplace comedy. Other cop dramas are rinse and repeat. While I would never say that Reno 911! made any type of bold critique, at least it examined police violence and failure without the sex appeal and mood lighting. It never amounted to a political show, but it definitely used its mockumentary style and its absurd comedy in ways that, in the chaotic discourse of political correctness, could be interpreted as political. Most of all, though, it did these things before they even became relevant. The show was remarkably precocious and probably would’ve caused more controversy now than when it had originally aired. But the good often die young, etc. And all we can do now is hope that maybe a little inspiration will be taken, here and there, from a show too good for its time and too risky for any other.
Stephen Meisel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Appearances appears alternate Mondays this semester.