If anyone’s watching this, I’m so sorry.
—Kerri Kenney, commentary, “Fastest Criminal in Reno”
Season Three of Reno 911! finds our heroes triumphant. Lieutenant Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon) and his deputies, jailed at the end of Season Two, learn that their nemesis, District Attorney Mike Powers (Mather Zickel), has been charged with a series of “prostitute murders and decapitations.” On screen, Reno’s finest are freed. Behind the scenes, however, lurks a more insidious threat: the Reno 911! creators’ increasing exhaustion and boredom.
The cast commentaries make this boredom explicit. Speaking on Episode Ten, “Dangle’s Son,” Thomas Lennon, co-creator with Ben Garrant and Kerri Kenney, sums up the malaise: “It feels like we’ve been making these shows for a long time.” Similarly, for Episode Five, “Fastest Criminal in Reno,” director Michael Patrick Jann notes, “It’s Season Three, too, so a lot of the time, it’s like fucking autopilot.” He admits to remembering more about the weather on a particular shoot than about that scene’s premise. Their candor is striking. (And the DVD offers little else by way of extras, just some deleted scenes with improv, and spoof commercials for non-existent Reno 911! action figures, which are cute but not illuminating.) “These kids are bored and so am I,” he declares. He’s not joking.
Reno has always trafficked in broad humor. It offers barely sketched types: sassy Deputy Raineesha Williams (Niecy Nash), promiscuous Deputy Clementine Johnson (Wendi McLendon-Covey), and flaming Lt. Dangle. For the first two seasons, those caricatures and the show’s COPS-parody premise apparently maintained the cast’s interest. But parody is a topical comedic form. Parodying COPS in 2006 must feel like playing in a Rush cover band alongside people who all hate Rush. When Kerri Kenney comments on playing another character, “It was nice not being Trudy for a while” (“Fastest Criminal in Reno”), it’s obvious she feels she’s explored all of Trudy’s comedic possibilities.
Season Three’s most consistently funny episodes counter this waning enthusiasm in two ways. The first is to draw Reno’s deputies outside their normal working environment, moving the show from the suffocating comfort of COPS parody. Episode Four, “SARS Outbreak,” for example, features a visit from local public television celebrity Reading Ron (Brian Unger). A children’s show host, Reading Ron has a smarmy, slightly narcotized demeanor that makes him a perfect straight man. And the other players seem genuinely excited to bounce absurdities off him, as when he warns the deputies to “watch their language” when they’re on camera. Substitute a more kid-friendly word, he suggests, which leads to Deputy Travis Junior (Ben Garant) commenting nonchalantly, “There’s a bucket going down on a Puerto Rican.” There’s a spark of life to this exchange that’s missing from most of the other episodes.
The second, and more problematic, technique for extending Reno‘s creative life is to turn its caricatures into characters. In the season premiere, Reno’s deputies are freed from prison but not yet returned to full duty. Instead, they have to find jobs, which serve as shorthands for the kind of people they are: Deputy Wiegel opens a bed and breakfast; Lt. Dangle pursues his American Idol dream; Deputy Johnson becomes a REO Speedwagon groupie. The humor is as broad as usual, but with a fresh turn. Commenting on an episode in which Dangle meets an attractive young man who may or not be his son, Lennon suggests, “We’re getting to know the characters more here, and I think that’s a good thing.” He wants to take the characters down a “dark spiral” into more absurd humor. (The creators’ most intriguing idea, a David Lynch parody episode featuring Kyle McLachlan, had to be scrapped two days before shooting.)
There’s no guarantee that a more “absurd” humor might rekindle the cast’s seemingly flagging enthusiasm. Still, the fact that the show provokes that kind of ambition among its creators is cause for hope. In its third season Reno 911! seems at a crossroads. As if hopeful, Jann notes of the cast and crew, “We work very quickly.” Then, a few minutes later, “This TV show never ends!”