RENO 911!

by Laurel Harris

4 August 2003


Dead Space

RENO 911!‘s hyperactive title reads like a gushing text message. This is appropriate, as the series focuses on a group of Nevada sheriffs who gossip about and romance one another like hormonally imbalanced high school kids. Comedy Central’s latest offering is a perverse situation comedy, with antics in trailer parks and shabby bungalows, the usual stomping grounds of Cops, primary target of RENO 911!‘s parody.

The first episode begins with a cop busting into a home and shooting before asking questions, only to find, when the lights come on, that he’s murdered the host of his own surprise party. Other adventures include a blurry-faced woman whom the cops call “T.T.” wailing at them, stealing their nightsticks as they watch, and attempting to take their car. Later, a cop beats up a mime for making fun of him (“You’re speaking language now!” he exclaims when the victim yelps). And a K-9 unit trainer shouts the wrong commands in German to his German shepherd police dog and is attacked (“I don’t speak German,” he explains ruefully).

cover art

Reno 911!

Creator: Michael Patrick Jann
Cast: Carlos Alazraqui, Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon, Wendy McLendon-Covey, Niecy Nash, Cedric Yarbrough
Regular airtime: Wednesdays 10:30pm ET

(Comedy Central)

Organized as a series of situations in which actors work between scripted dialogue and adlibs, RENO 911! reflects the aesthetic of producer Michael Patrick Jann, who worked on MTV’s short-lived sketch comedy series, The State (1994). It also recalls the recent film, Wet Hot American Summer (2001), directed by State alum David Wain, especially in a scene where uniformed cops eye one another with adolescent longing at a beach bonfire. This image celebrates the campy camp movie formula so thoroughly that it falls apart under its own ridiculous weight. Or again, the first episode ends with the expected scene of cops getting high off of drug-bust weed, suggesting that the “zany” officers are not only bored but also “corrupted” by the job.

It’s clear that RENO 911! takes its most zealous aim at Cops (or Police Chases , principally in its attention to the fetishes of “law enforcement”: the screeching cars, handcuffs, and uniforms. Spoofing Cops’ now infamous ethical and political troubles (in particular, the racism and classism exposed by fair media advocates and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine), RENO 911! offers a succession of reality cop show stereotypes: unintelligible perps and victims, sleazy street shots, and alternately arrogant and underconfident unis.

As they do in the original, these copied clichés slow down rather than ramp up action. Even the series’ setting, the distinctly ratty, unromantic, and dull suburb of Reno, undermines the ostensible urgency of Cops, as the image alternates between the familiar racing cameraman’s record of panicky urban space and the static, quasi-objective shot from the cruiser’s dashboard. This last captures a make-out session between khaki hotpants-wearing Lieutenant Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon) and a beautiful “motorist”—less hilarious than predictable.

So aggressive is RENO 911!‘s low-budget affect (not to mention its inconsistent pace and sometimes flat humor) that Cops looks positively polished by comparison, with its carefully constructed format and articulate protagonists. Here, jokes fall into dead space or turn bizarre, and characters are mostly conventional types, from tarty Deputy Johnson (Wendy McLendon-Covey) and green-eye-shadowed wallflower Deputy Trudy Weigel (Kerri Kenney), to the ostensibly gay Lieutenant Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon). Still, and especially in its improvisational moments, RENO 911! offers occasionally engaging spontaneity.

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//Mixed media