For Monitor this week, Aaron Yap basks in the grinning goofiness of DUKE’s Angie Tribeca, the best cop show spoof you probably aren’t watching.
My tastes in comedy tend to drift towards fare like Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm, where laughter stems from dark, cringe-making, cankerous worldviews of the human condition. But revisiting The Naked Gun a few weeks ago reminded me there’s perhaps nothing funnier than dumb comedy that’s done smartly. Sometimes it’s hard to resist the sight of someone slipping on a banana peel.
Spoof humour has suffered a bad rep over the years thanks to alleged comedies of the lousy Epic/Disaster/Date Movie variety. Where those parodies lived and died on the number of movie references they could squeeze into their run time, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams (henceforth ZAZ) – the creative team behind The Naked Gun, and the classic Airplane! – pushed beyond that. It’s their ingeniously layered deployment of witty wordplay, bad puns, visual gags, broad slapstick and stone-faced performances that allowed their works to stay timeless.
Produced by Steve and Nancy Carell, TBS’s police procedural spoof Angie Tribeca might be the closest analog to vintage ZAZ we’ve had in ages. Though lampooning cop shows isn’t exactly a ground-breaking concept – Sledge Hammer!, Reno 911!, and recently Brooklyn Nine-Nine have all gone down that route – this show honours the deadpan dopey-ness of Police Squad!, the short-lived series that inspired The Naked Gun.
As usual for the genre, there’s a high hit-or-miss ratio. But the copious scattershot absurdism – barely a minute goes by without something zany happening, some idiotic line of dialogue spoken – should help cater to a wider range of comedic palettes. Even when the gags fail, the show is constantly guided by a sweet-natured, sunny disposition that makes the characters endearing company. A few groans here and there won’t make you turn on them – you might even love them more.
Carell enlisting Rashida Jones – his co-star from The Office – to play Tribeca, a hard-nosed LAPD detective, is an ideal bit of casting. On both The Office and Parks and Recreation, Jones functioned as a straight foil to the more overtly comic primary characters. But within that persona lurked a bumbling dork who occasionally surfaced with sharply timed zingers. As Tribeca, Jones delivers a wonderful, charming synthesis of those characteristics: the buttoned-down career focus of Karen Filippelli with the loyal sparkle of Ann Perkins.
The secondary characters are equally amusing in their daffy variations of procedural types. Jay Geils (Hayes Macarthur) is Tribeca’s new partner who immediately develops an intense puppy-dog crush on her. Lieutenant Chet Atkin (Jere Burns) is the pinch-faced, bad-tempered boss who has a twin stand-in. Doctor Scholls (Andrée Vermeulen) maybe the dumbest smart coroner in the history of cop shows (sample crime scene deduction: “She was either shot to death or smothered by a pillow”). Another detective, paired with a show-stealing Belgian Shepherd for a partner, is named D.J. Tanner (Deon Cole).
Yes, if you have a passing knowledge of rock and country music, sitcoms and footwear, you might be rolling your eyes right now.
Each episode follows a case-of-the-week formula, but the delightfully preposterous plots – involving everything from drug-smuggling wedding planners to tattoo-hating life-drawing teachers – merely exist for the writers to let loose with a breakneck stream of lunacy. The tone is decidedly of another era, but Angie Tribeca consistently demonstrates how a good gag, even as simple and antiquated as a character falling down an elevator shaft, never grows old if executed to perfection.
The show recognises the value of subtle analogue filmmaking to enhance comic effect, whether it’s in the editing (see the split-second glimpse of a hairy, masculine arm inserted into Tribeca’s fitness montage) or camerawork (episode two’s opening dolly shot casually revealing a man with a picket fence around his neck in a hospital waiting room).
When it’s nailing all its targets, as it does several times in the season one highlight, “Ferret Royale”, Angie Tribeca is positively fit-inducing. The episode features one of its best uses of repetition and escalation in service of a trope parody – in this case, the cop losing their cool, lunging to strike an antagonist before another cop holds them back. The scenario is rotated among the team of Tribeca/Geils/Tanner/Atkins, each one taking turns yelling, “It’s not worth it!”, each time more sidesplitting than the last.
In the same episode, when an ultrasound scan reveals an apple inside the tummy of the ferret under investigation, Jay attempts a Holmesian breakdown of this discovery: “Apples, apples, apples… Uh, apples, orchard, farm, Granny Smith, grandma, nursing home, soft food, applesauce… Apples, apples, orchard, farm…Granny Smith? Grandma..” He goes round in circles a few times, beating the same nonsensical logic without reaching any conclusion. Macarthur’s brilliant performance, so sincere in Jay’s puzzlement and eagerness to find meaning, is half the joke.
This just scratches the surface. The show is also teeming with running gags, corny flashbacks and random fourth-wall obliteration. Alfred Molina shows up as a forensic scientist with a thing for pretending to be disabled. In addition, there are regular appearances from guest stars like Lisa Kudrow, Bill Murray and Adam Scott. If you’d like to see Keegan-Michael Key playing a guy named Mr. Fröntbüt – who has a butt on the front – Angie Tribeca is a show worth further exploration.
You have to be all-in. Surrender to the stupidity, bask in its birdbrained glory and indulge your inner goof. It’s a strangely cleansing blast of anti-peak-TV tonic.
Angie Tribeca airs at 8.30pm Mondays on TVNZ’s DUKE
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