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Is This Some Kind of Bust?

One refresher viewing of the quickly tried-convicted-and-executed 1982 series Police Squad! — finally available on DVD this week — is a great reminder that the ZAZ writing/directing team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker has hardly been as funny since the team broke up. Look for slyly ludicrous wordplay exchanges and sight gags, hearty violations of Quinn Martin/Jack Webb cop-show clichés, austerely cheap backlot aesthetics and Leslie Nielsen’s Detective Frank Drebin delivering a deadpan noir-hero lament about a bygone homosexual romance. As I watched, even my laughter felt different, as if it had been earned, not dragged out of me the way most spoof humor is today. According to one of the four voices on the commentary track of the first episode (I’m not so geeky that I can recognize Abrahams from the Zuckers or producer Robert K. Weiss), an ABC executive later explained that the reason the show didn’t make it — only six episodes were made — was that viewers had to actually pay attention to their TV sets. It’s such a simple explanation, but if you think about how often we’re able to follow our favorite shows while paying bills/folding laundry/cooking, this shouldn’t surprise anyone: Television still too often seems closer to fancy radio than to film. So sure, not only were half of Police Squad! gags visual, they were often tucked into a corner or played on camera illusion or happened in the background while Nielsen and co-star Alan North carried on deeply ordinary exchanges of numbing, we-already-know-this exposition. Which may have been the most subversive joke Police Squad! had to offer: How can this well-entrenched, much-maligned medium be a truly awe-inspiring opiate of the masses if it doesn’t corrupt our ears and our eyes?