TV, Interrupted: Police Squad! Was The Definitive Parody Of Police Procedurals, And Could Be Again

When the Wisconsin-born trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (aka ZAZ) unleashed the comedy hit of 1980 in "Airplane!" (which shockingly outgrossed the higher-profile "Caddyshack"), Hollywood immediately set out to capitalize on the boys' relentless brand of spoofery. ZAZ's gag-a-second style was a dream come true for box-office obsessed studios; the jokes came so fast and hit so hard that the audience's roaring laughter often drowned out the next few jokes. This meant repeat viewings were a must. Paramount begged the filmmakers to deliver an "Airplane!" sequel posthaste. They declined and spent their clout on a parody of humorless cop shows.

"Police Squad!" premiered as a mid-season replacement for ABC on March 4, 1982. The half-hour comedy headed up by Leslie Nielsen (possibly the greatest deadpan comedic actor of the sound era) earned raves from TV critics, but was DOA in the, uh, Nielsen ratings. The network only aired four of the ordered six episodes before dropping the axe (the last two were burned off over the summer). 

The inept adventures of Frank Drebin, a top investigator for a special detail of an unnamed city's police department (it seems to be set somewhere in the U.S., but every now and then we catch geographically puzzling glimpses of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa from apartment windows), did not land with early 1980s television viewers. What went wrong? That's a matter of some debate, but it certainly wasn't the show's fault.

Why Police Squad! was great

The ZAZ team knew they'd struck gold with Nielsen on "Airplane!" The stiff star of '50s classics like "Forbidden Planet" and "Ransom!" was out of step in the loosey-goosey New Hollywood of the 1970s, which made him perfect casting as the mirthless Dr. Rumack (no first name given, but it's most assuredly not Shirley). His antiquated, method-free performance style demanded further exploitation, and what better scenario than a TV series patterned after rigidly formulaic cop dramas like "Dragnet" and "M Squad?"

Zoomers may find this hard to believe, but there was a time when you had little control over your broadcast distractions. Most TV dials only went to thirteen, so you made do with reruns of whatever was on. ZAZ's "Police Squad!" was a couch potato's revenge for sitting through way too many episodes of "Adam-12." Drebin, Captain Ed Hocken (Alan North) and Officer Nordberg (Peter Lupus) are tactless idiots. When Drebin interviews the distraught widow of a recently murdered man, he comforts her by saying, "We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn't dead then." Unlike just about every comedy on network television at the time, there was no laugh track — even when Drebin ends up in an absurdly close-quarters shootout with a perp.

"Police Squad" was a brilliant formal parody. Aesthetically, it is every inch a mediocre cop show, with the jokes written to be performed straight. For example, when an undercover Drebin barges into a criminal's posh office, the stunned bad guy barks, "Who are you, and how did you get in here?" Drebin coolly responds, "I'm a locksmith, and I'm a locksmith." Each episode ends with a faux freeze-frame that leaves the actors fixed in an awkward position. Every mundane detail of every awful cop show you've ever seen gets exquisitely skewered.

Why Police Squad! was canceled

ABC sent "Police Squad!" to die in a Thursday prime-time slot against the first half-hour of the then-popular "Magnum P.I." Despite enthusiastic reviews, and the fact that this was the "Airplane!" trio's follow-up to the fourth highest grossing film of 1980, the network's prime-time president, Tony Thomopoulos, believed the show asked too much of the viewer. They had to pay attention. Never mind that every episode featured at least one masterfully choreographed bit of physical comedy (like a drooling Drebin rifling through a dentist's patient files with a putty mold congealing to the roof of his mouth), Thomopoulos thought the verbal interplay, devoid of that all-important laugh track, wouldn't connect with average, undemanding television viewers.

Though TV Guide called this "the most stupid reason a network gave for ending a series," he might've been right. Steven Bochco's gritty-for-the-era "Hill Street Blues" was shattering the cop-drama paradigm for NBC, but, despite its Emmy dominance, couldn't crack the Nielsen ratings' top twenty. A weekly series dedicated to demolishing calcified procedural tropes might've run out of steam faster than you could say "Twin Peaks." In 1982, if you wanted to lampoon old-school cop dramas, you did it on "Saturday Night Live." In any event, due to poor ratings and anemic promotion, Thomopoulos pulled the plug after four episodes. The ZAZ team moved on to "Top Secret!," a brilliantly bizarro mélange of World War II epics, Elvis movies and whatever else was lying around. That movie bombed as well.

Unfinished business

Six years after his unceremonious dismissal, the ZAZ team got Frank Drebin back on the beat, on the big screen, in "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" This time, they had a major movie studio enthusiastically promoting their endeavor, which, shockingly, made a tremendous difference. The modestly budgeted film was a hit with critics and audiences alike, grossing a healthy $79 million at the U.S. box office, more than enough to justify the continuing adventures of the most incompetent cop in film or television history.

While all three "Naked Gun" movies are immensely enjoyable, there was a sense of steadily diminishing returns by the time they arrived at 1994's "The Final Insult." David Zucker was the only member of the trio still actively working on the series, and, under his guidance, the aesthetic had veered from straight-faced spoof to outrageously broad comedy. Nielsen's killer deadpan had given way to the broadest of mugging, which, while effective, wasn't nearly as funny as his initial iteration of the Drebin.

There was a parodic purity to "Police Squad!" as a half-hour series, but it's likely the show would've eventually evolved in the same way. The premise was brilliant in the short-term, but limiting as a long-running sitcom. ZAZ understood this when they steadfastly refused to have any involvement in "Airplane II: The Sequel." Still, had the series continued, they could've pivoted to spoofing modern cop dramas like "Hill Street Blues." A stone-faced cop like Drebin would've been completely out of place in this nuanced world of flawed characters. There's potential here for something special. Unfortunately, Leslie Nielsen is no long around to pull it off.

Will Police Squad! ever return?

In 2013, Paramount announced that they were pursuing a "Naked Gun" reboot with Ed Helms as Frank Drebin. Helms is a marvelously talented comedic actor, which is precisely the problem. You've got to find the next Nielsen — i.e. a stiff B-movie actor who never quite popped as a leading man.

Seth MacFarlane might just have the solution. After the Helms-led project quietly died, the "Family Guy" creator leapt into the void with the potentially inspired idea to cast killing machine Liam Neeson as Frank Drebin. The problem, though, is that Neeson is a full-fledged movie star best known for playing a hard-case CIA operative who possesses and ruthlessly exhibits "a particular set of skills." While the genre of one-man-army films is more than ripe for parody (see Jim Abrahams' "Hot Shots Part Deux"), old-school Drebin fans know that the character is first and foremost a cop.

If MacFarlane truly wants to honor the legacy of "Police Squad!," he'll ditch Neeson for a less-successful William Petersen, a very serious actor who slugged it out in box-office disappointments before hitting the TV big time as Gil Grissom on "CSI". Furthermore, he'll pitch his newfangled "Police Squad!" as a Paramount+ series, and insist on no mugging whatsoever. Write and direct it as a standard police procedural, and goof on everything from "Hill Street Blues" to "Law & Order" and beyond. Lean into the seriousness and dial up the absurdity. Never let your actors wink at the audience. This is the subversive soul of "Police Squad!," which will be relevant, if not necessary, as long as cop shows endure.