Surely it’s a shame that it’s been so long since we’ve had a really great television show powered almost entirely by puns and sight gags?
It is. And don’t call me Shirley.
If that last quip failed to make you chortle, stop reading and return to your adult coloring book, the New York Times editorial page, or whatever numbing pastime you favor now that you’ve given up on life, mirth, and all that is good and right in the world. But if the line conjured the spirit of Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers—the geniuses behind Airplane!, Police Squad! Hot Shots!, and other masterworks worthy of their exclamation-marked titles—then rejoice in the pure delight that is Angie Tribeca.
Having debuted last month on TBS, the show stars Rashida Jones as the eponymous detective, a tough and troubled lone wolf whose DNA is made up squarely of police procedural clichés. She’d already lost 236 partners under tragic circumstances, so she’s understandably skeptical when introduced to her newest sidekick, detective Jay Geils, played by stand-up comic Hayes MacArthur. But Geils sticks around, and together Los Angeles’ two top cops investigate a ring of ferret smugglers, a murderous ventriloquist, a string of dead wedding cake bakers, and other cases absurd enough to have sent Sherlock Holmes looking for a new line of work.
Not that the plots matter. The real function of an Angie Tribeca episode is to serve as a delivery mechanism for as many jokes as possible. If a character says, “Let me set the record straight,” you can be certain he’ll soon be reshuffling a few LPs on the coffee table. If the bereaved wife of a murder victim tells Tribeca she hopes the police will soon “catch the animals who did this,” you know Tribeca will soon blurt out that she’s pretty sure the murder was not committed by animals but by human beings. Add to that supporting characters like a German Shepherd named Det. David Hoffman and sight gags like a priceless work of art stolen and replaced with a fake, the original hidden behind a large painting of a kangaroo with a light switch for a head—a switcheroo—and you get just how giddily silly and immensely pleasurable this show is.
And how Jewish: Although the show’s creators—the actor Steve Carell and his wife the comedian and writer Nancy Walls Carell—aren’t Jews, its sensibility is unmistakably rooted in the same mid-century, Midwestern, suburban, neurotic, literate, anarchic soil from which Airplane! et al. bloomed. But while the Carells aren’t the first non-Jews to pay homage to Abrahams and the Zuckers—Peter Farrelly, who along with his brother Bobby wrote and directed classics like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, has said that “if the Zuckers didn’t exist, there would be no Farrelly brothers”—they succeed where the Farrellys and others have failed, producing not only a bit of high octane madcap humor but also an artful piece of comic storytelling that fashions its gags into a fluid, coherent, and tightly knit alternative universe.
Deconstructing comedy is about as subtle and pleasurable a pursuit as a root canal, but to understand just how extraordinary Angie Tribeca truly is just compare it to the oeuvre of Seth MacFarlane, another Abrahams-Zucker fan who reenacted a famous scene from Airplane! in his film Ted. MacFarlane and his writers treat jokes like the Internet treats content: almost everything is fit for the screen, and almost nothing requires context. Got a good gag? Just slap it on there, and don’t worry about interrupting the plot or the characters, neither of which carry much weight on YouTube’s wilderness of snippets anyway. Angie Tribeca never falls into this trap: It may deliver a joke every seven seconds or so, but each one is designed to make the show richer and build a fictional universe that is preposterous but still heartfelt and joyous and utterly believable. When Detective Hoffman silently chastises his human partner over the latter’s unhealthy eating habits, for example, we may chuckle at the topsy-turvy scene of a dog urging a man to make better food choices, but we’re also touched by the relationship between the two and moved by seeing an act we’ve seen a million times—the good old police-partners-as-married-couple routine—reimagined and made fresh again simply because one of the officers has a tail. Almost every bit in the show achieves the same comedic alchemy, playing with conventions so gingerly that it strips away decades of numbing TV tropes and makes every punchline simultaneously absolutely predictable and absolutely refreshing.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Jones pulling off such magic. In one of the show’s funniest moments, Geils threatens Tribeca by saying that unless she goes along with his plans, he’ll tell the entire squad that she’s a girl. The joke works because it underscores the innate machismo of the police procedural genre, but also because it quietly directs attention to Jones’s superb balancing act between the ridiculous and the sublime: You believe she can be tough and goofy and charming and dim and strong and brilliant and vulnerable and radiant and deeply troubled all at once, which makes you care for her even a thousand jokes in.
Which is a great relief. With comedy these days dominated largely by shows that make you cringe (anything by Ricky Gervais), shrug (anything on Adult Swim), or yawn (anything featuring single-note characters hitting their single note again and again and again), a sitcom that’s as sweet as it is wild is a balm for weary souls.
This isn’t just an artistic achievement; it’s a spiritual one. Those original Zucker-Abrahams movies were so great in part because they reflected their creators’ vantage point as Wisconsin kids in Los Angeles, Jews in Protestant America. MacFarlane, who can trace his lineage to the Mayflower’s William Brewster, may be as cutting and as cool as he’d like, but Abrahams and the Zuckers, whose ancestors came to America from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, were never really cool; they were warm, too reverential toward the society that just a few generations earlier had greeted their families with open arms. The America Abrahams and the Zuckers believed in was a country that chugged along even though it was populated by endearing idiots, and it chugged along because all these idiots always worked together to extricate themselves from whatever disastrous situation they were dumb enough to get themselves in and somehow, together, save the day.
Angie Tribeca and Angie Tribeca are cut from the same cloth. Both deliver plenty of laughs, but both are also committed to serving and protecting the idea that a place like America, a nation of immigrants and immigrants’ kids, can only thrive if we believe in our shared destiny and work to uphold it even when we are trying to be witty and sharp and over-the-top. Surely there’s nothing more we can ask of a very funny television show.
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