“Revenge and Remorse (The Guilty Alibi)” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 3/25/1982)
One of the most remarkable aspects of Police Squad!’s staying power is the fact that its main characters are hardly characters at all. Frank Drebin and Ed Hocken are cardboard cutouts of TV cops; sure, they’re given plenty of life by Leslie Nielsen and Alan North, but the lieutenant and the captain don’t have the depth of backstory nor the wants and desires that typically engage viewers with the players in a comedy series. It’s clever satire of the interchangeable parts of the Quinn Martin machine, where cops were no-nonsense crime fighters… and that’s about it. Deep characterization isn’t required when the joke writing is as strong as it is on Police Squad!, but it’s certainly one of those pieces of the series’ puzzle that makes its abbreviated run a blessing in disguise. Could Drebin survive a second season with such minimal shading? Even The Naked Gun takes pains to introduce a love interest into his life.
The closest thing Police Squad! has to a fleshed-out character is Peter Lupus’ Norberg, whose main thrust in “Revenge And Remorse (The Guilty Alibi)” comes off as the guy at the precinct who wants to fit in and impress his superiors. There’s genuine hurt to the way Lupus plays his part in the episode’s lunchtime interrogation runaround—“Don’t expect us to swallow that!” “All right, I’ll eat it. But I don’t think it’s fair that I should have to pay for it”—and the way he scrambles to find his proper place in the episode’s freeze frame is downright endearing. Given the way the Norberg/Nordberg character becomes a target for constant physical-comedy abuse in The Naked Gun films, it’s nice to see him as the affectionately portrayed bridge between the audience and Police Squad!’s wacky world. It’s even nicer that the connection Norberg forges does nothing to upset the delicate balance that world relies on.
But characterization is for longer-running TV comedies and feature-length spinoffs; learning more about Frank and Ed would merely get in the way of the laughs, and the laughs are paramount to Police Squad!. Besides, we don’t need to know anything about Frank and Ed because we’ve seen their types on dozens of other shows. The fun of this show is watching them go about the mundane, everyday business of investigating the case of the week unaware of the joke bombs being detonated by Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker and their team of writers.
More so than any episode that comes before it, “Revenge And Remorse” relies on twisty verbal repartee, be it the aforementioned conflation of police inquiry and lunch orders or the piling on of “let’s say” wordplay that follows. The A.V. Club’s Meredith Blake has noted that her ongoing TV Club Classic assignment, Strangers With Candy, operates under a strange logic that all of its characters accept (or simply don’t think to question), and the same can be said of Police Squad!. When the wife of lead suspect Eddie Casales takes Frank and Ed’s coats and packs them away in a box of donations for the “Orphans Relief Fund,” the cops don’t halt their line of questioning to retrieve their outerwear. Instead, they end up handing over their entire ensembles as Lana fills them in on Casales’ troubled past.
Nancy Steen and Neil Thompson’s script also takes Police Squad!’s first stab at portraying the crook of the week’s misdeeds while obscuring their identity, an old filmmaking trick that opens up an entire world of visual humor set at ankle-level. (The funniest: The culprit’s arrival at Room 112, conveniently marked for low vantage points. The eeriest: The gravity-defying manner in which those wingtips float over a courtroom chair.) It’s a neat way of varying up the show’s optical palette, but it does raise a question: Is it necessary to “Revenge And Remorse” that the bomber’s identity remains a secret until the third act? Seeing we’re not asked to care too deeply about the main characters of the show, fretting over whether or not Mimi Dujour (née Coffee) is going to get blowed up real good feels like a secondary concern.
If anything, the mystery story was more for Steen and Thompson’s enjoyment than the viewer’s, as the basic elements of a whodunit gave the writers a foundation to run roughshod over with visual puns, non sequiturs, and spectacular use of the main Police Squad set. A pair of longer sequences in the bullpen allow veteran TV director Paul Krasny to move the camera and the actors through a familiar space that still has the capacity to surprise—and room for a full prime-rib buffet setup. Krasny applies techniques he’d honed on the sets of shows such as Mannix and CHiPS to turn a dry, expositional walk-and-talk into a well-paced, expertly lensed comedic sequence.
Though great art seldom results from following a strict set of rules, learning the “rules” of a certain style, medium, or genre in order to break them occasionally yields a sublime outcome. So it goes with the best episodes of Police Squad!: It’s not just that the driving creative force of the series was satirizing something they were well-versed in, but in the case of co-conspirators like Krasny, they’re sending up their own work. And if doing so means sacrificing some character nuances in order to let Frank weave a web of telephone cord across the office, so be it.
- More praise for the tracking shot along the buffet line: We can see the cops Ed tasks with going through “the records of recently released prisoners” for that entire sequence, but it’s only after Alan North drops that line—and the camera passes the chef—that we see the stack in front of the officers is actually a pile of LPs. That bit is like a Rube Goldberg contraption of funny.
- It took me four weeks of closely watching Police Squad! to notice that the women in the opening credits throws her baby after the hail of bullets comes down on the bullpen. Similarly, it took me three iterations of the Club Flamingo logo—the matchbook, Al’s T-shirt, and the animated sign—to figure out it was a literal translation of the club’s name. Talk about jokes on top of jokes on top of jokes.
- Police Squad!’s finest: All of the shots of the culprit’s arms and legs are the perfect setup for the reveal that Lana’s been perpetrating her crimes while wearing the sleeves and pant legs of a gray suit over and under her everyday wardrobe.
- Internal affairs: The phrasing of “Tell that bomber to take off!” makes it sound like Frank’s referring to a plane well before the nearby officer gives the “all clear” to the offscreen pilot.
- A magical bit of Frank Drebin voice-over: “When I got home, I received a call from Mimi Dujour. She said she wanted to meet me at the club, right away. Since I had no idea where the Club Right Away was, I suggested the Club Flamingo. She agreed.”