“Ring Of Fear (A Dangerous Assignment)” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 3/11/1982)
The silver lining of every brilliant-but-canceled TV series: In most cases, the show is still fresh and lively when it receives the axe, having never been afforded the chance to grow stale. When it comes to Police Squad!, six episodes may have been the perfect running length; the pacing of the series and the sheer volume of jokes contained within its half-dozen episodes was liable to drain the show’s writers eventually. In its abbreviated run, Police Squad! presents only the finest, most vibrant ideas from David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and scribes like Tino Insana, Robert Wuhl, and David Misch. The last three names in that list are responsible for the script for “Ring Of Fear (A Dangerous Assignment),” which serves as an example of that aforementioned silver lining’s downside (the cloud inside that which is itself inside the cloud, if you will): A less-than-stellar episode of Police Squad! sticks out from Frank Drebin’s five other half-hour adventures.
That’s not to say “Ring Of Fear” is a waste of 30 minutes. It has its laughs, they just come quieter and less frequently than in “A Substantial Gift.” It also features kinetic direction from ZAZ’s kindred spirit Joe Dante, whose live-action-Looney-Tunes sensibility invigorates the pair of boxing sequences that bookend Drebin’s investigation into a fight-fixing scheme. Despite Dante’s anarchic touch, the episode loses a tremendous amount of energy when it steps out of the ring and into the streets, de-cluttering the visuals and, jarringly, allowing for breathing room between the gags.
One of Police Squad!’s greatest strengths was the show’s ability to play it straight and accurately replicate that which it parodied. Yet the opening scenes of pugilism in “Ring Of Fear” go punchline-free for alarmingly long stretches. Thank goodness for the cartoonish zip of Dante’s direction—and the entrance of the goon of the week, who proves that confidence and press credentials can obscure even the most sinister of intentions.
Much of what “Ring Of Fear” lacks has to do with what’s expected from the second episode of Police Squad!. In light of Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane!, and “A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise),” it’s startling to see Leslie Nielsen and co-stars Patrick St. Esprit (playing Buddy, a boxer freshly off the take) and Rudy Solari (as Martin, the fight-fixing gangster) take a momentary beat when Solari presents St. Esprit with a toaster, thus proving that the boxer’s wife has been kidnapped. The pause implies that no one on set knew exactly when the toaster was set to go off, but it disrupts the rhythm of what’s otherwise a swiftly escalating riff on a typical “We’ve got your wife, you bum” scenario. A similar derailment occurs earlier in the episode, when Drebin’s triumph in a back-room poker game is undercut by the revelation that none of the players actually knows the rules of the game. Unfortunately, the execution of the argument falls short of its Vaudevillian setup. Maybe it’s funnier if you’re more familiar with the rules of poker, but the coda of the poker scene is a far cry from last week’s “I shot Twice once” routine.
The lighter touch of the episode succeeds elsewhere—the pair of newspaper headlines that precede the climactic title fight make for a joke with a particularly long fuse—but generally lends the impression that “Ring Of Fear” is too slavish to its source material. The episode gives itself some breathing room, yes, but that’s mostly to allow for various plot developments. There was some discussion in the comments last week about how important plot and story are to Police Squad!, and I feel as if I should clarify my assertion that both are of a low priority to the series. It’s not that ZAZ and the writers didn’t care whether or not an episode of Police Squad! had a clear beginning, middle, and end—it’s more that they didn’t concern themselves with devising the most clever beginning, middle, and end. In the ZAZ world, cleverness is better channeled through sight gags and putting ridiculous words in Nielsen’s mouth.
With “Ring Of Fear,” it’s apparent that some additional exertion went into properly carrying off the boxing plot. Frank has to jump through a lot of hoops to get to the point where he and Ed can finally arrest the bad guy: Meeting Buddy, winning the poker game, visiting Buddy’s apartment, booking a bout with the reigning champ (known only as “The Champ,” naturally), and finally rescuing Buddy’s wife from the clutches of Martin’s goon, Luka. (Or Martin’s “goon-looka”—whichever you prefer.) There’s barely enough time to fit in Olson and Johnny this week, let alone play with or exaggerate most of the beats of the story. At some points, it’s mighty easy to sympathize with those few, confused viewers who tuned into an episode of Police Squad! and thought “Is this supposed to be funny?”
Luckily, the episode is funny throughout, and in very, very ZAZ ways. You just have to wait to get to, say, the quick cut to Martin and Cooper’s dinner companions (“a couple of tramps”—in the Charlie Chaplin sense) or Frank’s practical order at the bar: a screwdriver. There’s also that masterfully handled chase through the steam room, which gives Dante’s camera a break while also sparing the prop department a few dollars on blanks. While “Ring Of Fear” goes through its “palooka makes good” motions, its brightest spots are in the details: The shelf that shows Cooper truly owns “a piece of every boxer in town,” the photo of a crumpled Buddy accepting money from Cooper while still in the ring, or The Champ’s approximation of Muhammad Ali’s poetic trash talk. Dante gets his chance to play Tex Avery, but aside from the sight of Buddy knocking out his own shadow, the bigger, broader visual gags in the episode are uneven. The silver lining of “Ring Of Fear”’s cloud within a silver lining within a cloud is that it still allows the Police Squad! team to run wild through the background of a cop show. But it’s more fun to watch when they’re doing so in the foreground as well.
- In an episode where people are constantly being punched in the face, the most extreme scenes of violence occur out of view: Luka offs Schultz behind a closed door, while Luka himself takes a bullet within the dense fog of the steam room.
- Were it not for my plan to stick to the freeze frames for the main images on these reviews, this review would’ve sat under the shot of Frank’s low seat at the bar. It’s just so perfectly framed and underplayed by Nielsen.
- Police Squad!’s finest (Playing favorites with the show’s many, many jokes): The Champ recites a little ditty for the press, one that absolutely sings thanks to Grand L. Bush’s smiling delivery: “Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet—I’m gonna break your face.”
- Internal affairs (To paraphrase a piece of audio commentary from the DVD, “Why did they think this would be funny?”): Conversely, the callback to that joke before The Champ’s fight with Buddy—heightened by a hollered “I’m going to break your face”—feels like a wasted opportunity. Why not give the character a more affable, more lyrical, more terrifying couplet?