Friday, January 22, 2016

On the Nose: TBS's Angie Tribeca

Hayes MacArthur, Rashida Jones,and Alfred Molina in Angie Tribeca, on TBS.

As you no doubt keep hearing, we live in a particularly crowded era of television. Every day, it seems, a new TV series premieres and another drops away. Television executives are bemoaning that even quality shows can't find the audiences they need to survive, and professional television critics have admitted that they can't keep up. What is a basic cable network to do? This past Sunday and Monday, TBS premiered the first season of Angie Tribeca ... all at once. From 9pm on Sunday to 10pm on Monday, TBS aired the show's first 10-episode season five times, back-to-back and commercial free, in an 'event' they (accurately) called a 25-Hour Binge-A-Thon. The show, prior to its premiere, has already been renewed for a second season. So, fun fact: if you weren't watching TBS last Monday, you are already a season behind on Angie Tribeca. I suppose now the only question is whether or not you should care…

The fact is that Angie Tribeca should, on its own merits (innovative distribution strategies notwithstanding), have gotten a lot of attention. Starring Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreations) as veteran LAPD detective Angie Tribeca, and Hayes MacArthur as Jay Geils, her new partner, Angie Tribeca is also the first series by husband and wife team Steve Carell (The Office, Foxcatcher) and Nancy Walls Carell. Explicitly in the vein of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker's short-lived Police Squad! series and Naked Gun movies, with regular borrowing from Alan Spencer's less successful (but still fondly remembered) Sledge Hammer!, Angie Tribeca is determined to send up 21st century police procedurals just like the 80s-era slapstick classics did for crime shows of earlier decades.

One thing that can certainly be said about Angie Tribeca is that it owns its conceit – fully and without compromise. There are few current (non-animated) series that operate with such unapologetic silliness. There are no double entendres here – only purposely single ones. Dryly delivered by characters who take themselves too seriously in a setting that can't keep a straight face, Angie Tribeca is one long testament to the unsublimely ridiculous. (See Lisa Kudrow's cameo role as a purported mistress of the mayor: "Oh, I've already destroyed him – with having sex with him, if you catch my drift. I did it with him. He did it with me. If you understand my meaning.") Characters have names ripped from decades of popular culture: the aforementioned "Jay Geils", "D.J. Tanner," "Wilson Phillips," "Alan Parsons," "Fisher Price," a medical examiner named "Dr. Scholls", and so on. The names are also, for the most part, ends in themselves: you either smile when you hear that the suspect's wife is named "Samantha Stevens" or you don't. But don't worry about it too much, because they've already moved on to the next gag.

The humour of Angie Tribeca is – like Police Squad! and the Airplane! movies before it – as much about the comedy of language itself as a spoof of police-procedural conventions. Across these ten episodes, there are barely a handful of figures of speech that go 'unliteralized.' (When a bartender asks "Why the long face?", "I was a forceps baby" is actually the only reasonable response. When someone says "Let's bounce," expect a Pogo stick to be pulled out, and if a soft bassline punctuates a tender scene, don't be surprised to find a man crammed into the car's backseat playing a double bass.) And once your brain catches on, you will begin to anticipate the punch lines well in advance of the reveal. I only got fully acclimated around Episode 4, at the moment when a suspect declared that he would testify only if he got "full immunity" and I started grinning long before the syringe came out. This was also, notably, the precise moment when Angie Tribeca moved from passably amusing to actually funny. I should acknowledge that, while the first season had few genuine laugh-out-loud moments for me, once I slipped comfortably into its universe of non-metaphorical speech, straight-faced absurdism, and clown car sight gags, that smile rarely left my face.

But if Angie Tribeca sometimes misses the mark, it ironically does this by being too respectful of its comedy pedigree. Some of its wordplay has a "And don't call me Shirley"/"Who's on first?" brilliant lunacy to it, but it's spoofing of the crime genre feels a little dated – as if they were still making fun of the same era of television and film that Police Squad! had in its sights three decades ago. The style of humour still holds up (as do the ZAZ works themselves) but crime drama itself has evolved – and (with the innumerable CSI and Law & Order franchises, the self-important True Detective, and the rise of exquisitely painful Brit crime shows like Broadchurch and its ilk) gotten ridiculous in new and different ways. A few years ago, British TV paid its homage to Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker and spoofed its own gritty crime dramas with A Touch of Cloth. As I wrote in my 2013 review, there was no shortage of juvenile humour in Charlie Brooker's show, but Cloth also took a learned aim at specific absurdities of the genre in its current form. Some of the funnier gags in Angie Tribeca follow from the eye it trains on the current state of police TV – for example, the scene-stealing Alfred Molina as chief forensic scientist Dr. Edelweiss, who shows up in every episode with a new physical disability, or how every case brings out some deep-seated trauma from one of the character's pasts – but for the most part, the series seems largely out of time in its take on crime drama conventions. (With a second season already in the works, we will hopefully not have too long to wait to find out whether it will improve on these points.)

If you missed Angie Tribeca's first season, you can catch up through iTunes, TBS's video-on-demand service, or just tune in to TBS on Mondays at 9pm EST for its encore run of the first season.
– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.        

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like my kind of television. Don't know how I could have totally missed this, but I will certainly check it out now. Thanks for this.