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Angie Tribeca walks the thin blue line between stupid and clever

Illustration for article titled Angie Tribeca walks the thin blue line between stupid and clever
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The new cop comedy Angie Tribeca faces an onerous task as it heads to air this Sunday, and it has nothing to do with the 25-hour premiere party TBS is throwing for the show. That sort of thing is old-hat for the home of an annual, all-day marathon of A Christmas Story. Besides that, Angie Tribeca has been in the works since 2013, and already has a second season locked and loaded for later this year. Getting this much of the show out in one push (by re-running the show’s lineup of 10 30-minute episodes five times through) is just smart business sense.

No, Angie Tribeca’s test is a creative one: The show (created by Steve Carell and Nancy Walls Carell) is a gag-a-minute parody in the style of Mel Brooks or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. But whereas contemporary examples of the form like Childrens Hospital, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp, and NTSF: SD: SUV:: (or anything else in the Abominable Pictures stable) choose to amplify the conventions of their chosen genres to surrealistic extremes, Angie Tribeca keeps things traditional. In its fictional Los Angeles police precinct, the wordplay is vaudevillian, the fourth wall is flimsy, and every frame is a blank canvas for sight gags. Given a large enough target, Angie Tribeca’s shotgun blasts find their marks with ease: When Detectives Angie Tribeca (Rashida Jones) and Jay Geils (Hayes MacArthur) attend the wake of a murdered ventriloquist, they unleash a hail of visual puns and metaphors taken literally. “I just really hope that you catch the animal that did this,” the victim’s wife tells Tribeca. “Thank you ma’am,” the detective replies, “but we think it was a human that did it.”


It’s a forgiving approach, one where the density of the jokes should make the hits outweigh the misses. Combined with a consistent tone, a healthy dose of ingenuity, and an unwavering commitment to silliness, this sort of spoof ultimately transcends its source material (like Young Frankenstein or Airplane!). With neither, the entire enterprise drowns in its own flop sweat (like the short-shelf-life parodies of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer). It takes at least three episodes for Angie Tribeca to figure out that balance, making TBS’ binge-viewing strategy look all the wiser. But after that, it’s still another two or three episodes until Rashida Jones has a firm grasp on the title character.

Jones’ best comedic performances are ones of reaction: serving as down-to-earth counterpoint to Leslie Knope’s latest Parks And Recreation scheme, or correcting Paul Rudd’s Jamaican patois in I Love You Man. But she can’t do that here, lest Angie Tribeca give up the illusion that its detectives are treating, say, a ferret-smuggling ring with anything but the utmost seriousness. And so Jones starts off a bit adrift, while co-stars like Jere Burns, Andrée Vermeulen, and Deon Cole carry the show’s deadpan torch. (Vermeulen is especially good as the unit’s unflinching forensics technician.) Eventually, Angie Tribeca meets its star in the middle, allowing Angie to lower her defenses and show some feelings. With help from an expanded emotional range and myriad flashbacks, Angie opens up to let Jones in.

The show around her finds its footing sooner if only because those steps were already laid out by the likes of Police Squad!, Sledge Hammer, and Get Smart. Sometimes it follows those examples a little too closely: The second episode, “The Wedding Planner Did It” takes the “Let’s say a new merchant moves into the neighborhood” right out of Leslie Nielsen and Alan North’s mouths. To be fair to Angie Tribeca, that type of gag was already in mothballs in 1982; to be fairer, subsequent episodes see the show staking out its own territory along the fine line between stupid and brilliant. Lampooning TV cops from the current century, the title sequence puts an inspired spin on CSI: Miami and its Roger Daltrey scream, and Angie’s ever-mutating backstory is a clever comment on primetime procedurals’ yen for tortured childhoods and on-duty trauma. The character names, meanwhile, suggest that someone on staff spends a lot of time combing through bargain-bin LPs, old TV Guides, and supermarket circulars.

Angie Tribeca isn’t going to receive any special commendations for originality. This type of comedy has been done in this setting before, so updating the technology or building a blue-tinted lab for Vermeulen and recurring player Alfred Molina is the least the Carells and crew could do. But the hits-to-miss ratio is weighted in Angie Tribeca’s favor, thanks in large part to the cast’s go-for-broke energy and a roster of guests—including Bill Murray, Keegan-Michael Key, and Kerri Kenney-Silver—tuned into the show’s looney wavelength. That relentlessness is sure to grow wearying over the course of 25 hours, but no one is likely to watch the premiere marathon from end to end. Given the number of jokes piled on jokes in any given episode, though, season one’s best offerings—“The Famous Ventriloquist Did It,” “Ferret Royale,” “Tribeca’s Day Off,” and the Guy Ritchie send-up “Inside Man”—are worth a second look.


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