1. The Police Academy franchise (1984-1997)
Television and film often use incompetent authority figures as comic relief and dramatic irony, and no well has been tapped more than that of inept law enforcement. But every so often, these cops still manage to fumble their way into a win. The Police Academy franchise—which comprises seven movies, as well as two TV series, one animated and one live-action—is basically “slobs vs. snobs” comedy, with the snobs defined as anyone who insist on basic competence and higher-than-below-average intelligence as requirements for being permitted to carry a badge and a gun, and maybe anyone who demands that lead roles in movies be filled by someone who has more talent and charisma than Steve Guttenberg. Guttenberg, who stars in the first four movies, plays Carey Mahoney, who—by virtue of his being white, male, and having a conventionally non-wacky body type—is the designated star among a group of unlikely police cadets who get their chance to serve on their city’s police force when the new mayor relaxes the standards for admission to the titular educational facility. The cadets are poised to wash out until circumstances throw them into a real-life hostage situation, which they heroically resolve with slapstick aplomb. The message—which runs through the entire series, right up to the point where the Police Academy graduates are summoned to Moscow to help Russian police chief Christopher Lee defeat Russian mob boss Ron Perlman—is that teamwork and having your heart in the right place is at least as sure a formula for success as being smart and gifted. Anyone who disagrees will have to explain how Warner Bros. got so much sap out of this tree.
2. Reno 911!: Miami (2007)
“Incompetent” is a polite way to describe the Reno County Sheriff’s Department as depicted on Comedy Central’s Reno 911! Catching criminals seems to be more about luck than skill, though most of Reno’s crime is pretty minor. Big cases tend to be taken away from the deputies, usually with good reason. But in the big-screen adaptation of the show, the deputies find themselves in charge of policing Miami when a biological-weapons attack traps the nation’s police departments in a convention center. Although the deputies spend a good deal of time partying and trying to pick up members of the opposite sex, they also manage to find the perpetrator of the attack, snag the antidote to the bio weapon, and break up a drug ring. Luck plays a role, but they also show some surprising competence, as when Lt. Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui) pilots a military helicopter to save the day. Well, one of the other deputies accidentally fires a missile and kills the suspect, but that was probably inevitable.
3. The Good Guys (2010)
The “bad cops on top” subgenre gets self-referential in the short-lived TV series The Good Guys, which was created by Matt Nix (Burn Notice). Bradley Whitford, a long way from Aaron Sorkin country, plays Dallas police detective Dan Stark, an alcoholic burnout who’s still living in the late ’70s, when his brand of two-fisted, hard-living justice was in vogue, and everyone didn’t snicker at him for showing up for work every day with a hangover and not knowing how to work the “computer machine.” Dan is paired with Jack Bailey (Colin Hanks), a smooth young hotshot who can practically make the computer machine do backflips, but who is lacking in the life-experience department. Jack is appalled by his partner’s crude style, but is constantly amazed by his ability to stumble across major crimes and throw a net over the bad guys. Maybe the point is that the best of the old and the new can make an effective team, or maybe it just proves that God looks out for children and fools.
4. The Other Guys (2010)
The Other Guys is an unlikely blend of a doofus buddy-cop movie with a commentary on the actual crimes committed during the financial crisis. As with most movies of this ilk, the interactions of the mismatched duo (Mark Wahlberg as a de rigueur hothead and Will Ferrell as a happy-to-be-in-accounting forensic accountant) take precedent over what seems to be a purposefully convoluted plot: Here, the cops must stop bad guys and the additional bad guys who want to kill the original bad guys from embezzling from the New York Police Department pension fund in order to recoup corporate investment losses. Unsurprisingly, the bumbling cops stop the money from being stolen and everything works out (including a restoration of Mark Wahlberg’s good name, when it is revealed that he did not, as he was accused of earlier in the movie, shoot Derek Jeter in the leg during the World Series.) However, director Adam McKay cannily reminds the audience that, laughs aside, it is a story about crime, as is illustrated by an animated sequence that rolls throughout the closing credits, providing infographics about who got fat off the financial crisis. Interesting, but still not quite as hilarious as watching Ferrell and Wahlberg.
5. Hot Fuzz (2007)
For much of Edgar Wright’s hilarious, densely layered action pastiche Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg’s Nicholas Angel appears to be the only competent policeman (make that police officer) in the United Kingdom. He’s banished to the country town of Sandford by his London superiors because his unerring devotion to law and order is making the rest of the Metropolitan Police look bad, and Angel’s newfound rural colleagues appear to be just as useless. Nick Frost’s Danny Butterman means well, but he’s only a cop because his father is the chief, and he derives most of his theories for law enforcement from close analysis of Point Break and Bad Boys II. The two plainclothes detectives have the swagger and rudeness of big-city cops but assume even the most obvious of murders is just a freak accident. Karl Johnson’s constable is nearly incomprehensible and appears to be a good three decades past retirement age, while Kevin Eldon and Olivia Colman are less interested in being a cop than they are describing their perfect Sunday to the local paper and gleefully spouting cheeky innuendos, respectively. But all is not as it seems in Sandford, and, in the movie’s gloriously insane climax, they prove to be formidable allies as Nicholas finally opens their eyes to what’s really going on in their beloved town.
6. Inspector Gadget (1983-1986)
Most of the time, Metro City’s finest cyborg police officer manages to save the day only in the most technical of senses. Tasked with taking down the nefarious M.A.D. organization and its enigmatic leader, Dr. Claw, Gadget (voiced by Get Smart star Don Adams) is so oblivious to what’s actually going on that he routinely greets sworn enemies as friends and assumes one of his only allies—his shockingly intelligent dog Brain—is behind every crime he investigates. Although Brain and Gadget’s niece, Penny, are really responsible for thwarting each week’s M.A.D. plot, it’s Gadget who gets the credit. In slight fairness, his constantly malfunctioning gadgets do tend to create slapstick chaos that’s inadvertently vital to saving the day. Besides, the show’s rigid formula does occasionally stretch far enough for Inspector Gadget to show brief flashes of competence. The end of the episode “M.A.D. Trap” is a particularly good example, as Gadget actually understands Dr. Claw is trying to kill him, deploys a dozen different gadgets to escape, then saves Penny and Brain from a burning building using the helicopter that pops out of his head. He’s still a lovable buffoon, but it’s a nice reminder that he’s very occasionally capable of so much more.
7. The Thin Blue Line (1995-1996)
The Thin Blue Line, Rowan Atkinson and Ben Elton’s follow-up to the legendary Blackadder, is a much gentler, more farcical proposition than its predecessor, as Atkinson plays Raymond Fowler, the mild-mannered but officious and sexually repressed chief of police in the London suburb of Gasforth. The old-fashioned Fowler wistfully pines for an England where young people spent their days playing Meccano and reading Biggles books. That leaves him ill equipped to deal with contemporary crime, but he’s still considerably better off than his plainclothes counterpart, David Haig’s Derek Grim, who is convinced he’s policing the roughest neighborhoods of New York or Los Angeles instead of a sleepy suburb. The rest of the station’s cops are mostly varying shades of moron, and much of the comedy in the show’s 14 episodes comes from their complete inability to get through Fowler’s daily briefing sessions without several inane tangents. Still, Fowler has his moments, albeit often accidentally—in one episode, he resolves a tense hostage situation at a bank by giving the masked robbers a stern talking-to, declaring that they really have gone too far this time and should just hand over their guns before this nonsense goes any further. It’s all terribly impressive, even if Fowler had been acting under the mistaken assumption that the robbers were some college kids playing a prank.
8. Super Troopers (2001)
Broken Lizard’s first and only truly great comedy, Super Troopers, features five Vermont State Troopers who are the most prank-prone, chronically incompetent law-enforcement officers. Their ingenious and hilarious pranks are too numerous to count, from shoving a rookie in a locker and covering him with shaving cream to posing as a speeder to drag officers into a high-speed chase. Outcast Trooper Kevin Heffernan begins the film on suspension after an incident with a school bus full of children, and ends up attacking a burger jockey for a harmless prank. Even the lieutenant brings home a speeding couple in a stolen car to swing with his wife. These troopers are more focused on their rivalry with the Spurbury Police Department—sending over comically large cotton candy, throwing maple-syrup bottles around, brawling at a murder scene—than they are on policing their stretch of highway. But when the budget ax comes down on their department—aided by Marisa Coughlan, the decidedly competent female police officer left out of the corruption loop—they come through to make a big drug bust and earn a promotion.
9. Police Squad! (1982)
Police Squad! may have only lasted six episodes, but its humor was so resonant and so appealing that audiences caught onto the jokes and it inspired the Naked Gun film trilogy. Leslie Nielsen’s Sergeant Frank Drebin and Alan North’s Captain Ed Hocken weren’t incompetent characters in a sea of perfect workers; they just fit into a world that mocked the structure of a police procedural. Cops crashed cars into trash cans, took pictures with murder victims, drew Egyptian hieroglyphics next to chalk outlines, and offered ridiculous advice to a mother wondering how to tell her child about a slain father. Even the title sequences were off—voiceovers and title cards didn’t match, rear-projection driving backgrounds were wildly out of place, and the legendary epilogue “freeze frames” are still some of the funniest television comedy in history. ABC canceled Police Squad! because it required viewers to pay close attention to the mise-en-scène and dialogue to catch all the furiously paced jokes, but the deliberately shoddy construction paved the way for later parody comedy.
10. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Granted, no one in the Beverly Hills Police Department seems especially on the ball in 1984’s mega-hit Beverly Hills Cop, especially once Eddie Murphy’s streetwise Detroit cop Axel Foley hits the town in search of his friend’s murderer and starts doing his comical gay-guy impression and stuffing bananas in tailpipes and so on. But the locus of the BHPD’s ineptitude is clearly Judge Reinhold’s Billy Rosewood. With his sleepy eyes and surfer’s drawl, Rosewood seems naïvely out of his depth, prone to inappropriately dreamy tangents (like obsessing about his partner’s meat intake) and genial ineffectualness. But when the chips are down, Billy comes through, even saving Foley’s life at a critical moment. As Foley says when Rosewood decides to disobey orders and assist him in the final showdown, “I love you, Billy. I just fell in love with you.” Audiences did too for a while, although the dreadful sequels sapped affection for the actor—at least until Arrested Development reminded everyone that there’s always a place for Reinhold’s affable buffoonery.
11. Sledge Hammer! (1986-1988)
A worthy, yet largely forgotten, successor to the similarly zany (and similarly punctuated) Police Squad!, Sledge Hammer! was a short-lived cop spoof that brought an added dimension of political satire into the “incompetent cop” formula. Created by 26-year-old Alan Spencer, and boasting future Simpsons scribes Al Jean and Mike Reiss on its writing staff, the show was made at the height of right-wing cultural hegemony (thuggish TV cop Hunter was a stated target), and it incessantly hammers away at the stereotypical “shoot first, ask questions later” cop on the edge, with David Rasche’s titular detective invariably solving crimes in the most insanely violent manner imaginable. Sniper on the rooftop? Whip out a bazooka and blow up the building. (“I think I got him.”) While Rasche is certainly no Leslie Nielsen, he deadpanned his way through two fitfully funny seasons, even when his unwarranted macho confidence while defusing a nuke (“Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”) appears to destroy all of San Francisco at the end of season one. (It got better.)
12. Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-1963)
Following the time-tested Laurel And Hardy model of comedy, Car 54, Where Are You?—which ran for 60 episodes between 1961 to 1963—presented viewers with the ongoing adventures of two officers who were definitely not among NYPD’s finest: Joe E. Ross’ short and chubby Gunther Toody and his tall and lanky partner, Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne). While patrolling the Bronx’s 53rd precinct in Car 54, Toody and Muldoon were regularly provided with opportunities to prove their general incompetence while on duty, aided by a cast of characters including Al Lewis, Nipsey Russell, and Ossie Davis. Despite only airing for two seasons, Car 54, Where Are You? was sufficiently beloved to inspire a film version in 1990 with David Johansen and John C. McGinley as Toody and Muldoon, respectively, but the end result was so horrendous that it sat on the shelf for four years before finally getting the chance to bomb in theaters.
13. The Last Precinct (1986)
In an unabashed effort to bring the wacky shenanigans of the Police Academy films to the small screen, NBC turned to über-producer Stephen J. Cannell, who, along with collaborator Frank Lupo—also the creative team behind The A-Team and Riptide—came up with The Last Precinct, an hourlong series revolving around the worst precinct in the Los Angeles Police Department. Headed up by Adam West’s Captain Rick Wright, the LAPD’s 56th Precinct was stocked with numerous incompetent and/or eccentric cops, including Sgt. ‘Night Train’ Lane (Ernie Hudson), Officer William ‘Raid’ Raider (Rick Ducommun), an Elvis impersonator known only as The King (Pete Willcox), and a transsexual officer named Mel (Randi Brooks). In spite of its pilot getting the plum slot of a preview airing behind Super Bowl XX in January 1986, The Last Precinct proved to be a bomb when it made its official series debut in April and was yanked by the end of May.
14. Get Smart (1965-1970, 1989, 1995, 2008)
Get Smart’s several incarnations over the years—as a popular TV show in the ’60s, a brief TV-movie stint in the ’80s, and a revival starring Steve Carell in 2008—speaks to the enduring popularity of Maxwell Smart, the worst secret agent in the business—who also happens to be very, very lucky. Though the show itself is a bit staid, Don Adams’ portrayal of Smart, also known as Agent 86, is a time-honored foray into the lovable-klutz genre of television’s antiheroes. Along with Agent 99, who eventually became his wife, and the supervision of his chief, Smart saves the world a thousand times over, with spoofy gadgets that read like James Bond’s many fun toys—except less useful, and not nearly as sexy. As created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Get Smart remains solid secret-agent satire.
15. The Pink Panther (1963)
The Pink Panther is one of the oddest detective stories: a cross between a harebrained caper and, well, nihilism. Not to get too maudlin about what is essentially a comedy—bumbling, innocent, idiotic Inspector Clouseau, played brilliantly by Peter Sellers, tries to track down a jewel thief, all the while unable to comprehend that the chief villain is none other than his beloved wife—but it calls to mind Marx’s famous aphorism that history plays out first as tragedy, then as farce. Everyone who could possibly try to steal the eponymous diamond tries, and every way that Clouseau could fail, he does. Marriage is a joke; love, a convenience; a diamond, an excuse to pass the time. And the truth? Who cares, by the end? Clouseau manages to catch a few of the thieves, but then he himself is framed for the diamond’s theft. And though he is just as shocked as anyone else by this turn of events, he gamely plays along with it, turning it to his advantage as well as he can. It’s a comic film, but also a strangely pessimistic argument about human nature. Sellers’ Clouseau provides the naïvete needed to coast through such a film, as well as his typical endlessly entertaining comic relief.
16. Rush Hour (1998)
America probably owes the rest of the world an apology for Rush Hour. It was the late ’90s—the country had kind of just discovered doing business with China, and in that heady, Clinton-era economic prosperity, one of the silliest movies ever made was greenlit and championed—a buddy-cop comedy starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan as two policemen who team up to rescue a kidnapped little girl. Rush Hour is stupid funny—capitalizing largely on Tucker’s well-honed ability at mocking himself and portraying an unapologetically incompetent cop with the LAPD who classifies essentially everyone into racial categories for his own convenience. The eternally charismatic Chan anchors the film as the serious, talented Lee, who punctuates Tucker’s stand-up routine with balletic fight choreography. Together they make for a formidable duo that manages to save the little girl, a bunch of Chinese art, and who knows, maybe even Sino-American relations. It’s a fun film that might be about international friendship and might also be about yelling loudly in different languages. But as far as fluffy action comedy goes, it’s one of the greats.
17. Twin Peaks (1990)
Gawky, goofy Harry Goaz mostly exists as Twin Peaks’ comic relief. His clumsy, affably vacant character, Deputy Andy Brennan, fumbles his own gun, finds tape too complicated to handle, and repeatedly gets hit on the head, which just makes him mildly dopier. (“Not a mark on it! Only blood squirted out!” he enthuses after stepping on a loose board, which smashes him in the nose.) But he isn’t just dim; he’s actively useless at crime scenes, where he breaks down into helpless tears because murder is so durn sad. So it’s a shock when, in the first season’s closing episode, “The Last Evening,” he saves the life of his much more competent boss, Michael Ontkean. In the middle of an arrest, the perp elbows aside the deputy cuffing him, steals his gun, and aims it at Ontkean’s back at point-blank range. Goaz takes the perp down with one calm, unblinking shot, then promptly returns to his bashful mooning over the stationhouse’s equally vapid receptionist. He isn’t this effective or cool under fire at any other point in the series; he occasionally makes a surprise logical leap or reveals a useful talent, but he spends most of his screen time on a silly questionable-paternity storyline, or expressing wide-eyed wonder in comic ways, as he does when he learns his sperm count is up: “I’m a whole damn town!”
18. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Shakespeare’s romantic comedies may seem an unusual place to find one of the original bad (bad, bad) cops, but Much Ado About Nothing is home to Constable Dogberry, head of the Watch, a man who’s out to prove “I am a wise fellow, and, which is more, an officer,” and he’s all out of wise fellow. Michael Keaton’s Dogberry growlingly enters the subplot surrounding Lady Hero’s unlawfully besmirched honor, and conducts an interrogation so gloriously incompetent and so peppered with hurt feelings—how many times is even possible to note that a man’s an ass?—that the bad guys end up confessing all to Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro just to get out of Dogberry’s custody. Shakespeare’s derisive caricature of the self-important and oblivious constable critiques the changing structures of law enforcement in the Elizabethan era, and while the trappings have changed, many a modern incompetent cop is a direct descendent of this particularly trying lawman. In fact, Nathan Fillion recently gave the role a try in Joss Whedon’s adaptation of the tale.