Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
Cops (sorry, I mean COPS — it’s officially titled in all caps) premiered on the Fox Network in 1989, and is, sadly, often ignored in the wider discussion of early reality television in favor of more sophisticated fare like PBS’s An American Family or (and it really is much more sophisticated if you think about it for a second) The Real World. But COPS (“COPS,” if they could) shouldn’t be forgotten for three reasons. One, it’s a perfect example of the overall right-wing ethos of the Fox Corporation in general and just a handy-dandy primary source on policing attitudes in America. Two, it’s a perfect example of reality TV — very cheaply produced, and chock-full of the sorts of fascinating human specimens who are willing to sign the waiver to show themselves being humiliated for a modicum of attention, whether it’s the suspects who are innocent until proven guilty or the monologue-spouting camera-ready COPS. The third and most important reason: COPS is the clear inspiration for Reno 911!
Could there possibly be a better program to parody for a sketch show? I mean, you’ve got the core cast of cops, or in this specific case, the Reno Sheriff’s Department: Lieutenant Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon), and deputies Jones (Cedric Yarbrough), Junior (Robert Ben Garant), Wiegel (Kerri Kenney), Williams (Niecy Nash), Johnson (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui), and — in a later, openly admitted Cousin Oliver-ish addition — Kimball (Mary Birdsong). You’ve also got the townspeople (Reno apparently has all the drugs, gambling, violence and prostitution of Las Vegas, but none of the subtle sophistication or respectability), mostly played by Los Angeles comedy-scene mainstays (Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Daley) and still others — including Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio, who — like Lennon, Garant and Kenney, Reno 911’s creators — were alumni of The State.
Even though Reno 911! got the Abed-approved six seasons and a movie under its belt, it always was an under-the-radar cult favorite, certainly not having the pop-culture impact of a Chappelle’s Show or even, God help us, a Tosh.0. But it really doesn’t matter, because pound for pound, the fine sheriffs of Washoe County more than pull their comedic weight. I’m happily surprised at how well the humor holds up, because boy, 2004 was a very different world. George W. Bush was President, Paris Hilton was a famous socialite, those were the days, etc., etc. But oh, the early Aughts — they truly were a very specific, bizarre time and place, perhaps best exemplified through the character of Terry (Nick Swardson), Reno’s very own roller-skatin’, crack-smokin’, dick-suckin’, trick-turnin’ public nuisance and sometimes Tacos Tacos Tacos Tacos employee who keeps the fuzz on their toes.
The first six seasons of Reno 911! are all airing on HBO Max, and I have to say, it’s a joy not having to sit through Comedy Central’s exhausting 500 commercial breaks to enjoy an episode. You can be forgiven for not knowing there were new Reno episodes as of 2020 — that’s because they first premiered on Quibi, and are currently found on The Roku Channel. I am happy to say: They’ve still got it. There's a funeral set piece that was clearly created for the sole purpose of spending some of Quibi’s $1.75 billion dollars, and they don't budge an inch on the sweet spot of uncomfortable comedy — there’s a two-part episode where the gang is trying to shoot a white guy to make the department look good. (“Let’s Shoot a White Guy,” Parts 1 and 2.) Each part is only like seven minutes long though, because: Quibi.
Because Reno 911! is a parody of COPS, it can’t get around how much more awful policing and, like, interacting with the general public has gotten over the past 18 years. I especially like how openly they used Quibi to spread the message that technology, specifically, has made everything worse: Everyone’s livestreaming their crimes nowadays (because the kids give you hearts and thumbs-up when you hurt yourself), Reno’s tens of thousands of sex offenders can register on their new app and, hey, are you confused about what constitutes revenge porn, also known as revenge pornography? No worries, our friends have got a PSA that’ll help straighten it all out! Maybe!
The au courant 2020 action is already a little dated — they set up a fake tryout for Space Force, they guard a bobo-honkin’ Bernie Sanders decoy (“I am the real Berine!” he says, tromping through the crowd). But I love it, because it’s still basically the same show as it’s always been, which is, more or less, COPS. The format: walking to the scene and explaining the situation to the camera, the barely contained chaos of whatever absurdity we’re able to watch in the first place. Seriously though: That ridiculous funeral scene was worth every penny.