Abrahams & the Zuckers Week, Day 3: Police Squad!

Today's entry may not be in the Paramount Presents line like Airplane!, but it's still an unexpected release from their back catalog I was delighted to see.  2020 has also turned out to be the year Police Squad! debuts on blu, the television project Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker tackled directly after Airplane! in 1982.  Of course, their entree to America's small screens didn't turn out to be the success their smash hit on the silver screen had set them up for.  But thankfully reruns and home video have allowed us to reevaluate.
Because this series certainly was soundly rejected upon its first arrival.  ABC cancelled Police Squad! after only four episodes.  The final two episodes, already filmed, eventually aired with summer reruns.  But besides the anecdotal evidence that I happen to think it's brilliant (although that should be enough for everyone), I think the fact that it was still nominated for two Emmys, and went on to spin off into a series of beloved feature films, speaks to the fact that there's something special happening here.

Leslie Nielson is back, this time in lead role of Dt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad, "a division of the Los Angeles police department," parodying M Squad and similarly stiff cop shows of the 50s and 60s.  It's Airplane! except instead of airport disaster movies (and a lot of Zero Hour!) it's cops, with the exact same style of puns, sight gags and non-stop one-liners.  But here I think it's even a little stronger, perhaps because it's more focused, tackling individual 25-minute mysteries rather than having to stretch to an entire feature with outside film parodies (i.e. the Saturday Night Fever, From Here To Eternity material, which feel like mismatching sources), or maybe it's just the inherently satisfying "murder of the week" formula that's been the appeal of countless police procedurals for decades.
Of course, what really matters most is that the writers consistently pack a wealth of clever material into each episode and the cast is ideal.  And fun fact: two of the episodes are directed by none other than Joe Dante, which yes, also means you can expect a fun supporting role for Dick Miller.  They also took on additional writers to help keep the ideas flowing, including regular collaborator Pat Proft, their frequent producer Robert K. Weiss and most surprisingly, Batman's Robert Wuhl.  Even with all the extra hands on deck, the show does rely on a lot of recycled gags in its very short lifetime (there's running gags, and then there's just recycling the same ideas over and over), so one wonders how well the series would've borne out had it lasted for multiple, full seasons.  But (un)fortunately, we'll never find out.  We've just got these six strong episodes.
Police Squad! debuted on DVD back in 2006 as a fairly decked out special edition, making it a compelling reason to replace your VHS tapes or laserdiscs.  It was repackaged in a DVD boxed set with the Naked Gun films not too long ago, but there's only been the one, basic disc.  And if you'd asked me to name a series that was likely to languish on DVD forever, Police Squad! might not have been my first pick, but it would've been up there.  So I was pleasantly surprised to see it hit blu-ray in 2020, first in Australia via Via Vision, and then here in America, direct from Paramount and CBS.
2006 US Paramount DVD top; 2020 US Paramount BD bottom.
I've read complaints that they didn't restore the series and create new masters.  This means we're essentially looking at the same thing, except in HD instead of SD.  The 1.33:1 framing is exactly the same, the color timing's all the same, etc.  There is a very slight vertical stretching that's corrected, which means the blu has slivers more information along the top and bottom, but it's literally two pixels difference each.  I'll take it, but it's not exactly a mind-blowing enhancement.  More noticeable, at least, is the increase in clarity that comes with the high definition.  The image is distinctly sharper, detail like small print is easier to discern, and we can actually see the film grain.  It's a little blocky, but looks surprisingly good given the presumed age of the master.  Perhaps the biggest benefit, though, is that the DVD was interlaced, which the blu-ray handily fixes.
Surprisingly, the DVD actually gave us the choice between the original mono tracks and new 5.1 remixes.  Seems a bit excessive, but as long as they've preserved the original audio, hey why not?  They also included optional English subtitles, so there was really nothing to complain about.  And happily, the blu-rays have kept everything from the DVD: both sound options and the subtitles; they even bumped the 5.1 mixes up to DTS-HD.  But the mono tracks, unfortunately, are lossy.  According to online specs, however, both audio tracks are lossless on the Australian Via Vision discs, so it might be worth considering the import.
Speaking of keeping everything from the DVD, the Paramount blu-ray also hangs onto all the extras (and for the record, so does the Via Vision).  Three of the episodes have commentaries: two by Abrahams, the Zuckers and Robert Weiss, and one by Robert Wuhl.  There's a just under ten-minute interview with Leslie Nielsen, amusingly clearly shot at the same time as his Airplane! "Long Haul" interview, as he's sitting in the same airplane seats.  And there's a neat collection of fun, short odds and ends, including a brief look at some footage shot to tie the episodes together for a planned Police Squad! movie (not to be confused with Naked Gun, this would've just edited the episodes together into a feature-length film), audition footage, a gag reel and a photo gallery.
So it's far from cutting edge, but this is still a very welcome and unexpected upgrade.  And believe it or not, this and Airplane! aren't even the only Abrahams/ Zucker catalog titles to get revisited in HD in 2020.  But before we get to that, I've gotta talk about these Naked Gun movies...

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