I’ve got a tough sell ahead of me. I’m going to recommend a TV series that lasted only two seasons and featured a homely cast, stagey acting, and choppy editing. The show is Car 54, Where Are You?, a half-hour police-precinct-based sitcom which aired from 1961 to 1963. But William Faulkner liked it.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read, But Believe Some of It
William Faulkner reputedly hated television, but made an exception in the case of Car 54, never missing an episode. Believe that, but please don’t believe the descriptions of the series that say things like “misadventures of a pair of bumbling policemen, Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon, from New York’s 53rd precinct in the Bronx.” That makes the show sound utterly conventional.
Oh, those are their names, all right, and that’s where they work, but Toody and Muldoon’s Bronx universe simply won’t accommodate the word “bumbling.” Car 54’s universe in one in which the richest woman in the precinct got that way by peddling pretzels and not paying for a peddler’s license; in which a habitual drunk doesn’t need to touch a drop—he talks himself drunk; in which people try to make plaster casts of your feet without your knowing it; in which every bird in the Bronx says “I hate Captain Block;” and in which the cops make elaborate preparations to celebrate something, but none of them know what it is they’re celebrating or where the celebration is.
Believable, Or At Least Acceptable
Some of these plot points may seem just too weird, but that’s because I’ve isolated them. In context, the weirdness of the show is rendered watchable—even believable, if taken on its own terms—by what must have been a hand-picked lot of thoroughly unbeautiful comic actors. Joe E. Ross (Car 54’s Officer Gunther Toody) was a stand-up comic with a craggy face and ears like you wouldn’t believe; Fred Gwynne (Officer Francis Muldoon, later Herman Munster on The Munsters) describes himself as “6-foot-3, and 5-foot-3 of me is face.” Al Lewis (Officer Leo Schnauser, later The Munsters’s Grandpa) is the only actor I’ve ever seen who squints with his entire head; the brilliant Charlotte Rae (Schnauser’s wife, Sylvia) often yells her lines while performing facial contortions that look like someone’s pulling taffy.
Actually, everyone in the show yells their lines, or at least gives every word full voice and extra expression; this mannered delivery combined with the actors’ tendency always to face the camera gives the show an air of operatic staginess that works especially well with the fast, often complicated verbal humor. The speed and sharpness of the satire is further enhanced by the editing—which sometimes looks kind of rough, but that roughness often fits perfectly with the alternate world that the show operates in.
Hmmm. It seems that I’ve unwittingly spun the negatives I listed at the outset so that they’ve become positives—everything that looks like a shortcoming ends up serving the cockeyed landscape of Car 54’s comedy. And the show’s mere sixty-episode run means you can binge-watch the entire series of half hour installments over the course of a single weekend. Twice, if you want to.