Critic’s Notebook: ‘Car 54, Where Are You?’
If the “Mad Men” crisis has got you down — shutdown averted, but no new episodes until 2012 — I would like to offer a little perspective. First, even in a year that is not A Year Without “Mad Men,” it is only a “Mad Men” year for 13 out of 52 weeks; presumably, in the normal course of things, you are all right the other 39. Second, there is a lot of other television to watch, new and old, some of which touches the same bases as “Mad Men,” if not exactly in the same way, or to the same point.
I have been watching another show set in New York in the early 1960s — “Car 54, Where Are You?” — the first, 30-episode season of which made its first appearance on DVD last week, and as a tale of New York City and the age, it has several advantages over Matthew Weiner’s remote, if well researched, imaginings. It was, to begin with, made there and then; lasting two seasons, from 1961 to 1963, it was set and filmed in the Bronx, on location and at the old Biograph studios, where D.W. Griffith got his start. It was a New York cast, led by Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross, with the memorable assistance of Al Lewis (who later played alongside Gwynne in “The Munsters”), and they brought the city in with them, and put it on screen.
Though I had seen the show in my ancient past, it had become a blur to me, beyond its basic premise — a pair of bumbling cops wreak mild havoc in the Bronx — some lines of the theme song (“There’s a Scout troop short a child / Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild”) and star Ross’ trademark “Ooh! Ooh!” Nick at Nite and Comedy Central have both rerun the show, but even that was a very long time ago; seeing the show again, the content and quality of actual episodes came as a nearly complete, and happy, surprise. It is very funny, in its wide range of small topics, the sometimes bizarre behavior of its characters, and its Chinese-puzzle plotting, singular. (It is a little like “Seinfeld,” but with heart.)
As with “Mad Men” and other works of the cable age, “Car 54" was largely shaped by a single mind, writer-producer-director Nat Hiken, who had previously created “The Phil Silvers Show.” Ross, the resident old-school comic, is no Silvers. He’s barely an actor — rather, he has the air of an animal that has been stuffed into clothing and taught how to speak short bursts of dialogue. Yet his deficiencies keep him unpredictable and authentic; it is something less than a performance, and something more.
I love “Mad Men,” but I’ve never regarded it as an accurate representation of, or even particularly a comment on, the time in which it’s set. It is a secondhand vision of the past, filtered through the magazines and the movies of the time, and beyond the fetishistic allure of the props and costumes, what the show gets from being set in a decade of enormous change is a set of tailwinds and headwinds that make for good drama. “Car 54,” though it is broadly played, is a primary document; it comes out of the world it portrays, and though it favors the old ways — those early 20th-century ways of talking, walking, doing business — you can feel them giving way to new. There is a lot of small and careful detail dressing the laughs.
It may seem curious to look to something as exaggerated as situation comedy for an accurate picture of the world. Drama, by definition, would seem less frivolous, but in its ongoing concentration of major crises, a television series is not lifelike at all: It is made up of exceptions to the normal course of things, where the normal course of things is the stuff of comedy. There are crises in “Car 54" too, but they’re the small sort we know ourselves — a farcical misunderstanding, a harebrained scheme gone wrong, a can of worms opened by mistake.
And so, whatever domestic strife “Car 54" offers — and there is plenty of it, this being a show about men and women almost as much as it is about the business of the fictional 53rd Precinct — comes within the framework of sustaining relationships: Nobody’s getting divorced or murdered. As to the police, the problems that haunt Hiken’s force are not those you read about in the papers: There is no corruption, no brutality, no racism, no sexism, no homophobia — though, to be sure, there are no female or gay officers here. But the men are interestingly tender toward one another, and this must have been one of the first shows to include African Americans in its recurring cast (and to be casual about it). It is a melting pot program, peopled with Jews, Irish, Italians, Greeks and gypsies. “Se habla Espanol” reads a sign in the station house.
Oddly enough, Gwynne, a Harvard graduate with a father on Wall Street and a socialite wife whose grandfather had been mayor of New York, had worked as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. At Harvard, he rowed on the crew, was president of the Lampoon and had artistic aspirations seemingly at variance with his pedigree. He might have been a character out of “Mad Men.”
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