The Watcher - Vice city

New Reno 911" puts the bite into crime"

Cop shows annoy me. I've never bought into the whole "NYPD Snooze" and its clan of dreary spin-offs, and "CSI" (the hit of last season) seems like a colossal waste of time.

But the new "Reno 911," premiering July 23 on Comedy Central, must be made for fellow law-and-order luddites. It's a sharp and frequently laugh-til-your-belly-aches send-up of the fuzz in action.

The series, which follows the day-to-day dealings of an inept Nevada police department, brings back three cast members from "The State," the sketch comedy show that ran on MTV for three years: Robert Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney and Thomas Lennon. (The trio coincidentally also appeared on Comedy Central's peculiar "Viva Variety"). The large ensemble cast includes four other regulars, but it's the three "State" alumni who mostly carry the show.

Lennon plays squad leader Jim Dangle, who, in khaki hot-pants and Ray Bans, makes for a hilarious jab at "CHiPs"-era masculinity. As Deputy Raineesha Williams, Niecy Nash masters an often-hilarious ghetto-fied big girl vibe, though her shtick can be a little too deep-fried at times.

On "Reno 911" — as on "The State" — I found myself captivated by Kenney, whose utterly dry humor might get overshadowed by some of the team's louder clowns. Kenney plays Deputy Trudy Wiegel, arguably the biggest freak of the bunch, an androgynous spinster-next-door type who collects baby clothes and spews racial epithets. Something about Kenney's delivery evokes Amy Sedaris and the uncomfortable edge of "Strangers with Candy."

The show is filmed mockumentary style, with first-person officer interviews shuffled between "actual" footage meant as an obvious "COPS" parody. The shaky on-the-crime-scene bits nearly undermine the series' greater comic thrust. Sure, the mullet-wearing streakers who end up fleeing through endless trailer parks do warrant a few laughs. But this is one case where the source material is already so outlandish that any attempt at satire feels like overkill.

Plus, the field footage too frequently relies on pat police brutality jokes, which tend to be more scary than funny.

Instead, "Reno 911" shines when it explores the relationships between characters and uncovers their shady back stories (who's dating who, who's jealous of who, who secretly dresses in women's clothing). That kind of complex humor could make the show a wonderful hybrid of sketch comedy, sitcom and reality TV parody — if the writers can find a way to keep those three unruly influences from tearing each other apart.

So, I was wrong.

I've turned my nose up at "Trading Spaces" for too long. The allure of the faddish home decor torture hour, with its cult-like following and slew of imitators, never became apparent — until recently. Hallelujah, I've seen the light, thanks to the brand-extension "Trading Spaces Family," which premiered earlier this month.

Perhaps it's the new cast, with queeny host Joe Farrell (girl, please!) or hot woodworker Carter Oosterhouse, that finally allowed me to take ownership in a trend that had previously passed me by. Or maybe it's that the new series makes it all too apparent just what nightmare scenarios this show creates. Leave it to the "Family" edition to reveal just how flat out evil the premise really is. The fun, it turns out, is not in the decor itself, but in watching those poor slobs sweat and suffer. Now that's what I call entertainment. "Trading Spaces Family" airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on TLC.


The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.