What Can We Steal From the Television Program “Reno 911!”?

Title of Work and its Form: Reno 911!, television program
Author: Created by Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver
Date of Work: 2003 – 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The program was originally broadcast on Comedy Central and is currently in syndication.  Each season is available on DVD; as of this writing, Reno 911! can be seen on Netflix.  

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Reno 911! is a COPS-style mockumentary program that chronicles the adventures of the members of the Reno Sheriff’s Department.  Led by Lieutenant James Dangle (Thomas Lennon), the officers are a family of sorts.  A very dysfunctional family.  When Officer Jones (Cedric Yarbrough) loses his job as a jingle singer for High Sierra Carpeting, the group surrounds him and offers heartfelt consolation.  Then there are days like the one when a colleague dies, bequeathing a Jet-Ski to the department; everyone fights to decide who will get it.

Reno 911! is special for several reasons, but chief among them is the brilliant way in which the directors and actors have created such indelible characters.  Lieutenant Dangle is not just “the one in the short shorts.”  Dangle wears the shorts for several reasons; he claims he needs to be able to run like a cheetah, but is really providing the audience with a commentary regarding his sexuality.  Dangle is a man between worlds, simultaneously inhabiting the traditionally masculine world of the police and the freer, less judgmental gay and gay-friendly world.  Trudy Weigel (Kerry Kenney-Silver) is not just a strange woman who loves her cats.  Silver makes sure that we understand Weigel on a deep level.  She’s a woman who has always had trouble being loved because of her…eccentricities.  Deputy Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui) is incredibly repressed and pushes people away because he can’t accept himself or his circumstances.

Great works are often memorable because of their memorable characters.  It would be very easy for the necessarily unbalanced deputies of the Reno Sheriff’s Department to seem like cartoon characters, but they’re not.  Indelible characters are particularly important for successful television shows.  Think about the great sitcoms throughout history: Taxi, Cheers, Arrested Development, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Charles in Charge…each of them is populated with deep, realistic characters.  Further, each line is specific to each character and reflects their unique personalities.

Who but Deputy Junior (Robert Ben Garant) would say something like this during a discussion as to whether or not a man should want to have sex with Weigel?

What the hell kinda woman do you want then? She’s got all the right parts, just the-the… the wiring’s screwy, ya know. It’s like the flippers work and the bumpers work, it’s just the wiring’s screwy and the score’s all wrong.

Who other than Weigel would describe the new British exchange officer thus?

Officer Smiley reminds me of someone from Mary Poppins.  Someone who, for instance, comes riding in on a jalopy and he has whipped ices for all the little children and he says “come along everyone, I have whipped ices!”  And then when they get close enough to him he grabs them and rapes the shit out of them.  Then he tosses them in the back seat and off he goes and then ‘chip chip cheerio.

One reason that the characters are so well-drawn is because the dialogue is mostly improvised.  The writers/producers would dream up a general situation and then the actors would improvise around that situation.  “Jones and Kimball get lost in a parking lot while chasing a perp.”  Okay, great.  We’ll turn on the cameras and let the actors run around and see what magic we can capture.  The producers put together a cast of great improvisers who cared very deeply about their characters.  A novelist, for example, doesn’t have the same luxury.  He or she can, however, be vigilant in considering (and depicting) each character’s reaction to the same events.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow your characters to have virtues and faults that emerge through good times and bad.  Even the worst people have a good side, hard as it may be to find.  The officers of the Reno Sheriff’s Department are selfish and petty and incompetent, but they also care for each other on some level.  Avoid the temptation to make your characters into caricatures.
  • Ensure that your characters are as unique as the people you meet every day.  Great works are populated by memorable characters.  The people in the worlds you create should, to paraphrase Polonius, be true to themselves.
  • Improvise!  Great ideas must percolate and you never know when they’re going to emerge.  Respect the cool and unexpected thoughts you have, even if they contradict some of the plans you have for your work.  Where will improvisation take you?

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