Is It Better to Take a Serious or Comedic Approach to Movies Based on Cop Shows?

By  · Published on September 3rd, 2014

Columbia Pictures

For someone who grew up with a painting of CHiPs hanging in the entryway of his house (my step-dad did it for a “TV Guide” ad or something), I don’t remember much about the actual TV series. It had a pair of cops on motorcycles, made a star out of Erik Estrada and for a brief moment near the end of its six seasons featured former Olympian and future Kardashian father figure Bruce Jenner. I honestly have no memory of the tone of the show when it was on, but it does seem to have become more comical in retrospect (is it the tight pants?). Enough to be perfect fodder for one of those movies based on a TV show that’s closer to parody than faithful adaptation. When Wilmer Valderrama was reportedly in the running to play Ponch (the Estrada role), in a big-screen version, that made total sense. Especially after he’d spoofed the part in a sketch for Mad TV.

That plan never went anywhere, and now we’re onto CHiPs movie attempt number two. In this round, Ponch will be played by the more serious, more talented actor Michael Pena (who has played plenty of cops, including those in End of Watch, World Trade Center and TV’s The Shield). The part of his straight-laced partner, Jon Baker (originally portrayed by Larry Wilcox), is to be filled by Dax Shepard, who will also write and direct according to Deadline. While Shepard is well-known for his comedic work in movies such as Let’s Go to Prison and TV prank shows, he’s not making a joke out of this property. Reportedly the pitch was for something akin to Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys. So maybe not totally laugh-free, but also nothing along the lines of fellow cop show adaptations Starsky & Hutch and 21 Jump Street.

But why go the serious route this time? Besides the fact that Shepard is actually pretty good at drama (see The Freebie) and action (he races motorcycles when not acting) and the possible presumption that TV adaptations played for laughs wind up being laughing stocks at the box office, it’s in fact more lucrative for something like this to be done as a comedy. Let’s take a look through the history of TV cops shows turned into movies for proof.

Dragnet (1954) – Serious Show/Serious Movie – Gross: $42m

Credited as the first theatrical movie based on a TV series, this first feature-length version of the radio-turned-television procedural was a huge hit, one of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of its year (according to Variety), an impressive achievement given that people could watch the characters at home for another five years, albeit in black and white rather than color. It pretty much had to retain the serious tone of the series because it was the spin-off type rather than a remake. With a budget of only $500k, however, it’s one of the more profitable on this list.

Dragnet (1987) – Serious Show/Comedic Movie – Gross: $140m

We look back on this one as an example of a failed adaptation. It certainly didn’t get very good reviews. Maybe audiences didn’t particularly love it, either, but enough people went to see it in the theater to make for a modest box office success given that it tripled its budget. Despite starring Dan Aykroyd and ’80s Tom Hanks, it’s actually not as much of a comedy as it could have been. That was the era where an action-comedy went primarily action in the last act. I wouldn’t be surprised if the CHiPs movie is closer to this than the Dragnet show and first film.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) – Comedic Show/Comedic Movie – Gross: $159m (plus sequel grosses of $168m and $100m)

How funny would it have been for the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team to make a serious movie out of their failed Police Squad! TV show? Pretty funny, but not nearly as hilarious as what they churned out over three feature-length installments. Could any adaptation be a hit if done as extremely goofy and lampooning as this? Probably not without that trio and a relatively vague target for jokes. Otherwise you get something like Loaded Weapon 1.

Car 54, Where Are You? (1994) – Comedic Show/Comedic Movie – Gross: $2m

The resurrection of the original show via Nick at Nite couldn’t bring the crowds to this cheap-looking movie, which catered to people familiar with the source material by featuring one of the original cast members, Al Lewis. Did the reruns not build enough of a new fanbase, or was this feature just doomed no matter what? It looks like a bad Police Academy sequel and had a bit of an identity problem after plans for it to be a musical were ditched after the thing was shot. Plus, no movie can depend on Buster Poindexter for star power.

The Mod Squad (1999) – Serious Show/Serious Movie – Gross: $19m

By the end of the ’90s, the comedic approach to TV show adaptations had run its course thanks maybe to The Brady Bunch Movie hitting the peak for self-aware parodic takes on beloved properties or to the success of the Mission: Impossible series. The Mod Squad, in spite of the dated name, should have been a big hit with a hot young cast and a serious, action-oriented plot involving delinquents turned cops. But there was absolutely nothing interesting going on here. Perhaps it should have taken the funny route, then it could have beaten 21 Jump Street to the punch.

S.W.A.T. (2003) – Serious Show/Serious Movie – Gross: $269m (direct-to-video sequel earnings unknown)

Hollywood stuck with a serious tone for its next cop show adaptation, maybe because even worse than The Mod Squad’s failure was the comedic blockbuster disaster of Wild Wild West. There’s not a lot going on here, either, and in fact it’s barely remembered as existing today. Which makes sense since the TV show wasn’t a huge pile of nostalgia fodder when it was made. Yet critics and audiences appreciated that it was handled so straight compared to all the goofy movies based on series that came in prior years. Not only do you barely recall this one, but you also likely had no idea it made as much as it did.

Starsky & Hutch (2004) – Serious Show/Comedic Movie – Gross: $214m

This is the kind of adaptation where everyone thinks it’s funny enough that they’re being funny, because it’s this property and that period setting and style. It’s a title and costume design pretending to be a movie. Such a dependence on that alone would be lazier than this is, though. Instead it constantly feels like it’s trying too hard, as well. Outside of Will Ferrell being brought in for a memorable cameo, is there anything else that people remember about this movie? It’s hard to believe it would be any better with a serious approach. The premise of the show just offers very little to work with.

Miami Vice (2006) – Serious Show/Serious Movie – Gross: $194m

This was based on another show that modern culture kind of looks back on and laughs at, so for Michael Mann to take such a straight and cool approach is against what people might have preferred. Yet it’s also pretty corny at times, too, in spite of the serious center. Sonny Crockett’s mojito line is as funny as anything in any of these comedic adaptations. It probably could have taken itself more seriously and been worse, though. What if the Miami-loving Michael Bay made a Miami Vice movie? Maybe then even a higher percentage of its worldwide gross would have come from overseas.

21 Jump Street (2012) – Serious Show/Comedic Movie – Gross: $210m (plus sequel gross of $315m)

As we now know, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have magic hands. They touched this movie that nobody expected much from and turned it into a gold nugget of perfection. It’s funny, reverentially yet also respectfully in tribute to its source material, and it’s not afraid to go really violent in the end. This is anything but a safe movie, and it worked on many levels. Then it spawned a sequel, which drives further the point that neither CHiPs nor any other movie based on a TV cop show could do better in comedic form. Sure, we’ll get another attempt at some point, but maybe the reason Warner Bros. and Shepard aren’t going for ridiculous is because they know they can’t top this.
Average gross for serious approach: $131m
Average gross for comedic approach: $164m

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.