Back on the beat: Cop Rock “Oil of Ol’ Lay”
Previously on Cop Rock: Officers Campo and Quinn were hot for each other, even though Quinn is married to forensics detective Ruskin. We know they’re hot for each other because there’s a clip of an awful musical number where Campo sings “ooooh, we’re a sexy pair!” that this show plays every. Damn. Week. Meanwhile, white cop Vince LaRusso shot a black suspect in cold blood, was arrested, got released on bail, slept with his lawyer, and is now preparing to go to trial. Chief Kendrick butted heads with Mayor Plank over the shooting and other issues, until she got plastic surgery and became pretty and now he’s totally in lurve with her.
Back by no popular demand whatsoever, it’s Cop Rock!
So, there I was, a couple Monday mornings ago, looking at a report of which Agony Booth articles were popular the previous day. “Gee,” I said to myself, “Why in the world have hits on my Cop Rock recap of the ‘Baby Merchant’ episode suddenly shot up 8,000% in the last 24 hours?”
A quick Google search of “cop rock baby merchant” later…
Yes, Cop Rock and the “Tots-R-Us” song made it into an episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, wherein John Oliver sent his Millennial viewers scrambling to the internet to find out if this show really existed. Well, kids, it did exist, and four years ago I attempted to recap every episode, only to get a baffled response from the readership not unlike what Cop Rock received back when it aired in 1990.
But now I’m picking it up again just for you, young John Oliver viewers, and watching his segment above, I’m struck by two things: First, how often John marvels at the “Baby Merchant” song going on for three whole minutes, with no discernable choreography besides the actors just standing around, even though that particular number is hardly the worst offender in the show’s run. Secondly, and depressingly, I have to agree with him that all the racial issues surrounding policing don’t appear to have changed in any meaningful way since this show first aired—as the current episode will bear out.
It’s a pretty good episode of Last Week Tonight, and best of all, after four years, it means recapping Cop Rock has finally paid some dividends. So let’s get back into it.
The cold open has Officer Gaines, the clueless but well-meaning cop, and Officer Rose, his partner who’s just barely tolerating him, helping to clear out a homeless encampment under a bridge. As they roust the vagrants and vagabonds from their early morning slumber and force them to move along, a drum machine kicks in and we go right into this week’s first musical number.
The song is titled, I presume, “Nowhere to Go”, and it’s an upbeat dance number in the style of Patti Labelle’s “New Attitude”. All the homeless people gather in a crowd and take turns singing about how they keep getting moved around and nobody gives a damn about them. Well, good thing we solved this particular problem in the last 31 years, isn’t it? And of course, it’s another number performed by characters we won’t see again, but at least this time it features actual choreography courtesy of a line of homeless dancers in the foreground.
After a few iterations of the chorus (“Nowhere to go, nothing to do / Holes in my sock, holes in my shoe!”) the song ends, and they all raise their hands to the sky. And then the scene fades out, and once again, Cop Rock proves it has no idea how to make anybody want to stick around after the opening credits.
Later on at the police station, Gaines complains to Captain Hollander that this whole “homeless sweep” is pointless. Hollander cynically admits they’re just moving the homeless around so that they’re somebody else’s problem, and so “the public thinks we’re doing something about it”.
The next day, Rose and Gaines are doing more homeless sweeps. Gaines shows some compassion for the people he’s rounding up, but Rose tells him not to get involved. They encounter a homeless guy named Louis, played by David Paymer, a “hey it’s that guy” character actor who’s guest starred on a hundred different TV shows—he recently appeared as Jean-Luc’s doctor on Star Trek: Picard—though he did get some recognition in 1992 with a supporting actor Oscar nom for Mr. Saturday Night.
They tell Louis and his friend Frederick to move along, but regrettably, Frederick turns out to be dead. Rose calls for a medical team while Gaines tries to get information about Frederick, but Louis can only rock his grocery cart back and forth and obsessively repeat himself like Rain Man. Gaines snaps at him, and Louis cries out, “No hitting!” So I guess Louis has some previous experience with the LAPD.
Later on, the officers are in their patrol car as Gaines says that when he filled out the paperwork for the death of Frederick the Bum, somebody commented this was “just a waste of good paper”. He’s upset because people treat the homeless like garbage, and even if they try to change their situation, the system is against them. Rose comments that Gaines does a lot of complaining but doesn’t actually do anything. So Gaines pulls the patrol car into an alleyway, where he happens upon Louis again. He offers to buy the guy lunch at a nearby diner. As they sit at a table, Gaines tells the homeless guy he can order anything he wants: “Go crazy!” Gaines says, but then immediately thinks better of it.
Louis is of course not all there mentally, and gets all OCD about whether or not he can get cantaloupe with the lunch special. Gaines tries to advise him on how he can turn his life around by cleaning himself up and getting a job, but Louis can only obsess over the cantaloupe and sandwich he just ordered.
Gaines gets angry, so Louis once again says, “No hitting!” Gaines gives up, hands the guy some cash, and he and Rose get back in the car. After that one brief encounter, Gaines declares he was a fool for thinking he could make a difference. But Rose says he’s not a fool, and he “has a good heart”. And that’s the end of this well-meaning but kind of irrelevant plot, which still turns out to be the least embarrassing of the storylines in this episode.
The next plotline finds the infamous “sexy pair” themselves, Officers Campo and Quinn out on patrol. They get called to a disturbance at an insurance company, where an old dude is all disgruntled because he’s been fighting with them over his medical expenses for years. He says he’s “taken the bus from San Dimas for the last time!” and pulls out a gun. As everyone panics, the gun accidentally goes off in his hand, and he ends up shooting Quinn in the leg.
She’s taken to the hospital and her husband Ruskin rushes there, only to learn it’s just a flesh wound. Chief Kendrick is here as well, and they’re really leaning hard into his Old West fixations when he says Quinn will pull through because she’s a “brave little filly”. Later on, Campo comes to visit his partner in the hospital, saying he wishes he was the one who got shot instead of her. And then a piano comes in, and Campo stands there and sings a cringy ballad that might be called “Partner”, about how she’s his partner and he couldn’t have gone on without her.
The lyrics veer into more romantic territory as he sings, “You’re my partner, more than a friend / you’re the light at the end of my day”. And since there’s not much going on here besides a guy singing to a woman lying in bed, they splice in a montage of all the moments Campo and Quinn have shared so far in the series. And, um, they clearly didn’t have a lot to choose from: Hey, remember that time they… walked down some stairs together? Oh, look, they’re sitting in their patrol car together. Hey, they gave each other meaningful looks while a witness was picking a guy out of a lineup!
The montage ends but Campo continues to sing. Out in the hallway, Ruskin is about to enter his wife’s hospital room, but he stops when he hears Campo singing, so evidently these musical numbers aren’t just happening inside everyone’s heads. Ruskin overhears lines like, “We’re closer than friends / I hope you let me prove it someday”, and “No one loves you better… than your partner”.
So a jealous Ruskin goes to Captain Hollander to complain that it’s all Campo’s fault that his wife got shot. He says Campo should have “patted down the suspect”, and what exactly would have given him cause to do that? And anyway, Hollander points out that Quinn could have patted down the suspect herself, so they’re equally at fault. Ruskin’s got no real comeback for this, so he demands that Quinn get a new partner. Hollander says it’s kind of up to Quinn if she wants a new partner, even if her husband does insist on it.
With no other recourse, a frustrated Ruskin sneaks into the women’s locker room, while a somber, slow pop tune starts up, in the vein of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”. As Ruskin walks around the locker room, he sings what we’re all thinking: “What am I doing here?”
“How did it ever come to this?” he sings, as he picks open his wife’s locker, looking for clues that she’s cheating, all the while singing, “I must be crazy / what am I doing here?” He takes some of her stuff back to his forensics lab, and is now hilariously looking at a photo booth strip of her and Campo under his big magnifying lens.
Then he grabs a shirt or something and holds it tightly while singing, “I’ll take him by the neck and make him disappear / Ohhhh, that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’m doing here!” Boy, things sure took a dark turn there. Will Ruskin murder the guy his wife is having a platonic affair with? To be honest, it’s been four years since I watched this show and I can’t remember, so I guess anything is possible.
Then comes this episode’s lighthearted plotline, as Chief Kendrick calls his assistant Ozzy into his office to ask for his advice in romance. He’s really in love, or as the chief puts it, “This woman’s got into my britches!” He reveals the woman he’s fallen for is Mayor Plank, and he wants to go away with her this weekend, and take her out to see the Painted Desert and Crested Butte. Ozzy is totally supportive. Kendrick worries he’s taking things too fast, but Ozzy declares, “I think you take happiness where you find it.” He then reaches over to Kendrick’s desk and pushes the button that opens the shooting range he has in the back of his office. But instead of an outlaw target dummy sliding into view, three guys in red tuxedos appear.
Suddenly, Ozzy is wearing his own red tuxedo, and there are four microphone stands set up in the office, and it’s time for our next musical number. It’s basically the Cop Rock songwriters trying to do their own Sam Cooke song, apparently titled “How to Love a Woman”. Vondie Curtis-Hall does a total Sam Cooke impression as he lyrically explains to Chief Kendrick, well, how to love a woman, while Kendrick just sits and watches.
When the song ends, Ozzy is magically back in his suit, and the Pips and the microphones are gone. Kendrick declares, “Dammit, Ozzy you run deep!” and hugs him.
Meanwhile, Mayor Plank is confiding in her own assistant Ray about her plans to go away with the chief for the weekend. She shows off the leather fringe jacket she bought for the occasion, and Ray tells her she looks “Fab – u – lous.” She asks if Ray is sure and he replies, “I never kid about clothes.” She asks for his advice, and Ray talks about a man who went to Chicago and “begged me to come with him”. Wait… he’s gay? No, but seriously, Ray is way, over-the-top gay here. I mean, even by 1990 standards.
Eventually, they hear a helicopter approaching, and Ray gets a call that the chief is on roof. We soon see Kendrick and Plank heading up to a helipad, and Kendrick is dressed like freaking Hopalong Cassidy here, which you’d think would be a major turnoff, but Plank eagerly jumps aboard the helicopter with him. Soon, they’re out in the wilderness around a campfire, and Kendrick has a guitar and he’s singing the old cowboy tune “Red River Valley”, which doesn’t count towards this week’s required allotment of original musical numbers. Afterwards, Plank says she’s nervous, but Kendrick tells her not worry because he has his “trusty six-shooter”.
She clarifies she’s worried about the sleeping arrangements, so Kendrick assures her that he brought along two sleeping bags. Then we get a rare instance of this show almost coming up with funny dialogue.
Plank: I want to sleep in your sleeping bag, Roger.
Kendrick: No problem. I’ll take the other one.
Plank finally makes it clear she wants to sleep in his sleeping bag with him inside it, and then things take a turn for the ridiculous when Plank confesses a deep, dark secret: she might be “the oldest virgin in North America, outside of a convent”. Kendrick is taken aback, and takes off his hat, and declares how lucky he is that “you’ve been saving yourself for me!”
They kiss and she tells him to be gentle, and come on. Barbara Bosson was 51 years old when she filmed this. And she’s playing the mayor of Los Angeles. I could possibly buy an average, ordinary woman making it to 51 with no sexual encounters, but a woman who got elected mayor of the second-largest city in America never met one guy who wanted to sleep with her? I know she was supposedly “ugly” before the plastic surgery, but this is just silly, and I don’t know why they had to throw that part in.
And finally, we return to the one major plotline this show was able to wrap up before being cancelled: the trial of Vincent LaRusso for shooting an unarmed suspect. It starts off with him getting frustrated by his lady lawyer not showing any affection. He calls her “one scary broad” and “a file cabinet”, because she keeps “everything in its own separate file”, including “whoever you happen to be sleeping with at the moment”, which he charmingly punctuates with a fist-pumping motion. She offers to turn his case over to another lawyer, but I’m guessing she’ll be sleeping with him again.
Next, LaRusso is asked to participate in a “dry run” of his potential cross-examination, to be conducted by a woman played by CCH Pounder, who I think has appeared at least once on every cop, lawyer, and hospital drama produced in the last thirty years. Accordingly, she’s been nominated for Emmys four times for ER, The X-Files, The Shield, and… The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? No clue what that is. She interrogates LaRusso in a conference room, bringing up several incidents of excessive force in his past. She asks about a previous suspect, wanting to know if LaRusso really had to “rupture his spleen, break his arm, break his jaw, break his ribs” even though the guy was already in custody. She also wonders why he’s never been promoted, and is still at the lowest possible rank a detective can hold. So LaRusso angrily launches into his own version of the Few Good Men “you need me on that wall” speech, saying people who get robbed or raped don’t need a detective who’s been promoted a lot; they need someone who can be “tough” just like the criminals.
He thinks he blew it, but his lead attorney says they have a whole new tactic now, wherein they can turn LaRusso into “an American hero”. To that end, they bring LaRusso to meet with a conference room full of media consultants who promise they can totally change his image.
Cue the drums, and the lights in the conference room start flashing, and a wall turns translucent revealing an entire rock band complete with a horn section. The media consultants perform an upbeat ‘60s style rocker called “No Problem” that sounds a lot like the Larry Williams song “Bad Boy” as covered by the Beatles. Really—every time they sing “No problem!” you can insert “Now junior, behave yourself!” and it fits perfectly.
The lead consultant musically promises LaRusso that “we can make you intellectual / or accentuate the sexual”, which is accompanied by brilliant choreography where a woman crawls across the conference table. He sings, “We got you covered, we’re glad you came aboard / You’re gonna be bigger than Oliver North!” And then a giant photo of Oliver North is projected on the wall behind him.
And for the sake of the younger John Oliver viewers, I’ll explain that this Oliver North guy was once infamous for being a member of the Reagan administration who helped illegally sell weapons to Iran, then covertly funneled the profits to anti-communist guerillas in Nicaragua. It was sort of a big thing at the time. Luckily, people like Armie “The Cannibal” Hammer are on the case, and can unearth obscure bits of history like this and break the news to his Twitter followers.
Along the same lines, the consultant sings that “All the world over, everyone will be a-sayin’ / See, this guy’s bigger than Ronald Reagan!” and Reagan’s face in projected up on the wall too. And also, “Soon everything will be so fine and dandy / You’re gonna be bigger than Mahatma Gandhi!” I’m sorry, but when you’re using Gandhi’s name to come up with a rhyme for “fine and dandy”, you’ve failed as a songwriter.
It gets even more ridiculous when the guitarist gets up on the table and gets right in LaRusso’s face, and LaRusso just looks annoyed, like a guy making goofy soloing faces in front of him is totally normal and happens all the time.
So the outcome of this meeting and musical number is that LaRusso gives an interview on a local radio talk show, while his lawyers watch from outside the booth. LaRusso says he welcomes a trial, and they take a call from a woman who says LaRusso wouldn’t have shot that suspect if he were white. LaRusso says he treats everybody the same, and he doesn’t see color, and people tell him he’s white and he believes them, etc.
They take another call from a total racist who says he supports LaRusso, because “every time a white man stands up to an African, those in power make it their business to destroy him!” The host of the talk show asks who exactly “those in power” are, and the caller replies, “Communists, the Jews, sexual deviants, the bankers!” And again, it’s amazing how this kind of rhetoric hasn’t changed at all in 31 years. This tirade is almost exactly what you’d expect to hear these days from a Q-Anon follower.
LaRusso righteously declares that he and the caller are not on the same side, and he believes in America, where “everybody who lives here has got a shot”. He says the caller is just looking to “blame somebody else” for his problems and the fact that he’s probably just stupid and lazy. The caller replies, “You might shoot like a white man, but you know, you talk just like a nigger-lovin’ Jew!” And wow, I forget it wasn’t that long ago that the N-word was left uncensored on TV and nobody really cared. I suppose by the 1990s the word was beginning to fall out of favor, but you ever watch reruns of The Jeffersons? Sherman Hemsley says it like ten times an episode.
Anyway, the caller gets cut off, and LaRusso insists race has nothing to do with his actions. He’s not racist, and he only sees good guys and bad guys, and more than anything, he wants to go back to taking down the bad guys. This is greeted with a big thumbs up from his lawyer, and that’s the note we end on.
Like I said, from the homeless situation to the racist policing to the hopeless health insurance bureaucracy to the antisemitic conspiracy theorists, it’s pretty depressing how much of this episode is still topical 31 years later. You could air this today and no one would find it at all out of place. Though, probably no one would watch it in 2021, either.
Well, there is one exception: while I can see how they were trying to make LaRusso more sympathetic by having him strongly distance himself from racists, there’s no way his radio monologue would happen today in real life. It seems like anyone who’s accused of racism nowadays is more than happy to lap up attention from every white supremacist, neo-Nazi, or Proud Boy who throws likes their way. The real-life version of LaRusso would probably just chuckle and go on to the next call.
The songs this time around weren’t bad, which is a positive, but they weren’t particularly memorable either. About the best one was “How to Love a Woman”, but you can’t go wrong with Sam Cooke, or doing an impression of Sam Cooke. And hey, they actually had regular cast members sing lead this week (instead of random guest stars) on three of the five numbers; I think that might be a new Cop Rock record.
And finally, this episode’s title is “Oil of Ol’ Lay”, certainly one of this show’s worst. I presume it’s a pun on Mayor Plank getting laid for the first time, but I have no idea what “oil” has to do with it. Unless there’s something more to Kendrick and Plank’s fireside tryst than anybody really wants to know.
Songs performed in this episode:
[*DISCLAIMER: For the most part, Cop Rock didn’t credit its musical numbers, so the titles below are best guesses based on the lyrics.]
- “Nowhere to Go”* performed by Tommy Funderbunk, Dee Dee Belson, et al.
- “Partner”* performed by David Gianopoulos
- “How to Love a Woman”* performed by Vondie Curtis-Hall
- “No Problem”* performed by Duke Moosekian (AKA Shaun Duke), et al.
- “What Am I Doing Here”* performed by Ron McLarty
Next up: I really have no idea; I haven’t watched this show since I last tried recapping it and I totally forgot what happens next, so we’ll be discovering it all together. But as of this episode, I’m now over halfway through the series. Can I take it all the way home to the big finale? The fate of my Cop Rock recaps rests in your hands.