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Death Slot: ‘Hard Knocks’

Photo by James Kriegsmann/Showtime

In 1987 pay cable was in a war with not only itself, but with the rise of First Run Syndication and VCR’s becoming integral to every American home.

HBO was killing with it with hits such as The Hitchhiker and First and Ten which were both well rated multi-season programs. Cinemax was also getting traction with Max Headroom and their pilot series of comedy shows, but since HBO and Cinemax had the same owners it was all still in the family and not really competing with one another. On the other hand rival pay cable network Showtime just seemed like they could not match HBO in terms of programming. HBO had the better movies and now HBO had the better original programming as well.

Showtime took their shot and it was Hard Knocks, starring Bill Maher and Tommy Hinkley as ex-cops drummed off the force for turning a church into a battlezone when they got the address of a raid wrong. Exposed on national television by Hernando Berarra (subtle) they now run a sleazy PI agency out of a bar run by their friends.
That is the set up… the rest is a straight up sitcom. They have wacky adventures and have awful wordplay. The fake sets, the bad punchlines, the pauses for canned laughter etc… Hard Knocks was Showtime’s attempt at a cop sitcom and it worked as well as you think it did.
Episodes range from the guys pranking Hernando Berarra with an Al Capone’s Vault stunt to living in a hippie commune to accidentally causing the end of the world by releasing a giant radioactive bunny rabbit on New York. Such wild and crazy stuff (rolls eyes).
With Showtime being a cable channel, the series was able to get a tad raunchier than a network sitcom, but never really went too deep into sex jokes or boobs and the entire thing felt… neutered somehow. You expected it to go full on dirty; they tease it and never goes there.  As if Showtime wanted to, but was afraid as well. Showtime also had the sitcom Brothers around the same time that was far dirtier so it was not as if they were not willing to punch low in terms of humor. I mean the intro alone sets up they want this to be some kind of “Guy Show” and yet they really don’t do anything with it aside from a few slut jokes.

Lets talk about the humor on Hard Knocks… or lack there of. This show is almost shockingly unfunny… so unfunny it has to be on purpose. The setups are obvious, the punchlines are obvious, the characters are completely one note and you never laugh. It would not surprise me to find out that Hard Knocks was a rejected NBC series that Showtime just picked up. If(?) I were cynical I would argue that the series was a satire on network sitcoms and therefore had this distinct lack of humor as an effort to take to task their network brethren… but no this is just a terrible sitcom… or is it?

Created by Chris Thompson who also created such biting series as Bosom Buddies, The Naked Truth and writing for such series as Laverne & Shirley. Now I want to posit something here. Sure, Thompson’s work history is mostly bad sitcoms and that is what I think Hard Knocks is, but he may have been TRYING to satirize the genre as again that intro shows that as well. There is no way that intro does not have it’s tongue firmly planted in cheek and yet…
Thompson created the overt satire Action in 1999 and wrote the complete satire Back To The Beach (which also starred Tommy Hinkley by the way) so it is not out of the realm of possibility that Hard Knocks started as such and just got out of control. If it were a satire it failed and if it were not it failed. Intentions aside Hard Knocks just fails.

Bill Maher is a know-nothing twit who strains to act in most of the things he has been in, from Cannibal Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death to Max Headroom, but I bet he hates that Hard Knocks really exposed the mans’ lack of timing or humor or charisma.

Tommy Hinkley I have always liked, but man, here he is literally just playing the dumb muscle character and not even really doing it well.

James Vallely as Silky, a former con who is conscripted to work for the duo, is the single worst aspect of the series by far. He is beyond annoying and sucks the air out of every single scene he is pushed into. Since Vallely is not an actor by trade (he is a producer) I almost want to give him a pass but I can’t.  Silky is almost anti-comedy.

There are other cast members, but they don’t matter as they don’t do anything in the series. As to guests the only real notable people that showed up were the always awesome Peter Jason, Taylor Negron and of course, Maher had to get Timothy Leary to appear, since Maher has to announce what a fake rebel he is at every turn.

Hard Knocks lasted 13 episodes and it was gone. Everyone moved on and it was a forgotten series until people like myself found our old VHS tapes of episodes. I wager that Hard Knocks will never get a DVD release as no one really cares at Showtime and Maher most likely would like to keep it buried.  Having been shot on video, I can only imagine how poor the masters have held up at this point (if Showtime even saved them at all).
Is it worth checking out?
Sure for the curiosity value alone, but no one will be bemoaning this series fading into obscurity.
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