Home Video Hovel: CPO Sharkey, by David Bax
Don Rickles may be one of the funniest people to ever open his mouth but television, it seems, never quite knew what to make of him. Despite multiple attempts and numerous guest spots on shows from The Dick Van Dyke Show and Get Smart all the way up to a more recent arc on Hot in Cleveland, he was never able to translate his comedic persona to a defining TV series. The closest he came was with CPO Sharkey, which ran for all of 37 episodes from 1976 to 1978, all of which are currently available on DVD from Time Life.
Rickles plays Otto Sharkey, a Chief Petty Officer in charge of training new recruits on a naval base in San Diego. If you think Rickles’ real life experiences in the Navy may have led to some verisimilitude, think again. This set-up is merely an excuse for Rickles to bounce insults off of characters from a variety of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Realism is not the name of the game here. These are seamen who never even head to sea.
In an overall, thematic sense (if such a lofty idea can even be applied to a charming but low-ambition series such as this one), CPO Sharkey is also a venue for a group of young men representing an array of post-hippie progressivism to rub up against Rickles’ old-fashioned, Archie Bunker-lite attitudes. In this sense, the series both has and hasn’t aged well. Ultimately, its heart is in the right place but its route to that place is often rocky. The gay panic among the men in the episode wherein they are led to believe that Sharkey might be gay is uncomfortable and pathetic to watch from a modern viewpoint, even if the overall message ends up being that it wouldn’t be a big deal if he were. For what it’s worth, the venerable Cheers had the same problem in the episode “The Boys in the Bar” and that was the better part of a decade later.
CPO Sharkey’s first goal, though, was not and should not have been to make statements about social equality. It was a sitcom and its aim was to make people laugh. Unfortunately, it mostly comes up short. Perhaps this serves as an indication as to why Rickles never thrived in the television medium. When Sharkey is on a tear, cracking jokes and making fun of people, it can be hilarious. Every time the necessary story beats overtake him, though, it’s a drag, like being reminded during a fun night out that you have to study for a test the next morning. Don Rickles’ reputation as an all-time great comedian remains intact but it’s best when he’s not boxed in by a plot.
The season two set contains a recent cast reunion.