There are a handful of situation comedies that stand as creative and intelligent landmarks of television.
The eight seasons of Barney Miller stand as one of those programs. What set it apart? A great cast, but it was the writing. Television is no different than any medium, it starts with writing.
The series was created by Danny Arnold and Theodore J. Flicker about a precinct of police detectives. Aside from a few episodes, it all took place in the squad room. It was acted before a live audience with three cameras.
The world of New York City and society came through the squad room, it’s issues and human condition, confronting the members of the 12th Precinct. Oddball characters with unusual circumstances meet the overworked, and sometimes pessimistic members of the ole 1-2.
When it premiered in 1975, it was like many shows of the era. It was often topical, characters that filled different ethnic types and the acting was a bit over exaggerated. In those days, speaking loudly and putting an exclamation mark was the television style. It took a season or two for the writing and characters to relax and become more natural. Many series used the “let’s make a big impression quickly” method to grab attention. MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family did the same thing.
Capt. Barney Miller commanded the 12th Precinct in New York City. Barney was direct but fair, sympathetic but no nonsense, down to earth but could be short tempered. He was often passed over for promotion, in part because he didn’t engage in politics. Barney was married and had two kids, very much in love with his social worker wife, but unable to hold his marriage together. In the 1970’s, it happened that people just grew apart. After a couple of seasons, his family kind of disappeared from the series.
Detective Sgt. Phil Fish played the veteran member of the squad who was close to retirement and battled a number of ailments associated with age. His slow delivery and deadpan looks reminded one of Jack Benny. Fish left in the third season, retired and with a spin-off show that unfortunately did not find viewers. His departure from the show was missed.
Sergeant Miguel “Chano” Amanguale added Street smarts and a wry sense of humor to the squad. He left in the second season and his role was assumed by Sergeant Ron Harris, who although was already a character, his role was expanded to provide the offbeat observations. Chano was rarely in the spotlight but he was the center of an episode where he had to kill two holdup men. He tried hard not to let that break him down, he wisecracked and brushed it off, but in the end we was overcome by the tragedy of what he had done. The show was a comedy but sometimes it hit you with reality.
Sergeant Nick Yamana was a Japanese-American detective who was less interested in chasing bad guys than pursuing his other duties around the station, like making perpetually coffee and never quite organizing the files. He had a weakness for gambling and dishing out some rather bad advice. Jack Soo, the actor who portrayed Yamana had a great career as a character actor, usually portraying Asian characters. He died in the fifth season of the show and one episode was devoted to his clips.
Sergeant Ron Harris started out as a hip talking character but quickly changed to a more urbane character with refined and expensive tastes who became a successful writer. While other characters occasionally gave way to the mortal vices, his weakness was money and the finer things in life. Harris could be snooty and look down on the bourgeois tastes of his co-workers.
Sergeant Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz was the character who probably changed the most over eight seasons. Originally, he was a big, lumbering but slightly dense character, who frequently lost his cool, saw the world in black and white, and often overslept because of his overnight visitors. Quickly, Wojo gained depth as a kindhearted soul who was bothered when he couldn’t make things right. He might not have been an intellectual, but he gained a common sense and was often the moral center of the squad. In the beginning he was loud and brash, but became more soft-spoken and sage.
Deputy Inspector Franklin D. Luger was often a pain in the ass, as a ranking official who dropped in occasionally to be a fly in the ointment. Very old school, he missed the good old days when you roughed up suspects and took gratuities from neighborhood store owners. Luger had a soft spot for Barney, who tolerated the Inspector and treated him with more respect than he deserved. Luger was a man out of time, who didn’t understand the new department or changing morality.
Officer Carl Levitt wanted desperately to be promoted to detective but felt it was his lack of height that cause him to be held back. Eager to help an earn points, Levitt could be a brown-noser and irritant to the detectives but his devotion to the job was admirable.
Detective Arthur P. Dietrich was a mystery character who replaced Fish. Dietrich was a know-it-all who usually came up with the missing information or answer to a question. The others were resentful of his vast knowledge. Dietrich wasn’t egotistical, but hard to like, but eventually the others warmed up to him.
Of the eight seasons, the second, third and fourth were the best. I felt that after Chano and Fish left, the show lost two of the best characters, but actually, the show got stronger, mostly because of the writing. The last two seasons were okay, it just seemed like the characters were a bit whiny and the tone lost the lightness that added to the comedy. In reality, the longer a show is on the air the more rounded and sympathetic the characters become. Everyone is likable, even with their quirky personalities.
Here are a fabulous dozen episodes, according to me.
“You Dirty Rat” – Marijuana in the possession of the detectives goes missing. Turns out a rat absconded with several bricks of it. A big rat that even the exterminator is a bit weary of.
“Horse Thief” – A hansom cab’s horse is stolen, so he borrows a police mount. A man is assaulted in a hotel and refuses to cooperate, even though they had find the assailant, a hooker who was stiffed out of her fee. A funny episode about the Bicentennial.
“Rain” – The city is experiencing heavy rain and it is threatening the roof with collapse, so the building man pumps the water into the air shaft with not great results. A nightclub comedian is arrested for causing damage to a nightclub, his historical jokes are really bad.
“The Kid” – Fish arrests a child mugger and becomes attracted to his mother. In the meantime, a man finds a lot of money and must wait until the end of 30 days to see if no one claims it.
“Evacuation” – During a hurricane threat, Wojo is worried about the lack of an evacuation plan since there is not a civil defense agency anymore. This sets off big interest in The Gray Book, which outlines how to deal with emergencies.
“Quarantine Parts I & II” – The squad and unfortunate citizens are trapped overnight until they find out if it is smallpox or chickenpox. The citizens include two guy men and a prostitute. The quarantine bring out some things they would rather not know about each other.
“Power Failure” – A man is arrested for assault but ends up with multiple personalities, including a gambler that Nick tries to get betting information from. His psychiatrist, takes a liking to Barney who is trying not to be tempted.
“Hash” – Wojo’s hippy girlfriend gives him a box of brownies that have been baked with hash. After ingesting some by different members of the squad, it becomes evident something is wrong with them. Perhaps the best episode of the series.
“Asylum” – Wojo offers political asylum to a Russian defector, unfortunately he does not have the power to do so. A state department official, newly appointed in the Carter Administration, refuses to help and tries to turn a blind eye when Barney decides they will help the Russian.
“Group Home” – An army recruiting station gets a threat it will be bombed, the only distinguishing clue is his sickly caught. Fish must dress in drag to catch a mugger who turns out to be an old man who has a man-crush on Fish.
“The Bank” – A man causes problem at a sperm bank when his supply is ruined by not keeping it frozen. The man and his wife struggle with the reality that the sperm bank was their only way to conceive a child, until Dietrich, who is a dead ringer for the man, informs the man’s wife that artificial insemination is an option. That gets her attention, in part because of the eerie resemblance to her now, non-fertile husband.
“Discovery” – A guy man thinks a member of the squad is harassing him for money. Fish is informed by the city’s payroll department that he is dead.
Barney Miller was a television show that entertained as well as caused us to think a little. Because the show mostly took place on one set, it seemed like a stage play. Barney Miller was comedy, drama, pathos and passion, over 170 episodes of about 25 minutes each. Very efficient comedy.