Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the best of Barney Miller (1975-1982, ABC), which is currently available in full on DVD.
Barney Miller stars HAL LINDEN as Barney Miller, BARBARA BARRIE as Liz Miller, ABE VIGODA as Fish, MAX GAIL as Wojo, RON GLASS as Harris, JACK SOO as Yemana, and GREGORY SIERRA as Chano. With MILT KOGAN and JAMES GREGORY.
As a low-concept ensemble workplace comedy with a quiet multi-cam theatricality and a reputation for truthful characters, Barney Miller has long seemed like a perfect fit for this blog, making its omission glaring when I decided not to cover the series back in 2015, during our first pass at the 1970s. But I couldn’t muster up the excitement necessary to give this show a treatment equal with the rest of what we were highlighting at the time, for, back then, I wasn’t discussing anything for purely rhetorical purposes; I only featured what I loved. Barney Miller didn’t meet that standard as well as the other shows did — all of which I genuinely enjoyed and, for the most part, found more consistently funny (an unimpeachable requirement for me in a genre with “comedy” in its title). Since then, my standards have changed — I’m now more willing to examine works that are more beneficial to our overall analysis than personally agreeable — and following our 2016 look at Night Court, which was quite obviously created by a former Barney Miller scribe (we’ll touch more on that in a few weeks), I’ve been warming to the idea that the latter might indeed be too noteworthy to ignore forever. And, indeed, by 2021, this blog’s aperture has widened enough to allow in something like a Barney Miller, which I still don’t love, still don’t think is as funny as many of the ’70s sitcoms we’ve covered, and still find more rhetorically notable than personally agreeable, but do like more now than ever, find much funnier than I did in 2015, and certainly think that, for the purposes of our study, deserves to be here more than most. But before we go any further, I want to make clear that I fully understand why the show is popular and has accrued a reputation for quality; heck, I like it and think it’s well-written too, and as usual, its own individually defined standards of excellence will be vital in selecting its finest episodic samples. At the same time, I also hope the kind of “big picture” analysis I do in these preceding essays, where I explore each series in the context of a larger survey of the genre and its evolution, will emphasize these relative strengths… along with its relative shortcomings too — both of which inform my personal feelings about the show, and most importantly, my thoughts on why I ultimately think it’s worthy of our microscope.
Let’s set the scene a little bit. As regular readers of this blog know, my study of the American sitcom has inadvertently produced a reliable framework of analysis that’s built upon identifying two competing doctrines within the genre, both of which are rooted way back in the medium’s origins but continue in every era through pinpointable patterns that are easy to track. This framework — which I give a primer on here — essentially boils down to recognizing the difference between sitcoms that prioritize the exploration of their characters vs. those that prioritize the exploration of ideas, particularly when it comes to storytelling, or the means by which shows practice their identity. In the ’70s, the best embodiment of these competing styles is the distinction between the works of MTM, whose shows use story to explore and mine their leads, and those by Norman Lear, whose shows use their leads to explore and mine specific ideas, often sociopolitical. Both exist within their era’s trend towards low-concept realism, with theatrical multi-camera staging and some kind of calibration of both comedy and drama, necessitating well-defined but believable regulars. Yet they have obviously different agendas: their characters vs. their ideas. (See more on that here.) Now, Barney Miller is neither an MTM nor a Lear series, but it offers a renewed chance to not only examine the blending of idea-led and character-led qualities during the late ’70s, but also the intertwining influence of this era’s particular embodiments of the divide, for as teased last week, the best sitcoms of the late ’70s — and Barney Miller is no exception — show an awareness of both Lear’s work and MTM’s. (Stay tuned soon for a Clip Show post where I’ll revisit some of this era’s previously covered best.) And while the dwindling novelty of Lear’s ethos, and the increasing familiarity of MTM’s, eventually led to a reactionary appetite in the late ’70s for lighter, less serious fare — broader, sillier, stuff that helps make the quieter and more earnest Barney Miller seem more intelligent by contrast — it nevertheless is our first real indication of how these two competing forms from the early part of the decade could consciously converge and find success. So, the opportunity to discuss these colliding aesthetics, and explain, by proxy, the value in other shows that are similarly merged, is what excites me about Barney Miller.
From the beginning though, this series had its own esteemed pedigree, as it was co-created and helmed by Danny Arnold, the veteran TV producer who, among other things and only citing what we’ve already covered, (a) helped instill in the high-concept Bewitched a foundation of rich character drama that could also be supported by incredibly universal social themes, (b) steered the low-concept That Girl to narrative victory by better attaching its aggrandizing comic ideas to elements of the premise and its personified tangibles, and (c) maneuvered a potentially jejune family fantasy called My World And Welcome To It into an introspective study of its complicated main character. From this, we can consider Arnold’s emerging style as collectively serious-minded — grounding comedies, be they big and high-concept or small and low, with believable people and a bedrock of dramatic sincerity, thereby making them more relatable. This is akin to the MTM brand, which as developed in 1970, prized emotional realism in its leads, but for an ultimate objective more comedically aligned with the genre. (More in a moment…) Meanwhile, Arnold’s right-hand man during the first two seasons of Barney Miller was Chris Hayward, the former partner of Mary Tyler Moore co-creator Allan Burns, with whom Hayward worked on the formatively character-focused He & She before they split on Get Smart and Burns linked up with Jim Brooks for Room 222, and eventually, Moore’s flagship entry. Hayward came along after Arnold’s initial pilot, “The Life And Times Of Barney Miller” (see below), which was produced in early 1974 and followed the Mary Tyler Moore “work/home” structure that had been modeled after its leading lady’s earlier sitcom hit, The Dick Van Dyke Show, where there was a similar central idea: a man caught between his personal and professional duties. Arnold would quickly downplay and opt to disappear Barney’s home life entirely by Season Two (more abruptly than Mary Tyler Moore faded out Mary’s), but it emerged from the same low-concept character-forward space that the MTM shows most vociferously occupied, and that’s most narratively obvious here in its first year. What’s more, both Arnold and Hayward were already adjacent to the MTM ethos, tonally and literally, with Arnold’s bent for believable, humane leads, in particular, serving as an overarching, obvious connective tissue.
In fact, the seminal strength of Barney Miller — the reason those who claim it as a favorite so often do — is how it depicts its regulars, with a heretofore unmatched degree of narrative continuity and a constant awareness of how their down-to-earth, relatable personas must keep from becoming false and caricatured. That is, Barney Miller’s greatest selling point is that it has truthful, human leads — the most realistic leads of any sitcom from this era, making it the most realistic sitcom from this era, and a precursor to the comedies of our present day, where realism can be a barometer of success (as opposed to comedy). And as a point of pride for Arnold and the series, this eventually will become its singularly defining element — something that has to inform any study of its best episodes. Yet if Barney Miller’s leads are more realistic than even Mary Tyler Moore’s, I don’t think they’re nearly as productive with laughs, and that’s in large part because, despite having a high regard for its characters — or perhaps due to having a high regard for them — this show is not actually character-driven. Okay, I know that seems like heresy and contradictory to the above, but before I get ahead of myself, I have to address the other half of the series’ makeup: the ways it reflects the idea-led, and primarily Norman Lear, style of sitcommery. For starters, there are the obvious visual similarities — after an unsold pilot shot on film, the series was produced on videotape, for a more intimate, realistic look that was preferred and made popular by Lear with All In The Family, which singlehandedly introduced its viability. Additionally, this show has a shared social consciousness with Lear’s output, not just in the congregation of a diverse ensemble (a melting pot not unlike the contemporaneous Hot l Baltimore), but also in the selected premise, which invites commentary on morality as it pertains to criminal justice, along with the societal issues exemplified by the people who unwillingly pass through its doors — a sort of topicality du jour. Now, Barney Miller’s relationship with social relevance is certainly different from Lear’s — its desire to humanize characters transcends a specific didactic objective or agenda, as Arnold’s crusade to depict everybody humanely exists for its own dramatic stake on realism, not some larger sociopolitical goal.
Evidence of this distinction can be seen by comparing this show to the aforementioned Hot l Baltimore, which is so concerned with what its leads socially represent that they’re rendered too stereotypical to be worthy of investment, while Barney Miller, on the other hand, wants its leads to be utterly human first and foremost, finding topical interests merely a tool to achieve the latter, as opposed to the inverse. (And this series manages to eschew the post-Lear “Very Special Episode” trend mentioned last week, for its dramatic apparatus of sincere characterizations can already handle heavier topics with a more natural, and earned, integrity.) However, Barney Miller is always open to narratively exploiting social issues for guiding realism, and while the extent of its interest in doing so ebbs and flows — we’ll note it during our coverage — its concern for relevance is much more present in story than on, say, Mary Tyler Moore, which has a feminist foundation and uses it in plot periodically as a springboard for character conflict and growth, but isn’t going through a catalogue of topics as part of its storytelling pattern, like Barney Miller. This speaks to something in the latter’s design that encompasses more than just social relevance: Barney Miller’s over-reliance on externally derived ideas to spark its weekly comedy and drama, for just as with an earlier cop sitcom, Car 54, Where Are You?, the procedural nature of this workplace makes it more narratively conducive to a weekly case, criminal, or crime than other on-the-job shows. (For instance, Cheers has a workplace that’s more recreational than procedural, where the mechanics of the job simply can’t be as prevalent because they’re not as involved.) And although this series is defined by Arnold’s believable character writing, his storytelling defers to the premise, with its situational episodic trappings typically serving as A-stories, while personal narratives featuring the leads are relegated to subplots. Heck, even in this first year with visits to Barney’s home and seven appearances from his wife, the weekly topics du jour — socially relevant or not — actually motivate most of the major drama and biggest laughs.
Oh, sure, you could go through and make a list of entries that contradict my description, but that would prove the point, for they stand out; most have procedural duty-related story at the fore, using the leads and their refined humanities as support, or surrounding decoration, for the drama and comedy engendered by the use of external narrative notions. And if there is personal drama for a lead character, like in say, “The Hero,” it’s motivated by a narrative force: the situation, the case, the job — not a unique characterization. Indeed, Barney Miller’s storytelling is less personalized than the workplace (or half-workplace) comedies of MTM, and while I don’t begrudge Arnold’s decision to quickly drop Barney’s home and wife — because the opportunities suggested there, compared to the office, are scant (there’s no Rhoda or Phyllis!) — and I don’t think the series has to regularly follow the cops home (like Taxi), I also don’t think this procedural premise demands so much procedural story. For example, Mary Tyler Moore’s later office-centered years could similarly be a revolving door of subject matter, with plots about how the characters react to the news they’re required to cover — their job — but it isn’t; it’s about how and what those people in the newsroom do as they cover the news and interact in this professional capacity. In other words, how the leads exist in relation to each other. Given a cast as diverse as Barney Miller’s, this model would provide for natural conflict. Yet the show often avoids putting its leads in opposition, and again, I’m not saying it never does; I’m saying it doesn’t do this as often as more character-driven shows in the MTM vein, for instead it’s relying on outside forces (like story ideas related to the job), or recurring agents like Scanlon, to stir up any semblance of interpersonal drama, most of it peripheral anyway. This is not ideal, for the juxtaposition of characters in conflict creates comedy and drama via contrast, and when a show lacks it, it’s forced to depend more on episodic hooks to yield its biggest reactions. It’s also inherently less satisfying because even when believable and justified by the premise, it doesn’t feel as earned without support from the series’ crowning achievements. Additionally, putting characters in contrast is how the audience comes to understand who they are, and because Barney Miller shies away from this, its leads seem less defined, or rather, less clear.
While it’s obvious who Mary Tyler Moore’s regulars are from inception — we can describe them, and see how they’ll motivate laughs and story — it takes until Season Three to fully recognize totally separate, distinct personalities for every regular here, and this only comes after both a long buildup and a little added comic heightening. Then, for the rest of the run, we’re more attuned to each of the leads’ varying perspectives and idiosyncrasies — and, mind you, they do interact a lot, for Arnold still wants to show off their realism, and by putting them together on one set for 25-minute one act plays, he makes it unavoidable — but so much of this sidesteps story, which is the most effective way that characters reveal themselves, through personal choices that bring both comedy and drama forward. And yet, although some might find this use of impersonalized plot incongruous with the show’s guiding interest — the human, believable depiction of its leads — I actually think it’s purposeful, for because of Arnold’s realism crusade, the show is extra careful about how it positions them. It’s not going to be using them as vessels for ideas, like the hollow Lear leads who can consequently feel stereotypical, and he’s not even going to go out of his way to maneuver them into identifiable conflicts, which is what happens on Mary Tyler Moore, for even that might look like a slight concession to convention over truth. No, he’s going to depict them as they believably would exist in this workplace, with a focus on their work, and the personal stuff largely incidental, leaving the more extreme comedy and drama to episodic gimmicks that, even if they threaten the show’s total reality (and sometimes they do), are only temporal and disposed of quickly. Accordingly, this is an effective strategy for emphasizing what Arnold wants emphasized, and, yes, his leads are so real because they avoid Lear’s easy categorizations and MTM’s pat relationships, with more nuance and a slow burn of audience identification that makes us feel smart for having to pay more attention to subtleties in a genre that’s typically unsubtle… That said, it’s still hard to look at the series and not see that it’s denying itself laughs and possible drama as a result of a narrative design that doesn’t centralize its greatest asset in story, which is instead less emotionally investing because it’s situational, procedural, and removed from what we like best.
As for comedy, I think the intentional tamping down of characterizations for the sake of truth inevitably makes the show less competitive on the laugh metric by which everything in this genre deserves to be measured. But that’s subjective, as is the point at which we decide the tradeoff is no longer worth it. Personally, I think Barney Miller goes too far — look at Mary Tyler Moore; we still believe those characters because the precision and consistency of their depictions creates its own internal emotional realism, and we don’t have to give up laughs in the process. But I’m probably stricter than most when it comes to humor, as I’ve always been a subscriber to the belief that the genre is at its most rewarding when the elements of a dramatic situation are used to deliver comedy, rather than when the elements of comedy are used deliver a dramatic situation — that is, I believe believable characters and earned drama are worthwhile because they make for better laughs, which I maintain is the guiding objective of the sitcom, for it’s what makes this an art unique from other narrative forms. Similarly, I’m not interested in realism for its own sake — I like it when it forces attention to detail with regard to character, especially because it should make it easier for us to invest and can help render emotional reactions, including laughter, richer and more likely. (However, that’s not the most critically popular trend currently in the genre — truth, or at least knowingness, is often lauded over humor right now — so I recognize that my tastes are against the grain, and I digress…) The opposite of my stance is sort of a Lear-ian philosophy — which charges that the sitcom is at its most actualized when laughs and the conventions of the genre are used for a higher purpose, revealed dramatically. My rebuttal, of course, would be that the apex of MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) is more successful at being what it wants to be, and in turn satisfying the audience more regularly and for longer, than Lear’s apex (All In The Family), so when we’re talking effectiveness, there’s little contest, but this goes back to the larger character vs. idea framework and brings our conversation around to the notion of why Barney Miller is a fascinating study…
As we’ve seen, the show matches Mary Tyler Moore’s pursuit of believable characters and even bests it by making them more true-to-life, but in a socially conscious Lear-ian prism that opts to be reliant on externally derived narrative ideas to sustain its weekly need for drama and comedy. Here, emotional realism meets topical realism for some kind of total realism, yet in an idea-led sitcom that’s comedically confined because it separates its great character work from its premise’s story apparatus, where quiet continuity hopes to complicate an otherwise anthological template… And, again, while I don’t think this liminal design bears out in laughs that acquit Barney Miller as more enjoyable than the best of MTM and even Lear, many of the episodes where the show makes comedy a priority are great fun — like the beloved “Hash,” which is the best segment from the best season (we’ll discuss why soon) — because the relative scarcity of big hahas in a world that’s intentionally muted makes them more special, and reveals that there are elements of both MTM and Lear’s styles that can be adapted for textual gain, as this series, and the best of the late ’70s, prove… Now, there’ll be much more on the show’s trajectory in the weeks ahead, but as for Season One, it’s, again, the year with the most personal stories for Barney, as we meet his wife and go to his home (along with other places outside the precinct). These sequences are generally unfunny and the drama is repetitive, for we long to be with more of the ensemble, where we could be discovering personalities and finding humor and heart independent of the weekly cases that are otherwise pulling focus. To that point, this is a very didactic year, with heavier sociopolitical interests and less comedy than most, making it, as you might imagine, not a favorite for yours truly, especially because the show’s narrative design is intrinsically repressing our ability to quickly identify the leads’ personas, ensuring that, in comparison to what’s ahead, the drama isn’t yet as impactful as it could be and the laughs aren’t nearly as strong. However, Arnold’s acuity with truth is already on display, making this first season a perfect representation of the show’s balance of MTM and Lear, and the five episodes I’m choosing to exemplify this year’s finest display all of these aforementioned qualities, with some kind of earned comedy and/or drama bringing additional value.
01) Episode 2: “Experience” (Aired: 01/30/75)
A bomber targets the precinct, while Fish considers retiring.
Written by Steve Gordon | Directed by Danny Arnold
Following an inauspicious opener that spends too much time at Barney’s unfruitful home, the series’ sophomore excursion is set exclusively in the precinct, which gives the audience more exposure to the regular ensemble (minus Ron Glass; Rod Perry appears in his stead) and introduces the most common story pattern, with one or two main procedural plots, typically anchored by a guest, and a smaller personal runner for the leads that peppers the action. Also, making their debuts here are Alex Henteloff as sleazy lawyer Arnold Ripner and Jack DeLeon’s Marty, a flamboyantly gay shoplifter. They both provide our first glimpse at how the show’s comedic returns are often tied to episodic particulars independent of the regulars. So, this is the first Barney Miller that feels like Barney Miller. (Note: Jane Dulo also appears.)
02) Episode 9: “Vigilante” (Aired: 03/20/75)
The cops track down an aging vigilante, while Inspector Luger visits the precinct.
Teleplay by Danny Arnold & Chris Hayward | Story by Howard Albrecht & Sol Weinstein | Directed by Noam Pitlik
James Gregory makes his first appearance as Inspector Luger, a reliable recurring character whose relatively strong persona brings laughs and conflict for members of the precinct, making him a valuable presence in many of the show’s key outings. This offering not only benefits from his inclusion, which allows for a subplot about the cops rather than the guests, but also from guests Tito Vandis, Marla Gibbs, and Gabe Dell as a crossdressing teamster.
03) Episode 10: “The Guest” (Aired: 03/27/75)
The precinct holds a mob witness who’s being targeted.
Written by Danny Arnold & Chris Hayward & William Taub | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Herb Edelman plays a witness who wants to be locked up for protection from the mob in the A-story of this amusing entry that also sees the return of Marty, whose recurring presence previews the show’s heightened sense of continuity and fuels its reputation for realistic, believable characters (even for those like Marty, who are broad in comparison to the leads). Meanwhile, there’s a subplot with Barney’s wife Liz visiting the precinct and another with Chano needing the cops’ money for a narcotics buy, so with more of a balance of the personal and professional, this is a great sample of Season One specifically.
04) Episode 11: “Escape Artist” (Aired: 04/10/75)
The cops hold an escape artist and a “bird man,” while Harris tries to write a book.
Written by Howard Leeds & Danny Arnold & Chris Hayward | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This formative outing includes the first joke about Yemana’s coffee, and also introduces the idea that Harris is an aspiring author, whose book will eventually become the most serialized display of the show’s use of continuity to suggest dramatic realism. As for the main stories, Roscoe Lee Browne brings dignity to a mildly comic role, while Leonard Frey plays a non-sane “bird man,” providing “Werewolf”-esque yuks and a dovetailing comic climax that stands out as maybe the year’s funniest moment, in an offering that continues to prove just how much the show relies on its procedural episodic particulars for the majority of its humor, with its leads’ realism residing supportively in the periphery. Also, Judson Pratt and Danny Dayton appear.
05) Episode 13: “The Hero” (Aired: 05/01/75)
Chano feels guilty after killing two holdup men and Barney’s wife makes a citizen’s arrest.
Written by Danny Arnold & Chris Hayward | Directed by Noam Pitlik
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode, “The Hero” is the most memorable segment of the season, with an emotional crescendo that not only displays some socially relevant drama about the difficulty cops face in their daily duties, but also the elevated humanity that Arnold has already been developing through his commitment to realism. As a result, this is the year’s best showcase of both its strong character work, which is so authentic that a powerful moment like Chano’s breakdown thus becomes highly affecting, and the balanced MTM and Lear aesthetics that form the basis of my commentary. Additionally, I point to this popular entry for proof that the series is not as funny as many of its contemporaries, and doesn’t try to be, for it’s using its secret weapon, character, for these kinds of dramatically truthful climaxes, instead of comic bits like the one in, say, “Escape Artist.” That is, this is what Barney Miller wants to be — whether we prefer it or not — and, well, at least it’s good at it. (Todd Bridges also guests.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Courtesans,” a controversial entry with an A-story that revels in its own taboo topicality like a Lear series, shouting didactic interests alongside some personal emotional moments, but with less of the artfulness evidenced in the segments highlighted above, and “Snow Job,” another early ensemble show in the precinct with procedural stories accruing some solid laughs. I’ll also cite “Hair,” which has the second appearance of Florence Stanley as Bernice and exists as a fascinating example of how the series’ low-concept style of character writing does make the MTM-esque use of relationships in narrative feel like an encroachment upon the total realism it seeks.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Barney Miller goes to…
Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!