Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing 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, MAX GAIL as Wojo, RON GLASS as Harris, RON CAREY as Levitt, and STEVE LANDESBERG as Dietrich. With JAMES GREGORY.
Season Seven is the apex of Barney Miller‘s realism. It’s evidenced both in the year’s dramatically intelligent continuity, which reaches a climax via the libel arc with Harris’ book, and in producer Tony Sheehan’s (and Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein’s) 180-degree rejection of Reinhold Weege’s truth-stretching style, as they hone their sincere aesthetic that developed during Six by further tamping down on extremes, underplaying everything — even big ideas are muted — so that the leads, and the show, can grow more true-to-life. Indeed, Seven is the most naturalistic year of the entire run. Yet this focus also minimizes results — namely, laughs, which I specify because, actually, Seven manages to preserve some drama, with a serious and occasionally dour sensibility (sometimes didactic) that can be effective, but squashes comedy, rendering levity even less of a presence than ever before. This reinforces my macro analysis of Barney Miller‘s shortcomings relative to its contemporaries, for with a legacy built on believability, the season that projects it best — the most perfect on this metric — proves to not only be less funny (next to One as the least), but actively dismissive of humor, without a worthwhile trade. That is, it’s not as if there’s brilliant drama here; heck, many of the year’s narratives are lame retreads from earlier, better seasons. And while this might seem unfair — a pre-Seven problem that it’s nobly trying to underplay — the only reason Barney Miller has grown so starved of good stories is because its fear of putting the leads in direct conflict created an idea-driven procedural machine that just consumes. So, when Seven can’t amuse because it’s hyper-focused on being real because it has to distract from story issues that are so dire because of an idea-led design that exists because of an overcommitment to realism, the point is the same: Barney Miller’s goal has not been in alignment with the genre’s, and we can no longer pretend, as in Six, that the show is able to compensate for its deficiencies by emphasizing its one big asset, for its one big asset is now so big that it’s clearly exacerbating said deficiencies, proving the foundational link… And, okay, yes, any sitcom in its seventh year is going to disappoint, so the series’ basic consistency keeps it healthier than most. Comparatively, it’s fine. But Seven’s episodes tell another story — the true story: this may be the apex of realism, but that in itself is far from ideal, for us and for Barney Miller.
01) Episode 128: “Homicide (II)” (Aired: 11/06/80)
The squad’s new specialization in homicide has fatal consequences.
Written by Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Season Seven’s two-part premiere — which, like all non-news shows in the fall of 1980, was delayed by the three-month SAG strike — bears immediate witness to the year’s elevated sense of realness, projected through a darker, more dramatic lens that trivializes laughs. Although funny guests like Allyn Ann McLerie, Jack Dodson, and Harold J. Stone appear, along with the ever-reliable Luger, the engine of this entry’s interest — and the bolder Part II, specifically — is its climax, in which one of the precinct’s semi-regular visitors, Cotterman (Jack Somack), is killed after begging the cops for help that they can’t provide, because the police bureaucracy has forced them to specialize in homicides, to the exclusion of everything else. Thus, we have narrative irony, a chance for a didactic monologue from Barney, and the use of self-built emotional continuity to deliver a wallop that’s believable, yet not at all comic. It’s not preferable, but, of the year’s heaviest shows, this one’s drama is the most personal, and the most justified.
02) Episode 129: “The Delegate” (Aired: 11/13/80)
Barney learns that one of his new officers isn’t actually a cop.
Written by Jim Tisdale | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This episode’s titular procedural notion, with Bob Dishy as a delegate from 1976’s Democratic National Convention who never returned home and has been carousing ever since, is a one-joke bit that doesn’t acquit the year’s storytelling favorably. But it is, happily, a littler lighter than Seven’s norm. Also lighter is the fun job-related subplot that better centralizes the leads, as Barney meets a new uniformed officer, played by the adorable Phil Leeds, about whom a jealous Levitt soon uncovers a secret: he’s actually not a police officer at all — a detail that no one’s caught for years. It’s a contrived made-for-TV idea, but it’s amusing, written with humanity, and impression-making for this season, which craves such originality. Bonnie Bartlett also guests.
03) Episode 134: “Field Associate” (Aired: 01/15/81)
The precinct may have a spy reporting to Internal Affairs.
Written by Jordan Moffet | Directed by Noam Pitlik
One of the year’s only comedically geared offerings (and the best of this slight subcategory), this solid entry claims an affable subplot featuring Ned Glass as a dying cat burglar whom Harris reunites with his estranged wife, played by Florence Halop, and another with Jeffrey Tambor, who portrays a conspiracy nut in a broad theatrical style that’s foreign for this quieter, über-real season, but not to the detriment of the excursion’s sanity. Meanwhile, the A-story is job-related but more personal, as the squad learns a spy has been reporting them to Internal Affairs… and it turns out to be Levitt, for reasons that are cute, but fit the character and make a little bit of sense. Also, the cherry on top of this jovial throwback? Ron Carey in drag.
04) Episode 135: “Movie (I)” (Aired: 01/22/81)
Harris is assigned to produce a porno while Wojo accidentally outs Zitelli.
Written by Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik
With a strong comic notion that’s job-sparked but utilizes a well-established characterization — centralizing a lead — this two-parter boasts one of Seven’s most successful A-stories, in which Harris is tasked with producing a porno film that’ll help the cops infiltrate the industry. There are a lot of great character jokes allowed by this narrative, but it’s really all geared towards Act II’s climax. Actually, Part I deals more with a different subplot, a professional drama with interpersonal conflict, as George Murdock’s Lt. Scanlon (his only appearance this year) visits the precinct to interrogate Wojo, who accidentally outs Zitelli (Dino Natali), the gay officer whose orientation has helped provide continuity ever since his confession to Barney back in Season Six’s premiere. No new ground is truly covered this time, but it’s another effective display of self-awareness, sustaining drama (and comedy) through the series’ particulars.
05) Episode 136: “Movie (II)” (Aired: 01/29/81)
Harris debuts the porn film he was tasked with producing.
Written by Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik
The second half of this enjoyable two-parter gets to have more fun, jettisoning the somewhat didactic story with Zitelli and Scanlon in favor of a more direct focus on Harris’ porno, a richly comic idea that is finally at its climax. Naturally, giving this project to a narcissistic novelist proves to be a failure, and the screening — for the precinct, along with recurring guest Ralph Manza (as the blind Leon Roth) and Luger, who’s now a “Media Liaison” for the NYPD — certainly makes for a likable centerpiece. That said, the tension between truth and humor this season is never not present, and in trying to reconcile both, this offering is good-but-not-great on both metrics, with a bold narrative but a lack of boldness in its exploration. In fact, it’s mostly for the guaranteed success of the comic idea that it hits. J.J. Barry also appears.
06) Episode 137: “The Psychic” (Aired: 02/05/81)
An assaulter claims to be psychic while a vandalizer is motivated by grammar.
Written by Tony Sheehan, Frank Dungan, & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Ken Tigar is back for his annual shtick as a kook — this time playing a man who claims to be psychic and is arrested for stopping a purse snatching before it was to occur. Frankly, there’s a law of diminishing returns with his shows, and this one teeters on the edge. I really only single it out because it’s among the year’s least sad, with an overly clever subplot — about a linguist who destroys a billboard because he takes offense to how it mangled the English language — that’s gimmicky but nevertheless gets its laughs and exists in a less serious space than the majority of this dark, depressive season. Plus, with Luger around, and a tonal compatibility between the narratives, this feels like vintage Barney Miller. Larry Hankin appears.
07) Episode 140: “Rachel” (Aired: 02/26/81)
Barney’s daughter flirts with Wojo while Harris is sued for libel.
Written by Tony Sheehan, Frank Dungan, & Jeff Stein | Directed by Homer Powell
My pick for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Rachel” is a laudable show of Barney Miller‘s strengths alongside the genre’s needs. That is, it’s Seven’s best blend of truth and comedy, both of which are not only aided by good ideas, but also a sense of continuity — one of the series’ trademark elements and a crucial method to reinforce believability, for showing an awareness of the past telegraphs smarts to the audience, rewarding the viewers for paying attention while blessing the characters with trackable logic and a foundation of shared human-like intelligence. That’s evident in the subplot that launches the year’s crowning narrative display of realism — the continuation of Harris’ book arc, which heats up again here when he’s sued for libel by Arnold Ripner (Alex Henteloff), the sleazy recurring lawyer whom we met all the way back in Season One. By using established particulars — personified tangibles — in story, the script is taking advantage of the sitcom form and remaining sincere in the process, for everything that happens is buyable, spared of false behavioral turns and enriched by an attention to detail. Speaking of attention to detail, this A-story boasts the return of Barney’s daughter, played by the same actress who had this role in the first year (Anne Wyndham) — a fact that also suggests realism to those who recognize it. And despite having a conventional sitcom plot — one regular dating another regular’s family member — these writers manage to keep things honest, confronting head-on the character traits (like Wojo’s way with women) that would fuel an interpersonal conflict, but avoiding any clichés and, again, extreme behavioral turns, that would jeopardize authenticity. As for interpersonal conflict, that’s something both of these plots have in common, and it’s key to why they’re both funny, for remember, this series typically shies away from putting its leads opposite each other in story, as that usually heightens them. However, these scribes are so adept at naturally downplaying everything that such clashes fare believably, and I wish there were more segments like “Rachel” in Seven, for this is a year that could actually handle it. (Also, the other subplot includes Stanley Brock’s recurring Bruno Bender — another flex of continuity, bolstering truth — and special mention must be made of the hilarious Levitt twist in the Barney/Rachel/Wojo story!)
08) Episode 142: “Contempt (II)” (Aired: 03/19/81)
Harris takes over the squad room while Barney is held in contempt of court.
Written by Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik
One of Season Seven’s most memorable excursions, the second half of this two-parter features the iconic sequence where Barney Miller, who’s been jailed in contempt of court for refusing to reveal a source (shades of Mary Richards), is paired with an unseen cellmate voiced by William Windom. This is a big idea that seems too grand to be true, especially for this incredibly low-concept series during this incredibly quiet year, but as discussed above, these scribes are even able to take aggrandized notions and play them down so the exaggerations are less notable — both comedic and dramatic. Of course, this idea is a serious one, displaying the year’s aesthetic accurately, only with the favorable contrast of small comic character beats in support, as Harris temporarily takes over the precinct. J.J. Barry and John Dullaghan (as Ray Brewer) guest.
09) Episode 144: “Lady And The Bomb” (Aired: 04/09/81)
Fish visits while a lady threatens to blow up the squad room with a homemade bomb.
Written by Lee H. Grant | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Abe Vigoda returns as Fish in this installment, back for the first, last, and only time since his departure at the top of the fourth season to his short-lived self-titled spin-off. Seeing him is great — another victorious show of continuity — and he brings laughs that comedically elevate this teleplay above most of its peers in Seven. Fish is also the perfect character to diffuse (no pun intended) the procedural A-story, where Peggy Pope plays a frustrated housewife who threatens to blow up the precinct because she thinks her husband’s sexual deficiencies as of late are the result of his working in a hospital with radioactive waste in the basement. Now, every holdup plot point is bigger than I like, and the idea of a woman being so desperate for sex that she makes a homemade bomb is a one-joke gag… but, again, it’s funny and the script keeps it all from feeling too false. Also, there’s more sincerity in the subplot, as Harris learns that Ripner has triumphed in his libel suit. So, this was an MVE contender — it would have been my pick, except that “Rachel” exists more within Seven’s ethos and is accordingly more impressive.
10) Episode 145: “Riot” (Aired: 04/30/81)
Luger ramps up a conflict between the cops and a group of Orthodox Jews, who riot.
Teleplay by Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein | Story by Greg Giangregorio | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Although there’s a big, loud centerpiece here (the riot) that bumps against the year’s quieter sensibilities, it occurs largely off-camera — one of the ways in which Seven inherently knows to downplay notions that might be too much for the show’s low-concept sense of natural realism. And, for the most part, this episode is a great example of how the year is able to retain its believability by suppressing extremes, even in larger stories. However, this entry is also bolder than usual, as the conflict between the cops and the protesting Hasidic Jewish community (with Nehemiah Persoff returning for a bit of continuity) is aggravated by Luger, who tells them to shave. This is a terrific use of his character, a comic nuisance who, in a scenario like this, can bring about larger consequences. The plot therefore feels earned by something the series itself has built, in a job-related drama that centralizes the leads and is thus more potent. Meanwhile, there’s a funny procedural subplot about a survivalist couple who’s been living in the sewers and eating rats. Guests include Howard Platt, Susan Tolsky, and Victor Brandt.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Contempt (I),” the expository first half of a two-parter mentioned above, “Liquidation,” which is the pinnacle of Seven’s Harris arc, but puts the spotlight on him directly for a drunk routine that somewhat infringes upon the year’s typically stellar realism, along with two entries that recycle old ideas without anything new or exciting, “Resignation” and “Call Girl” (the latter of which has some decent moments for Dietrich, but is dragged down by Dorsey, a three-week attempt at creating a new regular; he doesn’t work because, even though he’s fairly bland, he forces the other leads to heighten in contrast), and two seemingly popular outings that don’t satisfy their intrinsic obligations to the sitcom genre, “Stormy Weather,” where Levitt communicates with a deaf hooker, and “The Librarian,” which you’ll remember as a very serious show about a Nazi. Others I didn’t really consider but want to cite briefly include the overwrought “Agent Orange,” the guest star-led “The Rainmaker” (with J. Pat O’Malley), and two offerings that are average outside of some lively Luger moments, “The Doll” and “The Vests.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Barney Miller goes to…
Come back next week for Season Eight! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!
I agree with you. I do not like season 7 or 8 that much because the show is taking itself too seriously. Yes there are some memorable episodes here (like the one with Barney’s daughter) but It’s just deliberately not fun let alone funny and there are SO many remakes. You can definitely tell the writers were getting burned out because this year feels tired to me, no matter what some fans say. Even season 6 had better stories.
Hi, MDay991! Thanks for reading and commenting.
That’s right; as an idea-driven comedy, BARNEY MILLER’s struggles with storytelling have increased with every passing season, so Six naturally has better procedural plots than Seven, which, I agree, is deliberately not fun. As for Season Eight, well, stay tuned next week for my thoughts…
I always found “Barney Miller” so self-important and pretentious, and after glancing over this list, I can say my thoughts continue to be validated. No offense to those who like it but I hate a sitcom that prefers drama to comedy. That is a very self-loathing attitude and it’s not fun to watch. (I feel the same about “MASH”). I’d rather pop in something mindless like a “Three’s Company” buy maybe that’s just me!
Hi, Eboni! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I share your general preference for sitcoms that know the value of humor and prioritize it as an objective, for as I’ve said, this genre is an art form *because* it’s designed for laughs, and shows in this category feel more self-actualized when they’re using the tools at their disposal for comedy rather than anything else.
However, I think BARNEY MILLER is not always as heavy-handed and dour as it is here in Season Seven (so check out my other lists, if you haven’t already), and while, in comparison to a show like THREE’S COMPANY, it’s seldom as funny, the series is typically good about finding weekly hahas and indeed delights in doing so with more frequency than say, M*A*S*H, which I consider much more “self-important and pretentious”” — a better example of a “self-loathing” sitcom.
But, as always, it’s all relative; in the biggest picture possible, BARNEY MILLER is funny, but far from the funniest. Accordingly, balancing the genre’s need for laughs with its own desired realism has always been the key to its success, and, in a nutshell, Season Seven disappoints because it’s simply too imbalanced (just like Five was — but in the other direction).
You know I’m not going to lie. This has always been another favorite season of mine but I definitely see what you mean when you says less comedy and the realism was front and center. I never really heard anybody really make that notion. Very surprised you put Rachel as your favorite episode but very understand it contempt part 2 has got to be one of my favorite episodes YouTube Barney being in jail with that cellmate
I can understand why you didn’t put liquidation on the top 10 list even though Ron glass does some of his best acting on that episode.
Yeah this season was definitely the darkest of the series. Cannot wait to see what you have to say about the last season.
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think “Contempt (II),” however memorable, is too fundamentally big and narratively atypical for BARNEY MILLER to be an accurate reflection of its strengths, while “Rachel” is the opposite — easily the year’s best ambassador for the series’ trademark asset: realism suggested via character by way of recognizable continuity. Accordingly, I don’t think there’s much competition between them.
As for “Liquidation,” I am, in general, a fan of Glass’ work, but I think his performance in this episode is indeed part of the reason it feels overly contrived by this era’s standards.
Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on Season Eight!
I couldn’t help but crack a smile at your comment about the laudable continuity inherent in the series bringing back the same actress to play Rachel Miller six seasons after her most recent previous appearance. The comment is an ironic one considering that, for all of BARNEY MILLER’s efforts at maintaining realism, the biggest suspension of realism that the viewer must concede with this show is that the likes of Phil Leeds, Kenneth Tigar, Peggy Pope, Philip Sterling, et. al. keep reappearing in the squad room as different characters every season.
Also, regarding Dorsey, I consider his character to be the biggest swing-and-miss of any of the show’s attempts to shoehorn in a new regular member of the squadroom (such as Wentworth and Battista). His first appearance presents him in an immediately adversarial role, and he never comes close to shedding that extreme level of unlikability. A show cannot abide by such an unlikable regular character who is not written or portrayed as funny. Dorsey was not intended as a humorous character in any way, so he added absolutely nothing — and by Season 7, the viewers had established such a high comfort level with the Precinct 12 regulars, that the prospect of an outsider being offered as a new every-week regular who might disrupt the cherished dynamics of the squadroom was not welcome at all.
Fortunately, the BARNEY MILLER showrunners had the good sense to realize they had a dud on their hands, and cut their losses by quickly and quietly scuttling Dorsey completely — a decisive move that the producers of THE OFFICE failed to execute in similar situations.
Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.
That’s right; BARNEY MILLER picks and chooses its continuity — just like every show that feels the need to regularly telegraph awareness to the audience. It’s always going to be a *qualified* self-selected awareness and that’s one of the reasons why I typically take the approach of celebrating attention to detail when it’s there but not deducting figurative points when it’s not (outside of a few rare exceptions that trigger some other shortcomings, particularly a lack of behavioral consistency). It’s a fool’s errand to demand more.
Even with BARNEY MILLER, which sets realism as a standard by which it wants to be judged, you’ll notice that I opt to be generous, because I fundamentally don’t expect a lot within this genre and consider such peripheral cleverness less important than other more foundational necessities. In fact, when determining success here, my litmus test is fairly simple: do I believe what’s happening? Thus, with regard to my comment about the casting in “Rachel,” I was merely recognizing one of the choices that makes my answer for that episode an easy “yes.”
As for Dorsey, I don’t so much mind that the character is unlikable (and I’m not intrinsically opposed to a new regular infiltrating the core ensemble); rather, I think he has so little personality for someone whom the show wants to narratively contrast against the other leads for laughs and drama. This makes everyone else come across as broad while he comes across as bland — a lose-lose scenario that’s existential because nobody avoids the consequences.