Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! 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 Miller, MAX GAIL as Wojo, RON GLASS as Harris, RON CAREY as Levitt, STEVE LANDESBERG as Dietrich, and JACK SOO as Yemana. With JAMES GREGORY as Luger.
Outside of Barney Miller’s first two years, where the series’ developing standards yield episodic results that don’t honor the reputation set by future seasons, I think Five is the least favorable ambassador for the show’s signature trait — realism. This is because, although the year ostensibly matches the last few — using peripheral narrative continuity with its leads to suggest truth, indeed finding some success therein (see: Barney’s separation, Harris’ mustache, Luger’s heart attack and fiancée, etc.) — Five doesn’t make strides like previous collections and doesn’t boast the same total commitment to truth that will define those upcoming. Realism thus seems less important to Five than most others, and though that’s likely unintentional, it is the byproduct of trends that the season is unable to mitigate, like a dwindling novelty within the show’s procedural story apparatus, which is concerning because, while the series nobly centralizes job-led plot to keep its leads from a spotlight that would naturally emphasize artifice, anything being spotlighted must also be fresh and funny, without being false, and that’s harder to maintain with time. And while this will continue to be a struggle, it’s incredibly glaring in Five, which is the most forceful in trying to push through and circumvent these woes, courtesy of guidance from its new producer, Reinhold Weege, who shares this duty (for the first and only season) with Tony Sheehan. We’ve talked about Weege’s style relative to the rest of this show — and also snuck a brief peek yesterday at the ’80s hit he created and ran, Night Court — to pinpoint how he’s heavier-handed than Barney Miller’s collective baseline with both drama, and especially comedy — often to a degree that strains credibility. Well, not only is his aesthetic presence evident here in the year’s procedural plots, which come from a comparatively wider variety of sources (including from freelancers, along with new staff writers Wally Dalton & Shelley Zellman, who share Weege’s broader attitudes), running the gamut of emotions more boldly than any season post-1975 — and even turning occasionally to didacticism as a dramatic tool. His ethos also appears in Five’s more traditional understanding of story via character.
That is, as in Night Court, this year most obviously pursues a more equitable episodic pairing of personal and professional plots in scripts, sometimes trying to merge the two for job-sparked but personally affecting A-stories. This is a complicated maneuver because we want the series’ prime asset — its believable leads — to be showcased, even though shoving them forward demands exposure that inherently exaggerates and makes them less believable, specifically at this juncture, when the series is toiling with creativity as well, relying more on previously used formula and generic sitcom clichés (see evidence of both below). Such an arrangement might work fine elsewhere, but these characters and this series, which associates merit with realism, doesn’t favor it, especially with writing that, per Weege’s slant, is more aggressive. Accordingly, while other years similarly try to find some narrative balance (or a blend), the “bull in the china shop” style of Five, no matter if it’s aiming for quiet dramatic sincerity, makes the episodes themselves uneven, with some parts working (remaining buyable while earning the intended response) and some parts not… particularly at the season’s limp-to-the-finish end, by which time Danny Arnold had suffered a heart attack that required him to further scale back his involvement. However, he isn’t the only loss felt this year, for Jack Soo finally succumbed to his illness, forcing Yemana to unceremoniously disappear after Five’s first nine episodes. Now, Soo’s departure isn’t the end of quality, but everyone here is helpful, and losing him makes this year, and those following, lesser than the ones that had him, both in terms of comedy and peripheral narrative opportunity… That said, despite this relatively critical appraisal of Five, its inconsistency (even within single episodes) and loudness (even when attempting quiet) can make for more memorable samples than most years of Barney Miller, and though I personally don’t have any that I find on par with the peak of Three, which was also bold but under an aesthetic modulation that this season, and these scripts, can’t replicate, there are some fascinating half hours that I, too, have come to enjoy and consider among this series’ finest.
01) Episode 83: “The Search” (Aired: 09/21/78)
A woman searches for her biological father while Harris is forced to shave.
Teleplay by Tony Sheehan & Bob Colleary | Story by Bob Colleary | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Although the procedural A-story with Jenny O’Hara as a woman searching for her biological father (Bruce Kirby) is the star of this teleplay, bringing heavy drama that’s in line with this season’s boldness but a little sincerer than its baseline, this entry is actually most laudable for the subplot where Harris is forced to don drag for mugging duty, which requires him to shave his beloved mustache. It’s a gaudier idea than most prior personal subplots, but Harris is defined as a gaudier character than his cohorts, and this job-sparked bit takes advantage of his characterization for some affable laughs that are motivated by what we know of him. In this regard, the storytelling is more traditional, but at least it’s believable too.
02) Episode 88: “Loan Shark” (Aired: 11/02/78)
Yemana feels unappreciated while Harris brings in a teenage loan shark.
Teleplay by Tony Sheehan | Story by Judith Anne Nielsen, Richard William Beban, Mario Roccuzzo, & Bob Colleary | Directed by Noam Pitlik
With a procedural story that allows for a lecture from Harris to a teenage loan shark (Larry B. Scott) and a personal plot starring Yemana that’s indicative of the more generic and unimaginative workplace storytelling creeping into the year, this installment would not seem to be a commendable display of Season Five and its trends. However, because it’s the penultimate appearance of Jack Soo’s Yemana, this episode takes on some added meaning, and it indeed stands out as one of the year’s most amenable samples, honoring Soo while he’s still there to enjoy it. And, ultimately, all of the intended reactions are earned.
03) Episode 89: “The Vandal” (Aired: 11/09/78)
The precinct is vandalized and suspicion falls on Levitt.
Written by Tony Sheehan & Dennis Koenig | Directed by Noam Pitlik
One of the more pleasant developments of Season Five that we’ve not yet discussed concerns Levitt, who gets to participate more in the comedic subplots, and, given this year’s conception of how story should be structured, sometimes A-plots too — like in this procedural notion that nevertheless involves the regular ensemble because the precinct has been trashed, and Barney suspects Levitt, who was supposed to be on duty. This is not entirely plausible — it’s a conventional sitcom yarn, stretching truth — but Levitt’s character can handle broader fare better than most, and with a jokey subplot about a TV executive and the first of two guest appearances by future Taxi regular Christopher Lloyd, all parts of this whole are comedically fueled and equally successful. (Also, this is the last entry with Yemana, not counting the clip show at year’s end, which isn’t a comparable example of sitcommery that can be highlighted.)
04) Episode 90: “The Harris Incident” (Aired: 11/30/78)
Harris is mistaken for a suspect and shot at by cops.
Written by Reinhold Weege, Wally Dalton, & Shelley Zellman | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This and “Voice Analyzer” are Season Five’s two most memorable half hours, both offering glimpses of the year’s Weege-ian bent, pushing for stronger reactions sometimes at the expense of truth. Honestly, I wish I found this segment — which won the series its first Emmy Award (Noam Pitlik received the honors for his directing) — more truthful, but I think it’s uneven, for while using a job-related narrative with Lear-ian social relevance about Harris’ identity both as a cop and a Black man is a rich source of premise-rooted and character-based drama, Barney Miller’s standards of realism make it difficult right now for any lead to be spotlighted in this way, as this kind of big, unflinching interpersonal conflict chafes against the show’s typically quiet, low-concept sensibilities. And without some kind of continuity to support the rarity of this type of combustion, the episode has to rely on the social baggage associated with its topical story. Perhaps with a more sensitive teleplay, this would play better, but from these scripters, it doesn’t fully stick its landing, treating the white characters with more sincerity than Harris… And yet, with these criticisms registered, I also think you’ll remember this one more than most, at least as a demonstration of the series’ ongoing attempt at truth if nothing else — and among the only showings outside of peak Season Three with potential durability. An MVE contender; truly, I almost selected it. (Incidentally, Michael Lombard and Ed Peck appear.)
05) Episode 91: “The Radical” (Aired: 12/07/78)
The squad captures a wanted radical from the ’60s while Luger has chest pains.
Teleplay by Tony Sheehan | Story by Lee H. Grant | Directed by Noam Pitlik
I’m not thrilled about the heavy-handedness in both halves of this installment: the personal part where Luger has a heart attack, and the procedural part featuring a ’60s “radical” who invites some Lear-ian social commentary. (And that’s not even mentioning the C-story, which is little more than an excuse for a few fat jokes.) But it’s such an honest sample of how the season is turning to didacticism to aid its narrative cultivation, while also hoping the leads can share some of this responsibility — in this case, calling upon Luger, a reliable recurring player who always delivers, even if this idea-first notion aggrandizes him — that I couldn’t ignore it, especially when all parts have the same general qualities and land their big responses, keeping the half hour from being uneven. In other words, unlike many of the Honorable Mentions, which may reach higher highs, this whole entry works — and if it’s more heightened than usual, that’s simply the nature of this season. Corey Fischer, Stuart Pankin, and Craig Richard Nelson guest.
06) Episode 92: “Toys” (Aired: 12/14/78)
At Christmas, Barney deals with his estranged wife.
Teleplay by Tony Sheehan, Wally Dalton, & Shelley Zellman | Story by Wally Dalton & Shelley Zellman | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Barbara Barrie makes her final appearance as Liz in this, the centerpiece to the year’s separation arc, which technically began earlier in Five but had its seeds most obviously planted in Four’s “Quo Vadis?,” last week’s MVE, where Liz’s return precipitated a surprising catharsis that was an effective show of how the series’ continuity could be deployed for dramatic effect. “Toys” is not as successful, both because it’s not as fresh — we’re immediately comparing the episode to its predecessor — and also because it’s less bold. However, it’s still a testament to Barney Miller’s use of continuity to suggest realism, and with decent subplots that maintain the series’ desired sensibilities, this is able to sit as a strong, notable credit to Season Five.
07) Episode 93: “The Indian” (Aired: 01/04/79)
Wojo helps an American Indian, Harris tracks a foot fetishist, and Levitt seeks praise.
Teleplay by Reinhold Weege | Story by Judith Anne Nielsen, Richard William Beban, & Reinhold Weege | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Season Five’s unevenness is well on display in this installment, which goes for reverence in its didactic A-story about a Native American who wants to die in the park but, per Weege’s usual, is try-hard and unsubtle, lacking authenticity. Fortunately, there’s more to enjoy in the periphery, like a subplot with Alix Elias and a foot fetishist played by the amusing Phil Leeds — it only goes for laughs, but it clears that bar easily — and another where Levitt wants to be praised like Zitelli (Dino Natali), a nice runner for the offering that utilizes a lead character believably and without too much force. So, the B and C-plots make up for the A. Also, Richard Stahl guests.
08) Episode 94: “Voice Analyzer” (Aired: 01/11/79)
Lt. Scanlon investigates the precinct with help from a lie detector.
Teleplay by Reinhold Weege & James Bonnet | Story by James Bonnet | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Even more than “The Harris Incident,” this is Five’s most memorable sample, and therefore my choice for the year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode), as it also reveals Weege’s broader, less nimble style and the effect this has on the series’ crusade for a more all-encompassing realism… but in a far less dramatic or socially conscious direction, which makes it easier to be an unqualified success. Oh, yes, there’s a soap box bit at the end — typical of most excursions with the antagonistic Lt. Scanlon (George Murdock) — yet the emphasis here is on comedy, putting its leads in an A-story that’s job-related, but really a chance to show off their individual characterizations. I appreciate this design, and to the teleplay’s credit, this is one of those rare instances where the increased exposure doesn’t harm them. Of course, that’s mostly because it’s got the larger-than-life Scanlon around to carry the heavy-lifting, along with a sitcom cliché — the lie detector — that might have been more novel and interesting in 1979, but is always going to be a gaudy idea-led story propellant, representing the year’s narrative desperation accurately. That said, Season Three’s iconic “Hash” also was launched by a cliché that surprisingly let the leads handle the comedic burden, and while “Voice Analyzer” isn’t as exclusively situated on the regulars as that aforementioned gem (although the Dietrich scene is a classic, and probably a chief contributor to why it’s MVE), the comparison is well-deserved and reiterates that this outing comes the closest outside of the series’ peak to being one of its transcendent gems, slightly beating out the nobler but more strained “The Harris Incident.” (Barry Pearl appears.)
09) Episode 99: “The Counterfeiter” (Aired: 02/08/79)
Harris pursues a counterfeiter while Luger seeks advice after his heart attack.
Written by Reinhold Weege, Frank Dungan, & Jeff Stein | Directed by Max Gail
Luger returns after his heart attack for this installment that not only takes advantage of this continuity, but offers James Gregory some of his funniest material of the series (next to the uneven “The Prisoner”). And the rest of this segment is solid too, including procedural stories that feature strong character actors: Bob Newhart’s Jack Riley as a man who’s against his wife’s recent plastic surgery, and J. Pat O’Malley as an eponymous counterfeiter. Also, this is the first script co-credited to the team of Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein, who’ll become important scribes throughout the series’ last three years, making this something of a forecast of what’s to come…
10) Episode 100: “Open House” (Aired: 02/15/79)
The precinct holds a community open house while Barney prepares to move back home.
Written by Tony Sheehan, Wally Dalton, & Shelley Zellman | Directed by Noam Pitlik
There are Honorable Mentions below with moments that shine brighter than this whole outing, but the year’s troubling unevenness makes it difficult to celebrate them. This episode, from Five’s lame final stretch, is at least more consistent, with an original narrative — that’s unique for the series but still believable — in which the precinct is visited by a group of vagrants (including Ray Brewer, who debuts here, played by John Dullaghan), providing laughs and an ample amount of humanity. Also, this entry both wraps up Barney’s separation arc as he prepares to move back home and enjoys another guest turn from the funny Christopher Lloyd.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Accusation,” which gives Dietrich some fine moments but is too fixated on a guest who’s not entirely buyable (and in a story that the show struggles to make amusing), “The Prisoner,” which throws Luger some of his most comedic material of the season, but is saddled with other more contrived notions, “Dog Days,” which introduces Barney’s separation and has fun continuing Harris’ mustache arc (if only it didn’t have that clichéd A-story!), and “Graveyard Shift,” which is a basically solid entry that has to weather some overused ideas (see: “succubus”). Meanwhile, of lesser quality but equal note are the year’s two-part premiere, “Kidnapping (I & II),” which is too dominated by its guests to be a worthwhile representation of Season Five, and two outings only good for their comic subplots, “The Baby Broker,” which lets Ron Carey’s Levitt clown, and “Identity,” in which Harris and Dietrich make a routine sitcom idea enjoyable. (Incidentally, I don’t like it, but I also want to mention “The Spy” for being like last year’s “Hostage” and a clear example of how Barney Miller Season Five feels like Night Court. Oh, and before you ask, no, I’m not fond of the backdoor pilot featuring Wojo off-duty either; it’s stale with overdone ideas.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Barney Miller goes to…
Come back next week for Season Six and a new Wildcard Wednesday!