Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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.
Barney Miller went into its eighth season tentatively, having lost its longtime producer Tony Sheehan, the only scribe who had been able to serve as a proxy Danny Arnold in the writers’ room by maintaining Arnold’s primary tenet — realism, implied via character through recognizable continuity and a rejection of behavioral extremes. Sheehan was felled by a difficult seventh season that revealed the mounting story issues accompanying an idea-driven design that itself was created by the unwavering realism crusade, inevitably leading to a drought of ideas and an overcompensating form of hyper-naturalism that only exacerbated the problem (and made the year palpably dark). With his announced departure, there was talk of ending the series outright, but Arnold agreed to allow Sheehan’s protégés, Frank Dungan and Jeff Stein, to try their hand, with the hope that they would sustain Barney Miller’s believability — preferably with more creative success and a little less melancholia. Well, this decision turned out to be fine, not because the new head scribes were able to halt what had been an inevitable trajectory since Season One — no, in fact, this year has more remakes than its predecessor and is easily the least original collection of episodes from the entire run, with a sense of rote that depicts the series as especially tired. But, actually, it’s fine because their scripts are able to keep the show’s basic command on truth, going for laughs with more frequency — sometimes in bigger stories, many of them more personal (because the figurative well of procedural ideas is dry) — while avoiding the gratuitous darkness that seeped into Seven. Okay, yes, by going for laughs and centralizing the leads more, Eight isn’t as real — there are moments that feel false, many of them in one of the year’s chosen arcs: Luger’s mail order fiancée, a gaggy notion that seems too big for this series and doesn’t take advantage of his character’s main function as a comic nuisance to others, putting him alone in a narrative spotlight that emphasizes contrivance — but there’s enough innate downplaying to yield an evenness that makes any wrong note sound more rare than representative, suggesting a respectable swan song without a major erosion in quality. That is, Barney Miller’s eighth year is not in as bad a shape as most sitcoms are by this time, for apparent consistency keeps the show from bottoming out completely.
Consequently, however, when we talk about Barney Miller today, there’s a tendency to over-credit the final seasons’ decency, ignoring that a major decline has taken place. Indeed, for as much criticism as I leveled at the aesthetically imbalanced and comedically muted seventh season, the downturn is ongoing, and this year, while more likable and occasionally good (see: the Levitt arc), is often “meh” and never great. This should make sense — Barney Miller is an idea-driven series that lives and dies on the success of its ideas, so even though the year isn’t as unpleasantly harsh and unnecessarily naturalistic as the previous, there’s nothing that can cover for the fact that everything’s becoming less new and less exciting. Unsurprisingly, then, Arnold wouldn’t negotiate too hard with the network for a ninth year, because the fate of his series was obvious — things were only going to get worse; heck, even inside Eight there’s a progressive loss of steam. And yet, although this list is accordingly not an improvement over Seven’s (on the contrary!), the mitigated pessimism and additional chances to reaffirm relative solidity are enough to validate this season as a fitting end, ultimately beneficial to the series’ reputation. Also beneficial? Its 1982 Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy. Now, as regular readers know, I don’t put much stock in statues as a barometer of quality (let alone personal enjoyment), but I see this award as belated recognition for the series’ overall strength, and specifically during an era — the late ’70s — where it was great, but there was fiercer competition edging it out (deservedly or not). By 1982, the more lauded Taxi had faded a bit and there was finally room to posthumously credit a series that had been reliable and worthy of some honor, even if it wasn’t exactly the right time. Speaking of the right time, I’ll share my thoughts on the finale below, for I want to take these last few moments to say how glad I am to have covered Barney Miller, not only for the opportunity to wax rhapsodic about its blending of MTM and Lear ideals, but also because there are some very fine episodic samples (particularly in Season Three), and they have helped crystalize my view of this series’ place in the genre, providing more of an appreciation for it and all the others that have come up as reference points in our coverage.
01) Episode 149: “Paternity” (Aired: 10/29/81)
Wojo faces a paternity suit while a beauty queen is robbed.
Written by Nat Mauldin | Directed by Danny Arnold
Barney Miller’s final premiere — delayed, like last season, by another strike — is bold about centralizing Wojo in a personal A-story, as he’s hit with a paternity suit and then finds out it’s untrue because he’s sterile. This is an initially amusing notion with some dramatic heft, and although its emphasis on a non-job-based concern makes it not a fair ambassador for this or any season, the script — by Nat Mauldin, later of Night Court — is able to maintain truth, thanks both to the well-established Barney/Wojo friendship and some continuity supplied from details, like Wojo’s experience with Agent Orange. And while the procedural notions here are as bland as ever (a running theme in Eight), the teleplay itself is comedically elevated — to wit, the blow in the teaser is maybe my favorite Wojo joke of the entire series.
02) Episode 151: “The Car” (Aired: 11/12/81)
Wojo brings in a man who stole a car several decades ago while Harris has writer’s block.
Written by Nat Mauldin | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Despite having a somewhat affable procedural story about a car thief, this installment is most commendable for its more personal subplots, including Harris’ admission of writer’s block following his tiff with Barney, which began in the prior entry (cited below) and brings the kind of emotional continuity that this series prizes. There’s also the start of a job-related arc that actually grants some emotional depth to Levitt, as he heroically saves a boy from death. Meanwhile, Joe Regalbuto (later of Murphy Brown) plays an overzealous sanitation officer who gets so mad he fires a warning shot at a civilian. So, this is one of Eight’s most solid — both the professional and personal subplots are effective and enjoyable. Larry Gelman guests.
03) Episode 152: “Possession” (Aired: 11/19/81)
A man claims to be possessed by a demon, while a woman’s husband forces her into tight jeans.
Written by Tom Reeder & Roland Kibbee | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Kenneth Tigar’s last episode — this one — is, I must admit, more a reflection of this season’s troubles than its successes, for even though it tries to acknowledge its use of an unoriginal idea by making Tigar’s character the same guy from the formative “Werewolf,” thereby instilling a self-referential continuity that implies realism, both its lack of creativity and over-the-top broadness (which has increased every time we see him) are fairly off-putting, and I really only highlight it here because it’s memorable (next to “Werewolf,” I think this is Tigar’s most well-known appearance) and there’s no other example that would be as bold in evidencing Eight’s procedural story malaise and the unsuccessful attempts to disguise it. (Oh, and I’m certainly not highlighting “Possession” for its subplot, which is essentially one big fat joke — suitable perhaps for a shtickier series, but not Barney Miller.) Allan Miller and Susan Peretz also guest.
04) Episode 153: “Stress Analyzer” (Aired: 11/26/81)
Dietrich is hooked up to a stress analyzer while a woman wants to arrest her husband’s mistress.
Written by Nat Mauldin | Directed by Bruce Bilson
With an A-story featuring James Cromwell as a doctor who has Dietrich attached to a stress analyzer while out in the line of duty, this entry works in spite of its ostentatious core, which seeks false (and almost invalidating) “shmuck bait” jeopardy from Dietrich’s possible death at the end of its first act. Fortunately, the performances are uplifting, and the script doesn’t let that idea linger. Also, the subplots help bolster this half hour’s appeal — both the procedural notion with Phil Leeds, Florence Halop, and Dick Van Dyke‘s Ann Morgan Guilbert, and the personal story with Luger, who’s upset about the letters Barney wrote on his behalf to prospective mail-order brides. Now, as mentioned above, I don’t like that last arc — it’s more contrived than the series’ standard and too often puts Luger in the center, when he’s best as a comic foil for the other, more believable leads — but this is the high point, for here it is about his relationship with a lead (namely, Barney), making it the storyline’s most rewarding beat.
05) Episode 155: “Homeless” (Aired: 12/17/81)
The precinct is overrun with homeless people during the holidays.
Written by Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein & Jordan Moffet | Directed by Lee Lochhead
One of the year’s more fondly remembered outings, this — the series’ third and final Christmas affair — is not one of my favorites, with a sense of familiarity that doesn’t distinguish it as well as others on this list (not to mention the two prior holiday shows in this category). I’m also not as enthused as some fans are about the re-introduction of Mari Gorman, this time as the wife of recurring Bruno Bender (Stanley Brock) — I think she plays too broad for the series’ ethos… That said, this entry is a testament to Barney Miller’s roster of recurring players (like Don Calfa), and the basic humanity in its treatment of social issues, such as homelessness, which yields a series-affirming sensitivity that’s always attractive. David Clennon also appears.
06) Episode 156: “The Tontine” (Aired: 01/07/82)
The last two members of a tontine are ready to die for the other to collect.
Teleplay by Nat Mauldin | Story by Dick Wesson & Nat Mauldin | Directed by Homer Powell
A tontine is an archaic form of life insurance in which a group of people (usually family) put money into one big pool that eventually goes to the sole survivor. It’s an interesting, unique concept that informs this offering’s main conflict, as one of the last two members of a tontine is hoping to die so the other, his cousin, can get the payoff — an idea that provides both drama and comedy and intersects nicely with a subplot about a kook CPR instructor and his dummy (it’s big and broad, but reserved for a guest, so it doesn’t infiltrate the leads or affect our ability to believe what’s happening). Meanwhile, there’s movement in Levitt’s job-related personal arc, as he brings in witnesses on his behalf in the hopes that his heroism from “The Car” will earn him a Medal of Valor — a terrific objective for his character, who has always been desperate for positive affirmation from his professional superiors. So, this is another well-rounded installment, and as a matter of fact, it’s probably the only one this year that not only boasts a commensurate supply of both truth and comedy (some loud, some quiet), but also does so within a memorable narrative package that claims a surprisingly original procedural idea, putting it above Eight’s overdone and/or bland competition, and rendering it an acceptable selection for this year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode) — one you’ll actually remember… favorably. Also, note that this story is co-credited to Dick Wesson (of Bob Cummings, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies), and its guests include Ivor Francis, Ian Wolfe, Jay Robinson, Jane Dulo, and Joseph V. Perry.
07) Episode 157: “Examination Day” (Aired: 01/14/82)
The detectives become patrolmen during examination day.
Written by Jordan Moffet | Directed by Gennaro Montanino
This underrated excursion finds the cops back in uniform for patrol duty when most of the officers downstairs (including Levitt) are taking their exams — an idea that allows for a little narrative variety, even if we’ve had plots like this before. But all that doesn’t matter much; it’s just pretext for a conflict between Barney and Luger, the latter of whom joins the precinct for the day and uses excessive force while making an arrest. Barney chews him out for this — a more heightened response than usual, but it’s motivated, both by the job-sparked scenario and what we know of Luger, whom we like but nevertheless recognize as a nuisance. And it’s a rich interpersonal drama that’s earned and believable because of his character — much like last year’s “Riot.” (Incidentally, I think the excessive force idea is relatively grand, so it works better with Luger than with Wojo, for whom it was employed back in Two and will be again, after this, in Eight’s “Inquiry.”) Jack Kruschen and Louis Giambalvo guest.
08) Episode 158: “The Clown” (Aired: 01/21/82)
Street clowns are being targeted while Levitt is disappointed when his Medal of Valor is denied.
Written by Sam Simon | Directed by Alan Bergmann
If Barney’s heightened anger in the above felt justified by the situation, his combustion here feels a little more forced, and, in general, this outing is not one of the year’s most favorable samples with regard to realism, as the comic procedural ideas — and there are several, the primary one involving clowns — is gaudy, with more convention and convenience evident both in conception and construction. However, Levitt’s Medal of Valor arc is resolved when he’s denied it — and, again, this is a stellar use of his character, speaking to his obvious objective and exploring him with more sincerity than he’s usually afforded. Additionally, I wanted to highlight this entry because it’s the lone contribution by The Simpsons’ Sam Simon (concurrently working on Taxi) whose style then was realer than the genre’s baseline but less real than Barney Miller’s. Walter Olkewicz, Howard Platt, Philip Bruns, J.J. Barry, and Michael Tucci appear.
09) Episode 166: “Altercation” (Aired: 04/09/82)
Harris punches Ripner while a mugging victim confesses her admiration for Barney.
Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Alan Bergmann
When I mentioned above that Eight loses steam, I meant it, for this episode follows a string of shows with dull, repetitive ideas that aren’t comedically or dramatically worthwhile enough to escape mediocrity. This one — from former producer Tony Sheehan, who contributed a few scripts in the back half of Eight, ahead of the finale — is the best from that period, with an A-story that’s personal, as Harris punches his nemesis Arnold Ripner (Alex Henteloff), the sleazy lawyer who sued him last season. As always, this display of continuity adds to Barney Miller’s realism, and in this case, it feels like the capper to that arc, which was the series’ defining use of Harris — making him the character most frequently put in peripheral personal plots and therefore one of its most valuable players. Todd Susman and Robert Pastorelli guest.
10) Episode 170: “Landmark (III)” (Aired: 05/20/82)
The officers are sad to learn they’ll be splitting up when the precinct closes.
Written by Tony Sheehan & Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein | Directed by Danny Arnold
Barney Miller’s three-part finale, stretched out over three long weeks, is falser than the rest of this season and the series, with a contrived ending that looks, frankly, like typical sitcom fare — reminiscent of Mary Tyler Moore’s overrated, maudlin farewell. It also doesn’t help that this segment turns both to a parade of recurring guests (too many to list) and a handful of clips when cementing its BIG-TIME finality — as these are both devices that imply genre-based artifice and thus seem antithetical to Barney Miller. However, conventions exist because, for most viewers, they work. And for a show like this, which wants some kind of sincere emotional closure despite being a largely procedural endeavor that, for the most part, kept its personal ideas on the side, the closing of the precinct — the thing the leads actually shared: the space where they all did their jobs — is a satisfying conclusion. Plus, since finales are tough in general, I’m opting to be generous here, for this is not a great example of the series, and it’s not a great ender in comparison to others, but, like most of Barney Miller, it accomplishes its goals.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Chinatown (I)” and “Chinatown (II),” a memorable two-parter that I really expected to highlight in some capacity above. But Part II is fundamentally not what we want from Barney Miller — Scanlon’s return is directed towards harassing a mugging victim (Joanna Barnes) instead of the regulars, robbing his antagonism of an overarching comic value, while the A-story unnecessarily goes outside the precinct, heading to a hotel where Dietrich and Harris have been living together with an informant they’re protecting: an extraneous diversion that hits the jokes more forcefully than the series can handle, feeling like a total rejection of its ideals. (Remember when they lived together off-camera in Season Four but we only heard about it?) And then Part I, which is more indicative of what we expect from Barney Miller, is merely setup for Part II. So, I couldn’t come up with a good case to celebrate either half. As for other entries, all I’ll cite is “Advancement,” which launches Luger’s otherwise unfortunate mail-order bride arc with some laughs and claims a big clash between Barney and Harris that’s resolved in the following “The Car.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Barney Miller goes to…
Stay tuned next week for an announcement of what shows to expect here on Sitcom Tuesdays throughout the rest of 2021 — I know many of you will be happily surprised!
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