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 Miller, MAX GAIL as Wojo, RON GLASS as Harris, JACK SOO as Yemana, and STEVE LANDESBERG as Dietrich. With ABE VIGODA as Fish, RON CAREY as Levitt, and JAMES GREGORY as Luger.
Any season that follows such an obvious peak is going to pale in comparison, and Four’s disruption of Three’s status quo feels like the guiding point of discussion. Not only does the year lose Fish to his ill-rendered spin-off, forfeiting one of the series’ most iconic figures and a reliable supplier of laughs, it also displays a continued drift away from the early seasons’ multi-cam theatricality for a product that’s still similarly staged, but gradually forgets the energy, pacing, and comic directive typical of this guffaw-encouraging format, which misses having a live audience. Also, as an idea-driven series where procedural trappings often pull narrative focus and motivate the biggest reactions, the dwindling novelty of Four’s episodic storytelling compared to previous years’ ensures that it doesn’t quite reach the heights that helped make Three’s classics so classic, as plots are now growing more familiar and/or occasionally contrived… And yet, if Four is unable to match Three’s balanced baseline, it’s also adopting more of the traits for which Barney Miller is best known, with the series’ unique strengths — realism suggested via character, thanks to a quiet dramatic continuity — and more of last year’s funny newbies, Levitt and Dietrich, all becoming more pronounced. To wit, Four’s strongest suit is how its leads increasingly aid desired realism, for while, again, this is still an idea-driven show where regulars tend to reside in subplots that spare them of personal conflicts and suppress big laughs so they don’t seem false (exceptions to both are notably great or awful — depends if reality is maintained), they do become more personalized, and believable, with added continuity from, to use just one example, arcs like Harris’ attempt to locate an apartment — a runner that lasts half the year and even finds him staying with Dietrich. Now, that’s a small notion where the action occurs mostly off-camera, but it makes the show feel true to life and rewards viewers for paying attention, while, most importantly, reinforcing projected naturalism, which is the series’ most cherished attribute (believability) and a mounting benchmark for success. So, although this year doesn’t have Three’s gems, it’s got a lot of fine showings by Barney Miller’s standards, and in literally being peak-adjacent, it’s a strong collection, coming right before a season that’s a bit more complicated. But that’s for next week; in the meantime, my picks for Four…
01) Episode 59: “Good-Bye, Mr. Fish (II)” (Aired: 09/22/77)
Fish is in denial about his retirement.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Danny Arnold
Part II of the season’s opener, designed to give Abe Vigoda over to his spin-off, this is the first of only two outings this year with Fish, one of the series’ most iconic characters. It’s also Four’s only entry that includes the entire “dream team” — the fullest ensemble of players who all contribute to the show’s humor, while also benefiting (or at least not jeopardizing) its realism. That strength is evidenced here through Fish himself — in the nuanced, palpably human scene he shares with Barney prior to his retirement from the force, and in his departure from the series with a group goodbye that pushes relationships to the fore in a way that feels earned, and not extraneously sentimental. Also, this is one of Four’s few scripts where a personal idea with a lead gets to anchor the A-story — a more rewarding design because it attaches comedic and dramatic value onto its primary asset, and deemphasizes episodic narrative concerns, which, as in this case, need to be deemphasized for realism’s sake. Larry Gelman and Florence Stanley guest.
02) Episode 60: “Bugs” (Aired: 09/29/77)
Recording devices are found hidden all over the squad room.
Written by Larry Balmagia, Dennis Koenig, & Tony Sheehan | Directed by David Swift
This amusing excursion is dominated by two procedural plots, but they’re both comic and generally believable — one featuring Mari Gorman (who’ll test later this year for a new regular spot; more below) as a mother of four who gets arrested while trying to prostitute herself for the first time, and the other an interoffice notion for the ensemble about an exterminator finding a different kind of bug all over the precinct: recording devices. That gag is a little cutesy (bug vs. “bug”), predicting a trend throughout this season in which the straining storytelling as it pertains to the weekly cases pushes too hard to comedically compensate for its oftentimes quieter, realism-driven character work. But, thankfully, the plot’s serious implications provide a weight that keeps it appropriate for these regulars and this series. Robert Costanzo appears.
03) Episode 63: “Copy Cat” (Aired: 10/27/77)
A man is committing crimes as seen on TV while Wojo finally passes his exam.
Written by Douglas Wyman & Tony Sheehan | Directed by Jeremiah Morris
The A-story about a man committing crimes as seen on TV is a comic idea that’s always a hit, whether it’s on Barney Miller or Car 54. Yet what makes this installment really worth celebrating are the leads’ subplots — not only the stuff with Harris searching for an apartment (continuing the thought suggested in the preceding entry), but also with Wojo finally passing his exam (fifth time’s the charm): an impersonal personal story. That is, it’s about and motivated by the job, but indicative of who he is as a humorous but believable character. So, this is a well-balanced offering and a great showcase of Four’s specific aesthetic. John Dullaghan appears.
04) Episode 65: “Chase” (Aired: 11/17/77)
Wojo crashes a taxi in a chase while Scanlon has one of his minions go undercover.
Written by Danny Arnold, Reinhold Weege, & Tom Reeder | Directed by Jeremiah Morris
Although I appreciate the story where Wojo crashes a cab on a chase because it puts one of the leads in the (literal) driver’s seat of a procedural idea that’s nevertheless personally revealing, I must admit that I most enjoy this episode for the return of George Murdock’s Lt. Scanlon, an antagonistic force who can create job-related drama that’s simultaneously rooted in his well-established depiction, thereby allowing the series to use character to reinforce the premise in story. Yes, his broadness makes him best in small doses (due to the series’ high standards regarding realism), but the show knows this. Luis Avalos and George Loros also appear.
05) Episode 69: “The Bank” (Aired: 01/05/78)
A man is brought in for raising a ruckus at a sperm bank that allowed his specimen to “go bad.”
Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Noam Pitlik
If there’s any doubt that Barney Miller is an idea-driven series that predicates the bulk of its comedy and drama on story related to the premise but not the characters, I’ll point to “The Bank,” with the overly clever idea of a man being upset to learn that his deposit at a sperm bank has “gone bad” — a funny and slightly taboo (then novel) comic idea that enables easy jokes and exists as one of this year’s most memorable. However, I’m happy to say that’s not all there is to this offering, for with more of Harris’ apartment quest, some great laughs from Dietrich, and the inclusion of the enjoyable Luger, there’s enough character support in the periphery to make this a satisfying half hour. Sandy Sprung, Peter Jurasik, and John La Motta appear.
06) Episode 70: “The Ghost” (Aired: 01/12/78)
The cops arrest a man who claims to be haunted by a ghost.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Lee Bernhardi
Kenneth Tigar is back for this, the series’ first obvious attempt to replicate the success of last year’s “Werewolf,” where a kook also played by Tigar similarly believed that he was another supernatural being. Because it’s always a funny idea with a funny performer, the entries that adhere to this template are all candidates for these lists, even though none are as strong as the original, which was not only fresher in its episodic A-story but also had some fine character stuff in the subplot. Fortunately, this installment can boast some of the latter too, courtesy of the next development in Harris’ apartment arc: he’s finally moved in with Dietrich. And more than the other procedural ideas (like the erotic cake and the green card drama), it’s for these incidental character bits that this is a worthwhile addition to this list and our rhetorical study. Other guests include Nehemiah Persoff, Titos Vandis, and Caroline McWilliams.
07) Episode 73: “Eviction (I)” (Aired: 02/02/78)
Barney is ordered, against his will, to evict the tenants of a condemned hotel.
Teleplay by Tony Sheehan & Tom Reeder | Story by Tom Reeder | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This two-parter is not as funny as the best of this season’s output, but I appreciate it for claiming a procedural story — the cops having to evict tenants in a condemned hotel — that puts its lead character, Barney, in the center of the drama with a motivated inner dilemma: he doesn’t want to throw these people out on the street, even though it’s his job. Now, this is sort of a routine plot for a cop series with a humanistic bent — the moral gray area where the law is pitted against one’s personal ethics — but such explicitness is a rarity for Barney Miller and more potent as a result. That said, nothing else here enthuses as much, including the exaggerated guest performances and the subplot with Dietrich falling for an amnesiac woman, which feels contrived. Also, unlike previous two-parters I’ve highlighted, I don’t find both halves of nearly equal value, for Part II thinks it’s dramatically important enough to leave the precinct for a scene, and it’s not; it’s gaudy and overwrought. Dave Madden is one of the guests.
08) Episode 76: “Quo Vadis?” (Aired: 03/02/78)
Barney’s wife worries after she learns he’s been shot.
Teleplay by Tony Sheehan | Story by Douglas Wyman & Tony Sheehan | Directed by Alex March
My pick for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Quo Vadis?” is easily the most memorable half hour of the season, with a boldness that many in Four lack, and/or fail to actually justify. In other words, instead of the bold ideas coming from the revolving procedural door of crooks, cases, and crimes — which have to somehow pair well with quieter character work in order to satisfy as a sample of Barney Miller — this entry goes for broke with a meaty A-plot for its star: Barney, who gets shot in the line of duty. It’s nothing serious — just his finger — but it speaks to the real danger of his job and the somewhat topical notions that scripts were more apt to explore in early years when discussing the difficulties inherent to this profession. Accordingly, although career-motivated, this series defines Barney by his career, rendering such drama more personal too, particularly with the long-awaited return of his wife Liz (Barbara Barrie), appearing for the first time since Two to forecast a largely off-camera arc about their separation. In fact, this and next year’s “Toys” are all we’ll ever see on-screen of the tension brewing between them because of this clash over the personal vs. the professional, or the series’ original thesis. Yet, this isn’t my MVE for merely being thesis-connected; it’s my MVE because of how it affirms the show’s intended realism, for by bringing back a former regular whom we know but haven’t seen in a while, there’s a depth of emotional history (with them and us) that elevates the believability of their combustion and produces a powerful dramatic response that’s a testament to the series’ continuity and its implied truth. As for the comedy, it comes largely from the procedural subplot involving an old woman and a nude painting, but it’s well-drafted and helps round out this notable, unforgettable outing. Okay, it’s not transcendent like “Hash,” but it’s a seminal display of Barney Miller. (Also, John Dullaghan appears again.)
09) Episode 77: “Hostage” (Aired: 03/23/78)
The precinct is held hostage, while a ventriloquist’s dummy is brought in for harassment.
Teleplay by Reinhold Weege | Story by Chris Hayward & Reinhold Weege | Directed by Hal Linden
Despite capping off the year’s Harris arc, which fleshed out his character and had fun with some mild serialization that brought personalizing continuity, this popular entry otherwise doesn’t bode well for the series’ interest in realism, for there’s a disconcerting broadness to the comic ideas — like the subplot with the ventriloquist’s dummy — and also to the dramatic ideas, with another hostage situation that tries to balance the graveness of being held at gunpoint with the manic foolishness of the guest character and the genre’s ensured outcome. More succinctly: this feels like a Night Court, where reactions trump reality, and indeed, it’s written by Reinhold Weege, who’s not only suggesting his future series, but also what we might expect next week with Five (when he graduates from Story Editor to Producer). Oh, and this is one of the three with Mari Gorman as a new cop, Licori; she’s better defined than her distaff predecessors, but the big style of playing also makes her not an ideal mainstay. Oliver Clark and Alix Elias guest.
10) Episode 78: “Evaluation” (Aired: 05/04/78)
The cops await evaluations from Barney while a mom-and-pop porn shop is vandalized.
Written by Larry Balmagia | Directed by Noam Pitlik
With a jokey procedural yarn about a mom-and-pop porn shop being vandalized by the couple’s disapproving kids sitting surprisingly comfortably alongside a relatable interoffice story where the staff is nervous ahead of their evaluations, this outing manages to add enough personal support from the leads to enliven what are otherwise two job-related ideas, one of which is guest-led and indicative of some of the heightened, too-clever falseness that’s been sneaking into this year’s plots. So, it’s not a perfect showing — Gorman continues to grate, and, as with the two offerings directly above, we miss the absent Yemana (stay tuned…) — but it is an affable example of Season Four. Kay Medford, Richard Libertini, and Garn Stephens appear.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Wojo’s Problem,” which has a great, personal A-story with Wojo but a particularly aggressive use of Gorman’s Licori, “Atomic Bomb,” which has two big, broad ideas that are memorable, but don’t offer enough support from the regulars for this era, and “Blizzard,” a tight ensemble show with several funny ideas (but not as much character fare). Other interesting offerings of lesser quality include: “Appendicitis,” which has an unmotivated but centralizing A-story with Yemana and some overly cute procedural ideas that feel false, “Inauguration,” which deploys a real-life development to find a mild interpersonal conflict related to Harris’ fate on the force, “Tunnel,” where small character beats compensate for mediocrity elsewhere, and “Good-Bye, Mr. Fish (I),” the first Fish-less half of the two-parter discussed above.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Barney Miller goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!