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 ABE VIGODA as Fish. With RON CAREY, STEVE LANDESBERG, and JAMES GREGORY.
The third season of Barney Miller is the precise intersection of the show’s individual strengths and the genre’s required strengths — the year where the series can finally show off its trademark realism, best evidenced in believable true-to-life leads, while simultaneously reaching comedic heights in episodic triumphs that exceed other years and even other sitcoms. It’s no surprise that such a convergence would make for the series’ best season, especially because, just as with The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s best (its fourth, 1973-’74), Three is the only year that claims what I’d call the “dream team” — the regular or recurring use of every character who is beneficial to the series and its quality, and thereby necessary for a comprehensively favorable understanding of Barney Miller. This happens largely because the year goes in having dropped Two’s least valuable players — the undefined Chano, the hard-to-use Liz, and the overly theatrical and thus not buyable Wentworth (as Linda Lavin left for Alice) — and then replaces them with Ron Carey’s Levitt and Steve Landesberg’s Dietrich, both of whom are comedically bolder yet more clearly, consistently depicted than any of their predecessors were upon introduction, allowing them to capably integrate into the previously established ensemble without much fuss. (You’ll note that I’m excluding from this discussion the attempted Wentworth replacement played by June Gable because the series self-corrects after just two mediocre appearances.) Season Two deserves a lot of credit here, for remember, there was a lot of positive and, frankly, necessary development afforded to the remaining regular characters near the end of the previous year, when Harris and Wojo, in particular, made lengthy strides, thanks to the cultivation of pinpointable comic perspectives alongside trackable emotional continuities, rendering them both funnier and more believable, ready to share the comic burden with the forces who had previously been carrying the load (outside of procedural plot) — like the recurring Luger (who appears more this season than any other, tied with Four), the joke-based Yemana, and the cast’s most traditionally defined purveyor of laughs, Fish, who was being readied for a greenlit spin-off that would premiere in February 1977 and precipitate his eventual departure from Barney Miller.
Now, Fish gets a mixed reception these days — and his self-titled spin-off is rough (largely due to a bad premise) — for his broader persona and those corresponding yuks are sometimes a threat to this show’s burgeoning realism. However, he’s an iconic figure — the Rhoda of Barney Miller — more seminal to the popular conception of this series than most, and, for that reason, I think any season that we’d seek to call its best — its peak — has to reconcile in some way with his presence. Fortunately, Three does, and actually benefits the most from his inclusion, for Two’s work has made it possible to democratize the ensemble’s comedy, leaving his gaggier persona not only less jarring within a cast that better resembles him, but also indeed less gaggy, because he’s no longer forced to overcompensate. In turn, he’s less false than before, and is able to exist, like everybody now, as a character who can bring laughs and substantiate the realism the series is already using to distinguish itself — or at the very least, he’s not counteracting it anymore, for everyone else has elevated and he can fall back, adding without subtracting. That is, thanks to Two’s efforts — and the aforementioned congregation of a cast that’s swapped its duds for already well-polished gems — Barney Miller is finally able to boast what we, in our adjudication of the series as a whole, see as its prime asset: believability via character. And this both encourages, and is the result of, the leads participating more in each script — interacting more equitably in subplots that bring some personalization to an otherwise impersonal storytelling… To that point, it’s still important to reiterate that Danny Arnold’s Barney Miller is fundamentally idea-driven, for as discussed in our opening essay, he writes this sitcom as a procedural cop show where the A-story almost always involves a case, a guest, a topic. And while, yes, there’s more peripheral help in Three from the regulars who can better reside in worthwhile subplots by adding their emotional continuities to balance out any temporally aggrandizing notions (thereby maintaining the show’s grasp on realism by segregating irregularities), most of the headlining comedy and drama comes, as usual, from episodic ideas that are premise-connected, but independent of the well-defined leads.
A gander at the most popular entries on this list — “Hash,” “Werewolf,” “Quarantine” — will corroborate this description, for in each one, an idea is the propellant, not the regulars or their individual choices. This design maintains throughout the run, and even though there’s more support now compared to Two, and sure, future years will continue giving more weekly time to the leads in side runners, the main narrative attractions — with the biggest responses, particularly comedic — are generally divorced from said leads. This is, because, again, separating the regulars from big story is how Arnold keeps them real — shielding them from conflicts that would inherently emphasize extremes and possibly jeopardize truth. Accordingly, although Three’s increased use of its characters better reflects the series’ self-decided ideas of quality and we couldn’t call this the best year without them being more emotionally believable from continuities that intrinsically personalize them — which then allows comedy and drama to be more potent without having to resort to heavy didacticism — the year’s outsized triumphs, especially comedic, are almost exclusively linked with the value of narrative ideas, the majority of which are procedural and built around guests. To that end, one of the major reasons the following years end up not as funny, despite buttressing their idea-led job-based storytelling with more character support in the periphery, is because of dwindling novelty in premise-related plots. In other words, the revolving door of cases, guests, and topics becomes less fresh as the series goes along, and it therefore becomes less effective. Heck, there will be later years that plainly recycle ideas, turning to templates of past victories (like “Werewolf”) in the hopes of replicating the successes achieved here. And while the show’s relationship with its comedy will ebb and flow — more on that in the weeks ahead — never again are the plots as creative as they are in Three, the only year in which the show’s character work and the novelty of its procedural story machine are in commensurately good shape, and in alignment with a peak ensemble that’s both real and funny, capable of supporting, or existing around, narratives that are the same.
In fact, this is the only time in our eight-week Barney Miller coverage that my list is filled with entries that are competitive with what other contemporaneous sitcoms would posit as their best. Similarly, this is the only year where I think Barney Miller is actually a contender for the best sitcom on the air, representing its own standards and the genre’s standards at a remarkably high level, proving that it deserves to be here, not just for the rhetorical opportunities it provided a few weeks ago, but also because it’s just as enjoyable as the cream of 1976-’77’s crop… Now, with that said, not every episode is a winner — for instance, the Fish shows where they set up his spin-off with those obnoxious kids (one of whom is Denise Miller) are unfunny and narratively misplaced, while offerings that are too exclusively focused around their procedural notions, with not enough personal (or semi-personal) moments for the regulars, fail to satisfy, for we now have a baseline anticipating that they be well-featured, even if incidentally. Meanwhile, this new gem-making baseline also asks for a basic minimum of humor, and it’s because future years will not be as consistently able to institutionalize this — once the series loses a few of its funnier players and instead emphasizes its desired realism through an elevated continuity that flatters our understanding of the writing and speaks to its strengths, but simultaneously comes at the exclusion of much comedy, which now has to try to exist more squarely in a procedural apparatus that either has to work overdrive to keep up or intentionally mute itself so it doesn’t distract from the sincerity of the leads and their more developed, but quieter, and less exciting humor — that it’s fair to say Barney Miller will never again be as regularly laugh-out-loud funny as Season Three, where everything is well-modulated. But don’t take it from me; the episodes below make a better case for this year’s superiority than I ever could, and I have picked the ten that I think exemplify this year’s finest — the best of Barney Miller’s best.
01) Episode 38: “Quarantine (II)” (Aired: 10/07/76)
The cops and civilians are quarantined overnight in the precinct.
Written by Danny Arnold & Tony Sheehan | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Cited above as an example of a popular entry that nevertheless displays the series’ idea-driven design, this two-parter has the regulars (along with Luger and Marty & Driscoll) being forced to quarantine together in the precinct — a plot device beyond their control or the decisions they make, and therefore not one we can call character-led. However, this idea naturally demands a heightened degree of character interaction, in an intimately theatrical way, and by turning the professional space into a more personal one, when they’re required to stay together overnight, it ends up being more personally revealing as well. This makes for a terrific study of how Season Three is using (and goes in able to use), its primary characters more often on a weekly basis, and in this case — as one of the series’ all-time greats during its greatest season — actually produce a few outings where much of the comedy comes from them. That’s a rarity, and, as with both of the year’s two-parters, the non-highlighted half is worth your time too (see the Honorable Mentions below). Oh, and also, note that this is the debut of Ron Carey as Officer Levitt!
02) Episode 41: “Werewolf” (Aired: 10/28/76)
A man claims to be a werewolf while the cops get inoculations.
Teleplay by Danny Arnold & Tony Sheehan & Reinhold Weege & Seymour Blicker | Story by Seymour Blicker & Tony Sheehan | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This is one of the two episodes that I often see labeled as Barney Miller’s best, next to “Hash” (discussed below), which transcends the series while “Werewolf” exists more easily within it as an ambassador. That is, “Werewolf” is better evidence of a typical showing, along with my thesis that Barney Miller does not often enough centralize its characters through story, for this entry’s main attraction is a procedural plot where Kenneth Tigar plays a man who thinks he’s a werewolf. That’s a kooky, comic idea that has nothing to do with the leads — it’s just a funny notion for a guest who gets big laughs by being audacious. Yet that’s what Arnold wants, and in fact, the success of this offering creates something of a future template: a bizarre person comes in, claims to be some supernatural force/being, and the extreme characterization (often played by Tigar) gets to spark absurd guffaws without corrupting the leads’ low-concept authenticities. But it’s never again as fun as in “Werewolf” because it’s never as fresh — a point that also speaks to why Three is stronger (especially comedically) than those that follow… And yet, what really makes this installment a classic in my eyes is the subplot where Harris flirts with the nurse giving inoculations — here, the year is showing off its finally excellent character work, which balances out the gimmick of the main narrative. So, all around, this is a great, seminal representation of Barney Miller. Janet MacLachlan, Queenie Smith, and Jon Lormer also appear.
03) Episode 45: “Christmas Story” (Aired: 12/23/76)
At Christmas, a man throws a toy through a store window while Yemana falls for a hooker.
Written by Tony Sheehan & Reinhold Weege | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Christmas is the unifying theme of this solid excursion that isn’t on par with this list’s surrounding classics, but is worth highlighting because of the increased dimension afforded to Yemana, a typically jokey character who seldom gets to do much in story, making this something of a rarity. Additionally, Luger’s on hand to goose the laughs (always a plus), and, in general, there’s an appealing warmth that makes this professional space a bit more personal.
04) Episode 46: “Hash” (Aired: 12/30/76)
Wojo unknowingly brings pot-laced brownies into the precinct.
Written by Tom Reeder | Directed by Noam Pitlik
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Hash” isn’t just the strongest entry of the strongest season, it’s also the strongest entry of the entire series, with a reputation that’s transcended all the rest, frequently popping up on “best-of lists” in the decades since it first aired. That’s because the comic idea driving its value — the regulars getting high off pot brownies — is a “can’t-miss” with strong performers who get to have fun heightening and inverting their personas since mind-altering substances can be a justification for anything. It’s often done with booze, but there are era-based alternatives. (Laura Petrie had pills, Latka had cocaine cookies, etc.) In the ’70s, marijuana shows up more, for it was the “taboo” drug du jour, and though that may seem clichéd to us in 2021, that’s only because it’s been copied so often and always tends to work, for again, the idea can’t miss: the leads get to do things they wouldn’t, with an easy motivation that’s idea-driven but universally understood. Joyfully, Barney Miller embraces it with open arms and “Hash” has thus come to stand out as the quintessential usage of this narrative trope. Also, more importantly, it’s a welcome surprise to see it employed on a show whose comedy is generally more reserved, making this easily the funniest sample of a series that we tend to enjoy for other reasons but still want to laud as a comedy… Yet if that explains why “Hash” is so popular, that doesn’t explain why I’d argue that it’s Barney Miller’s best. The reason it’s Barney Miller‘s best is because the bold comic idea emphasizes the regulars themselves, circumventing the traditional arrangement where the leads have to remain impervious to the guests’ heightened comic hijinks by, for once, letting them — this great cast — earn the big hahas in a narrative that doesn’t necessarily reveal more about them personally (it’s still an impersonal gag) but at least provides many with their individually funniest, most memorable material of the series (see: Yemana’s singing). This proves that Barney Miller can be uproariously funny without harming their realism, and, what’s more, it can do all this while pushing its leads to the narrative fore and not sparing them from the big reactions that story (even idea-led story) engenders. As such, this is the most perfect version of what Barney Miller can be — a height never again reached. (Also, Ed Peck and Michael Tucci appear.)
05) Episode 48: “Community Relations” (Aired: 01/13/77)
A blind shoplifter is arrested while Wojo is nervous about giving a public testimony.
Teleplay by Tony Sheehan & Larry Balmagia & Dennis Koenig | Story by Winston Moss & Tony Sheehan | Directed by Noam Pitlik
What most impresses about this outing is the qualitative (not quantitative) balance it strikes between its expected procedural stories and the more personal beats that are small, but pepper the action and buttress the laughs (like the conventional but amusingly believable subplot with Yemana and Harris). So, more than any other here, I think this offering reinforces how routine it’s becoming to play with the leads’ fine characterizations alongside the central narratives — a good show of Three’s excellence. Joseph V. Perry and Ralph Manza guest.
06) Episode 51: “Abduction” (Aired: 02/03/77)
Parents hope to free their daughter from a cult while Fish’s wife applies for a job.
Teleplay by Tony Sheehan & Reinhold Weege & Tom Reeder | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Although I’m not crazy about the Fish/Bernice subplot, which is an obvious hook to remind viewers of the upcoming premiere of Fish, the other character beats in the entry play well — Harris’ short story being published in an adult magazine and Yemana’s bookie wanting to be arrested. Those are funny ideas that take advantage of what we know of their depictions. Of course, that’s all secondary to the A-story, about parents kidnapping their daughter who has run off to join a cult led by a man dressed like Jesus — a comic idea typical of this era and, as usual, segmented away from the leads. Vivi Janiss, David Clennon, and Buddy Lester guest.
07) Episode 53: “Moonlighting” (Aired: 02/17/77)
Harris moonlights in hotel security and threatens his job on the police force.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Noam Pitlik
As Three’s only script credited solely to Reinhold Weege, the future Night Court creator whose tenure on Barney Miller is somewhat demarcatable, “Moonlighting” gives us a chance to check in and discuss his style, which is bolder than most of this series’ scribes, with more of an interest in centralizing character but less concern over what swings between comedy and drama will do to desired realism. Here, Weege channels many of his biggest laughs through the leads, like Dietrich — his first offering on this list — but contrasts them with a heavier subplot about Wojo and a mentally disabled boy: a jarring dichotomy. This might be disqualifying, if not for the A-story — yes, A-story! — where Harris gets another job, putting him in conflict with Barney in a way that’s professionally based, but more personal than usual, revealing a precise, unique comic perspective and illustrating how everyone could have benefited if the series pushed its leads more often in focused plot. John Dullaghan appears.
08) Episode 54: “Asylum” (Aired: 02/24/77)
Wojo arrests a Soviet diplomat for assaulting a musician who hopes to defect.
Teleplay by Danny Arnold & Roland Kibbee & Reinhold Weege & Tony Sheehan | Directed by Danny Arnold & Alex March
Admittedly, I struggled with whether a slot should be occupied by this segment or the similar “Sex Surrogate,” two memorable half hours that represent Season Three’s comic interests accurately but are both more narratively fixated on their mildly didactic weekly cases than the rest of this year’s finest, which benefit by having more support (even in their periphery) from the regulars. It was a tough choice, for while I love the work by Doris Roberts and Billy Barty in “Sex Surrogate,” and think the guests in “Asylum” overplay to the point that reality is nearly threatened, I ultimately believe the latter has a slightly better script, and with a little more help from the mainstays (Dietrich, specifically) and the recurring, always funny Marty, I give this one the slight edge, for it better exemplifies Three. David Clennon appears again.
09) Episode 55: “Group Home” (Aired: 03/10/77)
Yemana assists a bigoted army official while it’s Fish’s turn to don drag for mugging detail.
Teleplay by Danny Arnold & Tony Sheehan | Directed by Lee Bernhardi
Fish’s last episode in Season Three, this installment takes the opportunity to put him in drag again for the easy yuks that always come from this sight gag. But at least they land as intended and even almost compensate for the terrible inclusion of the kids from his spin-off, which is still cross-promoting. Thankfully, there’s a lot more to recommend though, including guest appearances from James Cromwell and Phil Leeds, a Roots subplot for Harris, and the return of George Murdock in a story where he plays a Scanlon-like antagonist (but not Scanlon) for a socially interesting story that helps prove, once again, Three’s got everyone we need.
10) Episode 57: “Strike (II)” (Aired: 03/31/77)
Barney, Luger, and Levitt stay on duty after the other cops go on strike.
Teleplay by Danny Arnold & Tony Sheehan & Reinhold Weege | Story by Larry Balmagia & Dennis Koenig | Directed by Danny Arnold
Season Three ends on a two-parter that takes an idea-led professional drama with some mild “relevance” — the cops having to go on strike — and makes it more personal by focusing on what this means to those who have to stay, namely Barney (assisted only by Luger and Levitt). Both halves are worthwhile here, but Part II cuts to the heart of the idea — with a funny first act where those in the precinct try to cope when short-staffed, while the second is ambitiously quiet and sincere in a group dialogue between the cops, revealing that they all have a personal regard for each other, even though the series’ setting and stories are often intentionally impersonal, especially regarding conflict. So, this is a fine capper to the year, which bolstered the leads and gave them more dimension, allowing the show to use them more alongside or, even better (and as in “Strike”), in support of the central professional and procedural yarns that keep Barney Miller’s narrative machine churning. Peter Hobbs and Peggy Pope also appear.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the lesser (but still great) halves of the two-parters discussed above, “Quarantine (I)” and “Strike (I),” along with “Sex Surrogate,” a very funny installment that was closest to the above list (see more above). Here I’ll also single out “The Rand Report,” which is more serious and also feels like a throwback to an earlier season, but boasts the only time in Three that the “dream team” appears in the same half hour: Barney, Fish, Wojo, Harris, Yemana, Dietrich, Levitt, and Luger.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Barney Miller goes to…
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!