The Ten Best BARNEY MILLER Episodes of Season Six

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 Six is a more favorable sample of Barney Miller than its predecessor because it’s better at projecting the series’ desired realism. We can link this success to Reinhold Weege’s departure, as his increased control over Five made those episodes feel similar to Night Court, positing him as the conduit for this affiliation and a personification of mitigated truth, which is now restored in his absence. But the core difference between Five and Six, specifically, is that the latter is back to creating more of a separation between procedural A-stories and personal subplots, and this delineation keeps the regulars from heightened conflicts that exaggerate, or falsify, otherwise low-concept true-to-life depictions. Okay, there are notable exceptions, where a lead anchors a main plot and/or job-related notions are more personal, but these offerings are clearly uncommon, and with less of Weege’s reaction-seeking boldness, Six’s efforts are generally not as forced and therefore less likely to erode the series’ reality. This is also due to the fact that continuity is once again a guiding presence — an important way the show professes realism, which it sees as key to its identity. Five was overshadowed on this metric by its gaudier episodic ideas; Six is, fortunately, smarter, maintaining a bedrock of believability by regularly deploying a primary through line — the publication of Harris’ book, which will extend into Seven and prove to be the series’ most prominent peripheral arc — while also tying continuity to some of its gaudier episodic ideas (Luger’s demotion, Zitelli’s outing, Dietrich’s arrest), repurposing credulity-stretching conflict into truth-inferring awareness. That said, the run’s ongoing procedural tension — the dearth of funny, fresh, not-false plots — still exists, and if Six is pushing less with its stars, that’s because it thinks weekly cases can overcompensate with comedy and drama, a lot of it socially relevant. Of course, this isn’t ideal… but since there are fewer scribes in Six than Five, there’s inherently more consistency too, avoiding last year’s erraticism. Also, with less of Danny Arnold, Six surprisingly pinpoints and protects his series’ seminal tenet — again, realism — and this offsets all the other woes, ultimately mattering more than anything else. So, on Barney Miller’s own terms, this is a solid year — not transcendent (that is, its renewed consistency means fewer lows and fewer highs), but fundamentally self-validating.

 

01) Episode 105: “Inquisition” (Aired: 09/13/79)

Scanlon visits the precinct to track down a gay cop.

Teleplay by Tony Sheehan | Story by Calvin Kelly & Jim Tisdale | Directed by Noam Pitlik

With a job-related story that nevertheless centralizes the regulars in the precinct instead of its procedural elements, Season Six’s premiere is part of the aesthetic hangover from Five that’s felt at the very beginning of this year. But it’s something of an evergreen formula, because it uses a recurring character in whom we have a basic understanding — the antagonistic Lt. Scanlon (George Murdock) — to stir up the conflict, allowing the leads to respond instead of motivate, thereby keeping them more grounded. However, I highlight this offering not only because of its design, but also because it immediately evidences some of the stronger social topicality that flows throughout this season, while also, with hindsight, implanting a bit of the narrative continuity that will later prove more important and legitimatize Six as a beacon of realism. Norman Bartold, Peter Jurasik, and Dino Natali (as Zitelli) guest.

02) Episode 106: “The Photographer” (Aired: 09/20/79)

The precinct arrests a man who says he’s Jesus Christ.

Written by Bob Colleary | Directed by Noam Pitlik

Barney Miller won its second Emmy for this popular episode — writer Bob Colleary was awarded for his script — in which Kenneth Tigar is back playing a man who thinks he’s a supernatural being, this time Jesus Christ. This becomes an opportunity to discuss Barney’s Judaism for one of the only times on the series, bringing us personally closer to the character in a way that’s justified by the procedural trappings. Truthfully, I don’t think this entry is a Grade AAA gem — I think its idea does too much of the heavy-lifting — but it’s very funny and one of this year’s most deservedly remembered. Other guests include Sal Viscuso and the ubiquitous Phil Leeds.

03) Episode 112: “The Desk” (Aired: 11/22/79)

The precinct deals with a thief who’s been mentally incapacitated.

Written by Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik

In “The Desk,” Don Calfa plays a thief who tries to keep up his stealing after having had a modern version of a lobotomy that’s rendered him essentially stupid. It’s a flamboyant idea that’s simultaneously funny and serious, with some social commentary that’s reiterated by the inclusion of both an Amish man (Jeff Corey) and recurring lawyer Arnold Ripner (Alex Henteloff). Again, I don’t think this is a classic, but it’s one of those installments that sticks with you, representing the year’s shift back to dominant procedural notions, even though the show is still struggling to conceive them. Also, it’s the best excursion of this type — more worth highlighting than some of the similar Honorable Mentions below. (Incidentally, the title is a misnomer — the story about Yemana’s desk was originally intended for this one.)

04) Episode 113: “The Judge” (Aired: 12/06/79)

Barney sends away Yemana’s desk while Wojo arrests a judge.

Written by Tony Sheehan, Frank Dungan, & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik

Although there are two procedural plots that assume this episode’s focus and earn their expected hahas — one with Peggy Pope playing a woman who reports crimes that have occurred on soap operas, and the other with Philip Sterling as a hot-tempered judge brought in by Wojo — the real appeal of “The Judge” is the personal subplot that indulges some rare continuity surrounding Jack Soo’s death, which is one of the only obvious subjects the series typically doesn’t discuss. That bank of sentiment, supported by both the audience’s and the characters’ history with Yemana, gives this entry a rich emotional weight that adds to the series’ realism. It’s also used to explore current relationships, as Levitt is hurt that he doesn’t have a desk of his own. An underrated Season Six favorite — funny and human.

05) Episode 118: “Vanished (II)” (Aired: 01/17/80)

Harris goes missing while undercover as a homeless man and Luger has been demoted.

Written by Tony Sheehan, Frank Dungan, & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik

It’s largely due to the sturdy setup in Part I, which I also recommend, that the second half of this two-parter is so rewarding, enjoying the comedic fruits of a delicious idea that finds Luger being demoted to captain and driving everyone in the precinct crazy. More than anything, that’s what makes Part II so obviously superior to its predecessor. But this segment also has the A-story climax where Harris goes undercover as a vagrant and busts up a forced labor ring (which is comedic because it’s Harris, dramatic because it’s socially relevant, and personal because it’s sparked by John Dullaghan’s Ray Brewer, a familiar face in whom we have emotional investment). Additionally, there are some easy political jokes courtesy of a man (Leonard Frey) who’s begging for presidential donations at gunpoint. And I appreciate that the romantic triangle between Wojo, Dietrich, and guest Elaine Giftos is largely sidelined and has such a comedic payoff (with Levitt), which also helps elevate Part II above Part I.

06) Episode 119: “The Child Stealers” (Aired: 01/24/80)

Marty’s partner tries to kidnap his own son and a man claims to be from the future.

Written by Frank Dungan & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik

My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Child Stealers” is the perfect encapsulation of Barney Miller during this particular era. The A-story is procedural, but it’s driven by two of the show’s most visible recurring players, Marty (Jack DeLeon) and his boyfriend Mr. Driscoll (Ray Stewart), who bring big laughs, some motivated social relevancy, and a sense of familiarity that renders the plot more emotionally potent and seemingly realistic, thanks to a dramatic continuity that suggests the series’ intelligence, flatters its identity, and most importantly, makes sense for what we know of the characters. Speaking of continuity, this story also takes advantage of Zitelli’s confession in the season’s premiere, as he reveals his sexual orientation to the precinct, rewarding viewers who have been paying attention. What’s more, there’s more of the year’s foundational arc too, for Harris’ book is now published and earning royalties. Accordingly, this is a great display of how Season Six is committing to the show’s realism as its signature trait via narrative consistency and detailed awareness, with results that excite and entertain. Oh, and for extra good measure, there’s another procedural subplot with Richard Libertini as a man who claims to be from the future — a wacky idea in the Ken Tigar supernatural vein that, again, is reflective of the series’ storytelling and what it’s asking its job-related weekly cases to do in Six to offset the quieter truth coming from its leads.

07) Episode 120: “Guns” (Aired: 01/31/80)

Luger struggles with his demotion while a gun collector’s stash is stolen.

Written by Tony Sheehan, Rich Reinhart, Frank Dungan, & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik

This installment is all about its use of Luger, who continues to be a nuisance at the precinct following his demotion — an indication that the gaudy story from a two-parter highlighted above is not being forgotten like it would on most sitcoms, for there are dramatic ramifications that linger… at least, until the end of this segment when the status quo is returned. Frankly, this arc could have gone on longer because the more James Gregory, the better (and this, along with Five, is one of his best seasons), but it’s smart that the comedic idea isn’t allowed to exhaust itself, for even here, there’s already strain, specifically with Wojo (and Barney) fearing that Luger will be suicidal — a tricky notion that’s only passable because of the sincerity of the performances, which earns “Guns” my favor. Also, David Paymer and Jack Dodson guest.

08) Episode 123: “Dietrich’s Arrest (II)” (Aired: 03/06/80)

Scanlon visits after Dietrich is arrested at a nuclear protest.

Written by Tony Sheehan, Frank Dungan, & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of this ostentatious two-parter, which is one of the narrative exceptions referenced above: it puts a lead in an A-story, à la Season Five, that intrinsically heightens him and jeopardizes the series’ realism. In this case, it’s Dietrich, who willingly gets himself arrested by attending an anti-nuclear rally. He’s a very funny character, but nobody can handle such a contrived plot and maintain the show’s truth, especially during this era, which has restored it… That said, there’s a lot here to enjoy, including an affable guest appearance by Kay Medford as the cleaning woman — she’s broad, but straightforward enough not to be jarring — and the interplay between Luger and Scanlon, which is worth the price of admission and probably the main reason that I can comfortably boost even one half of this memorable, but unideal, two-parter — not representative of the year or its strengths. (Allan Miller also appears.)

09) Episode 125: “The Inventor” (Aired: 05/01/80)

Wojo undergoes hypnosis to remember details about a robbery he witnessed.

Written by Tony Sheehan, Frank Dungan, & Jeff Stein | Directed by Noam Pitlik

Another flashy idea drives this well-liked entry’s value: a procedural story that actually centralizes the leads, namely Wojo, who is hypnotized to remember important details about a crime he witnessed. Although it’s motivated by the job, it’s still a big gimmick, particularly when it’s used for the comedy of getting his character to say things that he usually wouldn’t. However, to this teleplay’s credit, it never becomes too broad or ridiculous, and in fact, though indeed a big gimmick, it’s not destructive to truth. This probably wouldn’t have been true under Weege, making this a testament to Sheehan, Dungan, and Stein, who, on the whole, are better at playing down lofty comic bits and maintaining naturalism. (Dan Frazer guests.)

10) Episode 126: “Fog” (Aired: 05/08/80)

Barney is depressed after failing to earn a promotion.

Teleplay by Tony Sheehan, Frank Dungan, & Jeff Stein | Story by Mark Brull | Directed by Noam Pitlik

Season Six ends on a contemplative, melancholy note when Barney is disappointed after being passed over for a promotion, a job-related semi-personal idea that pairs well with the continuities supplied by Harris and his book, along with Dietrich’s arrest, a grand yarn that plays better after the fact because the show can reference back at it to further its intelligence, instead of having the actual conflict threaten believability (like in its initial two-parter). And, sure, the procedural plots here take up some time, but it’s really all about the leads, especially in the sensitive climax, bringing interpersonal connection to a setting that’s intentionally professional. It’s quieter than Six’s norm, but a foretaste of what’s ahead in Seven…

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Vacation,” which has a fun peripheral subplot for the leads but forgettable procedural ideas, “Strip Joint,” a solid offering that includes Soap’s Diana Canova (Landesberg’s girlfriend at the time) in a routine Barney Miller that reflects the storytelling well, but isn’t exceptional, boasting two formulaic, unoriginal plots, but perhaps some personalization for Dietrich (making it the closest to the above list), “The Bird,” which I cite only for Harris’ book subplot, “The DNA Story,” which has memorable moments despite some stories that push too hard, “The Dentist,” a figuratively loud entry that asks a lot of its guests but isn’t as worthwhile as “The Desk,” “Vanished (I),” which is the lesser but still commendable half of a two-parter discussed above, and “The Architect,” which simply doesn’t have enough incidental support from the regulars to be laudable. (Also, I don’t like it, but I just want to reference “Uniform Day” as an example of the leads being put in an A-story conflict that heightens them so much that it’s not buyable against Barney Miller’s baseline; I call it “Season Five’s mustache arc on steroids” — a rare aberration here in Six.)

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Barney Miller goes to…

“The Child Stealers”

 

 

Come back next week for Season Seven! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!