Judge Jim Thomas tried to find a snappy blurb, but all of the good ones were taken.
Laughter in the first degree.
When I was working on a graduate degree at Alabama, I had more than a few late nights-reading, writing, grading, or, more than likely, all three. But one rule was inviolate—everything ground to a halt after the 10:30 news, so I could watch M*A*S*H and Barney Miller. My batteries thus recharged, I would then throw myself back into the fray. Sony Pictures released the first season of Barney Miller back in 2004; now, four years later, the second season has escaped from the holding cell. Do we let it go, or should it go back and rot behind bars?
Facts of the Case
Barney Miller (Hal Linden, Out to Sea), captain of the 12th Precinct in Greenwich Village, is a sane man leading a squad of somewhat warped detectives: Yemana (Jack Soo, The Green Berets) lover of horse tracks and maker of baaaad coffee, the good-natured but neurotic Chano (Gregory Sierra, John Carpenter's Vampires), Wojciehowicz (Max Gail, Bloodlines), whose slow wit and quick temper tend to get him into trouble, Harris (Ron Glass, Serenity), a suave African-American with an angle on everything, and Fish (Abe Vigoda, The Godfather), an eternally pessimistic detective rapidly approaching retirement.
The first season also featured Barbara Barrie (Second Best) as Barney's wife Liz, along with Barney's children; episodes were evenly split between Barney's work and home (in its early stages, the show was titled The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller). After the first season, though, the producers decided to shift the focus to the squad room; despite second billing throughout the second season, Barrie appears in only a couple of episodes, and in both cases, she comes to the squad room. The first two seasons also features a young Linda Lavin (The Muppets Take Manhattan) as Detective Wentworth. In a recurring role that lasted the entire series, James Gregory is Inspector Lugar, a curmudgeon who occasionally drops by to offer Barney advice and to long for the good ol' days.
All of the action (with very few exceptions) takes place in the squad room, with colorful characters—criminal and otherwise—making their way in and out of the justice system. The strength of the format is in its flexibility—one episode you might have a veritable parade of people coming through the precinct, and the next, you might only have one or two. The holding cell was built in a cranny of the office-not very secure, frankly-allowing prisoners to easily interact with everyone else in the office. The detectives dealt with a variety of cases; Barney offered advice while dealing with administrative issues.
The set includes all 22 episodes, spread out over 3 discs:
• "Doomsday." A disgruntled man (William Windom) wearing a belt of dynamite threatens to detonate himself and the squad room unless President Nixon agrees to speak with him. Wojo arrests a fraudulent priest (Steve Landesberg). The squad room plumbing goes haywire.
• "The Social Worker." Liz tires of housework and tries her hand at social work, to Barney's dismay. Harris is intrigued by a master forger.
• "The Layoff." A city-wide labor layoff forces Barney, Fish, and Yemana to do without the services of Chano, Harris and Wojo. A morose stockbroker resorts to petty theft.
• "Ambush." Yemana is shot in plain sight of disinterested bystanders, causing the detectives to question their commitment to the job. Barney is offered a job in Florida.
• "Heatwave." A wife claims spousal abuse. Wojo and Wentworth go undercover to catch a park rapist.
• "The Arsonist." The officers look out for an arsonist. Chano arrests a man who assaulted a vending machine with a deadly weapon.
• "Hotel." Wojo and Wentworth go undercover as a married couple to break up a hotel burglary ring.
• "Discovery." Marty claims that a member of the precinct is harassing the gay community. The precinct computers have recorded Fish as dead.
• "You Dirty Rat." Two pounds of confiscated marijuana disappears from the evidence locker. A homeless man spends his nights in a series of department stores.
• "Horse Thief." A hansom cab owner reports his horse as missing, then "borrows" one from the police. A man is assaulted in his hotel room; yet he insists he was alone.
• "Rain." The squad must work through the precinct roof threatening to collapse from the rain and a nightclub comic's Bicentennial jokes.
• "Fish." We get a glimpse of Fish's home life when he decides to go on restricted duty. Steve Landesberg steps in as Arthur Dietrich. Doris Belack subs for Florence Stanley as Bernice Fish.
• "Hot Dogs." A man is convinced that a photo of Jean Harlow is of his missing wife. A pair of female officers makes an overzealous drug bust.
• "Protection." Citizens are in a panic over rumors that the 12th Precinct is being shut down. A repentant hood can't prove that he committed a crime.
• "Happy New Year." On New Year's Eve, Wojo delivers a baby, and Fish tries to stop a jumper.
• "The Sniper." Wojo and Luger become targets of a sniper. A con man is selling charter flights to Saturn.
• "Fear of Flying." Although Wojo is afraid of flying, he must escort a bigamist to Cleveland. Meanwhile, the bigamist's New York wife turns up at the precinct. A man turns in an unmarked envelope containing $3,500 in cash, anxious to know when he will able to claim it.
• "Block Party." Wentworth is furious when Chano gets the credit for the arrest she made of an assassin at a block party.
• "Massage Parlor." Wentworth arrests a dime-store cowboy in a massage parlor. The detectives arrest a mugger who's in his 80s.
• "The Psychiatrist." A psychiatrist advises the department to confiscate Wojo's gun. Barney contests the decision, and ends up analyzing the psychiatrist.
• "The Kid." Fish is attracted to a mugger's mother. A man who turned in $3,500 he found a few weeks ago is anxious to know whether the owner has claimed it.
• "The Mole." A burglar known as "The Mole" leads Harris and Wojo on a chase through the city sewer system. Fish considers an operation.
Barney Miller was a critical and popular success, winning several Emmys and nabbing a Peabody Award in 1978. In sharp contrast to the overblown police dramas of the era that featured cool, calm cops facing off against vindictive, vicious villains (S.W.A.T. springs to mind), the show offered regular people who just happened to be cops, dealing with regular people with regular problems. The result is gentle, low-key humor. (If you take the same premise, shift it to a courtroom, and crank the zaniness up several notches, you get Night Court, developed by several members of Barney Miller's creative team.)
When Barney's family life got pushed out of the way, the writers found themselves with more time and latitude in developing the precinct stories, and both the cast and writers start to settle into a groove this season. Everyone in the cast had extensive acting experience before this series; as a result, this ensemble runs like a well-oiled machine. If nothing else, the series is a case study of comedic timing. Abe Vigoda, with his slow, deadpan delivery, is the obvious standout, but everyone here works in top form.
It's interesting to see Steve Landesberg playing a fake priest in the first episode, knowing that later in the season, he would return as Detective Arthur Dietrich. Dietrich's appearance in this season is a one time thing, but when Gregory Sierra left the show after the second season, Landesberg returned as a full-time cast member.
Standout episodes include:
"Ambush"—While the squad is up on arms that bystanders just stood around and watched after Yemana is shot (in the butt, or, as Harris puts it, "his other cheek"), Barney contemplates an offer to be chief of police in a quiet city in Florida. The episode reminds us just how dedicated cops really are.
"Discovery"—The B-plot, in which a police computer error lists Fish as dead, is priceless. (Abe Vigoda is, as of this writing, still alive.)
"Rain"—The juxtaposition of a real crisis-a torrential rain storm that could make the precinct roof collapse and a totally ridiculous one-a truly wretched comedian doing "bicentennial humor" borders on the surreal.
"Fish"—Not only do we see Fish's home life, but we also get the first appearance of Detective Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg), one of my all-time favorite TV characters.
"New Year's Eve"—One sequence tears your heart out: The clock has struck 12, Wojo has just delivered the baby of a woman who had been picked up for shoplifting, and everyone's celebrating. Then Fish returns to the office, having gone out to try to talk a jumper off the ledge. Barney goes over and asks him how it went. Fish, looking across the squad room at the celebrating detectives, turns back to Barney and offers a sad smile: "You win some…"
"Protection"—Mirroring NYC's real financial woes, the precinct and the community face to the prospect of the station being closed. The end features actual footage of then-president Gerald Ford promising financial support for the city.
One of the things that make this show special is that the focus is more on helping people than solving crimes. A couple of things enhance this focus: 1. We never see the detectives on the street, examining a crime scene, or any of the other stuff we saw on NYPD Blue. We only see them interviewing victims and perps, trying to get to the bottom of what really happened. 2. We see the same shopkeepers, lawyers, petty crooks, etc., over the years, establishing a sense of community.
Remastering or no remastering, the video is a major disappointment. The series was shot on videotape, limiting restoration options. But still-we got problems here. Colors regularly bleed or fade throughout, skin tones are inconsistent. Ghosting issues abound; most of the time it's only a minor distraction, but one sequence in the first episode almost made my eyes explode, as they desperately tried to force a blurred image into focus. Thankfully, that was the only instance of such an extreme problem.
The audio, on the other hand, is in great shape. The mono soundtrack is clean and clear-a good thing, as there are a lot of muttered or whispered lines, as well as a lot of overlapping dialogue. Given that the squad room is fairly long, a stereo mix might have been worth the effort, but no such luck.
The menu is somewhat annoying. While it is simple and easy to navigate, it's also very small, so that episode titles are hard to read. There's a lot of wasted space at the top and bottom of the screen, so it would be a simple matter to enlarge the menus. Not all of us have 64-inch DLP displays, people.
This release has not a single extra related to Barney Miller; but it does have two "mini-episodes," one from Charlie's Angels, one from The Facts of Life. "What is a mini-episode?" you might ask. Apparently, it involves taking a standard television episode and removing as much superfluous material as possible, reducing the episode to a shadow of its former self. There may be a contest involved-how much can you cut and still retain a coherent plot (Winners become programming executives). The angels are featured in the episode "Angels in Chains," in which our paragons of pulchritude go undercover in a women's prison. The 42-minute episode, edited down to five minutes and eight seconds, almost makes sense, a fact which is almost as amazing as the fact that the editor missed a golden opportunity to create a prison scene in which Sabrina makes Kelly her bitch. The Facts of Life mini-sode ("The Growing Pains") has Blair sneaking in a couple of bottles of wine. Winey wackiness ensues, life lessons are learned, and the editor misses a golden opportunity to create a scene in which a drunken Jo makes Blair her bitch.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I love the guys of the 12th, the show has become a little dated. During the late '70s and early '80s, New York City faced massive financial problems, spending several years literally on the brink of bankruptcy. Those financial straits are an active subtext throughout the first few seasons, and they don't resonate as well today, partly because the accepted solution for such problems these days is simply to sink deeper into debt.
Some people might be put off by the relative lack of women in the squad room. You do have Wentworth in the first two seasons, but after Linda Lavin left after this season for her own series (Alice), they didn't bring in another female detective.
If you're a fan of '70s comedy, this one is certainly a classic, and well worth the investment, picture problems aside.
Captain Miller, you and your men are free to go, with our thanks for your service to the city.
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Scales of Justice
• Bonus Minisode: Charlie's Angels "Angels in Chains"
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