Judge Jim Thomas had a tasty brownie before writing this review.
So funny it's criminal!
Barney Miller was one of the workhorse comedies of the '70s. Captain Miller (Hal Linden, Out to Sea) and his detectives, Fish (Abe Vigoda, The Godfather), Wojo (Max Gail, Dexter), Yemana (Jack Soo, Flower Drum Song), and Harris (Ron Glass, Serenity) do their part to keep their little neck of the woods relatively calm, no matter how insane things get.
Facts of the Case
Barney Miller: The Complete Third Season has 22 episodes on three discs. Recommended episodes are marked with an asterisk, with "Power Failure" and "Hash" topping the list.
This is something of a transitional season. It was Abe Vigoda's last full season on the show, and the writers are trying to figure out where to go from there. (For some reason, I always remembered Vigoda as being around longer.) Discussion of Fish's eminent retirement abound this season, though he doesn't sign out of the squad room for the last time until the fourth season opener. Vigoda (who's still alive as of this writing) left for a spinoff, Fish, which had him and his wife Bernice (Florence Stanley) running a foster home. Yeah, go figure. That series is set up in several episodes: "Evacuation," "The Recluse," and "Group Home") as Fish encounters Jilly, a young girl in a state-run group home. There were other changes as well: Gregory Sierra (Chano) left, and Linda Lavin left her recurring gig as Det. Wentworth to star in Alice. A female presence is noticeably absent in the squad room this season, with the exception of two episodes featuring June Gable as Det. Maria Battista. It's easy to see why Battista didn't hang around; the character is a bit too stereotypical. Steve Landesberg made several appearances as Det. Dietrich before joining the show full time the following year. Landesberg's dry non sequitur wit makes him a perfect foil to all of the other detectives. Another addition is Ron Carey (Silent Movie) as Leavitt, a uniformed cop constantly sucking up to Barney for a promotion. Leavitt gets on your nerves rather quickly, but that's more or less the point of the character. Overall, there's a sense that the writers are juggling things around, trying to find the right combination. As always, Linden's warmth and humanity anchor the entire series.
When things click, the results are priceless. "Power Failure" features a man with split personalities, one of whom is a whiz at picking horse races, which piques Yemana's ears immediately, but then the other personality emerges again, leaving Yemana, whose luck at the track is miserable, all forlorn. At the same time, the man's attractive doctor all but throws herself at Barney. Linden does a wonderful job with the situation; he's somewhat tempted, but his sense of honor won't let him do anything. When the doctor presses, "When are you finished up here?" he manages to gently deflect: "Retirement age is sixty-two." For the most part, the humor stays low key, but every now and then, things get completely out of hand, as in the classic "Hash," in which Wojo's latest girlfriend sends in a pan of brownies—hash brownies. Barney's the only squad member not to partake, and he's frantically trying to get his detectives back in the house before something serious happens. The best parts are those we can't see—Fish bringing in a perp, amazed that he was caught, who tells of Fish leaping from building to building in pursuit. When Fish learns of the brownies, he's indignant: "First time in years I felt this good, and it has to be illegal!" Even the weaker episodes are engaging—in "Noninvolvement," Wojo arrests a man for not helping him stop a mugger, but Barney isn't sure that any law has been broken (Take that, Seinfeld!).
The show is also notable for the way it works real life into the fabric of the show. "Smog Alert" revolves around, you guessed it, smog. The subject seems like a tired joke now, but in the '70s, it was all too real. The '70s also saw a lot of problems with the NYPD, including a strike in 1970, as well as a number of threatened strikes throughout the decade. The season ends with a two-parter in which the threat turns to reality. The episode does its best not to take sides, emphasizing that the police have been placed in a patently untenable situation. The detectives' sense of duty compels them to work some last-minute cases, but at the end of Part One, they leave for the picket line, leaving Barney and Inspector Lugar to handle things. Both have to go out in short order, and the episode ends with a deserted squad room, the credits running over the continued ringing of the phone. It's a powerful image, and it's a powerful episode, not to mention a funny episode.
Video is crisp but grainy; inconsistent color saturation still crops up now and again. Whenever Barney wears his pink shirt, watch how it changes from pink to white based on the camera angles. Audio is still mono, but it's rich and clear—the jazzy theme music has never sounded this good. There is one instance of characters moving to the middle of the squad room and suddenly sounding like they're in the middle of a deserted warehouse; fortunately, it's just the one time. Overall, both audio and video are somewhat better than the previous season.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A word about the packaging: instead of a foldout or multiple slimline cases, you get a "spindle case," like vinyl albums on a record changer (now I've gone and dated myself). It looks like a standard plastic case, but when you open it, all three discs are on a single spindle; they have become common for computer games. The thing is, with a computer game, most of the time, you only need Disc One; the other discs are usually only needed for installation. It's a bit more cumbersome when you're juggling several loose discs trying to find a specific episode.
There are no extras.
Barney Miller is a workplace sitcom that doesn't rely on physical humor, but rather the humor that emerges from everyday human interaction. While that format might prevent it from reaching the comedic heights of the hyper-realities of NewsRadio or The Office, it remains a welcome reminder that the police really aren't that different from anyone else.
Except of course, when Abe Vigoda is in drag.
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