TV: Barney Miller

barneymillerIt’s a rare sitcom that stands the test of time for me, but Barney Miller (1974–1982) is one of them, a solid, old-school workplace comedy carried by terrific ensemble chemistry and an amusingly bleak, deadpan style. It has its share of issues, but its unique low-key sensibility is infectious.

Set in New York City, the show revolves around Captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden), the precinct commander of a squad full of quirky detectives. Although early episodes focus on Barney, the show quickly reorients on the squad and their interactions—with Barney, with each other, and with the many madcap perps and victims who stumble through their little corner of the legal system.

It’s classic ensemble comedy, dry and cynical, in keeping with the squad’s grubby working conditions, and while it’s clumsy at first, it eventually finds a quiet, likable stride. The cast is solid from the get-go, but the early stand-outs are decrepit old-timer Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda) and the disaffected Nick Yemana (Jack Soo), both of whose droll line deliveries quickly define the series’ trademark style. Unfortunately, despite Vigoda’s brilliant performance, Fish’s misogyny quickly grows long in the tooth, while Soo’s unique voice is rarely given enough to do. More crucial in the long-term are Stan Wojohowiecz (Max Gail) and Ron Harris (Ron Glass), characters who take a while to develop but eventually become the show’s backbone. At first, Wojo is merely dim and lowbrow, but later develops into the squad’s conscience, struggling to understand things beyond his intellectual comfort zone; Gail’s performance becomes increasingly adroit as his character gains depth. Similarly, Harris’ early traits are nebulous, but he evolves into something memorable: a natty, conceited Republican with writing career aspirations and an arrogant, too-cool-for-school attitude. As Wojo becomes more likable and Harris less so, they both become better, more crucial characters.

The season’s best years are in the middle, probably seasons three through six, when the cast is at its most robust and the writers find their sweet spots. Greatly aiding the ensemble chemistry is Steve Landesberg, who works his way into the rotation as the pedantic Detective Arthur Dietrich, whose flat baritone delivery of obscure knowledge soon paints him as the squad’s deadpan intellectual: an early nuisance for Fish, and a contentious rival for Harris. Also appearing on the scene is Officer Carl Leavitt (Ron Carey); sadly, Leavitt begins as a tiresome, one-note Short Joke, which plagues him for a while before he develops into a frustrated career climber, by turns obsequious and eye-rollingly sarcastic about his promotion prospects. Like Wojo and Harris, Leavitt gets better as he goes.

During these solid middle years, Barney Miller serves as an interesting window on the sociopolitics of its era, in good ways and bad. The parade of scumbags, misanthropes, and kooks who come through the precinct frequently deliver timely rants and raves about the grim urban realities of the day, occasionally spinning the comical proceedings into more serious territory. This leads to occasional Very Special Episode over-reaches, but usually the squad’s dry reactions undercut any heavy-handedness. Beneath all the witty banter is a world of bureacratic indifference and societal decay, which gives the show a refreshing cynicism and dark edge compared to standard sitcom fare.

Alas, ahead of its time as it may be in some ways, it’s also definitely of its time in others. Fish’s misogyny sometimes infects other characters, probably emblematic of a male-only writer’s room writing for a male-dominated cast. Indeed, the only credited regular female cast member is Barbara Barrie as Barney’s wife Liz, who appears rarely and is quickly written out. A handful of part-time female detectives turn up, but never last, which in one case—Linda Lavin’s scene-stealing Detective Janice Wentworth—is a real shame. On a guess, the cast may well be 90–95% male, which seems unrealistically skewed even for forty years ago. The show does better with racial diversity, at least, although that often plays as set-up for on-the-nose racial jokes. The show wrestles with other sociopolitical subject matter—bigotry, homosexuality in the workplace, etc.—in a manner simultaneously progressive and clumsy, with Barney usually serving as the voice of decency and compassion while the rest of the squad leans back toward a crass majority view. This creates some surprisingly sensitive episodes, but also some shamefully dated ones. (The less said about the year four episode “Rape,” for example, the better.)

As the series winds down in seasons seven and eight, the show starts to feel sleepier and perhaps more forced, but the characters remain engaging throughout, right up to its imperfect but moving finale. It’s easy to overlook through it all how well Hal Linden handles his straight-guy leadership role; with the supporting cast’s material frequently tailored to upstage him, he more than holds his own, a terrific anchoring presence. His sustained performance reminds me of Gary Sandy’s on WKRP: an underwritten character who nonetheless patiently achieves an impressive comedic persona.

Barney Miller’s style probably won’t resonate with modern viewers as much as old-timers, and it definitely wears some of the clumsy earmarks of its time, but there’s also a lot going for it—particularly its peculiar sideways view of the world, and the laconic, winning chemistry of its players. (Not to mention one of the best theme songs of all time.)

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