TV: Fish (Season 1)

20151219_120000Sometimes supporting characters are great precisely because they’re supporting characters. Such is the case with Abe Vigoda’s legendary Detective Phil Fish, whose cranky, cynical charms stole the show in the early seasons of Barney Miller. Alas, Vigoda’s breakout performance led to an ill-conceived spinoff series, Fish (1977–78). Fish’s first season came as a bonus in my Barney Miller box set: sad to say, it’s a dated, awkward oddity.

Here’s the premise: as Fish’s career approaches reluctant, mandatory retirement, Fish’s wife Berenice (Florence Stanley) convinces him to move to Brooklyn and help her run a group home for wards of the court. The problematic children are Victor (John Cassisi), Jilly (Denise Miller), Loomis (Todd Bridges), Diane (Sarah Natoli), and Mike (Len Bari). As Fish comes home from his shift every night, he finds his house a chaotic zoo, and becomes the grudging peacemaker for the kids’ squabbles.

Except for the gloriously cheesy, disco-funk theme song, Vigoda is easily the best thing about Fish, and his character’s griping about Berenice loses some of its distasteful venom when she’s around to flesh out the relationship. Alas, Berenice—delightfully played by Stanley—is still too often a punching bag for verbal abuse. The kids, with the exception of the underused Bridges, are a one-note cluster of broad New York accents. There’s nothing wrong with the performances, but the kids’ “charms” aren’t very convincing; they win over Fish, but not the viewer. Meanwhile, the humor trends in lazy directions: fat jokes, racial jokes, nagging wife jokes.

I can see why the idea was tempting: capitalize on Fish’s decrepit misanthropy by sticking him in a house full of the things he hates most: his wife, young people, and a dearth of bathrooms. But there’s only so much humor you can generate from watching Abe Vigoda get irritated. This point hits home when Steve Landesberg shows up as Detective Arthur Dietrich in the episode “Fire.” It’s a messy episode, but Landesberg’s appearance is the highlight of the season, serving to remind us that Fish is more fun to watch when he’s being irritated by characters we actually like. Alas, Fish’s cast can’t hold a candle to the 12th precinct on that score.

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