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Barney Miller – The First Season (A TV on DVD Review)

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

Barney Miller - The First Season

Barney Miller – The First Season

Barney Miller

The First Season – 1975 (Columbia Tri-Star-2004)

In 1975, New York City was on the verge of financial and moral ruin. Criminals ran rampant in the streets and terrorized the weary riders of the graffiti-drenched subways. Times Square was bursting with X-rated peep shows and drug-addicted hustlers. The city’s plea for Federal help resulted in one of the most famous headlines of all time (“Ford to City: Drop Dead!”). This, of course, showed the world that The Big Apple may have been a little rotten at its core, but it had not yet lost its winesappy sense of humor.

In fact, “New York As Urban Hell” became a popular genre of 1970s entertainment. For the first time in modern history, New York became something to be sniffed at — not aspired to; it came to be painted as a broken dream, a Sodom and Gomorrah which provoked both snickers and gasps from everyday, ordinary folk. Long before the “I Love New York” campaign, Americans kept away from the city in droves, clutching their purses and gripping their wallets close to their persons.

Hollywood found this slimy underbelly of the culture irresistible. Americans may have been tightening their belts due to inflation, but the box office never suffered even one day. Gritty, reality-driven dramas like SerpicoThe Taking of Pelham 1-2-3Dog Day Afternoon, and Death Wish showcased the new New York in all its pitiful, decaying horror and apathetic hopelessness. Suburban moviegoers could watch from a safe distance, feeling “in the know” about the wicked city without having to actually be cowering on the wrong end of a gun.

Similarly, on television, Americans were only just getting used to loudmouths like Archie Bunker and Maude, after being conditioned to years of good-natured countrified kinfolk like the Clampetts and Gomer Pyle. The new pastime of groaning at the lives of brash but scared New Yorkers became the smart, sophisticated thing to do on television, just as Saturday Night Live was getting its legs, Rhoda Morgenstern was getting married, and Kotter was being welcomed back.

However, it was Barney Miller that hit the bull’s eye. No other show of its era whittled the fine art of New York bashing down to a smooth, shiny bullet. Amazingly, the series hit the ground running, as if America had responded to it with a collective “where have you been?” Served up as a mid-season replacement on ABC, its first thirteen episodes (now available on DVD) was an immediate hit with critics and audiences. Amazingly as well, little fine-tuning was needed — the show found its footing and its tone almost immediately.

Set in the 12th Precinct of Manhattan at its eccentric worst/best, the show was a godsend for good actors who were born to be a part of television’s new jones for anything urban. The obligatory gang of ethnic oddballs, which was required casting for post-Bunker television, won the day because of the subtle twist in each stereotype: the captain of the squad is capable and sober, like any other detective since TV’s first broadcast day, but in this case he is not WASPy but Jewish and sensitive, with the patience of a saint; the “Afro American” is an aspiring novelist; the “Oriental” is self-deprecating;  the “Dumb Pollock” is perhaps only playing it dumb; the Hispanic goes off on rampages in Spanish a la Ricky Ricardo, but in language that is not as adorable; and “The Old Man” is all-too aware that he is an old man. Brilliant. Racist, ageist and sexist, but brilliant.

The dialogue is almost dangerously understated, with very little yelling or boring-ass hugging – just quick wit, which is broiled down to almost a mumble.  Zingy back and forths exchanged between real adults was still new to TV, and yet it told light years more than what was being said.

Hal Linden as Barney Miller plays the straight man and the rock, although one may wonder if Miller is playing patient with his wacky crew or just being a bit patronizing in order to get the job done. Abe Vigoda, straight off The Godfather, easily channels ancient, creaky Detective Phil Fish as if he had waited fifty years to sink his false teeth into a role like this, and he probably had. Nobody plays “old” with more intelligence and wit – nobody.

The ingenious Jack Soo is Nick Yemana, cursed with a gambling problem and chronic constipation, and not afraid to make a wicked comment about the shape of his eyes before someone else does. Gregory Sierra is the earnest, hard-working Chano, who beat Kurt Cobain by fifteen years by making flannel shirts look hip. Ron Glass plays Ron Harris, avoiding the expected shucking and jiving for the more refreshing ultra-intellectual and extremely articulate. And finally, there is Max Gail as gum-chomping Detective Wojciehowicz (“Wojo”), an ox of a guy who plays by the book and “tells it like it is,” in the persona of a man-child.

The ties are wide, the pants are tight, the hair is unkempt, the mustaches are bushy and the shoes are platformed, but the writing is timeless and the laughs are still fresh.

The series was created by Danny Arnold, who was involved with fantasy-driven sitcoms like Bewitched and That Girl, which, suddenly seemed embarrassingly old world. You can practically sense his rush of relief as he, at last, tastes the bittersweet flavor of the new Big Apple. Overseeing the development of flesh-and-blood characters who talk real, act real, and even go to the bathroom must have felt like a precious gift from the Muse.

Of course, not everything works: one of history’s mysteries is the fact that the whiny, annoying Barbara Barrie (as Miller’s clinging wife) received second billing in the opening credits and yet barely appeared on the show, while Jack Soo (with perfect attendance on every one of the first thirteen episodes) was mentioned only in the closing credits. What was quickly realized is that this is a show for and about men, and that softening it up with women didn’t quite work. The first season’s weakest episode featured Linda Lavin (later to become TV’s Alice) as the liberated cop who yearned to be treated with the same respect as her male counterparts. Very nice, but even by 1975, this obligatory storyline had become tiresome.

Still, Barney Miller served up a showcase for TV’s strongest character actors, featuring an offbeat parade of lovable loonies (nary a Charles Manson or a Son of Sam among them – the precinct booked nothing worse than pickpockets, flashers, minor psychos and midnight tokers). Watch a very young Todd Bridges foretell his fate as a troubled youth and the terrific Jack DeLeon as the gay kleptomaniac who was as “out” as anybody could be on TV in the mid-70s. We also get an early look at the wonderfully wishy-washy Mrs. Fish (Florence Stanley), who joined Abe Vigoda in the short-lived spin-off, Fish, a few years later (pray for this little series to make it to DVD! The executives at ABC who cancelled this gem should be brought in on criminal charges.).

Barney Miller ran comfortably and confidently until 1982, and by then, the world of television had figured out the secret and had caught up. However, this first season is an amazing example of how art reflects culture, and pushes it right back in your face.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 20, 2004.

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