Sunday, June 18, 2017

Very Well Put: Watching Barney Miller in 2017

Jack Soo, Abe Vigoda and Hal Linden Barney Miller.

Det. Sgt. Yemana
: No, I don't watch shows like that. I can't enjoy them because, being a cop myself, I spot the mistakes and inaccuracies and the fantastic things that in real life never happen.
Victim: On the show they caught him!
Yemana: Good example!
Barney Miller ("Copy Cat," Season 4)
Barney Miller was in prime time and syndication throughout my childhood and, while I've long had strong memories of the show, until recently I hadn't watched a full episode in decades. But a few weeks ago, prompted by my reading of Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz's TV (The Book), my wife and I sat down to watch the series from the beginning. The groundbreaking sitcom – a multi-ethnic ensemble comedy set in New York City's fictional 12th Precinct – ran on ABC from 1975 to 1982, starring Tony-award winning Broadway actor Hal Linden as the eponymous Captain Miller. Running from the last days of the Ford administration to the early days of Reagan, Barney Miller offers a current viewer a sustained window into a turbulent decade, even though nearly every scene is set within the crumbling four walls of a second-floor Lower Manhattan squad room. The show has had its successors (most notably Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine), but it holds up brilliantly on its own terms. As a social document of its time, it is unquestionably relevant, but as a comedy Barney Miller is just plain delightful, notably of and ahead of its time: well-crafted and hilarious, pointed and sensitive, as often literate as it is slapstick.

Like the best sitcoms of the 70s (the most obvious example being All in the Family), Barney Miller is firmly set in its time – regularly framing the action around topical events of its day. Television writers knew then what most – NBC's The Carmichael Show is a notable exception – seem to have forgotten: the more a story pretends it is timeless, the shorter its shelf-life often is. Though filmed out in California, the series reflects and reacts not only to New York City's rugged pride in itself but also the dark, pre-Giuliani sense of the city that was held nation-wide. It sets this tone early on in the first-season episode ("Protection") that ends with the detectives standing around a radio listening to an actual speech given by President Ford only a few weeks before the show aired, in which he refused to bail out a near-bankrupt New York City while still committing aid to essential services like the police. The episode centered on a recent surge in criminality and lawlessness as the neighbourhood reeled from rumours of the precinct's closure.

Though character-based to the end, Barney Miller's eight seasons never sugar-coat the realities that inspire it. With no on-screen car-chases, no whodunits, and no non-police magical know-it-alls weighing in, viewers of Barney Miller witness police work without a filter: a strange alchemy of the boring, dangerous, and frustratingly political. (These elements may have something to do with why real-life police officers continue to credit the comedy as "the most realistic police show in the history of television.") Going about their work, Miller and his men are everymen under constant attack from the banal and the ridiculous: by civilians, who don't trust them; by politicians, who apparently think they don't need them; and by the never-ending paperwork, which consistently saps any energy or enthusiasm the detectives bring to the job. The costs to their personal lives – personal, financial, and psychological – are the unvarying backdrop of every storyline, even when (like Det. Yemana's gambling habits) they are played primarily for laughs. Yemana, played with deadpan brilliance by Jack Soo until his sudden death from esophageal cancer during the show's fifth season, also prompts one of the more barbed exchanges of the series. The Omaha-born Yemana continually faces well-intended, and less well-intended, assumptions that he is an immigrant, leading to this exchange with a visiting Internal Affairs officer (which concludes with a sly reference to Soo's own temporary internment as Japanese American during WWII):

Yemana: I'm not Chinese, you know.
Captain Donnelly: That doesn't matter, Detective.
Yemana: Now it doesn't matter; but in 1942 . . .

At the centre of the precinct is Captain Barney Miller, a family man who has given his life to serving and protecting, devoting himself to bringing a "human touch" to the job. He approaches everyone, from his quirky stable of detectives to the even quirkier criminals and victims of crimes, with nonjudgmental pragmatism and unending patience. (The strongest reaction he allows himself is emphatically raised eyebrows, which Linden effects with practiced amusement.) This open-hearted policy – often more social work than policing – stands at odds with the culture that had and has long held sway, setting the police against, and not with, the people they protect. The so-called "community policing" era was still in its infancy in the 70s, and Barney Miller clearly draws the battle lines of the two-front war that the coming generation of police continue to face. The brash, benignly racist, fedora-wearing Inspector Luger (James Gregory), speaking with the intonation of a hard-boiled cop and tearing up as he reminiscences about the days when a policeman could bust heads with impunity ("You ought to be out on the street, whipping the citizenry into shape"), puts it plainly when he gently warns Barney that he has the worst reputation a cop could have: "People like you!"

Hal Linden, Max Gail, and Ron Glass in Barney Miller.

The ensemble of detectives – Abe Vigoda's Fish (who left in the fourth season for a short-lived spin-off), Gregory Sierra's Puerto Rican-born Amenguale, Ron Glass's well-coiffed Harris, the inimitable Jack Soo's Yemana, Max Gail's jaded innocent "Wojo" Wojciehowicz, Steve Landesberg's on-the-spectrum Dietrich (whose know-it-all-ism and inability to register sarcasm can out-Sheldon Sheldon Cooper), and Ron Carey's obnoxiously insecure and pandering Officer Levitt – are each classic characters in their own right, and the plots always play second fiddle to the dynamics of the squad room. Setting the stage for workplace comedies of later decades, these relationships are what Barney Miller is all about, with most episodes ending with our heroes clocking out without any shots fired. Running gags, like Harris's refusal to shave his signature moustache for "mugging detail" (where the men don a wig and dress to lure criminals in the park), carry across seasons, growing funnier rather than clichéd in their repetition. Things like Fish's complaints about his aging male body and his continuous trips to the bathroom become the rhythm of normalcy that keeps every episode grounded – whether the men are quarantined because of smallpox exposure, entertaining a prisoner who believes he's a werewolf, or housing a desktop atomic bomb. Once Fish leaves the cast (after three years of exquisite pathos over his approaching forced retirement), we still have the consistent and hilarious refrain of Detective Wojciehowicz, frustrated by all those who pause over his complicated Polish name: "It's spelled just like it sounds!"

The show also includes a stream of recurring characters as memorable as the main cast, many of whom speak the majority of their lines through the bars of the rooms tiny, squalid lock-up. One of the most memorable of these is Jack DeLeon's Marty, the precinct's softly camp gay shoplifter, whose character, along with the reactions of the detectives, evolve with every reappearance and particularly with the introduction of his less stereotypically gay partner, Darryl (Ray Stewart). Or one might follow the tale of Mr. Cotterman (Jack Somack), whose liquor store is robbed like clockwork every two months, peaking with a haunting fourth-season episode where he and another shopkeeper's exchange of "self-defense" gunfire leads to a man's death. Then there is Lt. Scanlon (George Murdock) of Internal Affairs, whose cynicism about human nature is so challenged by the 12th's integrity that he grows near-obsessed with taking them down. Linda Lavin offers a pre-Alice turn as Det. Wentworth, the first of a rotating crew of female detectives who temporarily make the "one-two" their home, sticking around long enough to throw Wojo's naïve sexism for a loop. The list is almost endless, because even Barney Miller's one-off players rarely leave the stage without giving us a glimpse into their rich background lives.

Among the many elements that will no doubt stand out to a contemporary viewer (along with the prominent, recently-built Twin Towers in the show's opening credits), one cannot go unmentioned: its characters' unhesitating use of the word "terrorist" in their descriptions of the violent radicalism of the 1970s. In our current era of "peak terror," it is easy to imagine that we are living through a world-historical moment of unprecedented danger and fear. But that danger – as the first minutes of the pilot episode make entirely plain – is wholly with precedent, especially for residents of NYC in the 70s. (In a recent Time magazine article, author Bryan Burrough notes that in "a single eighteen-month period during 1971 and 1972 the FBI counted an amazing 2,500 bombings on American soil, almost five a day.") What emerges onscreen is the portrait of an era where young and old feel that the future is uncertain – threatened not only by domestic terror and radical politics, but also by pollution, an emerging energy crisis, an explosive Middle East, wealth disparity, cash-poor governments and shrinking social services, the social costs of so-called "urban development," and general unrest and despair on the streets. The underfunded 12th Precinct reveals itself as the waiting room for an entire decade, playing host to every denizen of its era – with the compassionate detectives, Barney above all, giving their anguished voices a temporary ear. Unlike most every other cop show on television before or after, the ostensible goal of Barney's detectives is to get charges dropped, one way or another – most often by giving the space and the time for the participants to experience the humanity of the other side. (A significant number of episodes end without any charges formally filed.)

Equally notable is Miller's powerful sense of the role the police play on the street in minimizing the extent and prevalence of that violence, and his willingness to call on mental health professionals. (The staff of Bellevue are called to the precinct door with startling regularity, straitjackets and gurney in tow. "Bellevue, this is Harris; we have a customer for the enchanted kingdom.") That regularity also provides an immediate check on any easy stereotyping of those who need such care, from flashers to alcoholics to attempted suicides to fringe paranoids – each distinct and often sensitively portrayed, despite the broadly comic context.

Barney Miller was filmed before a live studio audience and, typical of its time, the show would "sweeten" audience reactions with a post-production pre-recorded laugh track. (Like many long-running shows of the 70s, by the end of its run the series softened its use of this track, especially for its most dramatic scenes, but audience response remains an indelible aspect of the show's experience.) It is hard for my ears to distinguish between laughs inserted by the producers and ones more organically generated, but for this 21st-century viewer, there is something fascinating about that audience laughter, a privileged entree into the sensibilities of another era –whether they are the reactions of an actual live audience or a producer's imagined sense of one. See, for one striking example, the fourth-season episode ("Rape") that raises the spectre of spousal rape. For the first half of the episode the fact that the husband is accused of rape is a laugh line, but the raucousness of the audience track is at odds with the script and characters who are responding more with questioning looks (and genuine questions of law) than comical disbelief. And by episode's end – even though the accuser herself has walked back her charge – the audience forcibly applauds the young female Assistant DA's personal conviction to push established legal boundaries forward. (Ultimately, my dominant memory of that episode is of the audience, whose journey is more complicated and fascinating than the story itself.) An earlier episode exposes the same, disconcerting dichotomy. Even more restrained in its scripting, in season two's "Heat Wave" a wife (played by Janet Ward) comes to the 12th to report her husband's physical abuse and struggles visibly with signing the papers. The centrepiece of the episode is a comedic but psychologically nuanced monologue where she oscillates between loving memories of courtship and righteous anger and fear, leading to her walking out without signing – throughout all of which the 1975 audience laughs with distressing nonchalance. But in the final scene, after a long beat, the door opens again and with wordless determination she signs the paper that will send her husband to jail. The power and subtlety of the scene persists, but I was left with the feeling the audience was struggling more than she was with what they were seeing.

We are told that we live in an era of "peak TV" and that is undeniably true. But it isn't only that we currently have more scripted television shows on the air than ever before; we also have more immediate access to the deep and seemingly inexhaustible library of older shows. Across those decades, and I believe this is truer now than ever before, Barney Miller stands out. Faithful to both its characters and to its episodic structures, it is testimony to the simple charm of a show with high ambitions and lo-fi pretensions – an enduring and endearing legacy. Barney Millar gives us a record its own time, and occasionally a sense of vertigo when it happens into territory which is still of current relevance.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

2 comments:

  1. After the first few episodes, they did not film before a live studio audience. Danny Arnold was something of a perfectionist, and their shoots often lasted deep into the night, well beyond the patience of a studio audience. So all of those audience reactions were chosen by the producers.

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    1. Thank you for calling my attention to this point. My own research confirms this, though it also seems as if it wasn't until the second or perhaps third season that the show abandoned live audiences entirely. (See specifically, the testimony of Tom Reeder – a writer of 13 Barney Miller episodes, including Season 3's celebrated "Hash" episode. https://kenlevine.blogspot.se/2011/10/barney-miller-inside-look.html)

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