Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Salute To The Ol' One-Two

I recently completed my viewing trek through all eight seasons of “Barney Miller” on DVD.  I got tired of waiting around for TV Land and/or Nick At Nite to 86 their incessant “Roseanne” and “Andy Griffith Show” reruns in favor of New York’s finest, so I went ahead and bought the whole damn series on DVD for a C-note, and it was well worth it.  Although critically acclaimed, BM still remains one of the more underrated sitcoms of all-time, I think because too many viewers either don’t get (or aren’t patient enough to appreciate) the show’s subtle humor.  There’s no way in hell this show would ever last if it aired today—it’s too sophisticated for our current short-attention-span generation in dumbed-down America.

“Barney” debuted on ABC in early 1975 as a midseason replacement and ran until the spring of ’82, when the producers wisely decided to end the show before it had a chance to jump the proverbial shark, thus it remained consistent throughout its run.  Actor Hal Linden brilliantly played the title character, the level-headed yet beleaguered Captain Miller, the kind of guy I think we’d all like to work for, if given the chance.  Miller ran New York’s fictional 12th Precinct in Lower Manhattan, and his subordinates had almost as many quirks and personal issues as the zany perps they arrested on a daily basis, but they somehow persevered and worked as a team as they battled crime, police department bureaucracy and the decaying building they worked in.

While the show was a bit predictable and even repetitive at times, what really made it work were the characters.  Unlike other sitcoms of its era, “Barney Miller” never relied on silly catchphrases and gags like other sitcoms (“Dy-no-mite!”, “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” and Jack Tripper-type pratfalls, et al), and it functioned just fine with its outstanding ensemble cast.  In addition to Linden, actors Ron Glass and Max Gail made the entire trip through eight seasons as Detectives Ron Harris and Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz, respectively.  For the first two seasons, Gregory Sierra played Chano Armenguale (following his recurring stint as Julio on “Sanford & Son”), but he never seemed to like to stay in one place very long.  Sierra later played a (serious) cop again in the first season of “Miami Vice” in 1985, but left after just a few episodes.  Abe Vigoda, previously known as caporegime Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather, was the inimitable Philip K. Fish for seasons One through Three before “retiring” to his own spinoff, the short-lived “Fish” in 1977-78 (see below).  Veteran actor Jack Soo played the slightly smart-assed Nick Yemana, who was more preoccupied with perusing his racing forms than doing his job.  Soo passed away midway through the fifth season in January, 1979 after a bout with cancer.  Vigoda and Soo were replaced in later seasons, for all intents and purposes, by the humorously-annoying (if there is such a thing) Sgt. Arthur Dietrich, played by Steve Landesberg (who passed away last year), and ever-anal and insecure Officer Carl “Little” Levitt, played by Ron Carey (who passed away in 2007).

As good as “Barney Miller” was, I do have a few criticisms of it, the chief one being the overuse of the same stable of actors to portray multiple roles throughout the show’s run.  I’m not talking about recurring characters like liquor store owner Mr. Kotterman or Marty Morrison and Darryl Driscoll (the humorous gay couple), but rather actors like Phil Leeds, Howard Platt (best known as Hoppy on “Sanford & Son”) and Florence Halop appearing on BM as many as six or seven times, each time playing a different perp or victim, thus diminishing the show’s credibility a bit.  Even Landesberg and Carey appeared on the show as crooks in early episodes before eventually joining the cast as Dietrch and Levitt.  Oh, and another thing—couldn’t they find more than the same ten damn laugh tracks to use on this show?!?  Oy!  Another thing I found quirky was the episode in which Dietrich dressed in drag while pulling “mugging detail” (as all the other detectives had done in the past) and Barney decreed that Arthur wasn’t convincing enough as a woman—as if Fish, Wojo and Chano were?!?  Only Harris managed to halfway pull it off in drag (after reluctantly shaving off his mustache).

To their credit, the producers dropped characters that weren’t working out, like future “Alice” star Linda Lavin’s annoying loud-mouthed over-the-top Lt. Wentworth and frizzy-haired trouble maker Lt. Eric Dorsey.  It’s a shame they didn’t do the same with the ever-irritating Inspector Luger.  I’m sure the late James Gregory was a good guy, but heavens to Betsy, didn’t you just want to hit Luger over the head with a rubber hose?  He almost made characters like Urkel from “Family Matters” and Screech from “Saved By The Bell” seem halfway tolerable.  One recurring character I could’ve also done without was Lt. Scanlon, the Internal Affairs officer who was always out to bring down Barney and his squad over the tiniest of transgressions.  To me, Scanlon was little more than the “Barney Miller” equivalent to “M*A*S*H”’s Col. Flagg—the inept, over-zealous bully—and after about three episodes, both became inane caricatures that I couldn’t take seriously.  The first season of “Barney Miller” and part of the second also dealt somewhat with Barney’s family life with his naggy, overly-paranoid sourpuss wife (played by Barbara Barrie) and their two children, but that proved to be superfluous and weak, so Barrie only made intermittent appearances as Elizabeth Miller after that when the show’s focus shifted exclusively to the “Ol’ One-Two”.  In fact, apart from very rare occasions after that second season, “Barney Miller” was shot almost exclusively in the Squad Room set or in Barney’s office, and only once did we even get to see the interior of the 12th’s infamous Men’s Room (aka Fish’s branch office).

Admittedly, the show exercised a bit of artistic license and was pretty unrealistic and even a bit contrived at times.  First off, detectives investigate crimes, they don’t run out and nab the petty thieves, weirdos and scalawags (much less pull mugging detail) like the guys at the 12th did—that’s the domain of the uniformed patrolmen.  And police work sure ain’t no 9-to-5 gig like it was portrayed on “Barney Miller”—and how come no one ever came in to relieve Barney, Wojo and Harris when their shift was over?  They might have gotten away with that schedule in Mayberry, but not in lower Manhattan!  And a jail cell right there in the office area?  Not likely.  One facet I always liked, though, was the 12th’s use of those old Royal manual typewriters—just like the ones my old man and I used back in the ‘70s.  I still have them, too…

“Barney Miller” also managed to tackle some serious subject matter from time to time without becoming too heavy-handed or preachy.  Wojo, a former U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam, became an activist when he learned about veterans like himself being affected by Agent Orange.  Racial profiling was dealt with when Harris was shot at by fellow officers who thought he was the miscreant simply because he was black.  The show presaged the “Don’t ask/Don’t tell” era by about 20 years with the story arc involving a closeted gay cop who was outed (Sgt. Zitelli) and Dietrich became a bit of a prophet when he asked a perp who aspired to ride on the Space Shuttle, “Aren’t you worried about the tiles?”—a good five years before the Challenger disaster.

My favorite “Barney Miller” character was erstwhile author Det. Sgt. Ronald Nathan Harris, played splendidly by Ron Glass.  He always had the best lines and comebacks throughout the show’s run.  When a vacationing purse-snatching victim lamented buying into a TV ad featuring Broadway dancers extolling the virtues of visiting Gotham City without mentioning all the crime and thuggery therein, Harris responded, “Well, they only have a minute!”  Following one of Dietrich’s typical lengthy Cliff Claven-esque historical spiels, one of the perps agreed with him, to which Harris irritably replied, “Oh, don’t encourage him!”  In an early episode during a moment of personal frustration, Harris uttered, “I just wanna BE somebody!”, a line which also gave Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. the inspiration to write their classic song “I Wanna Be Somebody”.  I think my favorite Harris exchange was the following:

BARNEY (to Wojo): “Harris is captain of Security at the Henmon Arms.”
WOJO: “Well, whoopity-doopity-doo!”
HARRIS: “You know, I expected you to say something like that, however the number of syllables DID surprise me.”

I often find myself using “whoopity-doopity-doo” nowadays in mock response to things, thanks to Wojo, who eventually overcame his vocal doofy-ness and gained Harris’ approval in the final scene in the final episode when Wojo gave a fairly eloquent “farewell” speech, after which Harris said, “God, he is SO much improved!”

The DVD set also contains some nice Bonus Features, including recent recollections from the cast members, including Abe Vigoda, who at age 90 is still as spry and lucid as ever.  Oddly enough, Max Gail, at age 68, looks almost as old now as Fish did back in the day, but Hal Linden seemingly hasn’t aged much at all in the last 30 years—I hope I look half as good when I’m 80 as he does.  Also included is the original pilot episode for the show, called “The Life And Times Of Captain Barney Miller”, which aired in the summer of ’74 on ABC, and was a bit different in format, although the squad room was virtually identical.  Abby Dalton played Barney’s wife, and Vigoda was the only other cast member retained for the series when it was re-titled just plain “Barney Miller”.  The pilot was later recycled as the episode “Ramon” in Season 1 and shot with Sierra, Gail and Glass replacing the actors from the original. And as if eight seasons and 23 discs weren’t enough content, they even threw in two discs’ worth of the “Fish” spinoff, where our favorite curmudgeon cop spends his retirement running a rooming house for wayward kids with his Edith Bunker clone wife, Berniece.  Riiiiiight.  As funny as BM was, “Fish” was as dull as a dead mackerel—dumb premise, lame writing and downright boring show.  The Fish character was a lot like Grady on “Sanford & Son”—best taken in small doses and not spun off into his own series.  The only thing truly noteworthy about “Fish” was that it featured a pre-Willis Jackson Todd Bridges.

And in a classy final touch, “Barney Miller” signed off in 1982 with the graphic, “Goodbye and thank you from all of us at the Ol’ One-Two” before fading to black.  Unlike “M*A*S*H” and “Seinfeld”, they got this finale right…