"Barney Miller" had a talented cast, with the emphasis on character. But even for a sitcom it was overly staged, with the criminals obviously there solely for the purpose of creating an exchange between them and the officers of the 12th Precinct in New York City. None were particularly threatening--even a man wired with dynamite--because it all had the feel of a talky stage play. What seemed to matter most were the lines, not the situation or the drama. And every one of the actors took their time delivering those lines, especially if it was intended to be funny. Like the jokes themselves, the show was extremely uneven from week to week.
That's why, although "Barney Miller" finished a respectable #17 in the Nielsens from 1976-78 and #15 in 1978-79, it was aired irregularly on ABC and shuttled back and forth between Thursday and Friday nights. There were stronger, more consistently funny comedies in the Seventies--"All in the Family," "M*A*S*H," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "The Bob Newhart Show," among them--and yet the characters on "Barney Miller" plus the fact that the show found humor in the usually serious territory of TV cop shows was enough to keep viewers fascinated.
Does it hold up today? Not as well, I don't think. There are perhaps five out of 22 second-season episodes that still feel genuinely funny and "together." The rest feel more talky than funny, and the writers seemed to overdo it with incorporating the Bicentennial year into the scripts. Today's viewers might also be annoyed by "continuity" issues that apparently weren't much of a concern back in the Seventies. An actor often appeared in multiple guises over the course of a season. Steve Landesberg, for example, plays a fake priest in the season opener and debuts as a new cop in the precinct just 11 episodes later.
What made the show interesting, though, and what kept viewers returning despite some lackluster episodes, was the cast itself. Hal Linden was perfect as the good-natured Capt. Barney Miller, who dealt with criminals in the same folksy, man-without-a-gun manner as Andy Griffith did in rural Mayberry, and also gave them the same respect as human beings, no matter how whacked-out they seemed. The detectives were a great mix of comic actors, and a nice multi-cultural mix that wasn't often seen in a sitcom cast: Gregory Sierra as Det. Sgt. Chano Amenguale, a Puerto Rican; Max Gail as Det. Stanley Wojohowicz, the Polish white guy; Ron Glass as Det. Ron Harris, the African-American; and Abe Vigoda as the popular Det. Phil Fish, who was the squad's senior citizen. Later in the season the writers would add a woman, Det. Janice Wentworth (Linda Lavin), and an intellectual white liberal to balance Wojo's conservatism in Det. Arthur Dietrich (Landesberg). Though the writers tackled racial, gender, and age stereotypes head-on, they did so with Barney Miller's sense of dignity-for-all. That was the show's strength, and why it persisted, I think, despite some awfully uneven writing.
Here's a rundown on the season's 22 episodes, which are presented on three single-sided discs that are housed in two slim clear-plastic keep cases and a cardboard slipcase:
1) "Doomsday"--A crank wired with dynamite takes the precinct hostage, while Wojo is outraged that a con man would pose as a priest. Okay episode, but typical of the staged nature of the show.
2) "Social Worker"--Liz (Barbara Barrie) decides to enter the workforce, much to the dismay of her husband Barney, and Harris is taken by a forger. One of the season's weakest.
3) "The Layoff"--With Chano, Harris, and Wojo laid off, everyone's tempers are short; the precinct has to deal with a stockbroker-turned-pursesnatcher. Another so-so episode.
4) "Ambush"--A livelier episode than most has Yemana taking a bullet and Barney getting what might be a better job offer. Decent episode.
5) "Heat Wave"--One of the best episodes this season finds Wojo (in drag) and Det. Janice Wentworth (Linda Lavin) going undercover to try to catch a rapist; meanwhile, at the precinct, a wife is filing a complaint of spousal abuse.
6) "Arsonist"--So-so episode finds Chano busting a man for assaulting a vending machine and the detectives trying to catch an arsonist.
7) "Grand Hotel"--Wojo and Wentworth go undercover again, this time playing a couple trying to catch a thief who's robbing a hotel blind. Sounds better than it is. Another weak episode.
8) "Discovery"--Marty (Jack Deleon, in a recurring role) accuses one of Barney's men of attacking the gay community. Meanwhile, Fish is ruled dead, according to the force's database. Another weak one.
9) "You Dirty Rat"--When two pounds of marijuana turns up missing, the detectives get more nervous than the homeless man they bust for camping in a department store. One of the stronger episodes.
10) "The Horse Thief"--When a cab operator loses his horse, he "borrows" one of the police mounts. Another weak one that beats you over the head with the Bicentennial again, as too many episodes this season do.
11) "Rain"--One of the best episodes has the men of the 12th precinct wondering if the dilapidated roof will hold up under a particularly heavy rainstorm. Sidney Miller guests as a very bad stand-up comic.
12) "Fish"--Because of his age, Fish is designated for limited assignment, and he thinks about quitting . . . until he bonds with his someday replacement, Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg). Okay episode, but as with most of these, it's awfully slow to develop.
13) "Hot Dogs"--One of the weakest episodes finds a man claiming his missing wife is Jean Harlow, while a pair of rival female cops beat the detectives to a drug bust. Tired and predictable writing in this one.
14) "Protection"--When rumors have the 12th Precinct shutting down, it sends a panic throughout the building and the neighborhood. Eh.
15) "Happy New Year"--This one gets too cute with the symbols of New Year's, a baby and an old man, as Wojo delivers one and Fish saves a man from killing himself. Another weak episode.
16) "The Sniper"--A sniper has his sights on Fish and Inspector Luger, while a con man is busted for selling trips to Saturn. Pretty tedious dialogue in this one, and yet another situation that thinks it's funnier than it really is.
17) "Fear of Flying"--Wojo has to escort a bigamist to Ohio, but he's afraid to fly; meanwhile, someone turns in an unmarked envelope filled with cash. Pacing is a little snappier in this one, as is the writing. One of the best episodes.
18) "Block Party"--Wentworth stops an assassination, but it's Chano who gets the credit. Okay episode at best.
19) "Massage Parlor"--Another okay episode has the detectives arresting a senior citizen for a mugging, and Wentworth hauling in a good-looking drugstore cowboy.
20) "The Psychiatrist"--After a complaint and an evaluation, a psychiatrist recommends that Wojo turn in his gun. Decent episode.
21) "The Kid"--Fish develops a crush on a pickpocket's mother, while the citizen who turned in the money wants to claim it. Weak episode.
22) "The Mole"--As Harris and Wojo track a thief known as "The Mole," it leads them underground: into the sewers. Fish, meanwhile, wrestles with a medical decision. One of the better episodes.
Though the box says this is remastered in High Definition, you couldn't prove it by me. It's a rough-looking picture that's only a slight step-up from a VHS tape. There's a general blurriness and muted color palette to contend with, as is the case with many TV shows from this era. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1.
The audio is a serviceable Dolby Digital Mono, but it's a little heavy on the treble and light on the bass. The tone isn't terribly rich, but hey, it's Mono. There are no subtitles to this English soundtrack, but it is closed captioned for the hearing impaired.
The only bonus features are two "minisodes" from unrelated shows, "Angels in Chains" ("Charlie's Angels") and "Growing Pains" ("The Facts of Life").
Season Two of "Barney Miller" falls right between a 6 and a 7. Because of the strength of characters and the diverse cast, I'm inclined to round up.