"Barney Miller" ran for eight seasons, beginning in 1975, and this third season it finished the highest it would rate in the Nielsen's at Number 15. But the sitcom was an acquired taste because it had a real staged quality about it. You never, for example, got the feeling that these were real people in a real police station. You were always aware that these were characters in an ensemble comedy. Criminals were there solely for the purpose of creating an exchange between them and the officers of New York City's 12th Precinct. None were particularly threatening, and all of them were quirky as could be, not because there wasn't a normal criminal in New York City, but because this show played it just slightly over-the top with its characters and dialogue. What mattered most were the lines, not the situation, the comedy, or the occasional drama. And every one of the actors took their time delivering those lines, especially if it was intended to be funny. Then there would be a long beat, a reaction shot, and audience laughter.
Like the jokes themselves, the show could be extremely uneven from week to week. 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--this season, especially. That's because much of the humor comes from racial or cultural stereotypes (as with Marty, the gay criminal), and some of the plots this season really vary in terms of how interesting or successful they are. Sometimes the goofy ones work (as when a man arrested in the park claims he's a werewolf, or a prophet predicts the world will end), while other times its the "normal" situations (Wojo unknowingly bringing hash brownies for the detectives, or Fish dressing like Santa to catch a mugger). The same holds true for the less successful episodes, as when a landlord stares down the barrel of an old musket when he tries to evict a tenant, or when the Precinct gets crammed with a literal busload of witnesses to a holdup. It's hard to explain why some of these fall flat while others are amusing, but it's mostly the quality of writing.
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; Abe Vigoda as the popular Det. Phil Fish, who was the squad's senior citizen; and Det. Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) as the intellectual white liberal. And this season, the pompous Inspector Luger (James Gregory) and vertically challenged Officer Levitt (Ron Carey) appear in a good many episodes. 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 one of Sony's new "spindle" single-width DVD keep cases. All three discs set on top of each other. I personally don't like the case, because the more you handle the discs the more you risk scratching them, but Sony deserves points for trying to help collectors solve their storage problems. The episode descriptions are taken from a single-sheet (double-sided) episode guide that's included:
1) "Evacuation." Wojo fears the Precinct is unprepared for a disaster, which starts an unfounded rumor. Fish befriends Jilly Pappalardo, a kid with priors from a group home. (Weak opener)
2-3) "Quarrantine" Parts 1-2. When a foreign man in custody falls ill, the Health Department puts the Precinct on 24-hour lockdown. Harris misses a hot date. A streetwalker makes nice with Fish. Everyone settles in for a long night. While waiting to be cleared, the Precinct has a sleepover. Yemana is jealous over superior coffee. Harris releases some subconscious tension in his sleep. Inspector Luger reaches middle ground with Marty (Jack DeLeon) and Mr. Driscoll (Ray Stewart).
4) "Bus Stop." The Precinct becomes packed with witnesses when a city bus is hijacked. Wojo makes another attempt at the sergeant exam. A hidden affair threatens to become public. (Another weak one)
5) "The Election." The officers exchange opinions on Election Day. A woman is imprisoned in her bathroom when her husband keeps her from voting. Wojo loses a thief he's escorted to the polls.
6) "Werewolf." An elderly couple from out of town is mugged by a cab driver. Wojo's fear of needles keeps him dodging a flu shot. A man claiming to be a werewolf howls for his release. (Surprisingly, one of the funnier episodes)
7) "Recluse." A doomsayer is brought in claiming the world will end at 5:30 that day. Jilly (Denise Miller) and her friend Victor run away to New Jersey. A shut-in who hasn't left his apartment in 30 years skips jury duty. (Another funny one)
8) "Non-Involvement." Everyone at the 12th Precinct is concerned about pensions. Detective Maria Battista (June Gable) arrests a man for indecent exposure. Barney defends Wojo for bringing in a man who neglected to help him catch a purse snatcher.
9) "Power Failure." A blackout forces the 12th Precinct to work in the dark. A psychiatrist demands her schizophrenic patient's release. Yemana tries to get horse racing picks from one of the patient's personalities. (Another surprisingly funny one)
10) "Christmas Story." Wojo struggles to tell Yemana that his Christmas date is a call girl. After failing to assemble a Christmas present, a disgruntled father busts up a department store. Fish dresses up to catch a serial Santa mugger. Luger looks to Barney for a place to spend his holiday. (One of the strongest episodes)
11) "Hash." Officer Levitt fishes for a promotion. The 12th Precinct is in high spirits after eating some suspicious brownies from Wojo's new girlfriend. A Polish actor and theatre critic are arrested for dueling with swords over a scathing review. (Another strong one)
12) "Smog Alert." The Precinct fears for Fish's life as it struggles to work through a first-stage smog alert. A Precinct jokester irks Battista. A suicide jumper finds romance with a perverse subway graffiti artist. (Weak episode)
13) "Community Relations." Yemana and Harris make a bet over who has more willpower. Wojo's problems with public speaking hurt his criminal testimony. A blind man makes an unlikely shoplifter. A man facing eviction has an armed stand-off against his slumlord. (Another weak one)
14) "Rand Report." A biased report puts the Precinct on edge. A woman trapped in an elevator with a purse snatcher has a husband on edge. Wojo walks out after refusing a week of mandatory uniformed patrol.
15) "Fire '77." Yemana cooks up a Japanese delicacy for the 12th Precinct. A couple with a suicide pact might get their wish when a desperate hood starts a fire to cover his escape.
16) "The Abduction." Harris is steamed when his story in a gentleman's magazine gets unfavorable editing. A pair of overzealous parents attempt to rescue their daughter from a new-age cult . . . and restaurant. Yemana's bookie turns himself in when he can't pay his bets. (Decent)
17) "The Sex Surrogate." Barney questions the legality of a risqué new clinic in the neighborhood. While looking for a gang of child thieves, Harris catches an unlikely thief. Tired of waiting for a promotion, Levitt threatens to quit.
18) "Moonlighting." When Harris takes a night job, Barney becomes concerned with his performance. A priest is brought in for selling stolen merchandise. A deplorable bookie uses a special kid to run his numbers.
19) "Asylum." A beat cop catches Marty with marijuana and brings him in for violating his probation. When Wojo grants political asylum to a Soviet pianist, a state department liaison is brought in to avoid an international incident. (Strong episode)
20) "Group Home." A bigoted Army recruiter receives a bomb threat from a sick and crazy man. A police sketch artist with an attitude is brought in to help ID the perp. While on mugging detail, Fish gets propositioned. (Another strong one)
21-22) "Strike," Parts 1-2. A woman is robbed by her computer date. Complaints in the department lead to talk of a strike. Dietrich, Harris, Yemana and Wojo struggle to leave when it's time to walk out. Just because the police are off the job, the criminals aren't. As the strike continues, Barney, Luger, and Levitt struggle to keep the Precinct together. The computer-dating victim strikes up a romance with her attacker. When the men return from demonstrating, the detectives of the 12th Precinct have a long talk to discuss their feelings. (Strong ending to the season)
Sony did a better job on the quality with Season 3. Two was just a step-up from VHS, but the picture this season, while grainy (especially in backgrounds) has moments of clarity in the close-ups and it's not nearly as fuzzy. Colors also seem a little stronger this outing. The aspect ratio remains 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.
Season 3 is stronger than Season 2, and contains some of the episodes that fans now think of as classic. But it's still uneven in quality from week to week, and that and the staged quality keeps this in the 7 out of 10 range.