27 December 1999 | Surfer-23
A quality series and a real lesson in TV writing
"Barney Miller" was a show that changed dramatically during the course of its run, despite the fact that its plot, setting, and basic cast remained the same.
The show dealt with a detective squad at a precinct house in New York City and the often strange people from the community who went in and out their door. At the beginning of the series, the pace was fast and the comedy a bit "loud," and the emphasis was on one-liners and quirkiness rather than on real characters. Barney was the captain of the precinct, very put-upon and overworked, but nevertheless always wise and friendly. Wojo was the well-meaning detective who was a bit lacking in smarts. Harris was funny, fashion-conscious, and cool, while Yemana was much more introverted, though he would also provide the occasional witty commentary. Fish was the old man on the verge of retirement who had more ailments than you could imagine. Chano was perhaps the most "normal" of the bunch after Barney, and always tried to have a positive outlook despite being constantly exposed to the less inspiring side of life.
The detectives were racially mixed, which, at the show's inception, would occasionally provide for some comedy, though ethnic humor was largely dispensed with after the first season. Other detectives came and went after an episode or two, especially during the very early years.
By the end of the run, the pace of the show had slowed down somewhat. The precinct house was now very leisurely for a police station in Manhattan. Conversations became more relaxed as well, and you got the idea that the directors were trying to show human interaction as it often was, with people thinking before they spoke. The dialog became wittier and the characterization much more subtle. Barney was now more of a real person, the pressures of life seemingly affecting him more, and he would even get a bit frustrated with his immediate underlings. Harris, with whom Barney now clashed from time to time, had become successful financially and was becoming more attuned to the cultural side of things. He had developed into something of a snob, and was also less and less interested in police work as the series went on. Chano had moved on early, Fish retired (and had briefly had his own show), and the actor who played Yemana died, inspiring a half-hour tribute to actor Jack Soo by the rest of the cast. Dietrich was Fish's replacement, and was the intellectual of the group (one Monday morning he chit-chatted about how he had gone to the Goethe Festival over the weekend). His (often in-depth) knowledge on every conceivable subject was an extreme nuisance to Harris, but proved helpful to Barney in official matters. Wojo, by the end of the run, was no longer the loud, sex-driven brute he had been before, but rather a soulful and sensitive person, prompting Harris, in one of the show's great inside jokes, to proclaim in the final episode: "He is so MUCH improved!"
Popping in occasionally was Inspector Luger, Barney's immediate superior, a man who yearned for the old days of police work, when men were men (and died like men) and there wasn't all this "concern" for the suspect. Though Luger never changed, Barney's reaction to him did: where he once considered him as an amusing relic from the past of the city's police force, he later saw him as dangerously out of touch and a potential threat to police-civilian relations. And he turned out to be just that: at a protest by Hasidic Jews at the station house, Luger suggested that they all disperse, go home and "take a shave." The protest immediately turned into a riot.
The obsequious Officer Carl Levitt became a regular after a few seasons, always trying to become a detective, but continually rejected, apparently because of his height. And every once in a while there was a visit from Lt. Scanlon of Internal Affairs, who delighted in the hunt and, especially, the smell of blood.
Almost all the action during the run of the show took place in the squad room (which contained a single jail cell) and Barney's adjoining office. Despite the fact that the squad seemed very small considering its location (not to mention not very busy!), the viewer got the feeling that he was really in a run-down precinct house. The office was cramped, and the furniture old and in dire need of replacement. Papers and files lay around for so long that you actually got used to them being where they were, and the advertisement for boxing posted on the wall next to the stairs seems never to have been updated in seven years.
"Barney Miller," during its run, became a literate, well-written show with interesting characters and story lines. In its later years it unfortunately suffered from "social-cause-of-the-week" syndrome, à la Lou Grant, but it also knew when it was taking itself just a little too seriously, and the episode would often allow a well-timed and witty remark by Dietrich to lighten the atmosphere a bit.
"Barney Miller" is highly recommended, especially in daily reruns, where you can see its steady development into a fine television series.