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Barney Miller - The First Season
The 70's created many classic comedy TV shows: All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and M*A*S*H among others. One other 70's show that was of the same caliber, but is often overlooked, is Barney Miller.
Over its 7 year run, Barney Miller won a Directors Guild of America Award, three Emmys and was nominated for 29 more, and won two Golden Globes. Though it garnered critical acclaim, it was never at the top of the ratings, which is unfortunate because it was a show ahead of its time in a lot of ways. For example, it had a racially diverse cast, yet didn't make big deal about it. This was long before that was fashionable.
The show centers around the squad room and the detectives who make up the12th Precinct in Greenwich Village, New York City. There is Sergeant Phil Fish (Played by Abe Vigoda. I always wondered if the name of his character comes from his role in The Godfather.) who is close to retirement and always grumpy, Stan Wojciehowicz (Maxwell Gail) the token 'dumb guy," Chano Amenguale (Gregory Sierra) a proud Puerto Rican, and Nick Yemena (Jack Soo) as the stoic oriental. Rounding out the squad are Ron Harris (Ron Glass) the vocal black Sergeant, and Captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden) who heads this odd crew. The show is peppered with the strange inhabitants and eccentric criminals of the Greenwich Village area.
This sounds like a typical sitcom, but it is not. What sets Barney Miller apart from other comedies is that the characters are not two dimensional stereotypes. Over the course of the show they are all fleshed out real people. The writing is excellent too. Though filled with witty dialog, and unusual characters, the show managed to stay grounded in reality. It was down to earth. Along with the humor, there was some serious issues, like suicide, prostitution, and shootings, but the creative team managed to tread a fine line. They show never got preachy, but neither did it take these matters lightly.
The shows in this season, presented in the order they originally aired are:
Ramon: Barney's wife, Liz, has a bad feeling and doesn't want him to go into work that day. He dismisses her concerns only to have a gun pointed in his face as he walks into the precinct. A drug addict who was arrested manages to get Fish's gun. Barney has to talk the youth into putting the weapon down. It's easy to see that they were trying things out in this episode. A good portion of it takes place in Barney's apartment, one of the rare times that we see it. There is also an appearance of Barney's son, David, who only is seen a few times over the show's run. The show had more of a sitcom feel than other episodes, especially the intro in Barney's apartment before the credits. A good first effort that hints of things to come. C.
Experience: Fish thinks he's getting too old to be an officer and asks Barney to approve his early retirement. Meanwhile, a serial bomber has left an explosive device in the 12th precinct. This episode marks the first appearance of Arnold Ripner, the ambulance chaseing lawyer who will appear in various episodes throughout the series run, and Marty, the flaming homosexual thief who also has a reoccurring role. The cast was still getting the feeling for the characterless, and the writers were still trying to get the feel for the show down on this one. Grade: C+
Snow Job: The heating system is out in the middle of winter, and the 21st is freezing. A flasher is arrested, and attempts suicide while in the bathroom. Wojo agrees to keep a department store's receipts in the precinct safe until an armored truck can transport it. The show started to hit it's stride with this episode. The flasher's humorous laments of "I am filth! Everybody says so!" turn serious when he tries to kill himself. Grade B+
Graft: An officer who was once stationed at the 12th is promoted to Internal Affairs. He comes by to let Barney know that there are crooked cops under his command, and that he is going to root them out. Everyone becomes very paranoid. This show slips a little. They include a scene at Barney's apartment, that really slows the pace of the show. Grade: C+
The Courtesans: A group of prostitutes are arrested, and Wojo tries to convince one of them to go straight. Barney's daughter makes an appearance to ask if she can move into her own apartment. A good episode, though the plot with Barney's daughter wasn't that interesting. Grade: B-
Stakeout: Barney, Fish and Wojo stack out a warehouse from a vacant apartment across the street. A variety of strange neighbors traipse through. This was the first episode of the series filmed, which is ironic because it avoids the pitfalls the first two broadcast shows fell into. Liz's role is limited to telephone calls, which is what the role will eventually evolve into. A very funny show. Grade: A
Bureaucrat: Wojo, being every vigilant, has the precinct's favorite deli closed due to minor health code infractions, and an official from Washington is arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. Chano investigates an apartment that has been robbed, his own. Another good show. Grade: B+
Ms. Cop: Linda Lavin costars as Detective Janice Wentworth the newest addition to the 12th. Barney is hesitant to let her out on the streets, and when she finally gets her chance, she tackles her assignment with gusto. Chano finally nabs an obscene phone caller. Lavin did a great job, and her character would reappear in the second season. Grade: A-
Vigilante: Wojo arrests a cross-dresser, who not only drives a truck for a living, but served in a tank during the war. A vigilante is lose, attacking muggers, and Barney's superior, Inspector Frank Luger, (James Gregory) makes his first appearance and tells Barney that the people don't fear his squad enough. Grade: B+
The Guest: The 12th have to protect a nervous accountant who is the witness in a case against the mob. Chano sets up a narcotics buy, but uses his co-worker's own money. Grade: B+
Escape Artist: The "bird-man" comes to the 12th, a philosophical escape artist is hosted, and Harris starts writing his book, that will be an ongoing storyline for most of the series. This is one of my favorite episodes. Everything seemed to work. Grade: A
Hair: A long haired undercover narco officer is transferred to the 12th, and Bernice learns that Fish spent the afternoon investigating a massage parlor. Grade: B
The Hero: Chano and Fish respond to a call about a bank robbery. The two thieves have shot a guard and are holding hostages. Chano sneaks in and kills both of the robbers, but is wracked by guilt afterwards. Not one of the funniest episodes, but one of the best. Chano's guilt over taking a life in the line of duty is something that just about all police shows gloss over. A great show to end the season with. Grade: A+
This show has a 2 channel mono audio track. The sound isn't great, there are a few defects, but it probably sounds just like it did when it originally aired. There is some distortion in a few loud places, but not all. There isn't any hiss or crackles. An acceptable, if not impressive sound track. There are no subtitles.
The video quality is not very good. As much as it pains me to say this, it leaves a lot to be desired. This show was obviously filmed on video tape originally, and it shows. The edges are blurry, and the lines are not clear. There whole picture has a slightly unfocused look. There is some ghosting, especially on the opening credits. There are a lot of digital artifacts too, which seem to be more prevalent on the first disc that has 9 episodes on it. There is aliasing throughout, and details are lost when the camera moves, such as the pinstripes on Wojo's shirt as he walks past the camera. The show is watchable, and it does look better than a VHS recording, but not by a whole lot. It is very unfortunate that Columbia-Tristar didn't do some restoration to improve the picture quality on this release.
There are very few extras on this set. There is a "TV-ography," a list of the television shows that the main cast members have appeared in, and a trailer for Anger Management. I really wish they had included the pilot episode, that was aired on TV only once.
An excellent series, that had some growing pains at the beginning but come through it marvelously. Those that missed Barney Miller when it originally aired, or didn't manage to catch the edited versions rerun on TV you now have the chance to see one of the really good series from the 70's. It is unfortunate that the video quality is so poor, or else I would have given this set a higher recommendation. Even with the flaws this show is worth checking out. Recommended.