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Barney Miller: The Complete Series

Shout Factory // Unrated // October 25, 2011
List Price: $159.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted October 24, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Show:
One of the best shows from the 70's, and one that is often overlooked, is Barney Miller.  A great cop show that was hilariously funny without ever making fun of crime or its effects, Sony only released the first three seasons to DVD before stopping.  Now, thanks to Shout! Factory fans of this great comedy can pick up the entire 168-episode series in an attractive case that looks like the famous squad room door and includes some great extras for a very reasonable price.

Over its 8 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:  It had a racially diverse cast, yet didn't make big deal about it, and it was the first prime-time show to have an ongoing story arc about a gay character.
The show centers on the squad room and the detectives who make up the12th Precinct in Greenwich Village, New York City.  It's a diverse and colorful group, but still feels very grounded in reality.  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, has many health problems and always grumpy.  Stan 'Wojo" Wojciehowicz (Maxwell Gail) is a younger officer who is trusting to a fault and definitely not the brains of the squad room, but he makes up for that with his enthusiasm.  He's also the character who goes through the most changes over the course of the show.
Chano Amenguale (Gregory Sierra, his character leaves after the second season) is a proud Puerto Rican, and Nick Yemena (Jack Soo) plays the stoic oriental who can never seem to make a good pot of coffee.  One of my favorite characters is Ron Harris (Ron Glass who would later appear in fan-favorite Firefly) a smart black Sergeant who lives beyond his means, has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and dresses very nicely.  He's also writing a book about his life on the force, Blood on the Badge.  Leading the all is Captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden) an everyman who strives to do his job to the best of his ability while having to deal with a mountain of paperwork, a very tight budget, and poor facilities.  The show is peppered with the strange inhabitants and eccentric criminals of the Greenwich Village area.

As the series progresses the cast enlarges a bit.  Detective Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) joins the squad in season three after making some appearances in season two.  He's not only an intellectual, but a know-it-all, and a constant thorn in Harris' side.
Deputy Inspector Frank Luger (James Gregory) makes appearances throughout the show's run.  He's Barney's superior, who is prone to ramble and never really listens to what Barney is saying.  His appearances usually spell trouble for Capt. Miller.
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.  Wojo was honestly lonely and looking for that special someone, Harris is an intellectual and needs to show everyone how smart he is, and Yemena gambles too much at times.  They're just like the people you work with, they just happen to be cops.

The writing on the show 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 were some serious issues, like suicide, being a homosexual police officer, and just how a cop feels after a justified shooting, just to name a few.  The creative team managed to tread a fine line.  They show never got preachy, but neither did it take these matters lightly. 
The show had a unique style.  It felt more like a play than a sitcom.  With only a few notable exceptions the entire series took place on one set that consisted of the squad room, the adjoining cell, and Barney's office.  Characters came and went, but when a store was being robbed and two detectives ran out, viewers had to wait along with everyone else in the squad room for someone to call in and relate what happened.  The stories almost always took place over the course of a single work day too.  It was a great way to tell stories.

The show, first and foremost, is a comedy and it's hilarious. Every show is filled with great lines.  Just to give you a taste, here are some of my favorites;
In one episode a suspect is brought in with the contents of him home laboratory, one item of which he claims is a powerful weapon.  Everyone ignores him until Dietrich walks in and asks "Where'd you get the atomic bomb?"
Best deadpan reply goes to Harris who walks by while Nick is explaining to Barney how Fish captured a suspect:
Nick:  You should have seen him catch him!  He leaped in the air like... like... what do you call that thing in Africa that leaps in the air?"
Harris:  A slave.
Barney:  You mean a gazelle.
And then there is Stan Spelling his last name:  "W-o-j-c-i-e-h-o-w-i-c-z. Just like it's pronounced!"
Of course I couldn't finish this review without relating my favorite moment in the series.  A gun collector has had his entire collection stolen and writes out a very long list of what was taken.  Barney comments at how many guns he had and the man states that they were all registered.  Just as the theft victim was leaving Harris answers the phone and yells "Hey Barney... there's some idiot trying to rob a bank with a bazooka."  All heads turn to the collector who sheepishly admits "that might be mine."  Of course Capt. Miller then sits him down to make a list of all of the unregistered illegal weapons that were stolen.

One warning... the show does start a bit unevenly.  During the first season the team were still working out just what the show was and how they were going to tell the stories that they did.  In the first episode for example, the narrative changes to Barney's home, something that only happened once again a few episodes later.  Some of the shows in the first season didn't work very well, but by the time they hit the half way point the show was firing on all cylinders, as it would for the rest of its run.
The DVD:
Here's one of the really cool things about this set:  all 168-episodes of Barney Miller, the 13-episodes of the first season of Fish, and a 38 page booklet fit into a nice package that takes up less than three inches of shelf space!  We're talking 25-discs here.  That's pretty impressive.  What's more is that the discs are contained in 6-disc single-width keepcases.  There are four of these, two-seasons per case, and an extra two-disc case for Fish season one.  That means that unlike series sets that have the DVDs in scratch-prone pockets, these discs won't be scratched when you're taking them out of their holders. 
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 pretty good overall.  These shows haven't been restored, and they were originally recorded on tape back in the 1970's so don't expect them to rival Lost or anything.  The image is on the soft side, the colors are a bit muted, and the blacks aren't as inky as they could be.  On the plus side the level of detail and contrast are fine.  The picture is easy on the eyes for the most part and will please fans of the show.
The Extras:
There are a few extras included with this set, but it's definitely a case of quality over quantity.  There's some great stuff here.  First off is Inside the 12th Precinct a half hour featurette that looks over the eight seasons of the show.  It prominently features interviews with Hal Linden, Abe Vigoda and Max Gail along with others involved with the show.  Filled with behind-the-scenes stories as well as the genesis of the show, it's a great companion to the series.

Next up is a real treat for fans of the show:  The Life and Times of Barney Miller, the original pilot for the program that was shown on TV only once.  It's quite different from what eventually ended up running for eight years.  The pilot has a mostly different cast and spends more time at Barney's home rather than focusing on the station.  Salute to the Old One Two is another great 25 minute bonus that looks behind the scenes.  They focus on the set for the 12th Precinct but just use that as a jumping off point to talk about some of the show's important moments, including the first season episode that was given an "X" rating by the studio and dropped by four affiliates. 
Frank Dungan and Jeff Stein talk about their time writing for the show in Inside the Writers' Room.  Though it's shorter than the other featurettes, running about 15 minutes, it's very entertaining and fun.  They also include an alternate version of the very first episode, Ramon.  This edit is basically the original pilot, preformed with the new cast.  It's interesting to compare the two versions.  The final video extra is an eight minute excerpt from You Don't Know Jack, a documentary about Jack Soo.
This great set of bonuses is wrapped up by commentary tracks to the final three-part story, Landmark with writer/producers Tony Sheehan, Jeff Stein, and Frank Dungan.
But wait, there's more.  As if that wasn't enough, Shout Factory has included the first season of the spin off show Fish staring Abe Vigoda.  In this show the detective and his wife decide to leave their New York City apartment and buy a rundown house.  There they are foster parents to five delinquent children.  Fish was a mid-season replacement and it's pretty impressive that Abe Vigoda was able to appear in both shows for the rest of Barney Miller's third season and the beginning of the fourth.  As for the show itself, Fish had a bit more of a sitcom feel to it, and while it was never as clever as Barney Miller, it did have its moments and is a welcome addition to this set. 
Final Thoughts:
Barney Miller is an excellent series.  It is one of the best from the 70's and that's saying something.  Those that missed the show when it originally aired or didn't manage to catch in on reruns on TV will now have the chance to see one of the really good series from TV's past.  Shout! Factory has done an amazing job with this package.  They really went above and beyond the call of duty by including the first season of Fish as a bonus.  It's very reasonably priced too.  At this writing, the weekend before it's released, the collection is less than $100 shipped from Amazon.  For a total of nine seasons of TV?  That's a deal.  Even if you have the earlier Sony releases of seasons 1-3, it's worth the money to get this complete series.  There's a lot of great comedy in that box.  DVDTalk Collector's Series.
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