Barney Miller is so unlike 21st century television it at first comes across like a relic from an ancient media age. The entire show takes place on one stage with a studio audience laughing off-camera.
While most of today’s popular sitcoms have plotlines that develop in some way from episode to episode, every episode of Barney Miller (aside from the occasional two-parter) can be watched and understood on its own. Even though the series is set in a police station that handles some serious crimes, the mood of the show is never somber for more than a fleeting moment.
Barney Miller is the kind of breezy sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond emulated, but that’s not to say it’s bad. In fact, the show’s relative simplicity is comforting in a media landscape where one often has to plug his ears for having fallen a season behind on The Office.
The main characters, Captain Miller and the detectives of New York’s 12th Precinct, are all genuinely endearing (though the same cannot be said for all of the supporting characters). The one-liners are often very funny, even if they do continually riff on obvious topics like bad coffee. The problems the detectives face are engaging enough to keep one’s interest but soluble enough to avoid building any serious tension.
Unfortunately, along with the comforting simplicity of television in the mid-‘70s comes the sexism, racism, homophobia, and general stereotyping of that media era, as well. Not that we’ve moved past all that yet, but a show like Barney Miller simply could not air today without drawing sharp criticism for the sources of its humor.
Every detective in the Twelfth Precinct is an Other to the white, middle-aged, heterosexual Captain Miller. Detective Fish is a year from retirement, and the jokes surrounding him all concern his age either centrally or peripherally. Wojo (Detective Wojciehowicz) is a gentle, bumbling giant who fails at every attempt to pass the Sergeant’s test. There’s nothing wrong with a character being a little simple, but why does the simple guy have to be so overtly Polish?
Detectives Yemana and Harris, Japanese- and African-American, respectively, are the most superficially different from Captain Miller. However, the humor revolving around these two characters is a bit more complex than that concerning Fish and Wojo. Yes, both characters embody some of the stereotypes applied to their lineage. Harris is loud and outspoken. Yemana loves to gamble. But Harris also likes the finer things and always wears a three-piece suit. Yemana grew up in Omaha and is most often noted for his inability to make potable coffee. Harris votes Republican.
Yemana and Harris often create humor by challenging the prejudices and stereotypes they face as racial Others. For instance, when Fish asks Yemana to recommend a good Chinese restaurant, Yemana responds to Fish’s generalizing of Asians by giving him the name of a Japanese restaurant, knowing Fish won’t be able to tell the difference until he goes to the restaurant. When Fish confronts Yemana upon realizing he is the brunt of a joke, Yemana coolly replies, “They all look the same to me”.
So, yes, Barney Miller relies on racial, sexual, and gender divides to create humor. But rather than only applying stereotypes for laughs, the show’s creators make an earnest attempt to grapple with some prejudices (without letting the show get too serious). Twice in this third season, for instance, the detectives hold homosexual men in their custody. Both times, the homosexuals are confronted with initial distrust or outright hatred from some characters.
By each episode’s conclusion, the audience is still laughing at the effeminate homosexuals, but in one way or another, the tension between them and the police force has dissipated—they’ve made some progress towards being treated as three-dimensional human beings. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but the show is not reactionary, either.
By the conclusion of the third season of Barney Miller, the two things that really stand out are the bad theme song—possibly the least melodic in television history—and the simple formula the show follows for nearly every episode. But again, there is beauty in the simplicity.
The show’s writers manage to fit thoroughly likeable characters and one-liners into their 25-minute outline, and it is impressive how they avoid introducing any truly malicious criminals over the entire season without completely robbing the show of its credibility.
All in all, Barney Miller is innocuous fun that shows its age but is still great for providing a half-hour killing episode, here and there.