Crime Can Be Funny
In 1971, CBS made a radical change in its primetime programming strategy. At the end of the previous season, the network canceled four of its popular “rural” comedies (Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Mayberry R.F.D., and The Beverly Hillbillies) to make room for shows that would appeal to a younger, hipper audience. The first of CBS’s new series, All in the Family, was popular with critics and viewers, which proved there was an audience for sitcoms that tackled topical as well as controversial issues, like the Vietnam War, gun control, homosexuality, and abortion.
Following CBS’s lead, ABC, which was trailing in the ratings, also developed shows that would appeal to more sophisticated viewers. In 1974, the network produced a pilot, The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller, starring Broadway musical performer Hal Linden as a patient New York City police captain who oversees a squad of competent, if eccentric, detectives. The pilot devoted equal time to Barney’s home life with his wife Liz (Barbara Barrie) and their two kids (Michael Tessier and Anne Wyndham). The network did not pick it up, but the creative team of writer/producer Danny Arnold and John Rich, who directed the first three seasons of All in the Family, persevered and they convinced the network to let them try again. A second pilot was shot and the show found a place on the 1974-75 schedule as a midseason replacement.
The recently released DVD set contains 13 episodes of that first season (unfortunately, it doesn’t include the original pilot, which aired in the summer of 1974). Watching the first season of Barney Miller is a lesson in how a show’s focus can be shaped and defined during its infancy. At the same time, it exemplifies how television comedy in the 1970s was in a transitional phase, moving away from more traditional domestic situation comedy to shows with a more irreverent and mature sense of humor.
This tension between the old and the new type of comedy is evident in the first episode (“Ramon”), which opens in the Millers’ Greenwich Village apartment where we meet Barney, his wife and two kids, teenager Rachel and young David. Liz tries to convince Barney to call in sick and take a ride with her into the country. She is afraid to let him go to work because there has recently been a rash of violent crime in the city. Barney calms her down and goes to work, where he is soon forced to convince a distraught gunman, who is holding the entire squad of detectives at gunpoint, to surrender his weapon. In the final scene, he returns home and attempts, but fails, to hide the ordeal from Liz.
At the time of its debut, Barney Miller was not the only sitcom on the air to divide its focus between the main character’s home life and career. The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Mary Richard and The Bob Newhart Show‘s Bob Hartley were shown at home and at the office. Fortunately, writers realized the comic tone would be too uneven if they were going to take a comedic look at an otherwise serious subject—urban crime—and then have Captain Miller attend to mundane family crises like his teenaged daughter’s desire to get her own apartment.
The domestic half of the set-up lost out. The kids disappeared by the end of the first season, followed by Liz, who remained through the second season, though her on-screen time was reduced to making an occasional visit to the squad room. Instead, the show focused exclusively on the detectives of the 12th Precinct in Greenwich Village, who remain to this day one of the most diverse ensemble casts of male characters on a television series. Ron Harris (Ron Glass) is a black intellectual who writes a novel based on his experiences in the police force; Chano Amenguale (Gregory Sierra), a proud detective sergeant who resents his fellow Puerto Ricans who have turned to crime; Nick Yemana (Jack Soo), who was one of only a few Asian characters at the time featured on a television in a regular role; Detective Wojohowicz (“Wojo”), a Polish ladies man; and the tired and long-faced Phil Fish, played by character actor Abe Vigoda, who was in his mid-50s at the time but looked much older.
Such diversity is not limited to the detectives. Barney Miller offered a unique blend of comedy and social commentary by making the detectives just as quirky as the colorful criminals coming through the squad room. Over the course of the first season, the detectives apprehend a gay purse snatcher (played in a disturbingly stereotypical fashion by Jack Deleon), an obscene phone caller, a drunken bureaucrat, a vigilante, an escape artist, a cross-dressing teamster, prostitutes and their madam, and an eight-year-old who tries to hold up Liz with a pointy stick. The depiction of both cops and robbers is a little unbalanced (except perhaps for the calm, levelheaded Captain Miller) was a far cry from the usual Manichean characterization of the law and those who break it.
While there are certainly plenty of one-liners coming out of the squad room to keep us laughing, what made Barney Miller a quality sitcom along the lines of M*A*S*H is that it humanized both sides. A standout episode (“The Hero”) deals with Chano’s guilt and grief after killing a bank robber during a shoot-out. When he hears he is up for a commendation for his courage, it only adds to his guilt. He manages to hide his feelings from his colleagues and Captain Miller, but in one of those effective serious sitcom moments, he sits alone and begins to sob.
The criminals are equally complex. The inventor who almost jumps off an office building to test his latest flying invention seems crazy, but we are also made to understand that he is driven by a passion for his work. A vigilante who is sending criminals to the hospital is nothing like we might expect. Instead of Charles Bronson in Death Wish, we get a soft-spoken Russian man who simply believes that those who commit crimes should not get away with it. The majority of the “bad guys” are not the kind of violent criminals that populate police dramas like N.Y.P.D. Blue today, which allowed the writers to challenge preconceived notions of crime and criminals.
On its debut, Barney Miller‘s reviewers considered it fresh and very funny. Thirty years later, it’s still entertaining and offers a perspective on our men in blue that no situation comedy has yet matched.