Barney Miller was one of those great 70’s sitcoms that portrayed a world that wasn’t always full of sunshine. The detectives who worked with Captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden) were a mostly cynical bunch, depicting the realistic attitudes of the type of men they were portraying. Cops, in general, have to deal with so much grime and filth in their day-to-day existence that it’s difficult not to get beat down by the world. I imagine it was a surprise for some viewers who tuned into this seminal television series when it first came on the air. There wasn’t always going to be a moral lesson at the end of every episode; not everyone learned something by the time the credits rolled.
Perhaps that’s what made the show popular when it was on the air for eight seasons. People could relate, especially in the depressed late 70’s. One look at the sad sack mug of Abe Vigoda as Fish, or to hear the sardonic voice of the late Jack Soo as the beloved Yehemena, and right away you think, “I know these guys.” What also made Barney Miller stand out amongst other sitcoms was its multiethnic cast. Besides Japanese Soo, African American, Ron Glass, as ladies man, Harris, and Gregory Sierra as Puerto Rican Amanguale, brought a dose of realism to the sitcom. Moreover, the series brought humanity to characters otherwise portrayed as lower class citizens on television, such as prostitutes and homosexuals. In fact, Dino Natali portrayed Officer Zatelli in the later seasons, one of the first positively portrayed openly gay characters on American television.
Most of the episodes took place in the squad room, with some scenes in Barney’s office, just off the main room. This one set gave the show a theatrical feel in the early episodes, until it found it’s true voice and pacing. Once it hit its stride, Barney Miller quickly became a groundbreaking American sitcom. As the series continued and its popularity grew, Sierra left to pursue other interests using his new found fame, and Vigoda got his own spinoff. Barney Miller didn’t miss a beat, though, when it brought in Steve Landesberg as the smartass, Dietrich, and Ron Carey as Officer Levitt.
Of course, the glue of the show was Linden, as the calming influence, Miller, in what could sometimes be a hostile workplace. He always knew how to reach the men in his department, what to say to get them to understand the people who wandered in and out of the 12th Precinct. Barney made this world of crime and punishment a little more humanistic. If there was a lesson to be learned, usually it was Barney who taught it. That’s not to say that his life was easy. Throughout the course of the series he separated from his wife, giving the character a little more dimension than just the good cop that he was.
As I child, I didn’t get into Barney Miller until its run was winding down, so most of what I saw from the early years was in reruns. Still, I don’t recall the first season at all, in which Barney’s wife, Liz (Barbara Berrie), was a visible presence on the show. After that first year, the execs realized that the strength of the show lay in the squad room and the interaction between the cops and the criminals. I can’t say that they were wrong. Berrie is a wonderful actress, but the domestic scenes just took away from the flow of the show.
Shout! Factory has released the complete series on DVD, bringing all 168 episodes on to disc. It’s a mammoth collection and a huge undertaking for any television fan to sit through every episode. But it’s worth the time if you can make it. This is the first time that most of these episodes have appeared on DVD. Barney Miller: The Complete Series comes with a wealth of exclusive bonus features. These extras include new interviews with Linden and Vigoda; the series’ original pilot, The Life and Times of Barney Miller; commentaries and interviews by series writers; a collectible commemorative booklet filled with vintage photos and featuring an essay by former TV Critic Howard Rosenberg; and season one of the show’s spinoff, Fish. The set also includes the standout retrospective episode that pays tribute to Jack Soo, whose passing in Season 5 led the cast, both in and out of character, to salute their beloved colleague.