Barney Miller: Still Great Television

I now own the 6th Season of Barney Miller. I went through all the seasons a few years ago. Rewatching Season 6 reminded me all over again what great television it is--how impressively well-written Barney Miller was in the years before television really had a ton of money (proving that sometimes love outweighs cash).  

There are so many reasons Barney Miller is excellent, including the impressive cast: Hal Linden, Ron Glass (1945-2016, may he rest in peace), Abe Vigoda, Max Gail, Steven Landesberg, Jack Soo, Ron Carey, James Gregory . . . and a set of back benchers (as detectives, criminals, locals) with serious credentials (Roscoe Lee Browne and James Cromwell to name a few).

Hal Linden and the excessively dry
Steve Landesberg
Without the impressive acting, the show wouldn't be quite so good; in the long-run though, all the acting in the world can't make up for poor writing. And the writing on Barney Miller is as impressive as the comedic specialists who deliver the lines.

Barney Miller, in truth, skirts the line of moralistic television. This is different from episodes with a moral--moralistic television involves what I call "after-school special" writing. The moral in the former is an underlying thread or even joke. The moral in the latter is Something the Audience Should Learn.

Generally speaking, I don't like the latter in my fiction. Give me a moral perspective. Give me moral problems that the characters debate. Don't try to make me a better person (see the moralistic and cloying Rent as compared to the hilarious, ribald, and far superior Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Like other shows of the time period (see Star Trek), Barney Miller is grappling with heavy ideas: the definition of rape, cults, reminders of Vietnam, corrupt police, religious doubts, race issues, broken marriages, treatment of the elderly, treatment of gays . . .

It just avoids becoming moralistic and preachy, partly, again, because of the actors, but mostly, in this case, because the writers never forget the other side. The diatribes and excuses of the "bad" characters are often played for laughs, but they are never played easily. When Harris and Dietrich debate the Vietnam War with Wojo, Wojo is allowed to speak his piece. When various government officials show up in the precinct, their personal failings and desires, their little idiosyncratic dreams, are allowed expression. When Harris is shot at by fellow police officers, the fallout affects all the members of the 12th, who express a variety of hurt feelings and confusion at Harris's anger.

This is George Murdock NOT as Scanlon--but yes, he was
on Star Trek.
Scanlon is an excellent example of a thoroughly nasty character--he is the Internal Affairs officer who is always trying to find dirt in Barney's precinct--who manages to come across as more complex than a two-dimensional strawman, despite only twelve episodes.

He isn't merely a "Big Bad"--he has reasons for his behavior. At one point, he argues that Barney and his officers couldn't possibly be as clean and upstanding as they are because it isn't "natural." On several occasions, his efforts to expose other people's "criminal" attitudes highlight his own foibles. He comes across as more desirous of applause and affection, despite his slimy nature, than even he realizes.

It is clever writing and clever acting. And never fails to raise a laugh.

Barney Miller earned its Primetime Emmys.

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