‘Barney Miller’ on the beat again

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

If ever a television series captured the gritty essence of police work, it wasn’t Dragnet, with its just-the-facts dispassion, or Hill Street Blues, with its urban blight, or any version of Law & Order, with its gruesome crimes.

It was a half-hour comedy set in a couple of grimy Greenwich Village squad rooms, populated by misfits who spent much of their time filling out paperwork and grumbling about bad coffee.

On ABC from 1975 to 1982, Barney Miller rewrote the rules of cop shows and sitcoms alike. Its principals weren’t heroes; they were jaded lifers contending with assorted whackos, like the beggar who earned enough to pay for a maid. Or the messianic who thought a new Ice Age was upon us. Or the nut job who threatened to turn into a werewolf.

And every week the show, which won three Emmy Awards, kicked off with a theme that sported the baddest, funkiest bass line this side of Isaac Hayes.

An early fan of Barney Miller was Joseph Wambaugh, the author of novels like The New Centurions and nonfiction works like The Onion Field. He began tuning in shortly after stepping down as a Los Angeles Police Department detective sergeant to write full time.

“I was uncertain if I could make it without the badge,” he said. “But I could turn on Barney Miller. It filled a void for me. I could have gone onto that set, sat down and gone to work.”

Even a casual look back at Barney Miller (all 168 episodes are available on 25 DVDs from Shout! Factory) reveals the show to be simultaneously archetypal and atypical. For one thing the detectives of the fictional 12th Precinct were authentic shoe-leather types. There was the elderly, cantankerous Fish (Abe Vigoda); the lethargic gambler Yemana (Jack Soo); the dapper, novel-writing Harris (Ron Glass); the insouciant, energetic Chano (Gregory Sierra); and the stubborn, guileless Wojo, short for Wojciehowicz (Max Gail). The moral center was Capt. Miller, played with consummate unflappability by Hal Linden.

LOW-KEY LAUGHS

Barney Miller may have offered more low-key chuckles than any other show of the 1970s. In one classic segment, pretty much the whole squad room gets stoned on hashish brownies. “Hey,” Yemana mutters, “what do you say we guys go down to the beach and shoot some clams?”

In “Call Girl,” a lady of the evening named Rhonda (Tasha Zemrus) tells Wojo about a ballgame to which her father once took her:

Rhonda: “He got me a little pennant, a hot dog and a beer. Really great seats.”

Wojo: “Sounds like your dad was a nice guy.”

Rhonda: “He was a mugger. Some guy he rolled had season tickets. Halfway through the game a cop showed up. Dragged us both out of the stadium.”

Wojo: “Oh.”

Rhonda: “Wanna hear what happened to the puppy I got for Christmas?”

That kind of dark humor was no accident. These were the bad old days of “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” of Son of Sam, of avoiding Central Park. When Wojo presents Fish with a New York City municipal bond upon his retirement, he proudly says, “It’s worth a thousand dollars when it matures.”

Fish reminds him, “If it matures.”

The action on Barney Miller was as underplayed as its jokes. As the series was originally conceived, half of each episode would take place on the job, and half at Miller’s home. But the producers soon dropped that idea. Instead, detectives came and went, rushing out to make arrests and dragging in perps. Rarely did we see anything that was actually happening outside the squad room.

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