I was very excited when I found that Johnny Carson had risen from the grave to retake his throne as the King of Late Night TV. Well, that’s not exactly what happened, but it is awesome to be able to watch reruns of Johnny’s Tonight Show. And I have been enjoying the shows very much. They make a fascinating time capsule.
For instance, in one monologue, delivered in late March 1981, Johnny had made a joke about then Secretary of State Al Haig being upset about a policy that made clear that in times of emergency, if the President is unavailable, the Vice President is in charge of the White House. Now, I had thought that was set down in the Constitution, but whatever. Days after Johnny’s joke, John Hinkley Jr. attempted to assassinate Pres. Ronald Reagan. Immediately after which, Haig declared himself “in charge” at the White House.
Anyway, I was going to write about the best TV cop show ever, wasn’t I? Well, that’s what the headline writer has indicated.
It’s because of the Tonight Show reruns that I was reintroduced to the best TV cop show ever. Right after Johnny signs off each weeknight, viewers are treated to two back-to-back episodes of Barney Miller (1975 – 1982). I’ve been watching the shows and they are excellent.
Not only is Barney Miller the best cop show, it is apparently the most authentic. In my extensive research (mainly reading Wikipedia), real police officers have remarked on how Barney Miller gets it right. Other cop shows are all about the action, real policing is more about the paperwork. The late actor (and a former cop) Dennis Farina while a guest on Dinner for Five stated he believed Barney Miller to be the most realistic police show ever on television.
Realistic or not, I think the writing and acting are top notch.
The writing was very much last minute for each episode. Co-creator Danny Arnold would frequently be working on the script as the show was being taped. That led to long days of taping, which led to the show eventually abandoning a live audience and opting for a laugh track instead. The first couple of seasons would have an audience for much of the taping, but the producers would also use a canned laughter to sweeten the laughs.
The characters were well drawn and acted. Believable throughout the entire cast, from the main characters to the semi regulars to the one-offs. Hal Linden is terrific as Capt. Barney Miller whose job mainly consists of dealing with his squad of detectives, the public, the perps, while doing paperwork and figuring how to deal with budget cuts and government bureaucracy.
He’s the straight man, father-figure, counselor, and confidant to his detectives. And his detectives are all funny and distinctive in their personalities: Fish (Abe Vigoda) the old man of the squad; Yemana (Jack Soo) the problem gambler and maker of awful coffee; “Wojo” (Max Gail) the earnest, enthusiastic, but not too bright cop; Harris (Ron Glass) the intelligent, sharp-dressed, aspiring novelist; “Chano” (Gregory Sierra) the passionate, street wise cop; and Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) the deadpan, wry, fount of knowledge intellectual.
And the secondary characters were also well developed and played. There were Officer Levitt (Ron Carey), Liz Miller (Barbara Barrie), Inspector Luger (James Gregory) and a long list of reoccurring characters fleshing out the series.
Virtually the entire series takes place in one room: the detective squad room of New York’s 12th Precinct. And being in New York played a large part in the stories over the eight year run of the series. In the show’s premiere, which opens in Barney’s apartment, the viewer is made absolutely certain that NYC is a dirty, crime-ridden city unfit for human habitation. (At least, that’s how Barney’s wife sees it.) In fact, that aspect gets a little heavy-handed that first episode.
Like the Tonight Show reruns, Barney Miller also provides an intriguing historical insight on the attitudes of the day. During the 1970s, television began serving up sitcoms that would tackle social issues: racism, women’s and gay rights, ageism, child abuse, serious crime, and other topics too real to have been touched in previous decades. Barney Miller took on many of these issues.
The show discussed the struggle of women and gays wanting to be cops. In fact, Barney Miller was the first sitcom to feature an at least semi-regularly occurring gay character. The show also explored whether or not a husband could be guilty of raping his wife. Yes, these topics were played mainly for laughs, but raising an issue with humor is a good way get it into the minds of the viewing public.
An especially poignant episode came at the end of the first season. In it we learn that Chano, responding to a robbery call, is forced to shoot and kill a suspect. As was always the case on the show, we never see the shooting. We only learn of it back in the squad room. Chano attempts to put on a brave face. After all, it was all in the line of duty. He’s a cop, this is something cops need to be prepared to do. His colleagues and the audience can see this is tearing him up.
Chano is put on leave while the shooting is investigated and Barney visits his detective to check on him. In a rare occasion away from the set of the squad room, Barney attempts to reassure Chano that what was done was unavoidable. Chano keeps the brave face on until Capt. Miller leaves. He then breaks down and weeps. Heavy stuff for a sitcom. What is this? M*A*S*H?
The show may be a bit dated and can get a little silly at times, it still feels good to watch actors at the top of their game working in such intelligently written, endearingly human and funny stories.
Take my advice: Stay up after Johnny’s done and check out Barney Miller, the best TV cop show ever.
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