There are television shows that burst on the scene like a nuclear bomb in a burst of controversy. In many cases the flash is intense and fades as rapidly as it initiated. While interesting and capable of impacting the media these flash in the pan series are frequently delegated to a footnote. Then there are the shows that provide a steady source of entertainment over a more prolonged period of time. One example of the latter is under consideration here, ‘Barney Miller’. For eight seasons this gentle family comedy gave a unique perspective to the age old format known as the sit com. Most situational comedies are centered on the family unit, something that everyone can relate to. This series considered a different type on social construct that in many ways as influential to a person’s life as their family; co workers. not only did this ‘Barney Miller’ help redefine the most popular form of television comedy it provided the audience with a previously unconsidered variation of one of the oldest forms of television programming, the police series.
Usually such shows focus on the dramatic nature of police work or the steadfast detective pounding the pavement to ferret out the truth and bring the nefarious criminal to justice. With this series the audience is introduced to the bizarre humor inherent in the human condition. I have seen comments about this series from police officers who spent their careers serving in New York City. The comments typically were highly supportive of the show’s concept and noted that unlike the vast majority of police shows many officers can go their entire professional lives without ever discharging their weapons. Captain Barney Miller and his intrepid squad have to rely on common sense and imagination. There are no tense situations resolved by gun shots ringing out in a dark ally, no plots to perpetrate the grand crime. The cases these detectives face in each episode are much smaller in scope. These are not super brilliant detectives, in many cases they are winging it and that is the undeniable appeal that made this series a cult classic beloved by millions. There have been a few season sets covering the early seasons but now the complete series spanning eight seasons has been released by Shout Factory. They are holding steady as the preeminent providers of classic television shows.
Captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden) may have achieved a laudable rank in the New York City police department but his command is not exactly the fast track to subsequent promotions. He commands a small squad of detectives in the 12th Precinct located in the eccentric neighborhood of Greenwich Village. As anyone who has lived in NYC will tell you The Village has always been the haven for that segment of the general population with a tendency to listen to the beat of a different drummer. In other words people that the mainstream would dismiss as odd balls and kooks. The thing about Miller is his willingness to take every complaint that comes to his squad seriously and his unwavering ability to afford every citizen with respect. This in itself has garnered lasting favor with real police offers who readily admit that this series is far more indicative of the job that car chases and shootouts. Miller and his men handled the oddest situations no matter how off beat in a usually professional fashion. The senior detective and ostensibly second in command is Sergeant Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda). Staving off the looming retirement Fish is winding down his career and although quick to complain is typically fast to bring his decades of experience to bear on the case at hand. Next there is Sergeant Nick Yemana (Jack Soo). Steadfast and dedicated but notorious for lacking any aptitude for paperwork or coffee preparation he has a laid back attitude that made him unflappable and enigmatic no matter what circumstances were at hand. Fastidious and ambitious Sgt. Ron Nathan Harris (Ron Glass) viewed this assignment as a stepping stone to greater things. He is the opposite of Sgt. Chano Amanguale (Gregory Sierra), who is highly emotional and put upon. Then there is the newest to gain the rank of detective, Detective Stanley Wojciehowicz (Max Gail). This former Marine is headstrong, always ready to rush in typically before thinking things out completely. Also wandering through on a regular basis is Deputy Inspector Frank Luger (James Gregory) who lives in the past regaling anyone in earshot about the glory days. Lastly there was the diminutive uniform officer Carl Levitt (Ron Carey), constantly searching for a way to get promoted to plain clothes. In the later seasons his goal is achieved and he joins the squad.
In the first couple of seasons there were sporadic appearances by Barbara Barrie as Liz miller, the wife of Barney. The writers quickly realized that the emotional heart of the series would stem from the interaction of the characters on the job. Initially there was an attempt to conform more to the standard sit com formula requiring a view of the domestic setting and the requisite female presence of a wife. In later seasons a few episodes did utilize a woman detective played by Linda Lavin but it never caught on. What did work exceptionally well was how the brilliant ensemble cast was augmented by the inclusion of a number of recurring characters. Typically highly eccentric their inclusion did provide the necessary neighborhood feel that grounded this series. As any cop will tell you good police work begins with knowing the people of the neighborhood, not as snitches or criminals as most police dramas depict them but in the way shown here; regular people concerned with their own specific problems, these cases are trivial in the grand scheme but to those involved they are the most important issues in the universe.
This series is a slice of life that is relatable to everyone. Most fans are not cops but they know the individuals shown here as their neighbors, co workers and family. Each episode is a comedic gem performed by a cast of brilliantly talented performers. There is as flavor here that accurately presents this unusual yet wonderful neighbor as part of a city that is truly a cross section of humanity. Not only are all eight seasons included here but as an bonus the one season spin off ‘Fish’ is included. Admittedly no in the same league as the original series but its inclusion is indicative of the respect Shout Factory has always shown to the fans of series like this.
Inside The 12th Precinct: New Interviews with Hal Linden, Abe Vigoda,
Max Gail and More.