Almost 40 years ago, the ABC television network debuted a new situation comedy called “Barney Miller,” about the lives of a group of police detectives and officers in a run-down precinct of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Hal Linden, playing Capt. Barney Miller, the handsome, reserved and incorruptible leader of the fictional 12th Precinct, dealt not only with his eccentric underlings and colleagues, but also an endless array of fascinating criminals parading in and out of the station. Never a huge ratings hit, "Barney Miller" became a much-admired and cherished piece of television history as one of the most intelligent and literate programs ever broadcast. The show lasted eight years (an eternity by television standards) and remains popular in syndication.
International Business Times spoke to an expert on U.S. media to discuss the impact of "Barney Miller." Dr. Lance Strate is professor of communication and media Studies and associate chair for undergraduate studies at Fordham University in New York.
IB TIMES: "Barney Miller" was a brilliant, complex, highly literate, superbly written show with depth and high social significance – all done within the confines of a half-hour commercial sitcom! Has there ever been a show quite like it in U.S. television history?
STRATE: "Barney Miller" was an outstanding series, often overlooked or underrated. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was unique, however, or entirely groundbreaking, as it followed in the footsteps of three series that established a new direction in television comedy, combining quality writing and performance with social relevance: "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "M*A*S*H." [all of which debuted in 1971 or 1972].
"Mary Tyler Moore" and "M*A*S*H" in particular established the workplace sitcom as a new format, which "Barney Miller" followed.
IB TIMES: "Barney Miller" appeared on ABC-TV when the network otherwise had shows like "Love Boat," "Fantasy Island," "Charlie's Angels" and "Laverne and Shirley." How did a high-quality, well-written show like "Barney Miller" ever sneak through and get aired?
STRATE: "Barney Miller" represents an important transitional moment in American popular culture. CBS had enjoyed success in the early 1970s by emphasizing shows with social relevance, reflecting the turmoil and countercultural movements of the 1960s (which continued on into the first half of the 1970s), and "Barney Miller" followed that precedent. But with the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War, ABC found that the American audience preferred more escapist and nostalgic types of entertainment, and became the dominant network on the strength of those types of offerings. "Barney Miller" straddled the two periods, in that its episodes often ventured into the absurd, but more importantly, through the sympathetic, even hip portrayal of police officers. After all, within the counterculture, it had been commonplace to refer to cops as "pigs" and otherwise view them as hostile bullies, and the program ran counter to that view, reflecting a shift towards a more conservative political stance in the nation, one that would result in the election of first Jimmy Carter, and then Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
IB TIMES: The genius behind "Barney Miller" was writer-director-producer Danny Arnold. Why is he not a household name like Norman Lear or Rod Serling?
STRATE: Although Arnold’s "Bewitched" was a much-loved comedy series of the '60s, it was not the first "magical" sitcom -- it was preceded by "My Favorite Martian" and "Mister Ed," and almost immediately followed by "I Dream of Jeannie." And as popular, and even progressive, as Arnold’s "That Girl" was back in 1966, it was not groundbreaking and has pretty much faded from popular memory. I think Arnold deserves to be better known than he is, but very few television producers become well known along the lines of Norman Lear, Rod Serling or Gene Roddenberry, who created "Star Trek."
Arnold might be more comparable to Paul Henning, whose "Beverly Hillbillies" sitcom was enormously popular in the 1960s, along with "Petticoat Junction" and the brilliantly absurd "Green Acres." Both producers were characterized by a solid record of achievement, originality, popular appeal and an overall successful career, but not the kind of creative breakthrough and mass phenomenon that helped to define an era that we associate with Serling in the 1950s, Roddenberry in the 1960s, and Lear in the 1970s, or, for that matter, Garry Marshall, whose feel-good programming ("Happy Days," "Laverne and Shirley") dominated ABC over most of the 1970s, overshadowing Arnold's "Barney Miller."
IB TIMES: The laughs from "Barney Miller" were usually quite subtle and demanded close audience attention – that is, no slapstick humor, nor vulgarity, nor pratfalls. Where do you think this type of comedy originated? And does that kind of humor still exist in TV or films?
STRATE: As television programs go, you could say "Barney Miller" was a relatively literary series, and for that reason I think you could trace its comedic sensibility all the way back to Shakespeare, and you could also find it owes much to Mark Twain, and to much of the clever writing that went into Hollywood's comedic talkies of the 1930s and 1940s.
Again, the proximate starting point would be sitcoms like "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "M*A*S*H."
And yes, that type of humor still exists, in programs like "Seinfeld," "The Office," "Arrested Development," "30 Rock" and "Community" on network TV, and on premium cable channels, with shows like "Episodes," "House of Lies," "Web Therapy," "Veep" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And although it often isn't subtle, I'd include the animated series "South Park" on that list.
As for films, whatever else we might say about him, Woody Allen still produces intellectual comedies, Kevin Smith deserves more credit than he gets. In my opinion, the Coen Brothers certainly do wonderfully inventive comedies, and as a director, Terry Gilliam has that brilliant sense of the absurd that made "Monty Python's Flying Circus" the greatest television comedy program of all time.
IB TIMES: In the early years of "Barney Miller,’’ the elderly cop Sgt. Phillip Fish (played by Abe Vigoda) emerged as the most popular character. But after Vigoda demanded top billing and more money, Arnold essentially got rid of him by giving him a mediocre spin-off show that failed. But even without Fish, the quality of "Barney Miller" actually improved. Was this an unprecedented event for TV – to lose a major star, but prosper anyway?
STRATE: I wouldn't say unprecedented. The most notorious example is when "Bewitched" switched male leads after the sixth season of the series (from Dick York to Dick Sargent), which occurred without any overt acknowledgement. Also, David Caruso abandoned his starring role on "NYPD Blue" for a film career after the program's first season, and if anything, the series improved.
And after all, Vigoda was not the main character, in contrast to "The Office," which was unable to recover from the loss of Steve Carell. As an ensemble series, "Barney Miller" did not have all that much trouble filling in the gap left behind by Vigoda's departure, but there certainly is a risk when a series loses a popular character. And it does speak to the strength of the program, the writing and the actors, that it was able to make the transition seamlessly, and thrive without him.
IB TIMES: NYPD officers I have known virtually all love "Barney Miller" – most of them grew up watching it. While they say some parts of the show (drab squad room, conflicts with top brass, etc.) were realistic, other aspects of the show were not. Specifically, they said that aside from maybe Inspector Frank Luger and Sgt. Wojohowicz, there really were no real-life cops like Sgt. Dietrich (ultra-intellectual renaissance man), Sgt. Harris (social-climbing, snobby fashionista) or Capt. Miller himself (sensitive, liberal, humanitarian who eschewed force and violence), etc. Do you think this is a fair criticism?
STRATE: Probably, although we also have to take into account the fact that the individuals today, whether police officers or civilians, are different from individuals during the 1970s. But the intent of the program was not to portray a real police precinct. As a comedy, it needed to create a cast of characters with humorous potential, and as a form of popular culture, it utilized social types that were immediately recognizable and relatable to the audience. There also was a desire to play against stereotypes, which is why we get the intellectual, almost academic Dietrich countering prejudice that police officers are unintelligent; while Harris was portrayed as upscale at a time when most African-American television characters were poor or working-class types. And Capt. Barney Miller himself played against the "pig" stereotype of the counterculture, as a sensitive male (a new form of masculinity made popular by Alan Alda in "M*A*S*H"). And while they rarely played it up, the fact that his character was also Jewish also served as a countertype.
What was most important is that the characters came across as realistic individuals to the audience, whether the setting had been a bar like "Cheers," or a TV newsroom like "Murphy Brown." What is most significant is that they conveyed an authentic sense of what a police precinct is actually like, and they made the police come across as genuine, likable people, which did wonders for the image of the police that had been tarnished quite a bit during the 1960s and early 1970s.
IB TIMES: The real cops also said the "criminals" on the show were generally unrealistic – among other things, they were mostly white, mostly charming eccentrics, and mostly "noble" victims of the system, not "criminals" per se. Is this also a fair critique?
STRATE: Absolutely. As a comedy, this was not a show about cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys, and depicting the criminals as victims allowed the main characters to treat them with sensitivity, kindness, even sympathy. It also reflected the liberal values coming out of the 1960s and early 1970s, in which criminality had come to be seen either as a form of mental illness in need of treatment rather than punishment, or as a product of a corrupt and unfair social system, for which the criminal is not to blame.
But to keep things light and humorous, the program did not venture into highly controversial territory regarding issues such as race and economic inequality, which is why criminal motivations tended to be highly idiosyncratic, silly rather than systemic.
IB TIMES: They (real cops) also complained that none of the regular characters on the show were Irish or Italian (two ethnic groups that have long dominated NYPD ranks). Why did they omit these two groups, while trying to maintain such a '"diverse" squad room?
STRATE: "Barney Miller" was very much working against the stereotypes regarding the police, even if the stereotypes were accurate, such as the tendency for NYPD to be Irish and Italian. Also, both ethnic groups are stereotypically associated with very traditional forms of masculinity, portrayed as "tough guys," and this was exactly the character type that the series sought to avoid.
IB TIMES: "Barney Miller" got decent ratings – but never great ratings. So, why did ABC keep it on the air for eight seasons, when network TV is all about maximizing profits?
STRATE: During the 1960s, overall ratings were all that mattered, but by 1970 the emphasis had shifted to demographics, and the particular audience segment that "Barney Miller" appealed to was an affluent, well-educated one, and therefore representing a group of consumers valued by advertisers.
IB TIMES: Aside from Steve Landesberg (Dietrich), Jack Soo (Sgt. Yemana) and Ron Carey (Officer Levitt), all the other principal actors on "Barney Miller" were serious dramatic actors. Why has this practice – of casting serious actors in comedic roles – appeared to have vanished?
STRATE: One major change that occurred over the course of the 1970s was the rise of stand-up comedy, with comedy clubs such as The Improv in New York and Second City in Chicago becoming very popular during the 1980s. Stand-up comics, as specialists in comedic performance, have all but forced out serious actors from television sitcoms.
IB TIMES: Sgt. Nick Yemana, the Japanese-American cop, was lazy, slovenly, unambitious and overly fond of gambling, but also warm and colorful. Do you think his character was explicitly designed to shatter the stereotype of the cold, efficient, hard-working, sober, disciplined, conscientious East Asian?
STRATE: Yes, that is another great example of how "Barney Miller" emphasized countertypes against standard stereotypes. And even though the countertypes are in their own way just as stereotypical, as the social type of the "lazy gambler" is quite common, still, by going against type in regard to race and ethnicity, the immediate effect is to generate a sense of realism, at least for the contemporary audience. Only later, with the passage of time, does it reveal itself to be just another stereotype, in the same way that "Roseanne" seemed revolutionarily realistic in its time in portraying a mother who was not nurturing or warm, but rather quick with a putdown and wisecrack and somewhat resentful of her role, a character type that is now commonplace in popular culture.
IB TIMES: Inspector Frank Luger was an old-fashioned, crotchety, absent-minded, annoying and somewhat bigoted and insensitive codger – but actor James Gregory gave him depth and made him lovable and interesting. Was Luger supposed to represent the "dying old guard" of the NYPD lost in the modern world? And, if so, was he also a stereotype?
STRATE: He was the "Archie Bunker" character of the series, giving the other characters someone to play off of, and provide contrast. He was a stereotype that helped to highlight the other characters as countertypes, but if his stereotype had been too flat, too blatantly bigoted, it would have undermined both the humor of the series and its sense of realism.
IB TIMES: The show frequently emphasized the Polish identity of Sgt. Wojohowicz ("Wojo"), who was hard-working, dedicated and gung-ho, but none too bright (for example, he failed his sergeants’ exam five times). What was the point of making Wojo conform to the "dumb Polack" stereotype?
STRATE: There was a certain resonance here, too, with "All in the Family," where Archie Bunker constantly put down his son-in-law Mike Stivic with insults about his Polish ethnicity, but in this instance the stereotype was not countered by having it expressed by a bigot, or contradicted by the Polish-American character's behavior. "Barney Miller" came before the era of political correctness in which any ethnic stereotype would be objectionable, and while the program worked against other racial and ethnic stereotypes, Polish ethnicity remained an easy target, as a Caucasian group that had not organized against defamation in the ways that Jews and Italians have.
Polish jokes had become commonplace during the mid-1960s in popular culture, they were a kind of modern folklore transmitted not by mass media but by word of mouth. "Barney Miller" took advantage of their popularity, in this time before labor union leader Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement restored the image of the Polish people as courageous and heroic, an image they were associated with during the Second World War.
While a source of easy laughs, Wojo was portrayed in a generally positive and sympathetic manner, so that there was much more to him than the ethnic stereotype and the simple character type of the fool, and this relatively well-rounded characterization was to this program's credit.
IB TIMES: "Barney Miller" came on at the perfect time in the 1970s when New York City was in a state of turmoil, decay and near social collapse (a backdrop that provided many rich story lines). Could "Barney Miller" work today when Manhattan is so peaceful, stable and relatively crime-free?
STRATE: Yes, because ultimately it was not about the setting, it was about the characters, and "Barney Miller" gave us a charming group of characters, played by a talented cast of actors, with scripts that were well-written and intelligent. In some ways, it was ahead of its time, and might play better today as there would be less of a contrast between the portrayal of criminality on the show and the reality of social conditions in the city. If it ran today, it would probably be one of the most popular series on the primetime schedule.
IB TIMES: What ultimately is the legacy of "Barney Miller?"
STRATE: The program humanized police officers and helped to restore their positive image after all of the negativity associated with countercultural conflicts of the 1960s and early 1970s. But the enduring legacy of the program has more to do with the quality and intelligence of the series, which has yet to achieve full recognition. It deserves to be acknowledged as one of the standout series of the 1970s, exemplifying what can be achieved creatively, even within the constraints imposed by an industry concerned with maximizing profits and avoiding controversy.