Growing up, one of the staples of household television viewing was Barney Miller, the classic 70s sitcom set in a police station. My dad was an early adopter of the VCR, which he’d use to tape the late-night syndication so that we could watch it with dinner the following day.
We stopped watching BM around the time I reached 12 or 13. I liked the show, even if I didn’t really get all that was going on.
20 years later, I’m rekindling my love for Barney Miller, thanks to it’s daily appearance on the TV Land cable channel. They play the episodes in order, and about a month and a half ago, the cycle came back around to season 1. They’re now just starting Season 3.
It might be an understatement to declare Barney Miller “amazing.” Pretty much from the outset, there was a style of writing and acting that set this apart from any other such work. It’s easy to forget that 95% of all that happens takes place in a single room (and the other 5% takes place in one other room). You’d be hard-pressed to find a more cleverly written episode than “Escape Artist” from season one, with a witty parallel of two men yearning to breathe free (Roscoe Lee Browne’s prison escape artist, and Leonard Frey’s bird man). Or a more heartfelt one than “The Hero”, where Chano deals with his gunning down of two armed robbers, while Harris attempts to set a kid (Todd Bridges, later of Diff’rent Strokes) on the right path. (“You ain’t no brother!”)
Watching Barney Miller conjures mixed feelings. The most obvious is joy at the laughter so easily elicited (yet I’m sure was so difficult to craft). The deeper is a sadness that it’s unlikely that such a production nowadays would get past a “reader” much less have a pilot or a series. This is a show about mostly unattractive men in their 30s to 60s. The setting is dingy. The ethnicities are mixed. The only references to sex are when the occasional hooker is brought in. Yes, it’s a TeeVee show, but it had a certain… authenticity, low-key believability, which you simply won’t find in current productions.
And no one has ever composed a TeeVee theme song as FUN-KAY…