Airdate: January 23, 1975
Actually, the show premiered sooner than that in a way. On August 22, 1974 The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller aired as part of an anthology series Just for Laughs which aired that summer. That script was retooled for the first broadcast episode of Barney Miller.
As such it introduces the series. And as such it has a job to do in introducing its characters and its premise. But this show has decided to do a bit more than that out of the gate. It provides a thesis statement of the series and how it will operate.
In order to do that it tries to look at what cop shows are and where this show is different. The stakes are immediately set as Barney’s wife Elizabeth (Barbara Barrie) listens to the grim news on the radio one morning as she looks through bars to the grime on her window at the one spot without brown rain. Not only is her husband a cop, but someone tried to break in the previous night and she wants to leave for Montana where the chickens roam.
Barney, honest to a fault, admits that the bars are a cosmetic security measure, and that he likes his job. So when he gets to work naturally Elizabeth’s fears come to fruition.
But first the show’s regulars are introduced, first by the legendary bassline of the opening titles, and second by a succession of solos wherein they process the episode’s titular character. Dapper Harris fields a call from a complainant, Yamana negotiates with a regular collar over his bookie fees after Wojo books him with a goofy joke, Amangual expresses embarrassment at the young fellow Puerto Rican for his crimes, and Fish resignedly leads Ramon to the bathroom before Ramon bursts back out with Fish’s gun. Aside from the jokes, this violent crime is pretty typical of cop shows.
But when Barney enters he expertly talks Ramon down by employing his honesty and offers him the services of his daughter’s boyfriend, a lawyer. Barney tries to keep his workday discreet when he returns home, to no avail.
What’s interesting is that this is actually a fairly unusual plot for the show with its sharp focus on Barney and its violent crime as the centerpiece. It’s a bit like when Star Trek premiered with “The Man Trap,” a monster episode which seemed counter to its mission of adult science fiction.
The show rarely leaves the squad room again. However, in watching this story, the viewer now knows that intelligence, honesty, and compassion will win the day moving forward.
Airdate: January 30, 1975
The second episode deals with another life and death plot, this time a bomb, but here we get to know the characters a lot more. Wilson has to go to the park undercover in drag to bag some harassing pervert and Wojo continues to be a slightly insensitive goof. Yemana develops his delightfully weird sense of humor.
Marty is a kleptomaniac homosexual, yet another regular visitor to the 12th precinct. Barney tries to warn him against his life of crime, but no one make an issue of his homosexuality except his cellmate who threatens to rough him up if he tries anything. Just a few years after Stonewall, that’s a pretty big deal, even if Marty’s played as a camp gay stereotype. “What’s wrong with a gay cop?” he asks, to the laughter of the audience. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a sitcom that premiered in the 2013-2014 season has a gay cop as its captain. What a difference four decades make.
But the meat of the episode lies with “Old Fish.” He contemplates retirement two years ahead of schedule because he can’t keep up with his much younger partner, Wilson. He saves the day with quick thinking by throwing the bomb in a safe, but is still mired in self-pity. Things get worse when it’s apparent that he’s the victim of playful pranks and teasing, especially at the hands of an oblivious Wojo. What’s especially true in male friendships is the blurry line between such teasing meant with good nature, and that which can paralyze the target with self-loathing. I can empathize with that difficulty as I’ve had to explore that line many times over the years. Even when Wojo tries, he’s a goof that doesn’t help, and only incurs the inherent grouchiness for which Fish would become so well known.
This is only the second episode in the series, so we know Fish is going to be okay. He’s in the opening credits. But what is evident here is that Barney’s compassion is not limited to the toughs that roam through on their way to another term in jail, but to his squad.
In fact, the trials and tribulations of the criminals are either played for laughs or to advance the plot. Fish’s take upon discovering the bomb is one of the best comedy takes I’ve seen. This is not an episode that mines them for pathos because that pathos is reserved here for Fish.
The episode also remains inside the squad room for the duration. The previous episode suggested a Dick Van Dyke or Bob Newhart level of balance between the work life and home life of its star, but here the focus becomes clearer. This is a workplace comedy that happens to take place in a police station. It’s a minor tweak, but an important one in the development of the show.
Airdate: February 6, 1975
Now this is where the show first learns to juggle a bit, and in doing so it serves to balance the focus between the squad and the perp of the week. On an extremely cold winter’s day, a self-loathing lawyer flasher who is addicted to indecent exposure ends up in the cell only to attempt suicide while using the bathroom. Wojo is in charge of a very large some of money from a department store. He stores most of it in the safe, but the rest won’t fit. The episode sees fit to have as many people pass through the precinct just to marvel at the giant pile of money. One perp’s entire purpose in the episode is to repeat the quoted sum in loud amazement.
Yemana appears to have a catchphrase in “Very well put,” which appeared previously, but annoys Harris here. Wilson is nowhere to be seen, presumably because Harris is the more interesting character; Ron Glass is a much better actor with better presence. I don’t think it’s because the show felt it filled its quota of African-Americans.
Meanwhile, Barney is up for a promotion, but wants to keep it discreet, so he confides in the one person whose time at the one-two was most in jeopardy of brevity, Fish. At this early stage, this seems to be the relationship with the most chemistry and depth. And that makes sense as it can be guessed that Fish was once young Barney’s mentor. Their relationship is now in transition as they slowly switch roles on Fish’s road to retirement.
That said, this is the funniest episode yet, as it benefits from the balance of focus and pathos between the squad’s broken radiators, dreams of avarice, and camaraderie with the comical yet sympathetic plight of the towering lawyer who knows he’s sick, and cries out for help. The building is old, slimy, and cold, but it is home to this accidental family.
One bundle of five thousand dollars goes missing. The flasher did it. It gets returned and he writes the squad a thank you letter for saving his life and gives them his coat as a thank you present. Though it’s obvious Barney won’t get promoted out of the precinct in the third episode of the series, everyone still roots for him. The coat is a nice consolation prize for the mediator and manager in charge, as well as a cute capper to the episode.