Barney Miller: Bureaucrat/Ms. Cop/Vigilante

Bureaucrat

Airdate: March 6, 1975

Ostensibly the title refers to E. J. Heiss, the Chief of the Bureau of Federal Regional Development and Planning for Underdeveloped Suburban Areas for Mines, Parks, and Indians, but one could say this episode is about bureaucracy itself.  The gang gets its usual lunch order from Murray, of Grossman’s Deli, and Wojo finds a fly in his egg salad sandwich, and Chano is embarrassed to write his own name under “Victim” for a robbery at his apartment.  It’s an indignity forced upon him by the habits of bureaucracy.

The ever-vigilant, to the point of self-righteousness, Wojo has to “take the consequences of [his] actions” when he finds out his reporting of the health code violation resulted in the closure of the deli.  Of course if the health department closed the deli there may have been a pretty good chance there were some serious violations that warranted a look.

But the consequences of these actions for Murray meant that he’d have to do some costly remodeling and, perhaps more seriously for the squad room, lunch prices for all items would rise a minimum of 83 percent.  There’s an economics of justice at play here; Wojo may learn to balance relative injustices for the greater good, or the lesser damage, in the future.

Chano, meanwhile, discovers that the person that robbed him of a stereo, a watch, a framed picture of his mother, on the mantelpiece (not of his mother on the mantelpiece), was a twelve year-old boy named Manolo Reyes.  Ever since the premiere, Chano has fancied himself sort of a mentor to the stray youths in the neighborhood, especially those from the Latino community.  He fought hard to make good in this country and he’ll be damned when his fellow Latinos screw it up for him, but more important to him, he doesn’t want these kids to ruin their own lives.  So with some tough love he has Manolo retrieve his stuff, at a loss of twelve dollars, and readily accepts the responsibility of the young thief’s probation officer with charmingly sly, but firm glances.

Barney meanwhile has to deal with the most obvious bureaucrat of the title, brought in by the unnamed uniform at the beginning of the episode, a drunk named Heiss, with a pathological fear of flying that threatens to sic the federal government on him.  With typical compassion, Barney bonds with the government official just in time for the federal lawyer to take Barney to task for literally making a federal case of Heiss’ inebriation.  Barney turns from tough ranting to concession as he realizes the best way to help Heiss is to sacrifice some of his own face for some of Heiss’.

Barney Miller as a series doesn’t like bureaucracy.  The lawyers on the show always come off as opportunistic leeches and the same could be said for the higher-ups at headquarters, as seen with the internal affairs officer earlier in the season.  If there was a thesis to the series thus far it would be that it’s the human connection, as seen between Chano and Manolo, between Barney and Heiss, or between Murray and his customers at the one-two, that yield the greatest satisfaction between all parties in conflict.

Ms. Cop

Airdate: March 13, 1975

Years before March was declared Women’s History Month by the president of the United States, and not long after the ubiquity of the title “Ms.,” this episode aired highlighting the issues female cops have to deal with on the force.  I wrote that sentence in the present tense because this episode deals with some of the nuanced problems present.

I may go on in these reviews about how much I admire Barney as a boss.  I think he’s the best manager of people in television, the type of boss and mentor we should all be so lucky to have in our lives.  But Barney isn’t perfect.  He knows this too.  While he wants to grant new detective, Wentworth, equal respect, he’s hesitant to send her out in the field.  His excuse is that the squad has built-in rapport that could make the difference when engaging an armed bank robber, so he leaves Wentworth to type and file other detective’s reports.

With the squad room empty, save for Wentworth at the typewriter, Liz stops by to visit Barney and take him to lunch.  She wants to incorporate some lessons she learned in group therapy by managing his expectations.  She’ll pitch an extravagant trip to Paris and then offer lunch as a consolation prize of financial respite.  But Wentworth vents her frustration to Liz, not realizing the worry she’d feel about Barney being off on a dangerous call.  A tough cookie, Liz bonds with Wentworth over their respective issues before the gang returns with their collar.

Later a nearly empty office is the perfect opportunity for another field assignment from a call Wentworth fields.  Barney tries to send Fish out by himself before Wentworth convinces Barney and Fish that she should go along.  It’s the perfect comic pairing as Fish is the closest this show has to an Archie Bunker at this point in the series’ run.  He’s curmudgeonly but not as hateful as Archie can be so he comes off as a sweetly grumpy skeptic.  But Wentworth’s energy on this assignment makes her a partner in demand.

But she gets transferred to youth house duty before coming back to the one-two to meet her old friends and tell them she’s now on vice squad.  She’s finally developed that rapport.

I would be remiss to mention the subplot, which could be called a runner through the series at this point.  Chano finally catches the obscene phone caller and brings him into the station where the caller hijacks the phone and harasses Wentworth.  There’s another amusing moment where a resourceful Yemana grabs a pencil during a call with a complainant.  It’s not to write down the description of the stolen car (who could forget the monkey fur dashboard anyway?), it’s a pair to his lone chopstick for lunch.  The cleverness outweighs the stereotype in my mind.

This episode is a good opportunity to recommend a book on exactly the world Wentworth worked in during this period in New York history.  It’s called Detective Marie Cirile: Memoirs of a Police Officer, written by one of the pioneering women cops on the New York police force.

Vigilante

Airdate: March 20, 1975

Did I say Fish was the closest thing to Archie Bunker on the show?  Well maybe back in the olden days of the previous episode, back when cops were cops and men were men!  But hoo boy Barn, nowadays a whole week later they bring in special guest stars like legendary actor Dick Gregory to bust in playing a copper from the ol’ days like Inspector Luger.

Up to this point, whenever there was a higher-up, he was seen as a villain or a bureaucrat there to cause trouble for the one-two.  But Luger is far too harmless and wistful to be of any real harm to our beloved heroes.  He represents a return to the days of Glenn Miller and Herbert Hoover when the cops seen through the rosy spectacles of his nostalgia ruled with no nonsense batons of justice, not the Solomon-like problem solving skills Barney uses, for which Luger has contempt.

The relationship Barney and Luger have is like a more comedic version of the one Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt have in the British cop show Life on Mars.  Ironically that show is about a twenty-first century cop that travels back to the 1970s and encounters a policing philosophy he considers prehistorically brutal.

And yet there’s a third way, as demonstrated by Escobar, a Puerto Rican of late middle age who humbly rescues mugging victims in his tough neighborhood.  He’s the vigilante of the title, but he’s not out to be a superhero.  He simply copes with the conditions of his tough neighborhood in the only way he knows.

The show takes a typically non-judgmental approach in comparing and contrasting the different philosophies of justice.  As with Wojo’s fight with the deli waged with the fists of the health department, here the cops of the one-two come to the conclusion that perhaps moral relativism would allow for letting this vigilante go free in the short term, while they hope that the poorer neighborhoods of New York City might one day get the attention the richer neighborhoods get.

And speaking of Wojo, the subplot concerns his arrest of a straight transvestite under the charge of an “unspecified misdemeanor.”  Barney explains that Wojo means that it’s illegal to conceal one’s identity, but though it’s unspoken, it’s understood that this is a loophole.  Undeterred by the collar, Al Shriver’s, self-description as a combat veteran Marine who drives a twenty-ton rig for a living, Wojo is still not Luger by any means.  But his more conservative moral judgment makes him more vigilant with such a misdemeanor than Barney might have been had he encountered Mr. Shriver in public himself.

In describing the depiction of the gay character, Marty, in “Experience,” I was remiss in neglecting to mention how revolutionary the character was on television for the time.  There had been very few gay characters up to that point, so the show was sensitive enough to want to consult with the Gay Media Task Force to try to get their depiction right (Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television, 1930s to the Present, Steven Capsuto Ballantine Books 2000, p 122).  Marty was still on the stereotypical side, but this was still at a time when any exposure was limited.  Al’s lamentation of his psychiatric diagnosis was also in line with ideas at the time, that activities like cross-dressing or homosexuality were a result of nurture, not nature, and that it was a somehow regrettable development of sub-par parenting.

Though attitudinal change isn’t exactly linear, which is why the idea of a post-racial America is sadly laughable, there are markers of progress.  Sometimes what was seen as reality in Luger’s time might get soundly mocked in Barney’s.  The well-meaning sensitivity of Barney Miller, the show’s, stance on sexual diversity might now be seen as archaic in the twenty-first century.  But that linearity is debunked by the existence of folks like Luger.  There will always be people you love that reminisce about the old days, forgetting how much progress someone else may have made in the process.

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