Barney Miller: The Hero/Season One Ruminations

The Hero

Airdate: May 1, 1975

In a lot of ways this episode is a summing up of the entire first season.  Harris brings in a pimp by the name of Mayflower, whom Wojo books with his requisite indignation.  Liz has made a citizens arrest of a young boy by the name of Truman Jackson, played by Todd Bridges, Willis on “Different Strokes.”  Even Inspector Luger shows up again, a reminder of the “good ol’ days.”  Meanwhile Yemana finally gets something of a story, or at least a couple of running gags in filling jokes and a need for reading material in the can.

Liz’s collar, an eight year-old boy with a big pointy stick, attempted a mugging by pointing the stick at her and exclaiming “This is a stickup!”

This earns one of Yemana’s famous utterances of the phrase “Very well put!”  But, ever the wise and nurturing mother, Liz brought the young boy in to teach him a lesson.  Even though everyone at the station loves her, including of course, Barney, she still has a twinge of regret that perhaps even Barney and the gang might be too rough on him.

He tries to put her at east that he’ll only give the kid a taste of what collars usually go through and Harris is game to play along.   Harris “books” Truman and says that he may have to face “Judge Meanie” because “Judge Goodie” is unavailable.

“Barney Miller” has so far been a show adept at making connections between its stories, so when a new black pimp in the neighborhood gets arrested for felonious assault of a trick, Barney seizes the opportunity.  He enlists the help of the pimp to help play a version of friendly proto Scared Straight to the kid as a plea bargain for leniency.

This whole storyline is the type of thing that probably wouldn’t be very realistic today.  I think that we live in a world that would be too timid, perhaps rightly so, of the legal ramifications of doing something like this without at least contacting Truman’s grandparents first.  On top of all that are the class and racial dynamics that color (no pun intended) the jokes of the storyline.

That said the whole thing is very cute.  It plays as a sort of pint-sized version of the type of compassionate conflict resolution that is the thesis statement of the series as a whole.  And this whole subplot serves as a counterpoint to the meat of this episode.

In the teaser, Fish and Chano get sent out on a 1030, a bank robbery.  While Liz and the squad room deal with Truman the viewer could be forgiven for nearly forgetting all about the robbery, even if the two of them are absent.  When they finally arrive, a manic Chano sprints toward the coffee at the end of the room and tries in vain to make jokes about how terrible the coffee is, and how cold it is this April.

It’s very clear that something is off because there is a subtle change in the way Chano delivers these jokes that betrays his nervousness.  There’s a point where he’s trying to ask for the date to fill out his report and then catches himself as he spots a calendar.  It’s powerful in its subtlety because it almost appears to be a line flub.  It throws the studio audience off because the scene still plows on.  By the time Fish reveals that Chano was forced to kill the two bank robbers the audience remains silent, even when Yemana attempts a sheepish one-liner of his own.

Just when it appears to be a completely different world, Luger comes in to congratulate Chano.  In his own demented way, Luger’s heart is in the right place.  He tries to cheer Chano up by making chit chat.  What will Chano do after he’s killed the bad guys?  Luger suggests going to Radio City Music Hall to go check out the Rockettes, or maybe he should go to a moving picture.  He even suggests that he’ll sponsor Chano for a medal.  To this, Chano storms out.

Wojo asks Barney for some time off, but Barney tells him that Chano needs to deal with this on his own.  Yemana also talks to Barney about it in his office.  Has he ever had to kill someone?  Neither of them have done so.  In fact, Yemana mentions having seen a cop show with macho heroes killing the bad guys and how different it was from working as a real cop.

So we see that effect on Chano by following him home to his apartment.  Thus far the show could be said to have several explicit consciences in Liz, Barney, Wojo, and Chano.  They all have different ways of fighting their causes, but Chano is probably the one whose cause is closest to home.  What this episode reveals is that his jokes about his proud disappointment in his fellow Puerto Rican have been a façade, a defense mechanism for coping with a very real and very dangerous world.

His apartment is even grimier than the one-two, with graffiti in the hallway, layers of boxing posters on his own walls, his TV in the kitchen, and his TV dinner in foil.  That TV doesn’t help as he turns it on to find first news of Saigon, followed by several local stations covering the robbery.  It should be noted that this episode aired on May 1, 1975, exactly one day after the Fall of Saigon.  The story on the TV set was one that featured only general chaos and pillars of smoke, so it wasn’t necessarily a South Park type of turnaround, but the Vietnam War is the perfect backdrop for the post-traumatic stress disorder exhibited here.

As Chano is about to open his TV dinner, Barney knocks on the door.  Gregory Sierra displays some more acting mastery here as Chano turns his depression into the façade once again before greeting Barney.

He graciously offers Barney some food and drink and tells him what he’s been up to.  He just saw Dirty Harry, which must have been playing at a second or third run theatre, as Magnum Force was already two years old by that point.  It should be noted that Dirty Harry (1971) is another point of contrast for the show.  It’s a movie series that comes down fiercely on the side of victims’ rights, while “Barney Miller” is a show that takes a more Solomon-esque view of the universe, balancing any and all sides for the fairest solution.

Barney doesn’t stay long; he’s just checking in.  But he does something for Chano that allows him the dignity of his façade.  He tells Chano a worthless fact about the sperm whale as if it was the setup to a joke before sadly lamenting that that’s just the way it is.  The subtext is of course not lost on Chano.

The tag at the end has Luger return disappointed that Chano won’t be getting that medal.  Instead of going to a cop that has killed two robbers, it’s going to another cop that has saved two people, and their dog, from a fire.  It’s sort of a karmic even trade, and an acknowledgement that maybe compassionate idealism may win out and that life wins over death.

The show has flirted with death before, but with the season finale actual deaths been part of an episode.  A cop killing a suspect is treated not with glamour and romance, but as a harsh unfortunate reality that is given its due gravity.  The whole point of working as a cop is to make any death as rare as possible.

In one of the episode’s best sight gags Barney opens the door as an oblivious Luger starts his speech, in an attempt at letting him know that his glory for the old days of wanton violence are over.

Chano wouldn’t want the glory anyway.  But just in case, the gang saved for him the bank’s monthly newsletter so that he can read about his heroics.  As appreciative as he is upon his return, the gang knows he doesn’t really want it, so they toss it in the trash.  Finally seeing some compelling reading material, Yemana fishes it out on his way to the bathroom.

Season One Ruminations

This series’ thesis statement is one of compassion and conflict resolution, as well as team management.  The 1970s represent a time when we were perhaps more open than before, or since, to listen to each other or at least try new things.  I can’t say this with any certainty because I was born in 1981, and I’m not sorry to live in the present, as I think that as hard as times seem in the twenty-first century, I see things only improving in the long run.

But back in the 1970s, how many cop sitcoms had there been on the air?  In order for the show to prime the pump for saying what it wanted to say about police work and society, it had to place itself in context.  So this first season may appear a bit self-conscious in comparison to what appears later.

There are clear references to other depictions of cops in media to serve as points of reference.  But this is not “Get Smart.”  These references aren’t done with the intent to parody.  Nor is this a Norman Lear show that delivers another form of meta-commentary on its own genre or medium by dialing up its characters to caricature levels.  As much as I love those other shows, “Barney Miller” may be a product of the era of postmodernism, but the show itself is not postmodern.

This first season serves the aims of its thesis by laying the groundwork for something more important: character development.  The architect of the thesis, within the universe of the show, is Barney himself.  He serves as the intelligent, compassionate, leader who works to bridge the gaps amongst all sides, and fights for his family, whether they’re the people at home, or the people at the office.

Liz is Barney’s wife, with whom he has lovely chemistry.  Every bit Barney’s equal, she’s good at charming everyone and fighting for what’s right with intelligence and wit.  She’s a perfect match, even if she naturally worries over Barney’s dangerous job.

Wojo is Barney’s protégé, which Barney accepts with some reticence.  His over eagerness may have to be tempered in time, along with some of his more ignorant, socially conservative values, but his heart is in the right place.

On the other side is Fish, whose mischievous sarcasm betrays his worry over his impending retirement and the homebound implication that retirement entails.  What we’ve learned so far is that Fish has nothing to worry about at home because he has a sweet and devoted wife with a slightly grating voice.  That somehow makes his jokes of resignation over his health and marriage all the funnier.

Chano is someone who is proud to live in New York, having moved here from Puerto Rico.  He expresses that pride by trying to serve as guardian for his fellow Latino and Latina, indignant at the transgressions of those he brings in to the one-two.  If only they’d rise above their situation.

Harris comes from a similar point of view, but he does so perching upon a pedestal made of high end clothes and dreams of becoming a writer.  At this point we also don’t know much about Yemana, beyond the fact that he takes racist jokes in good humor, giving comebacks that don’t come off so much as insults as they do absurd observations and the false appearance of obliviousness.  Like Harris, he too has dreams of avarice, but his are fueled by the horse races.

There have been superiors of Barney’s that have dropped in once in a while, reminders of bureaucracy and authority that Barney isn’t fond of wielding, or receiving.  But Luger represents not only a more traditional cop of the thirties and forties, but the traditional cop show.

All season “Barney Miller” has been trying to place itself in context, and contrast itself with the depictions of police work in the media and it does so no more forcefully than with the season finale.  As low-key as this show prides itself on being, one can’t help but believe that there is much more in store.

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5 thoughts on “Barney Miller: The Hero/Season One Ruminations

  1. I think the racial dynamics (and maybe even the class ones) are acknowleged in that Harris handles the majority of the case — talking to the grandparents, trying to get the pimp to play along, I think Harris, maybe even more than Chano, wants his people to rise above their situation, which is in part why he’s so obsessed with status symbols and this sort of tough love type deal.

    • Wasn’t Harris the only college-educated person in the squad until Dietrich came aboard – which was a source of humorous conflict between the two, @Marybeth? I don’t think Barney ever had a college education, though Liz did – and Barney was highly intelligent, and pretty well-read for a middle-aged cop who’d worked his way up the ranks to a Captaincy.

      My take on Harris was that his family didn’t have money, exactly – but they were middle class and highly aspirational, which was why he talked, behaved and dressed the way he did. There are later episodes where you see his facade take some hits, and you realize how desperately he clings to his nice suits, his polished speech patterns and his dreams of success as a writer and filmmaker, rather than spending the rest of his days being a cop.

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