Barney Miller: Doomsday/Social Worker/The Layoff

Doomsday

Airdate: September 11, 1975

No really!  The episode called “Doomsday,” in which a madman wants to commit an act of terrorism by blowing up a building in lower Manhattan aired exactly 26 years before 9/11.

In this case the madman is played by special guest star William Windom.  As a kid I knew him best as Commodore Matt Decker, captain of the U.S.S. Constellation, in Star Trek’s landmark episode “The Doomsday Machine.”  It’s perhaps his most famous performance to people of my generation.  There he played a tragic soul whose crew was lost to a giant planet killing machine.  A broken man he turned into a desperate, disheveled, anxiety-ridden Ahab, with some of Queeg’s neuroses thrown in.

Here his character might very well have had a similar back story.  He may also be a reference to George P. Metesky, “The Mad Bomber,” who terrorized New York City in the 1940s and 1950s.  Here his character, George Webber, comes to the one-two to requests warrants for the arrest of the governor of New York, several city officials, and the mayor of New York City, or he’ll blow up the precinct building with his belt of dynamite.  Of course he’s not very clear with his demands other than general charges of thievery and corruption, and concern for the sludge off of the Atlantic coast.

It’s obvious there’s some serious mental break which could only be handled by Bellevue.  So Barney tries every psychological and negotiation tactic he can.  First he has the gang write up warrants and call the DA, to convince Webber that they’re on it.  Then Barney clears the building and tries to find out what’s bothering him, before using reverse psychology, and then finally telling Webber that he’d rather blow himself up out of angry spite.  Webber, thinking “This’ll teach him!  Let him wear it!” takes off the belt and gives it to Barney, allowing him to call downstairs for someone from the bomb squad.

But before the building could be cleared there are other issues at play.  One is the plumbing, featuring J.J. Barry as a plumber frustrated with his treatment by the detectives, as he fixes the worst bathroom in the city, the one-two’s, which spews salt water and brown liquid.  Could this be residue from the sludge?  At any rate, Fish is definitely not happy about the situation.  J.J. Barry will show up several times later on as a variety of different characters.

And Wojo brings in “Father Paul” a guy hawking Bibles he got from hotels, claiming to be from the “Church of the Street.”  This rankles Wojo as he assumes it to be an illegal exploitation of religion.  Barney, knowing Wojo has a tendency to arrest first, ask questions later, has him go slowly and check it out.  This plotline doesn’t exactly get resolved but it is important as it introduces Steve Landesberg, someone who will, by the end of the season, be more well known as regular detective Arthur Dietrich.  What’s interesting is the role of religion in this character.  Dietrich is one of the few agnostic or atheistic characters in the history of television, and Father Paul is defined by his ambiguous religion.

This episode is a great return for the show, it’s hilarious, it touches upon many themes the show likes to tackle, and is a great reintroduction to the squad.  But no one thought that more than the audience who was there that night.  There’s a line in the film Annie Hall (1977) about laughs from pot users not being earned.  As a former stand-up myself I could kind of relate.  I liked killing, as it didn’t happen all that often, but sometimes one can kind of tell an audience is one that would not just laugh at anything, but laugh uproariously at the slightest noise.  Their applause here was on a hair trigger for every entrance, as when Chano enters complaining about taxes, and nearly every line, as when Chano enters complaining about taxes.

A laugh is instinctual, applause is deliberate; comedians prefer laughs because they know they earned them.  With Jack Soo and Ron Glass promoted, as well as a little money being thrown in for some additional footage shot for the titles sequence, I think the production team was just as happy to be back.  But I don’t think the extra applause was the fault of the production.  I imagine they were probably in the editing room or in the sound mixing room and trying to figure out how to tone it down, as the producers of Seinfeld did when Kramer would get lengthy applause breaks whenever he entered.  I’m sure they appreciated the admiration, but sometimes the show must go on.

Social Worker

September 18, 1975

The first scene of Barney Miller is one in which Liz worries about Barney’s job as a cop.  Her fears were warranted in the first few episodes, as he’d have to negotiate with gun-wielding hostage takers, bomb threats, and faces the attempted suicide of flashing lawyers.  But here the tables are turned as we learn where she works.  She’s a social worker who goes out on cases, today in the South Bronx.  He warns her that the area is home to gang wars and arson.

He’s not kidding!  Observe the BBC show The Bronx is Burning, in which the narrator cites the South Bronx fire department as the busiest in the world for the arson of abandoned buildings.  That said, Liz knows what she’s doing and she’s got the fire and intelligence to handle her own.  So Barney ends up a hypocrite when he sends a squad car to look after her.

Yemana’s off this week, so in his place is a detective named Mike Lovatelli who has a Yemana-like fascination with soap.  Though we haven’t seen him before, Liz is quite familiar with his peculiar ways and bookends her conversation with him by saying it was nice to see him too.

Meanwhile Chano and Harris bring in a forger, Harold Polanski, who couldn’t get a job after prison, so he passes bad checks to make a buck, but with the sly, mischievous grin of someone who is almost resigned to his paranoid persecution complex as he charmingly shows off his talent by supplying “biographs” of Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Winston Churchill, and Eddie Fisher.

Maybe he has a point.  Luger stops in to chat with Barney about a possible promotion.  Luger might take a job on the parole board to keep the scumbags behind bars.  Barney tactfully concedes that he might appreciate it if Luger stuck around.  With people like Luger on the parole board maybe Harold Polanski doesn’t have a chance!

As Luger passes Wojo’s desk, he sees his paperweight, a 1936 World Series ball signed by the likes of both teams: Carl Hubbell, Lou Gehrig, etc.  He turns into a little boy marveling at the artifact from his youth but Wojo doesn’t want to sell it.  Harris says he could use a rock as his paperweight, to which Wojo replies “Then he’ll come after my rock!  There’s no end to blackmail!”

Fortunately an elegant solution has been made when the forger supplies Wojo with a decoy ball.  Luger didn’t suspect a thing, but he did ask if John Hancock played for the Giants.  “He was one of the original Yankees,” Wojo says of the Bostonian signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The Layoff

September 25, 1975

In this episode everyone in the precinct suffers from some form of economic downward mobility.  Layoffs are rampant throughout the police department, a manicurist, Ms. Lamota, loses her job for stabbing a sexual assailant, someone else is in the cage for stealing furs valued at $2500, and a former stockbroker hit a female stockbroker, Ethel Gorman, for her purse and $68.

Wilson, a detective that only appeared in one episode early last season, has his name officially erased as his character is laid off.  Wojo, Harris, and Chano are on the chopping block next as seniority earns the detectives some immunity.  Called in by Barney, innocent, delusional Wojo asks if “all four of us” are getting laid off and Harris expresses frustration that Blacks and Puerto Ricans are on the first to go, that Polish Wojo is the “token layoff.”

That said, another precinct’s captain, McCarthy, has been laid off, making Barney even more frustrated as he orders Yemana to erase the three names off of the roster board.  Chano, Harris, and Wojo clean out their lockers carrying stuff that is of course in character: Chano’s stuff is in an emptied out box of beer, like what would have been found in his apartment from “The Hero,” Harris has a tennis racket, and Wojo has his karate gi from when he thought he could.

Meanwhile, marveling at the furs, the manicurist and the fur thief hit it off, promising to have An Affair to Remember (1957) by returning on Christmas Eve, with Barney’s permission.

Slightly less amicably, the former stockbroker defends his hitting a woman, to the very woman, Ms. Gorman, ready to press charges.  There is no excuse for his action, but at the same time, but the exchange illustrates the lost empathy that comes with money.  Recent studies have illustrated this concept as potentially valid, as cited in an article by Yasmin Anwar on the UC Berkeley News Center website, dated December 19, 2011: Lower Classes Quicker to Show Compassion in the Face of Suffering (http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/12/19/classandincome/).  In the end, he makes one last case for taking the $68 even as he returns the purse and Ms. Gorman relents without pressing charges.

Neither uniforms, nor plainclothes cops, are safe as resources are depleted when a call requiring lots of backup comes from a grocery store.  Having already been laid off, the three detectives help save the day, but their jobs are only saved from the dumb political luck of a loan from the state of Connecticut.

One economic crisis averted, the threat of a strike looms as the lights go out.  Barney reveals that those that left the job are workers from Con Edison.  This is a subject that will remain every bit a part of the walls of the one-two as the grime…and the roster board (now at the Smithsonian).

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