Barney Miller: Ambush/Heat Wave/Arsonist

Ambush

Airdate: October 2, 1975

The premise of this show is to illustrate what it’s really like to be a cop.  To that end the show usually downplays romantic scenes of shootouts and car chases in favor of scenarios where cops have to fill out paperwork or resolve relatively mundane conflicts between individuals.  So the danger there might be that one gets a false sense that this is simply another office job.  This episode is as good at debunking that extreme as most episodes are at debunking the former extreme.

Chano, Yemana, and Harris are out on a call and get ambushed by a cop hater sending Yemana to the hospital.  Often the show will address the absence of a character that’s not on the show that week, so this is a good way of doing that in a way that integrates the story.  Last week Wilson was mentioned, with the ambiguous possibility that he could return, and in this episode, Jack Soo’s absence is accounted for by his on-the-job injury.  I tend to assume that there’s a production reason for the absence of an actor on the show, much as William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton would take a vacation during the grueling production schedule of “Doctor Who.”  So I watched thinking that might have been a serendipitous reason for Yemana’s absence here.

In his place is Kelly, the cop last seen snooping around the squad room for Internal Affairs.  Here he’s back making his racist jokes while expressing cowardice at the opportunity of diving into another possible ambush.

So when another call comes in for a burglary he tries to back out of Wojo’s invitation while saving face.  He doesn’t want to horn in on anyone else’s collar.  But Barney plays into that with some reverse psychology and sends the two of them out, but not before puppy dog Wojo asks Chano and Harris if he’s overstepping his bounds!

They come back with a member of a gun club, Emil Ditka, that was perched suspiciously atop a building across from the call where he wanted to keep guard of all the young troublemakers out there.  Yet another call comes in, so Barney takes the same tack with this fellow and brings Ditka along with him and the rest of the gang, with Kelly minding the store.

While many people are seduced by the romance of police work, it’s still a job.  It requires hard work, thorough analysis, and yes, solid paper work.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous.  Kelly and Ditka like to build themselves up, and think of themselves as heroes.  As long as they don’t engage, that narrative can remain true.  If they ever do find themselves in a really dangerous situation their worst fears might be realized, not that they’ll get hurt or die, but that they’ll be confirmed cowards.

Meanwhile Barney gets an offer from a small Florida police department to become chief.  As worried as Wojo is that he’ll lose his mentor, this isn’t the life for him as it wouldn’t have the challenge.  He’s good at his job and understands exactly what it means, without the romance.  So, he really does know what he’d be losing if he went to a sleepy town.  It’s the work of a retired man.

So he recommends that Fish consider the job.  “Won’t I be bored too?”  Fish sighs as he knows what Barney really means.  Fish really is a lot closer to retirement; maybe that would be a possible life for him.  But he also doesn’t want to be irrelevant, which is the implication of his inquiry.  This is a more nuanced question than the one asked in “The Experience” last season, and therefore warrants a more low-key approach.

Chano and Harris bring the cop hating perp downtown and end up covered in garbage for their troubles, and it simply shows just what kind of life Fish would miss if he presided over a police department in a sleepy town.

A side note: there are similar themes at play in an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” called “Sal’s Pizza” in which Santiago is jealous of Diaz for being offered the captaincy of a small town police department.

Heat Wave

Airdate: October 9, 1975

An episode that aired in February of the previous season “The Stakeout,” took place in a heat wave, as does this one, which aired in October.  The calendar on the wall suggests that he episode takes place in September 1975, so I suppose we can go by that.

Here is another episode that examines gender and sexual politics on several fronts.  Linda Lavin makes a welcome return as Detective Wentworth, having transferred back to the one-two.  During the heat wave tempers run hot and muggings increase, so the cops have to go on undercover duty as women in parks to attract said muggy muggers.  And in the course of all this, a battered wife, Mrs. Boyle, comes in complaining of her husband’s latest attack.

One thing this show often does well is pair characters together for thematic resonance.  Given his anxieties about both gender and sexual politics, it’s only natural for Wojo to be paired with Wentworth, and it’s only natural, if perverse, for Fish, ever the wisecracking reticent husband to be paired with Mrs. Boyle.

Wojo is reluctant to go off on undercover duty.  It’s not just that it would be hard to see the overly earnest cop in spy mode; it’s that the macho ex-Marine doesn’t want to be seen in a dress and wig.  Having previously faced rejection at the one-two Wentworth assumes it’s because he doesn’t want to be paired with her.  But he assures her that’s not the case as he begrudgingly dons his red dress and green purse.

He gets attacked by an attempted rapist and bites the attacker in the neck!  Wentworth is jealous on two counts: one that she wasn’t considered as attractive a woman as Wojo, and two that Wojo mischaracterized her participation as being “pushed aside.”  Her take is that she was “knocked to the ground,” that she could have taken the attacker in a fight.

So, fired up, the two of them both go back to the park to have another go at the guy, looking for a tall, dark man with a Wojo-sized hickey, but not before Wentworth sexes up her outfit and Wojo changes into something that hasn’t been torn up!  The adrenaline at play is the perfect catalyst for the two of them to admit a mutual attraction, so you can be sure we haven’t seen the last of Detective Wentworth.

I did say it was perhaps perverse to pair Fish up with the battered wife.  That’s mostly because of the execution of this particular plot.  It walks an uncomfortable line in that Fish makes his usually dark jokes about marriage, while Mrs. Boyle’s performance is played for the type of laughs Phyllis Diller might obtain from joking about her husband “Fang.”

But the situation is far more serious than that.  Wentworth tells Boyle that her husband is an animal that should be in jail, to which Boyle replies that he’s actually on probation.  Harris offers that Mr. Boyle could get three years if convicted, at which point Mrs. Boyle reminisces wistfully.  Barney remains conspicuously quiet on this matter.  Perhaps he feels that she needs to make this break from her husband on her own, but I must concede that it was simply another time.

In a college class I listed to an old radio show where a cop came by to investigate a domestic disturbance and determined that it was out of his purview.  I found it pretty disturbing that a case of spousal abuse was treated so glibly, but that’s still a concern in the twenty-first century; just witness the way rape cases are treated by communities and the media.

Finally Mrs. Boyle decides to leave to work things out with her husband, but not before signing the charges report she plans to bring him so that he may be convicted for hitting her.

Arsonist

Airdate: October 16, 1975

Nick Yemana takes a third week in a row off as Harris happily types away at Nick’s desk, trumpeting, and far overselling, his ability to multitask to Wojo, who has gotten to work late.  Barney asks if Wojo’s alarm went off, to which Wojo replies sheepishly, “Yeah it went off.  But, uh, I was in a different borough at the time.”

Chano and Wojo go off to check out a call of a shooter at the Lexington and 23rd Street subway station who turns out to be a Charles Grodin-type, named Francis Lindquist, angry at the vending machine for keeping his twenty cents—oh when Butterfingers cost twenty cents.

Meanwhile Barney assigns Harris and Wojo to check out reports of arson.  They come back with a sketch, of a Woody Allen type (though Barney thinks the guy looks like a young Albert Einstein, which wouldn’t be far off from how Barney looks, actually.

Harris and Wojo have seemingly different takes on the case.  Harris prefers a more sophisticated, psychological analysis of the potential suspect.  He suggests that the suspect is someone who is “sexually frustrated and socially inadequate.”  Wojo blows a raspberry at the idea because he thinks the guy just sets fires because he’s crazy.  What Wojo doesn’t really realize is that he’s sort of saying the same thing as Harris.  Barney tells them to use Harris’ analysis as a starting point, which leads them to a burlesque theatre.

A minor subplot, barely a runner, consists of a Mr. Cotterman getting harassed by teenagers.  But it supplies Fish with some work while the rest have their cases.  Fish does go on a lunch run.  And, as has happened before, the cops ask the detainee what he’d like.  So at least Lindquist gets a free sandwich out of the deal.

Lindquist, still resignedly ranting about all machines, has called in his cousin, a lawyer, to bail him out.  At first he got an answering machine, or a recording machine, as it was called here.  Louis Lindquist is played by Leonard Stone, who will show up several more times over the course of the series, including the very first episode I ever saw, from the fourth season.

The Woody Allen description of the arsonist is actually pretty apt.  Not only does the arsonist, Edward Foreman, look a bit like Allen did in the 1970s, he’s even the neurotic Harris predicted he’d be.  It turns out, while he’s setting these fires, he’s been taking care of his hypochondriacal mother, while desperately calling out for help for his own mental illness.  Confessing over the phone to his mother, it’s clear she’s so overprotective she wants to join him in prison.  Barney, Wojo, and Harris help Mr. Foreman reiterate emphatically that such a thing would not be a good idea.

A day’s work complete, the three young men, Wojo, Harris, and Chano all make plans for a night out, while Barney and Fish lament the absence of their wives.  They try coming up with something to do together but can’t think of anything.  “What do you wanna do?”  “I don’t know what do you wanna do?” they bat back and forth to no avail.  Perhaps sleep would suffice.  That sounds good to me.

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