Barney Miller:Christmas Story/Hash/Smog Alert

Christmas Story

Airdate: December 23, 1976

If there was a character on this show that would be the protagonist for the entire series, I’d say it’s probably Wojo.  It’s his growth as a cop then tends to drive the stories, even if the series is named after Captain Miller.  Miller is very much the mentor of Wojo, and really of anyone who passes through the one-two.  Even in this story, Wojo is the primary catalyst of most of what goes on in this story.  But the person to root for in this episode is clearly Nick.

After Barney and Fish wistfully share a moment of holiday nostalgia on Christmas Eve, punctuated by brown snow and a bit of gay panic, Harris is processing a Japanese mugging victim, Dorothy Murakami, who reveals herself to be a prostitute.  Wojo comes in late, as usual, but his excuse is that he’s brought in a sack of presents for the precinct.  Barney protests Wojo’s unilateral action, confessing that he was under the impression that they weren’t exchanging presents this year.  Fish is even crabbier asking how Wojo would like it if Fish gave him a present.  Nick comes in afterwards with a blue Christmas tree, which Wojo wants put in the trash, due to its lack of yellow pigment, to offset the blue.  It gets put in the corner anyway.  And Fish brings in a Mr. Craig who threw his “easy-to-assemble” Zoom-a-go-round through the window of Siegel’s, the assembly of which Wojo has better luck.

Luger comes in unsubtley appealing to Barney for an invitation to Christmas dinner, so Barney, unsubtley courts any interruption from the staff to take him from Luger.  Harris runs out to grab some gifts to make up for Wojo’s generosity, but clearly just went to the local pharmacy to pick up whatever was closest to the register.  Luger genuinely appreciates it, and Wojo protests, saying he didn’t need to do that.  “Look Merry Christmas, will you!” replies Harris, hoping to promote an image of cheer.

Mr. Craig was picked up while Fish was on a call about multiple muggings of department store Santas, so he gets sent back out undercover as Santa.  He’s reluctant, but then it was an opportunity to be the ultimate Christmas crab!

The meat of the episode lies in Nick’s story in which he approaches Murakami and asks her out.  She has no luck finding the mugger in the mug shot book, so she leaves, promising to return when Nick gets off at midnight.  Harris casually lets slip to Wojo that she’s a prostitute, so Wojo gets worried on Nick’s behalf that she’s sees him as John or something.  Until now, Wojo’s presumption has made people mad, but it hasn’t really hurt anyone much until now.

Wojo breaks the news to Nick.  So Nick’s poignant reply that maybe she liked him anyway.  Nick was clearly hurt by the implication that Wojo didn’t consider that someone could just like him.  So when Murakami returns, Nick acts apathetic towards her, because he thinks maybe Wojo was right.  They awkwardly tell each other that it would be okay if the other doesn’t want to go out, but they quickly realize they do like each other and decide to head out, enthusiastically this time.

Barney acquiesces to Luger’s subtextual request for an invitation, Fish gets the bad guy, and Mr. Craig gets an assembled Zoom-a-go-round that’s too big to leave the precinct.  In the end Fish comes in with some more presents, with Barney, again apologizing for not getting anyone else anything.  His almost hurt retreat to his office is perfectly timed, milked for every possible laugh.


Airdate: December 30, 1976

More than any other episode, this one is cited by more people that I’ve met talking about Barney Miller.  It’s an example of the TV Trope “Intoxication Ensues,” as listed on the website.  In the 1980s and 1990s, a preachier time for the American sitcom, the trope was often used as a way for writers to have their…brownie, and eat it too.  They’d have wacky antics ensue and then let melodramatic music score a lecture on the evils of illicit substances.

But the 1970s were a less politically correct time, a bit more enlightened about hypocrisy than the past, but not as label-happy as the more negative aspects of political correctness, and the 21st century is a more cynical time, in the wake of 9/11, the War on Terror, and the niche-driven Internet allowing any extremist to find kinship.  So this is one of the earlier examples of the trope cited on television, as two of the earlier ones were the famous I Love Lucy episode where Lucy has to pitch Vitameatavegamin, and Star Trek’s “The Naked Time.”  This episode is closer to the latter in that everyone gets an “aria.”

When Hal Linden has spoken of this episode that’s the word he used.  He’s said in the past that he went to the producers and asked where his aria was in the course of all of the mayhem, and they rightly told him that Barney is the rock.  He’s the character that grounds everyone else’s behavior, both within the staff of the one-two and the customers that pass through the squad room.

It’s a bit hard to separate this episode from all of this context going in, but its certainly one that survives without it.  As with the previous episode, this is truly one in which Nick shines.

As confirmation that Wojo’s relationship with Wentworth is over, he brings in a shoebox.  Ever the puppy dog he asks an unpleased Barney to guess at its contents.  He gives up, so Wojo tells him his lady friend, Gloria gave it to him, and that it’s a box of brownies.  Wojo tries very hard to get Barney to like Gloria, as if meeting the captain is part of the courtship ritual, another example of Barney’s father-like role.  Barney abstains, so Wojo asks if he’s trying to prevent a spare tire.  Barney wouldn’t put it like that so Wojo says that Gloria calls them love handles.  Harris walks in and also abstains, at first, citing love handles as well.  A nod to Wojo’s Madonna-whore anxiety, he asks where Harris heard that term.  “Around the neighborhood,” Harris replies to Wojo’s disappointment.

Of course it actually takes until nearly halfway through the episode for anyone to realize the brownies are laced.  In the meantime a uniformed Officer Slater enters, greeting a confused Fish.  He’s a transfer from the one-six-five in Queens, and recognizes Fish as an academy classmate from thirty-five years ago.  Slater asks if Fish is still married to Bernice, née Gruber.  He’s still interested, so he goes to lunch with her.

A Polish stage actor, Makovski, is brought into the precinct after fencing with a Polish stage critic, Chola, over a bad review.  Wojo helps translate, but it’s a slight enough conflict that’s resolved easily enough with a lecture on the symbiotic relationship between the two professions, which is appropriate, considering the showcase is much more on the aforementioned arias.

The first clue is Wojo describing a call about a burglary.  He slurs his speech, lets his fingers do the walking, and answers questions with oblivious literalism.  His puppy dog nature is exaggerated to the breaking point, yet it’s still somehow a subtle stretch.

Harris is just happy to be here, laughing at anything he sees, which brings us to Nick.  He asks Chola if he likes brownies.  Nick likes to dunk them in his coffee, which probably actually tastes okay under the influence.  His childlike sense of humor is given free reign as he finds himself fascinated by the “mooshie mooshie” texture of the coffee-soaked brownies, making for an all-time, if one-time, phrase associated with the character, surpassing “Very well put” in the public consciousness.

When Fish and Wojo get back from the burglary call, the collar, Fred, complains that the detectives are psychopathic hot dogs.  The hashish made Wojo laidback and Fish an intense superman jumping twelve feet gaps between buildings.  He shouts to Fred, “What do you think–you’re playing with kids?!”  His intensity is such that he confronts Officer Slater about Bernice to his own shock.

Aside from Barney, one of the only cops not affected is Levitt.  Last seen in “Quarantine: Part II,” he remains as ambitious as ever.  When the intoxicated detectives are sent home, he’s oblivious to the reason, but he takes the opportunity to fill in.  When he does figure out the situation, Barney explains that the intoxication was an accident.  But Levitt thinks it’s an alibi and winks the privileged information to Barney as a favor to Barney, should Barney feel ready to repay him with a promotion.  To Barney’s dismay, and our delight, nothing Barney says can convince Levitt of the squad’s innocence.

Barney, the rock, lets everyone know that their behavior is excused because the incident was an accident.  Wojo asks “What incident?”  We all know.  How could we forget it?

Smog Alert

Airdate: January 6, 1977

After two episodes that feature Nick quite well, here is one that is largely about Fish, even if he’s absent.  It’s also the last of two with Detective Maria Battista.  She’s got a great record, and the enthusiasm of Wentworth, but she’s got even more to overcome, including her height.  Someone’s been writing her name at the top of the duty roster, forcing her to climb the cage to move her pet from “Off Duty” to “On Duty.”  But she’s got more immediate concerns as she attempts to arrest a graffiti artist, Antoine McCarthy, seeking sex.

Wojo and Harris come in arguing over Harris’ smoking, all during a smog alert.  Fish volunteers to talk a jumper down from the Brooklyn Bridge.  Nick warns him, citing the Great London Smog of 1952, which killed four thousand people.  Given his respiratory problems, Barney is against Fish going.

Fish does manage to talk Renée Pettit, played by the wonderfully expressive Lee Kessler, but he collapses and ends up missing.  Panic-stricken, the squad calls every area hospital in Manhattan.  Harris suggests Brooklyn hospitals, before Wojo chokes up and suggests the coroner’s office.  Barney tries to calm everyone down and keep everyone busy, but he heads to his office to call the coroner’s office himself, in private.  I wonder if the audience knew that Abe Vigoda would be leaving the show soon.  I wonder if some of the drama of this episode is derived from the uncertainty of the details of his departure.

Pettit complains and complains, but eventually hits it off with the equally shy McCarthy.  He asks for a pen.  When she doesn’t have one, he manages to sneak the duty roster chalk into his pocket, from within the cage, where he manages to write his contact info on the wall of the cage.

Levitt brings McCarthy’s desk appearance ticket upstairs to Battista, of whom he’s very jealous.  So McCarthy gets released and Pettit ends up in the cage while she waits for Bellevue.  She sees the writing on the wall, in one of the best physical comedy performances in the show so far.

Fish strolls in to everyone’s relief.  He got some oxygen in an ambulance and was let out, through the force of his gun.  So the only mystery left was who wrote Battista’s name at the top of the duty roster board.  Well…there are enough clues written above to let you know.  It’s a short journey to the truth.


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