Barney Miller: Community Relations/The RAND Report/Fire ’77

Community Relations

Airdate: January 13, 1977

NewsRadio had a famous early episode with a bet between Dave and Bill where one would give up coffee, while the other gave up smoking. Among its ancestors is this episode, in which Harris reads an article about the psychology behind compulsive gambling. Harris jokes that the article is about Nick, so Nick calls him out on Harris’ chain smoking. So the bet begins…

Wojo is frazzled by a court appearance because he has trouble speaking in front of others. So he storms in and slams his on duty peg into the board, spilling some of the other pegs onto the floor. When Barney tries to straighten out the duty roster it’s an opportunity for the show to name drop characters that will never be seen again: Battista, Wilson, Wentworth.

Harris gets a shoplifting call from Siegel’s, so to keep watch on him, Nick volunteers, as he draws puffs on a torture cigarette. When they return, they bring back a blind shoplifter, Leon Roth, who steals because people take advantage of his blindness to steal from him.

But this week includes some particularly pushy guests. One is Frank Pissano, from the district attorney’s office angry at Wojo for his mush-mouthed testimony. Pissano spends the episode scheming and analyzing the parameters of Wojo’s testimony, as well as the makeup of the courtroom for its political effect on the jury.

A Leonard K. Hauser bursts into the one-two with Kramer-like explosiveness nearly assaulting Fish with an inquiry on the location of a cop he could speak to, not knowing, of course, that Fish is one of them. Hauser doesn’t hit it off well with Fish because his first words as he enters are “Hey old guy where can I find a cop!” He’s in a rush because he’s got a demolition crew on the clock to tear down a building with one last elderly tenant holding out. Since Hauser hasn’t exactly endeared himself to him, Fish stretches out the statement process to ridiculous lengths before taking some uniforms to the building to investigate.

Though sympathetic to the situation, Barney says they have to book Leon Roth, due to the charges Siegel’s has brought on him. While being booked, he senses the tension between Harris and Nick, and that Nick appears to be the cooler of the two under the conditions of the bet. His guesses are fairly complimentary until he says “Either that or you’re Japanese!”

As we move through the series, we begin to realize Fish’s specialty appears to be talking people down from shaky situations. He goes back to the building and manages to get the holdout tenant, Mr. Lukeather. The tenant was waving a gun around, so he did have to be booked.

Pissano sees the parade of criminals on this particular day and nearly pulls his hair out. Despite the fact that the bookings are not the choice of the precinct, these collars are particularly sympathetic. Fortunately he has the coaching of Wojo to distract him. They do okay though as Wojo’s testimony manages to yield a plea bargain.

Lukeather is still out of a home, but perhaps Fish overpromises when he says they’ll find him a place to live. What’s interesting is that Fish has found someone he can relate to. He’s not overtly sympathetic of foster children, but his heart genuinely went out to Lukeather.

Barney’s Solomonesque knack for problem solving saves the day as he pairs a homeless Lukeather with a vulnerable to theft Leon Roth. They hit it off well and the cops speculate on the new roommates’ future. Harris cleverly expresses skepticism by saying he bets they won’t make it, luring Nick into losing the bet.

Though the execution of the bet recalled for me NewsRadio, the premise reminded me of one of the better lines in Dumb and Dumber (1994). As Bill McNeal might say of it, “A bet about betting…delicious.”

The RAND Report

Airdate: January 20, 1977

Dietrich is back. Barney cracks a terrible joke and tries to garner even a smattering of chuckles from Wojo and/or Dietrich. Dietrich complies with a feigned laugh that recalls Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data attempting the involuntary response to humor so easy to humans. Dietrich is, after all, all too eager to please.

He is once again deskless and would not like to disturb Fish, if he can help it. But he’s under the impression that Fish is mad at him for the last time, when scratches appeared on the desk. Fish isn’t in yet, so Dietrich takes Fish’s chair, pensively examining the scratches beyond any scope of reasonable conscientiousness.

Fish really is absent for most of the episode while he’s on assignment at a nursing home. He checks in at the beginning and the end, annoyed more by Dietrich’s rambling on geriatric care than any scratches that might have been on the desk.

This is another episode in which there’s an article inconsistency regarding the title, as reported in various outlets. So I’ve kept the article, but used that as an excuse to change capitalize the acronym, reflecting the name of the corporation. I’ve kept the article because this episode is about a Newsweek article (apparently fictional, though the show often cites real-world news), this time not about Nick’s gambling.

While one might expect Harris’ intellectual interests to include reading such an article, he certainly thinks nothing of them when they say that detectives don’t do nearly as much work as uniformed officers. Levitt, on the other hand? Oh, he eats it up! Nevertheless, Wojo gets a call about a burglary and tells Levitt that when there’s real trouble, people call plainclothes.

Luger’s certainly not happy about the report. He just got back from a meeting with the bad news that third grade detectives have to pull uniform duty one week a month. Since Battista’s not on the show anymore, the only person this affects is Wojo.

He and Harris bring in a Steven Himmel, whose wife, Georgina, was attacked by a purse snatcher, now in a locked elevator. In his terror at the attack, Mr. Himmel impeded the police and fire departments, for fear that she was being raped.

He’s played by Martin Garner, who previously played Mr. Frumpkus, a character similarly exasperated by sexual offense. In that case, Frumkus was offended by the very idea of smutty periodicals. Here, Mr. Himmel has a much more immediate cause for concern, but his response is no less extreme.

Concerned for the honor of his wife he tells her to kill herself, “death before dishonor!” Given his emotional state, it’s hard to tell if he’s joking, which points to the troubled sexual politics of the 1970s. The show has similarly walked on a knife’s edge in the episode “Heat Wave,” in which a battered wife’s decision to charge her husband with abuse is played for laughs. That episode pulled it off by having the wife stick to her guns.

This episode nearly veers off course, but subtly avoids such a fate, first by having Luger endorse Mr. Himmel’s comments, and secondly by showing the wife to be strong enough to stand up for herself. Mr. Himmel’s problem is in part that he sees his wife as a sex goddess. It’s almost sweet anxiety, even if misplaced. Nothing happened, and she managed to talk her attacker, Mark Swykirk, down to a calmer state.

When Barney has to break the news to Wojo about the uniform duty Wojo doesn’t take it well. He refuses to go on uniform duty as it’s a humiliating reminder that he’s failed the sergeant’s exam four times. So he puts his badge on his desk and walks out. Fish asks what happens and Dietrich quips that a desk just opened up. The line has the poignancy of the final moment before intermission in a play, no doubt evoking exactly the tone creator Danny Arnold always wanted in the show. Even the audience doesn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry.

Of course the line is at an act break, so when we return from the commercial break, Levitt enters the squad room. For this period Levitt would be Wojo’s commanding officer, poetic justice for the earlier crack about whom complainants really call when in trouble. Barney covers for Wojo, knowing he’s probably just blowing off steam, but Levitt sees through it.

Like Inspector Kelly, back in his Internal Affairs days, Levitt is wise to such business, even when it isn’t happening. The difference is Levitt sees it as an invitation to do a favor for the captain, with the expectation of a promotion as reward. When you believe everything word and mannerism is a code for shady behavior, it’s impossible to be convinced otherwise.

Even when Wojo does come back the next day, Levitt is positive Barney wants Wojo’s behavior swept under the rug. The squad sweetly supports Wojo when he does show up. He says he needs to break something to release the tension of the situation, so they all offer him chairs, baseballs, whatever. He thanks them and leaves, turning back to break the window to the squad room door.

Fire ’77

Airdate: January 27, 1977

Seriously, someone get Dietrich a desk! He’s eating lunch at Harris’ desk, while annoying Fish with his lengthy apology. The usually empty desk at the window won’t do as the view of the airshaft isn’t appetizing, but really, I’ll chip in.

While Dietrich shuffles his lunch to whatever spare corner he can find, Harris and Wojo brings in a Thomas Vitella, charged with robbing the poor box at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, naturally upsetting Wojo, a fellow Catholic. The two live near each other, but Vitella doesn’t recognize him from church. It turns out that Wojo hasn’t been to church for a couple of years. As much as he prides himself on the values of his faith he hasn’t been practicing. While the avoidance of organized religion by the faithful is an increasingly common choice, Wojo is clearly filled with guilt as he resents Vitella’s line of questioning.

Lunch-wise, the squad room finds Dietrich’s imposition far less annoying than Nick’s shabu-shabu, a Japanese dish of boiled beef and vegetable scraps. With Harris busy on the phone with his broker, Barney has the unfortunate task of stirring the pot while Nick is out on a call.

That call is initiated by a Lawrence Weiskoff, who requests to be arrested for the murder of Gwen Baxter. It turns out they made a suicide pact to be completed at their respective apartments. Since he chickened out, and she didn’t answer the phone, he assumed she went through with it. While Fish takes Weiskoff’s statement, Nick investigates Gwen’s apartment.

Nick brings Gwen back to the squad room. When Weiskoff defends Gwen’s suicide, Barney holds so firm on an anti-suicide stance he says something nearly out of character “This station does not recognize it’s obligation to consider other points of view.” His usual mandate is practically the direct opposite of this statement. But here, when both the spirit and letter of the law support the preservation of life against suicide, he’s willing to make an exception.

Harris has checked Vitella for prior convictions and has discovered quite a checkered past. But Vitella is afraid of returning to Riker’s Island, not because he’s afraid of being killed, but because he’s afraid of being raped. Though it’s a serious issue, even now such anxiety is often played for laughs. Vitella’s anxiety is so acute that he requests to go to the bathroom.

So enters the fire of the title. Vitella can add arson to his record. He no longer has Riker’s to fear; with those charges, Vitella’s likely to go to Elmira or Attica. But the fire turns Lawrence and Gwen on.

The twin plots confront the existential and spiritual crises of the guests, but doesn’t really offer much help for either of them. Vitella will end up back in prison, while the couple find themselves in the ecstasy of danger. I’m a bit worried for all three people.

The fire tears the squad room apart, including the door to the bathroom, but Nick’s shabu-shabu survives. Barney overcomes his distaste for the smell and tries it, liking the dish. When Nick gives it a taste, he realizes something must have gone wrong with it.

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