Barney Miller: Strike: Parts I&II/Season Three Ruminations

Strike: Part I

Airdate: March 24, 1977

One of the surprising things about writing these reviews is doing the research on the historical context of the show. That it was topical places it comfortably in the company of the more heavy-hitting sitcoms of the day, though its take is much closer to the humanity of the MTM shows than the satire of the Norman Lear shows. To help guide that humanity along, the show tries to make its world as close to the real one as possible, citing actual hurricanes as in the season premiere “Evacuation,” or the use of actual audio from the notorious speech by President Ford in the second season’s “Protection.”

This is one of those instances, though, when history does not match the show. There did not appear to be a police strike in New York in 1977. Given the crisis in 1975 and the lack of aid from President Ford, I’m actually surprised there wasn’t one in the aftermath of that speech. Perhaps the writers staged a fictional one in solidarity with the troubles the New York Police Department were going through at the time.

But strikes put people in very tough positions, especially when the workers in question provide such a crucial service. That was one of the central themes of the satirical science fiction film RoboCop (1987). Sometimes good people, who care a great deal about one another, hurt each other in the process. As usual the show is about the characters more than it is about the politics and it seems far more interested in exploring the consequences of a strike than arguing for one side over the other.

Perhaps a better title for this episode would have been “Blue Flu.” Inspector Luger walks into the empty squad room disgusted that no one appears to be there until Barney walks in from his office. Large amounts of the police force have called out sick, including Kogen and Fish, neither of whom appear in the episode. Kogen has come down with “anger” as a symptom. Fish is legitimately sick.

There’s a tense look of recognition when Wojo comes in, same as when Harris comes in, up the back way. Dietrich and Yemana bring in Lonna Lane, a robbery victim whose blind date stole from her. Luger is impressed that the two of them have shown up to work and have actually got a head start on the day, so he describes it as a tribute to Barney. Dietrich jokes that Lonna is their sacrifice.

When he explains the joke to Lonna, that it’s a reference to ancient cultures that sacrificed virgins, we find out that she is a virgin in her forties, saving herself for marriage. So she spends the rest of the episode looking through mug books with the subtext that she’s very interested in meeting someone.

With everyone there, Wojo asks Harris what he thinks about the strike. It’s an interesting question, given Harris has previously established himself as a Republican. In this case, he’s definitely on the side of the striking police officers, as is Yemana. Dietrich is characteristically articulate, and zealously, passionately…undecided. When Lonna asks why there’s a strike he doesn’t mention specific demands, just campaign slogans. He joins the others. Levitt comes up to express his loyalty to Barney and the precinct. He’s willing to risk being a scab if it means a promotion.

Wojo is with the three detectives but his loyalty, both to Barney and to the cause of fighting crime, drive a lot of the tension the episode. The detectives prepare to leave at noon for the demonstration. Though Barney is not happy about it, he understands, telling Wojo that no explanation is necessary. A call for a liquor store robbery in progress comes in, forcing a decision on the detectives before they leave. Wojo convinces Harris to take the call with him, so they go on the condition that they leave when they get back. In the meantime, Dietrich and Yemana decide to sit in while they wait.

Wojo and Harris bring in Charlie Prevette, a genuinely repulsive individual who took advantage of the strike to rob the liquor store. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a truly unsympathetic character, but even he has an ideology. As he taunts the squad, he yells at them, telling them he hates cops and scabs.

While one could argue that Wojo and Harris taking the call was a tough call, once he starts to fill out the paperwork, booking Prevette, he basically crosses the picket line. It’s hard for him to let go, so Harris urges him to join the detectives on the way out. He reluctantly leaves. Barney understands even more than Wojo does, the tough position both of them are in. But that doesn’t mean he’s in any mood for Levitt’s sycophancy. So he lets the phone ring and heads to his office…

Strike: Part II

Airdate: March 31, 1977

“Strike” Part Two starts with a recap, but this recap actually features deleted scenes and alternate takes of the dialogue from the previous episode. It also mostly just suggests the themes of the two-parter, without specifically stating how the previous episode ended. That’s okay because the episode begins with a nearly empty squad room as Barney fields calls by himself, with Lonna using the bathroom and Prevette screaming about it from his cell, to the frustration of the good captain.

Of course, one of the calls is from the detectives calling to check in on him. They may be on strike, and they may not help him out, but they do love Barney very much. Lonna Lane thinks she feels the same way, as her desperation causes her to bring him coffee and offer her…secretarial services. He excuses himself when Luger brings in the robber, John Blomquist, played by Joe George, previously the paranoid bus driver Mr. Strand in “Bus Stop.” He deflects attention from himself by citing Luger as an eligible bachelor.

Luger isn’t very interested in doing paperwork, so he has Blomquist book himself! This gives Lonna an opportunity to reacquaint herself with the man. The two get to know each other and he expresses regret. He confesses his social anxiety and she drops the charges, saving him from the paperwork, to the chagrin of both Barney and Luger. But Lonna is confident they’ll get along well, as she’s more than willing to be a generous partner.

The next morning Barney and Luger have slept over, so Levitt wakes Barney up and Barney wakes Luger up. While Levitt is there for the devotion to his career, Luger admits that he stuck around during the strike for Barney, the son he never had.

That being the reason Luger stayed, when Harris, Yemana, Dietrich, and Wojo return, he chews them out on the way out. So Dietrich suggests Barney and the strikers air out their grievances as a way to transition back to work, even if he doesn’t want to go first. Wojo regrets striking because he thought of it as walking out on Barney. Harris argues that they were really walking out on the bureaucrats and budget cutters. Barney understands and respects the intent, but suggests he was the one that caught the brunt of the damage.

Strikes are tough for the people striking because they don’t know if they’re risking their careers and immediate income. It’s tough for their immediate supervisors too, and some of it can manifest as personal fissures in the working relationships they have with their workers. But the people at the very top usually end up okay no matter what. That’s not at all an argument against unions or strikes. They can be a necessary bargaining tool. But it’s one of the sad realities of the economic systems that make such things necessary.

Harris makes it clear that the strike did not at all reflect the detectives admiration and respect for their captain, so Barney acknowledges the difficulty of the decisions, and the fact that there may be future strikes, but that the bond the squad shares is ironclad. He adjourns the meeting.

But to undercut the drama of the previous few minutes, the show has Yemana voice his complaints about the jokes everyone else makes about the coffee. After that, Wojo laments the esoteric intellectualism of one of the remaining peers. He also doesn’t like that peer’s clothes, which narrows it down from two slightly pretentious intellectual detectives, to one. The squad room crew all love each other much, but there’s always going to be some discord.

Season Three Ruminations

This was a year in transition. That is made clear by the simple fact that Fish is not in the season finale. His eponymous spinoff series, Fish, was right in the middle of its first season when the third season of Barney Miller ended, so he wanted to concentrate on that show, rather than appear on the parent series. Considering the perfectly understandable demand, (being the regular on one series would tax most actors, let alone two), I wonder if the season finale was some kind of commentary on the situation.

Whatever the case, the beginning of the fourth season will see the exit of Abe Vigoda as Philip K. Fish with another two-parter. So this season functioned as a way to prepare for that absence. Preparations had already gone underway in season two with the episode “Fish.” There we meet Fish’s adult daughter, and we visit his apartment, in anticipation of a possible sitcom revolving around that life. Instead he becomes foster parents to a group of children, and moves into a new house, as he gradually reduces his workload at the precinct.

But the episode “Fish” was a very important step toward the series Fish, because it introduced another character that would eventually take his desk: Arthur P. Dietrich. Dietrich would grow in depth slowly from that second season episode until Fish’s exit. And that largely works because he’s a mass of contradictions. He’s wise, yet socially awkward. He’s mysterious, yet expresses nearly every thought that crosses his mind. He shows deep compassion, yet disarms that compassion with a joke that contradicts his verbal dissertations. And he’s competition for Barney, and especially Harris, when it comes to the title of squad room intellectual. That sense of mystery, along with being the new guy, will keep him an engaging outsider for the rest of the series.

These are of course ruminations, so let’s look back at the season instead of to the future. The show is called Barney Miller because it’s largely from Barney’s point of view. But one could argue the main protagonist is Wojo, because it’s his growth that drives most of the stories. Even though Wentworth is gone, and he’s no longer her boyfriend, he’s clearly learned from her influence. He’s starting to soften a bit toward those he finds different, and even has a grudging tolerance for Marty Morrison.

If Wojo is the protagonist of the series, Fish was probably the breakout character of the early years, the “Fonz.” His jokes were always so good they were usually the ones that closed out acts. He probably received the most applause for his jokes, in addition to the biggest laughs. He was cutting, cantankerous, and sarcastic, but vulnerable and self-deprecating. He could even allow peeks of compassion shine through his crusty exterior.

So it’s kind of natural he’d end up with a house full of foster children, even if he doesn’t want to admit how much he loves them, or Bernice. It works because the kids and Bernice both understand him so very well and accept his good humor with good humor. His calls with Bernice were a legendary part of the show, due to Abe Vigoda’s talent for telephone humor, like a very weary Bob Newhart.

Barney Miller is a multigenerational show. So while it’s a workplace sitcom, these characters are very much a family. That’s kind of a cliché of the genre, but here there’s a sense of heredity in the characters that other workplace sitcoms might not have. Wojo is at the beginning of his career, Barney in the middle, and Fish and Luger represent two possible futures for Barney. The terms “father” and “son” recur on the show very frequently, so it’s not hard to see the four characters as one. Barney can look back at his past in mentoring Wojo and look to his future when looking at Fish and Luger. He can forge his own path and avoid the crippling nostalgia of Luger and the depression and health issues of Fish.

But he can also emulate the devotion to the force that Luger has, while demonstrating that devotion as Fish does right to the end, by fighting to work as much as possible, while gradually accepting the inevitability of retirement as a challenge to try new things.

As we say hello to season four, we’ll say “Goodbye, Mr. Fish.”

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