Barney Miller: Bugs/Corporation/Burial

Bugs

Airdate: September 29, 1977

Wojo and Dietrich are looking for cockroaches, which have infested the very old precinct building, despite Dietrich’s assertion that their presence has had an essential and important effect on the ecosystem. Dietrich’s willing to kill them, but Yemana has a clear affection for them, which is not a surprise as he fawned over some little ants on ice all the way back in “Snow Job,” the very third episode of the series.

They enlist the help of the exterminator, whose extensive work revealed a couple of bugs of another kind, surveillance audio equipment of indeterminate age. One is hanging right above the cage, the other is in Barney’s office. As usual Barney tries to be the voice of reason, urging everyone to work as usual, lest they tear the squad room apart, like Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974). As it was, Harris crawled under his desk and Wojo climbed the cage looking for more bugs and Luger rants and raves, not knowing one of the bugs was in Barney’s office. Harris remarks that it’s like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Nick replies that it’s like 1942, referring of course to the Japanese internment Jack Soo himself experienced, beginning in the months after Pearl Harbor.

Barney figures they don’t have anything to hide, and that worrying about it will cause undue anxiety, so he chooses to ignore it. But as usual, he’s sort of caught between trying to make his squad feel better and taking their concerns seriously enough to fight on their behalf. Imagine how the squad would feel now, when surveillance has become so pervasive, both in the private and public sectors, that Frontline did an incredible miniseries on the topic called United States Secrets (2014)! The film talked about the ThinTread privacy protections embedded in the initial surveillance software immediately following 9/11, which were scrapped in favor of wholesale surveillance. Harris and Yemana were both right about what caused them worry that the past would be prologue to a scary future.

There is someone in this episode that really does have something to hide. Harris and Yemana bring in three prostitutes, including Miss Duquette from “The Courtesans” and Paula Capshaw from the “Quarantine” two-parter. But there’s a third one, Roberta Kerlin. She’s a goofy housewife from Connecticut who had four kids, including a pair of twins, and took up jogging to get her husband to notice that she’d kept her figure. For her, she decided to street-walk to feel sexy. Barney says that such work should be left to professionals, to which the more familiar collars concur.

So she calls home to let her kids know that she’ll be home late. Mari Gorman plays the part with a silly charm akin to Cheri Oteri or Kristen Wiig, so it’s not hard to know exactly what she’s feeling, even if it’s not at all subtle. When her husband Bill finally comes by Barney explains the situation as discreetly as possible, explaining there was no evidence, so she’s not being held. But Roberta plays it like she’s a professional having been finally caught after a career in the trade. The Capshaw and Duquette play along to make Bill jealous. Even after Bill realizes nothing happened, she leaves him with doubt as to what she would have done if her john wasn’t a cop. Ambiguity can be a powerful tool…

And that doubt is something the squad will have to live with, regarding surveillance. Barney lets the squad, and “whoever’s listening” know this as vehemently as possible, only to find out the wires led to the store room and were chewed out by rats. I suppose the exterminator has more work on his hands!

Corporation

Airdate: October 6, 1977

Next in the prescience parade is an episode where Alvin “The Hawk” Trager commits and act of vandalism and theft against Federated Paper Company (Division of McMillan Chemical), whose lawyer Brad Laneer is sent as a representative.

Meanwhile Wojo brings in a homeless woman whose bag was stolen. He believes her to be deaf and mute. Though Wojo, Barney, and Dietrich have no luck getting her to talk, Yemana is familiar with her, as he sees her talking to pigeons outside Cotterman’s Liquor Store.

She starts to grab things from Wojo’s desk, including a key ring she uses as a bracelet, so when he starts rifling through her bag for his stuff, he notices his ball is gone. It was actually Laneer that took the ball as he was a former ball player in school. In fact he used pitch a 1.6 ERA with a .420 batting average. But despite his impressive statistics, his mother didn’t approve. It’s been said that the guest characters on Barney Miller have more character development than the regulars on other shows (Noel Murray, The AV Club “A Very Special Episode: Quarantine, Pts. 1&2,” July 1, 2010).

This is yet another example of that, as it informs the zeal with which Laneer attacks this problem. The same is true for the homeless woman, Mrs. Hirsch. She finally speaks and uses the opportunity to mess with Wojo. When he asks her age, she says “61, I was forty-five in ’61.” When Wojo does the math, it being 1977, he realizes that would make her 61 now.

Even the eco-terrorist has a capacity for messing with people as the squad gets a call about someone hanging from the side of the company skyscraper. Part of his performance art protest was to turn the building into a “giant filthy crossword puzzle.” He wasn’t finished, so Yemana spends the rest of the episode “solving” the puzzle.

We actually do get a bit of character development for the regulars too in this episode. It’s not unexpected when Wojo confides to Barney in his office that he can’t let Mrs. Hirsh freeze in the winter, or that Barney says to respect her freedom and dignity. Mrs. Hirsh promised Wojo a trip to Bermuda, so it’s unclear what her faculties actually are, unless she was joking. But Wojo confesses that the reason he wants to help is to make up for the pain he caused his mother. Not the pain of growing up, but of being born at eleven pounds two ounces. Barney says it’s not Wojo’s fault, to which Wojo replies after a pause “Of course it is!” The timing and disconnect is hilarious here.

But, while in custody, Trager threatens to consume one of the vials of chemicals as proof of the deadly nature of the chemicals. Laneer’s half-hearted apathy toward his own job makes him a terrible negotiator, so Trager goes through with it. Barney demands to know what was in the vial, and has Wojo call Bellevue. Trager confesses it was Red Dye Number Two. While the deadliness of this chemical was not immediate, it was a real-life chemical used in things like M&Ms before being banned in 1976. Apparently McMillan Chemical still had some a year later.

Mrs. Hirsch asks if she’s free to go, and after Wojo looks to Barney, he lets her go. She returns the key ring, but Wojo lets her keep it, as she walks away poignantly.

The crossword building having stumped Dietrich and Yemana, they declare the answer to be so filthy it could only be solved by a perverse mind. So Barney takes a crack at it and finds a solution satisfactory to Yemana.

Burial

October 20, 1977

Fish is back! In a move that could threaten to undermine the excellent exit he got in the “Goodbye Mr. Fish: Part II,” Fish returns for a visit because he was in the neighborhood. At the risk of spoilers, I’ll say that there’s only one more appearance with Fish, much later in the series, so there really isn’t too much worry that he’ll retroactively negate the exit. Here, as with his previous performance, he seems much more at peace than he did as a regular. As much as he lamented his marriage to Bernice, and the foster kids he’s raising on another night of the week, they really do seem to have done him a lot of good. Not only do the cops of the one-two love him so much they practically roll out the red carpet for him, he’s well loved at home. And it’s lucky he’s back considering what happens in this episode.

The return is slightly awkward. Wojo’s conversation with him is a bit of this, but they do love him. Wojo offers him the seat in front of his desk, prompting Dietrich to offer his desk seat. Wojo takes Fish’s coat and hat and Yemana gives him a cup of coffee, unwashed, of course. The show itself welcomes him back by providing him the traditional closing line to the teaser.

That line was in response to a call of a robbery of a body at the Hubbard Mortuary. A very neurotic Nelson Hubbard has been assaulted and robbed by a Julius Whittenour, whose roommate died virtually alone. The search for Whittenour and friend, a roommate named Leonard, is two-fold: Dietrich and a waiting-for-apartment-search-phone-messages Harris check out other funeral homes, while Nick and a scared-of-funeral-homes Wojo check out the apartment.

This leaves the squad room understaffed, so Fish offers to type up Hubbard’s statement. But beyond paperwork, he has a much more important role. Fish’s specialty was talking down jumpers because he could empathize with them. But he’s also someone for whom death is a constant thought. So when Julius reveals that he’s buried his friend in a public park in a private ceremony, as the only person who loved him, Fish reasons with him in the cage to try to find out where the body is.

This episode, so quickly after Fish’s retirement, only amplifies what a void he’ll leave. But in the meantime, we learn about the folks who are still there. Harris is looking for an apartment and Dietrich and Wojo discuss death rituals. While Dietrich is an agnostic and Wojo is Catholic. But Wojo, the meat-and-potatoes minimalist argues against elaborate ceremony, while Dietrich discusses the customs of the ancient Egyptians. Though they’re long gone into the world of television rerun land, we can thank them for their friendship and honor them in our own ways.

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