Barney Miller: Thanksgiving Story/The Tunnel/Atomic Bomb

Thanksgiving Story

Airdate: November 24, 1977

They play football on Thanksgiving right? I don’t care much, especially after Frontline’s “League of Denial,” but Yemana does. So he celebrates by betting on Alcorn State, underdogs playing their arch rivals. Wojo’s got a hot date for the evening, and Luger, as usual, passive-aggressively courts an invitation from Barney and family to ameliorate his loneliness.

At least he gets the jump on Levitt on wishing everyone a “Happy Thanksgiving!” In particular, he wants to wish, and receive wishes, from Dietrich. But Dietrich’s agnosticism prevents him from thanking any specific deity. I suppose that is the thanking being done on this particular holiday, though it didn’t occur to me growing up. At any rate, Luger tells Dietrich that even agnostics can greet each other with a “Happy Thanksgiving” as it’s just a greeting to use like “Hi buddy!” Dietrich deliciously counters Luger’s next attempt to elicit a reciprocal response to “Happy Thanksgiving” by saying “Hi buddy!”

Some have it even worse than Luger or Levitt though. Ed Gerrity has been brought in for stabbing his brother-in-law, a sculptor named Paul Powell who has been living at Mr. Gerrity’s while he tries to make it in art, to Gerrity’s chagrin. Dietrich informs him of two trends: first that many artists only gain fame after death, and second that family victims of such attacks usually don’t press charges, but may plot revenge.

A slightly agitated shrink, Dr. Engels “that’s the way he refers to himself,” are worried about three patients that have “wandered off.” He’s brought two of his staff, Kenny Brewer and Nurse Krewson, both of whom were locked in the closet by the patients while the two of them were “checking inventory.”

Susan Davis’ performance as Nurse Krewson is like a flirtatious Jane Curtin who explains herself to Harris, leaving him a bit flustered when she leaves and he has to explain himself to Kenny.

Of course, Wojo’s a bit condescending to the patients as he loudly instructs them to enter the squad room. There’s an old man, Rudolf Biederman, who replies to Wojo’s condescension with sarcasm, Ana Rada was caught attacking an automat employee who feels extreme guilt for murdering her husband, and Dukane, a chronic nudist.

There was some doubt whether or not the automat would press charges, but the main concern was the patients’ conditions. Biederman was committed by his son for “making too much noise,” and Dietrich certainly didn’t think that Dukane had a problem in advocating nudism. But Ana Rada’s case was more tragic. No, she didn’t kill her husband, in fact he left her. But she believes she killed him, and possibly her father. Barney tactfully allows her the dignity of ambiguity, while Dr. Engels is much more of an empiricist, to the point where he rebuffs a Thanksgiving greeting more forcefully than Dietrich did.

A happier ending greets the other case. Though Ed Gerrity’s a paranoid cynic, suspicious of anyone’s motives, Paul Powell is genuinely thankful for the room and board Gerrity’s provided. So he doesn’t press charges. Dietrich reminds Gerrity about the second half of his prediction. An oblivious Powell smiles at Gerrity, prompting fear that Powell is planning sadistic revenge. Dietrich knows it’s just enough to keep Gerrity on his toes. And Powell would likely be thankful for that.

The Tunnel

Airdate: December 1, 1977

I don’t like to get too personal on these reviews. I’m not Roger Ebert; I’m here to provide a guide to the Barney Miller novice, without reflecting too much on myself. But I must make an exception here. This is a very special episode to me because it was the very first episode I ever watched.

In 2003, General Mills had a promotion where DVDs of old TV shows would be included in cereal boxes. Since I’d heard just a little bit about Barney Miller in the past, mostly that it was considered one of the most realistic depictions of police work on television, I jumped at the chance to sample a show that never seemed to appear on Nick at Nite growing up (though it would later air on sister channel TV Land). “The Tunnel” was one of two episodes on the disc. The other one is several seasons later.

Popping the DVD in I saw an episode where the characters were well established from the very first seconds. Nick, with his distinctive voice, was obsessed with the horse races. Wojo was an earnest, but slightly goofy, young lug of a cop who likes the freedom of the country. Barney is a no-nonsense pragmatist, who is nevertheless polite to his officers and well-spoken. Harris is tired and distracted, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, from a stakeout with a mysterious, yet irritating, partner named Dietrich. Given the way the other cops talked about him I had a feeling he might be the breakout character, oblivious to the entire Philip K. Fish era.

Dietrich is the kind of irritating person who is either unaware of his annoying nature or exploits it to amuse himself. With his deadpan delivery, it’s impossible to tell in the first few minutes. Harris is in the middle of an arc wherein he’s searching for an apartment, one that matches the refinement of his three-piece suit.

Finally Levitt is a bit reminiscent of M*A*S*H’s Radar O’Reilly, with the misplaced confidence of a Cliff Clavin, and the sycophantic ambition of a Waylon Smithers, and an unusual exit all his own. He even gets a moment of heroism later on in the episode.

Those were my first impressions of the regulars, but this episodes other players seared themselves into my memory the dozens of times I’ve watched it as one of only two episodes I could get my hands on.

Though Yemana wanted to make some bets, the phones are out and there’s a report of a history teacher, Howard Gabriel, who cracked up and left his inner city classroom to run to the roof as a jumper. Normally Fish would have taken a case like this, but Gabriel wasn’t a suicide risk so much as a burnt out teacher out for revenge against rowdy students. It’s sort of a parody of the first act of movies such as Blackboard Jungle (1955), a trope which would be run into the ground in the 1980s and 1990s. But here the Harding High School mentioned is meant to be more of a rebuttal to what Barney Miller’s writers probably see as a less realistic take on the inner city school with Welcome Back Kotter, a show specifically referenced by Mr. Gabriel.

The vice principal, Burton Shaw, rushes in to try to get Mr. Gabriel back to class. He’s desperate to have Gabriel, or any teacher, back to watch the kids, who are constantly described as cartoony vandals, burning cars and desks, chanting for Gabriel to jump, and causing sadistic mayhem wherever they roam.

Meanwhile, Wojo and Levitt get a call about a robbery at Cross Diamond Exchange. So the two of them head down and chase the burglar, Leroy Kreutzer (any relation to Fish’s foster child Victor?) into a tunnel, which collapses on Wojo, giving him a near-death experience.

My instincts about Dietrich in those first few minutes were correct. Though Wojo was the person with the near-death experience, the rest of this storyline is largely a reflection on the characters as they muse about the meaning of the afterlife. Though his irreligion has been referenced before, this is the most overt examination of Dietrich’s atheism. Before he’s identified as agnostic, but here he’s pretty clearly an atheist, declaring definitively that there’s no afterlife and no personal deity watching over us.

The depiction of irreligious characters on television must have been fairly revolutionary, so the only thing I can compare it to would be the show’s treatment of Marty Morrison and Darryl Driscoll, the recurring alliterative homosexual characters. In both cases many people remain in the closet, even today. As sympathetic as the show is to all points of view, here Dietrich is depicted as being far too sure of himself for the comfort of the others. Yemana’s only rebuttal is that he just doesn’t happen to agree with Dietrich. The line is delivered and portrayed as a proud statement, while Barney discretely plays his cards close to the vest while remaining open-minded and suggests that Wojo not dwell on death.

Harris commiserates with Kreutzer, as Kreutzer complains of the need to rent an adjacent apartment to the jewelry store, Mr. Gabriel goes back to his own personal afterlife, into the maw of hell at Harding High School, and Yemana wins his bet on the horses, confirming, for him at least, that there is some divine intervention. Right before the frame freezes, Dietrich smiles allowing Yemana an amused concession.

For me, I would have to amuse myself with impressions of Burton Shaw, Howard Gabriel, and Nick Yemana before I could stream more episodes on Hulu, in the years before the service was even developed. But I knew then that the hype was not at all an exaggeration.

I knew I would love this show.

Atomic Bomb

Airdate: December 15, 1977

A building manager named Mr. Seldiz comes into the one-two stinking of sewage because the toilets are backed up. Well, he’s not there to report on the toilets. He’s there to report on a suspected bomb built by one of his tenants, James Thayer, a grad student. Mr. Thayer is played by Will Seltzer, who played Davey the childlike mass murderer on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and would later appear as another character on Barney Miller. Here he’s an okay student who has developed an atomic bomb, minus the atomic material.  This story parallels that of David Hahn, born just a year before this episode aired. Check out the book The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor for more information.

Another multiple-role guest star in this episode is Phil Leeds, who has previously played Arthur Bloom in “Rain” and Lou Hector in “Group Home.” Here he’s playing Harry Kruger, whose wife Evelyn has reported him for going to the Metropolitan New York Cryonic Society to get frozen. He has a pacemaker, and is jumpy about it (he’s “fluctuating”), but Dietrich informs him that it’s illegal to be frozen before death.

So here are two of the biggest scientific ideas of the twentieth century battling it out in an episode of a show that loves to tackle ideas like these. Sergeant Kavanaugh, from the bomb squad, has been brought in to investigate the bomb, to be followed later by William McKuen and Dr. Reinhold Bauer from the FBI’s New York office. The conflicted couple and Mr. Swanson from the MNYCS are there to discuss cryonics.

Though Thayer did build the bomb, he and Dr. Bauer differ on the use of such an instrument of destruction. Thayer built it to prove the point that building such a bomb has now become too easy, therefore such no-how could fall into evil hands. There is ambiguity regarding Dr. Bauer’s background though it’s implied that he was a scientist for the Nazis, not an immigrant scientist for the United States. He might be more a von Braun than an Oppenheimer colleague like Niels Bohr. Dr. Bauer is of the opinion that scientists must push forward, with no responsibility for the applications of that science.

A lack of responsibility is exactly what McKuen wants as the FBI’s reputation by 1977 had fallen so low that he’s become paranoid that he would be involved in a lawsuit.

And Mr. Swanson is of the position that the world of the present is one to be skipped in favor of one in which nuclear war might no longer be a constant fear, though Dr. Bauer sees it as a lack or participation in world events. Mrs. Kruger would miss the Jamisons and Fiorellos, even as Mr. Kruger would invite her to join him in the freeze chamber.

The cryonics society checks out and the bomb gets confiscated and classified by the FBI. But Thayer informs McKuen that you can’t classify the mind of someone who is capable of building such a bomb.

What’s striking about the dialogue of the issues in this episode, particularly the atomic bomb discussion, is the engagement the audience has with the material. Some of the most cutting lines get audible gasps from them, making it clear that the people recorded watching this episode certainly had something to think and talk about on the way home. Barney even admits that he’s fluctuating. I imagine it was the same for the audience.

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