The Harris Incident
November 30, 1978
First off, though the previous episode was Jack Soo’s final appearance, Dietrich says that Nick is in court, and makes coffee in his stead. So, there’s an acknowledgement that he’s gone, but hope is held out that he might return.
Wojo brings in a beggar, Stanford Whittney, with $186 in his pocket. Barney questions the decision because it’s legally no worse than any other beggar, even if Mr. Whittney really lays it on thick, hamming up his performance for every new customer. Wojo thinks Whittney is taking business away from those truly in need. But that’s the relative comic relief, as the title implies. Eventually his wife, Ruth, bails him out revealing that he’s an embarrassed Wall Street analyst out of a job for three years and too ashamed to let his family know. To contrast, before the opening titles, Harris is shot…by a couple of cops.
The painful thing about it all is how little has changed since the airing of this episode, especially after Trayvon Martin, and then the summer of 2014 where Eric Garner is strangled to death, Michael Brown is shot to death, Levar Jones is shot for a seatbelt violation in a gas station, John Crawford, III is shot and killed for holding a toy gun, all in an atmosphere where some whites champion the idea of openly carrying guns.
At first the episode plays the incident for some laughs. He’s furious that his clothes are messed up to the point where Barney mistakes Harris’ Edwardian collar for damage as he recalls fighting back and punching one of them in the nose.
But the wisdom of the tactic is to underline the power of the issue when Harris finally does have to encounter his attackers. Patrolman Frank Slater, played by Ed Peck in his second appearance as Slater, having previously played the cop in “Hash,” apologizes with the following “Hey Harris! Hey! C’mon no hard feelings, huh pally?”
Slater has come with his protégé, a new recruit named Walt Darvec, his nose bandaged up as a result of Harris’ fist. Darvec says that they thought that, due to his dress, Harris was “just another—!” Before Darvec could say “pimp,” Harris told him to hold that thought and the two of them, Barney, and Harris adjourn to Barney’s office.
Though both cops shot at Harris, Barney lets them go, pending an investigation. Harris is not satisfied and tells them to hold on. Barney concedes, with Deitrich’s brutally emotionless honesty, that little else can be done by the book. Harris counters that said book is written by The Man. Barney tells Harris to take his lunch, and as if Harris didn’t hear him, he says he’s going to lunch as he storms off.
Things aren’t much better when he returns, so Wojo confides to Barney that he doesn’t know what to do if Harris stays mad at them all the time for the failure of the system. As is often the case, Wojo’s kind of the audience surrogate for this particular issue. So Barney tries to give Wojo a small taste of what it’s like to be Harris, by saying Wojo wouldn’t like it if Barney asked how many Poles does it like to cook popcorn. Barney’s point isn’t one of scale, but that while we could understand the issues Harris has to deal with, we couldn’t truly feel what it’s like to be him.
The message is slightly, and comically, too effective as Wojo looks genuinely hurt at the premise to the joke. As if bracing himself for anguish, he insists that Barney finish the joke. First Barney simply says “Five.” When Wojo prods, Barney relents saying “One to hold the pan and four to shake the stove!”
“That’s stupid. All you gotta do is move the pan around on the fire a little bit!” Wojo replies. In this one scene, the episode states a similar thesis to the South Park episode “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson,” in which Randy Marsh sets off a racial firestorm with his Wheel of Fortune answer. There, Stan keeps on thinking that he’s accomplished his apology to Token, on behalf of his dad, but eventually learns that it’s not about some action that can be done, but realizing that one can’t fully understand the pain of such prejudice.
But the episode goes a bit further. The lesson in empathy isn’t quite enough to stop Wojo from yelling at Harris. Barney agrees with Wojo at least on the point that the silent treatment would not be adequate in a professional workplace.
Here’s the exchange between Wojo and Harris:
K, well, all I wanna ask is, uh, how come after four years of working together, somethin’ happens on the outside and it gets turned against us?
Look man, you don’t understand so why bother?
Well maybe I can understand! I never thought of you as black!
But I thought of you as a man! I thought of you as a friend! As a partner! If you want me to think of you as black, okay fine, whatever you want!
But just let me know, so I don’t go offending ya when I don’t even know I’m offending ya.
Due to the impasse, Dietrich chimes in with a sentence that completely sums up his character, and therefore gets a knowing laugh from the audience, “Semantics is my life.”
Though Barney is skeptical, Dietrich goes on to explain that Harris understands, but that they’re just not saying it properly. It really does appear that Dietrich and Harris are growing closer together. Barney concedes that he didn’t think he’d have to say anything at all on the matter. Harris and the rest also understand that this will happen again.
Knowing he’s reached everyone, Dietrich says that “It only takes two to make a dialogue…five to make popcorn. That’s what Barney said.”
Originally, the ending of this episode had Harris apologize for his frustration, but Ron Glass rightly objected. Had that ending taken place, this episode would have been a misstep along the lines of “Rape.” It demonstrates the value of a diverse group of voices in the process. There were female writers on Barney Miller, but they were a rarity. Perhaps, as in this episode, some insight could have occurred there.
In light of the of all the events over mid-2010s, this episode is more timely than ever. This episode works as a meditation on race from a white perspective, which means it’s good as a conversation starter. Therefore it should not at all be considered a conversation ender without a dialogue from friends whom this effects.
Airdate: December 7, 1978
Luger usually stops by the one-two to reminisce and remind himself that he’s still a cop. This time he makes an attempt at conversation with Dietrich, who is uncharacteristically quiet, though Luger inquires if he’s normally so non-verbal. Nick’s “at the DA’s office for a while,” but he chats with Harris and Barney, while complaining about the heat. The whole thing has a different tone to it. Though it’s as funny as usual, one almost gets the impression that he’s even more death conscious than usual.
Wojo doesn’t get the pleasure of Luger’s “good morning” as he brings in a very tall shoplifter he tells Barney is named Gerald Morris. But it’s only an alias, one among many including Phillip Morris. His real name is Jonathan Dodd, a relatively obscure yippie wanted by the FBI.
It’s interesting that an episode dealing with a former war protester aired on Pearl Harbor Day. But it’s more interesting that the world has moved on around him. Using his one phone call, he tries calling Abbie Hoffman, Eldridge Cleaver, Mark Kistler, and William & Emily Harris. At Barney’s discretion, Wojo allows more calls, as everyone’s moved. Dodd says he won’t talk to any reporters, to which Barney says he’ll let them know if they ever arrive.
Dodd even tries instigating a fight with Wojo about Vietnam but Wojo stays quiet until Luger comes back. The episode took place in October, but the heat was nothing compared to Luger’s complaints. When Wojo tells Luger about Dodd, Luger is up for a fight, for his own amusement. So he starts asking Dodd some questions and Dodd calls him a pig. The audience gasps at “pig” and Luger’s “you’re full of horse—” cut off by Wojo. Luger counters with “vermin” and it only escalates from there until Luger collapses in Nick’s chair.
Luger tries to refuse an ambulance with a Fishlike verbal living will, but eventually does take one, saying his goodbyes to the squad, calling Dodd scum, lamenting going out on a gurney, and telling the squad they’re the best group of cops ever assembled. “You too Levine,” he says to Levitt, before doing his trademark exiting hand gesture and leaving the squad room.
For his part, Dodd really doesn’t want anything bad to happen to Luger, I think he enjoyed fighting with Luger as much as Luger enjoyed slinging insults. But their fight does anger Wojo who defends his service in the war and attacks the war protesters. Harris and Dietrich reveal themselves to be law-abiding peaceful student protesters of the war. In their on-going competition, Harris says he was protesting since ’66, so Dietrich says he was against the war since ’57, when Eisenhower first sent military advisors to train South Vietnamese personnel. He was fourteen and got a scout badge for international affairs.
Wojo explains to the two that even if they had objections to the war itself, that one can’t truly understand unless they were over there, continuing the theme from the previous episode. Dietrich considers that fair.
Dodd’s one phone call went through, to old pal Arnold Moraz, who now sells life insurance. As with Dodd, Moraz is also very tall, so Levitt gets a rare height joke in of his own.
Speaking of appearance jokes, Dodd isn’t the only collar, as Dietrich and Harris brought in a burglar named Anthony Moreau, self-conscious of his weight, and a voice not dissimilar to Wayne Knight. As with many who pass through the one-two, he’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder, thinking everyone will make jokes about him. Barney refuses to indulge, of course.
With Moreau processed, and Luger suffering a minor cardiac fibrillation after slugging and intern, Barney tries to make Dodd feel better explaining the mellowing of attitudes on all sides since the sixties, a time people would like to forget. He finally tries sternly yelling at Dodd, which Dodd appreciates.
Wojo and Dietrich ask Barney where he was in the sixties. Barney replies that he was pretty much right there at the one-two. Wojo guesses he wore the same suit, so Barney retreats into his office telling himself “A good suit should last ten years.”
Airdate: December 14, 1978
Well, maybe Barney listened to Wojo. Because he bought a brand new suit and enters the one-two in a very cheerful mood. It’s a grey suit with a bright red tie and handkerchief. He’s in the Christmas spirit telling stories about his son David visiting Santa Claus.
Levitt is in the process of booking a claustrophobic, Arnold Cummings, who tried to hold up a liquor store, but was held in a spare room waiting to be picked up. Cummings is played by Sydney Lassick, the very memorable Cheswick from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975).
But this is a busy day in the Christmas season as Liz has returned to balance the joint checking account with Barney, providing us with some insight into 1970s prices ($420 pays for three weeks rent at the Greenwich Hotel, a dinner for two at Mariano’s Café costs $36, Inspector Luger was the company). While bullets come up on the inventory, another issue comes when Barney brings up their usual Christmas cabin, reservations for which they call Mr. Woodman. They guess they’ll have to pass on it this year. On her way out, she passes by a tough looking thief as well as a screaming and panicking Cummings.
It was an exit poorly timed for Barney, who wants to convince Liz he’ll be alright at work. So that Cummings remains in custody without the claustrophobia, Levitt escorts him around the block approximately thirty-five times.
While Barney greets Liz with a tentative peck on the cheek, everyone else is delighted to see her. Harris beams as he brings in the aforementioned tough Clyde Perry, played by Gregory V. Karliss, previously Harold Stimple from “Goodbye Mr. Fish: Part I,” for ripping off the Perfecto Toy Company. Mr. Perry has stolen a prize invention Ooze, a toy similar to Gak, released by Nickelodeon Toys in the 1990s or Mattel’s Slime.
Capturing Perry results in a patent infringement argument between Stefan Metterling, whose Ooze was stolen and Nathan Berman who claims copyright, as well as ownership of Fuzzball, Death Race, Speed Checkers, and…Baby Comatose™. Perry’s burglary plot was apparently instigated by Berman, resulting in threats of suits and countersuits. So Barney leaves them be, annoyed at their contentiousness.
Feeling bad for Barney, Wojo invites Barney over for Christmas. Usually it’s Barney inviting Luger over for a pathetically and passive-aggressively begging Luger. But Barney’s more hesitant. He’s more proud. But Wojo insists that he’s not as obsessed with having a sexual partner for the holidays.
As Harris attempts to take the statements of the thickly accented competitors he tries to ascertain their place of birth. The two turn their argument into a commiserating lament of the overestimation of the 1950s nostalgia trend. One bought too many hula hoops; the other bought too many pogo sticks.
They realize a trial would squander their remaining years, so they drop any charges or potential suits. Both from exhaustion and the last hint of holiday spirit, Barney lets Perry loose and Cummings goes to Bellevue, secure that he’ll get the help he wants.
Could a happy ending for Liz and Barney be far behind? This is Barbara Barrie’s final appearance, so hopefully some kind of reconciliation could occur. Cummings apologizes to Liz for screaming and Liz returns with checks she found as a pretext for that return. They decide to go to the cabin on the condition that they go without talking about their troubles. It’s a realistic ending, but one that leaves us wishing she appeared more often, especially after Soo’s last appearance and a Luger scare in the previous episode.
One loose end needed to be tied by the end of this episode. Barney has to cancel on Wojo. Wojo lets Barney know it’s okay by telling him that talk about personal connection being as, or more, important than some sexual fling was just talk. They could go off to their own very different lives.