Barney Miller: Wojo’s Girl

Wojo’s Girl

Airdate: January 25, 1979

As a fan of Barney Miller since 2003, and someone who has owned the complete series box set for a few years, I’ve hopped around to episodes that piqued my interest. This was one of them. At the time, I didn’t realize it was an hour-long episode, and I think that affected my reading of the episode. So it was interesting to give it another look.

I will say that I think that there are several issues with the episode that stem largely from the premise and the structure of the story. I have heard that, as with the episode “Fish” and the arc started with the episode “Evacuation,” this was intended to be something of a backdoor pilot for a spinoff centered on the detectives’ off-duty lives, a bit like the Springfield-centered spinoff of The Simpsons that never got off the ground. It would have been quite ambitious to set up entire sets of secondary characters for each cop. There were other opportunities as well with Wojo and Wentworth and Harris and Dietrich, each pair serving as potential fodder for series of their own.

All this makes the issues with this particular episode a little bit perplexing. The episode is one full hour, however there’s a very thick seam in the middle. The previous hour-long episode used its time to build tension, whereas this one might have benefitted from a splicing at that seam. But more importantly, and this may be by design, we don’t get much insight into the motives of Wojo or his new girlfriend, Nancy, played by Darlene Parks, a pretty and good actress with fairly sparse resumé.

The first half of the episode is a pretty standard, if subpar, affair. That too may have been by design. It features Doris Roberts as Harriet Brauer, returning with a complaint against her husband Phillip, played again by Peter Hobbs, who previously also played Charlie Prevette in “Strike: Parts I & II.” Previously she reported her husband for selling all of their possessions for gold. Now, she’s upset that he’s become obsessed by a local mercenary recruitment center and appears ready to travel the globe fighting wars.

Harris brings in Phillip and his recruiter Colonel Charles Dundee, a man who’s in “several” armies and who romanticizes war as “the one thing we can depend on in a crazy, mixed-up, uncertain world!” Barney clearly feels differently as we see in the other case of the episode. Though Dundee attempts to recruit anyone he can, Barney warns Dundee that they’ll be keeping an eye on his recruitment/weapons center.

Wojo and Dietrich bring in Nells Finney and Frank Mallory, the latter played by Philip Bruns, previously seen as Harry Cranston in “Bus Stop.” Mallory was trying to get a refund from Finney’s travel agency after a terrible twenty-eight day vacation, a honeymoon he never had. The two charged each other with assault.

Barney Miller, as well as Barney Miller, both specialize in two things. First, by allowing us access to different professions and points of view, they allow their advocates to speak for themselves, almost more like a courtroom drama than a cop show. Second, they tend to allow these advocates to settle things between themselves by throwing both parties into a confined space with time on their hands. It’s transparent enough a tactic that Dietrich makes the observation and compliments Barney on the strategy. For such a concise template of the mission statement of the show, this half of the episode could almost serve as a pilot for the parent series itself. As an episode in the fifth season, both cases render the episode a bit rote.

But before we look at the second half of “Wojo’s Girl,” let’s examine the setup in the first half. Nancy enters the precinct, transfixing the precinct with her beauty. Harris greets her with a beaming “Hello!;” Dietrich openly flirts with her; and Barney tries to find out how she and “Stanley” Wojchiehowicz met, as any father might greet a visiting date. All this makes Wojo extremely nervous.

If he didn’t already have a Madonna-whore complex, he’s already fairly embarrassed by the intrusion of his personal life into his professional life. He’s especially guarded about such a big decision as moving in with Nancy. So he’s short with her and tries to pull her aside so that they can talk about the situation. She’s really there to get his only key, so that she can move her stuff in.

But, in all honesty, he’s still undecided about whether or not they should move in together. Wojo has a moment of self-awareness when he admits that he tends to be attracted to “fallen women” whom he feels he must save, even citing Wentworth as someone that reminded him of a hooker. Given his view of hookers, that’s kind of an offensive take on her. But when he goes to Barney for advice, all Barney can say is that maybe Wojo sees positive qualities in such women and feels for their vulnerability.

The two met in Prospect Park, Brooklyn a couple of months before this episode and have mostly had encounters at hotels in places like Atlantic City. She saw something in him that we never even saw. I should say she heard something. He played the flute. He finally advises him to follow his heart. So Wojo leaves a message for Nancy to bring her stuff over some time after six that night.

She had a history accepting gifts, then money, for sex. So she entered that business in a gradual and grey manner. She’s also someone that wasn’t walking the streets or working for a pimp. She also managed to leave that world. It’s hard to know how dangerous it actually got for her, though disease and pregnancy would have been something to fear.

The cases at the precinct closed, and Wojo’s shift over, the episode now crosses that seam into Wojo’s apartment. He’s on the phone trying to figure out where she’s there three hours after he said she could show up. We get a sense of his apartment, which is pretty different from the previous apartments we’ve seen on the show. Barney and Fish’s apartments had the homey tough of married life. Chano’s apartment was very spare and small.   And Wojo’s apartment is bigger, but cluttered. He has a bench press setup in the back, a lamp made out of a wine bottle, with wine labels pasted to the shade, a matching wine rack under a record player, some sort of couch and chair hidden under a sea of newspapers and clothes, a large bookcase filled with books, a beaded curtain to the bedroom and bathroom, and a sparse kitchen with a nearly empty refrigerator.

But it’s clear the two of them don’t really know each other well enough at all. The central conflict amidst this awkwardness is how much that lack of knowledge matters to each of them. Nancy tries harder to make the best of it, responding to the “grand tour” by saying that she likes the apartment. It’s “rumpled, but comfortable,” much like Wojo.

When Nancy tries to start a conversation so they may learn about each other, Wojo says he likes hockey and that there’s a game on. Wojo does try at least. Though Nancy invited him to put the game on, he opted to keep it off.

Since Wojo doesn’t have much food, he suggests getting something to eat, though Nancy is game to cook. Nancy is curious about Wojo’s keeping his gun on so late after his shift and mentions the phallic symbolism her psychologist mentioned. The two crazy kids really do try. But they don’t really know each other as well as one might expect for a couple that makes such a commitment.

Feeling claustrophobic while she changes, Wojo fidgets, puts on the game, and finally goes out to pick up Chinese food. When he returns, she’s cleaned and set the table with bowls and he bought a large cheese pizza and beer. So they eat their pizza in their bowls and she tries again to reach out to him before he asks how she started hooking.

After she explains, things seem to go down hill. If it’s possible, she seems to him more sexually experienced than him. Her history is her business, but predictably, he remains as quiet as ever. She changes into some lingerie to invite him to bed, but he wants to finish the game. He watches hockey, basketball, and finally movies before falling asleep on the couch.

When he finally does wake up, she’s at the table with breakfast and news that it won’t work out, so she leaves after he interprets her rejection as the treatment a john would receive. Wojo stays home to wait for word from her. They make up, and establish the ground rules they should have before. But she’s too preoccupied with learning his interests by studying sports on television to have sex with him.

Would this have worked as a series? I don’t know. If this episode is any indication, I think it would have taken some time for it to find its voice and that might have been difficult if the show switched to a different cop every week. But the episode certainly showed that the themes of compassion and empathy present in the parent series would have carried over into this show, even if Wojo could have exhibited his share of it.

It almost feels like the show forced him to regress to where he was in season two in order to allow him room for an arc in a new series. When you compare it to other spinoffs of the era, it’s certainly not an unusual tack to take. All in the Family’s Michael Stivic ran off with a woman named Muffy to live in a commune. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’s Mary Hartman left Fernwood with Sergeant Dennis Foley, only to wonder again about “waxy yellow buildup,” though one theory is that such a soliloquy is only in ex-husband Tom’s mind.

Come to think of it, such spinoff regression might be a Norman Lear trope. Fish seemed to avoid it, although it helped that he continued appearing on Barney Miller. I wonder if similar simultaneous appearances would have diluted such an effect on the other cops.

As an episode, this remains a curiosity. As a potential series, it’s a curious “what if” into an ambitious venture that might have ended up a potentially interesting failure or even a successful series that would have tired an already hard-working cast and crew, infamous for marathon shooting days.

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