August 12, 2009
YouTube nostalgia: Barney Miller
I hardly ever watch TV anymore, mainly because I cannot stand the constant commercial interruptions. This used to bother me less in the past and I used to watch a lot more when I was in graduate school and have fond memories of many shows: comedies such as M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Soap, Newhart, Alice and dramas like Lou Grant and Trapper John
Recently I stumbled on another old favorite TV show on YouTube. Someone had posted clips of Barney Miller, and I have been enjoying them online. And the bonus is that there are no commercials, which more than compensates for the poor quality image.
Barney Miller was in many ways an unusual comedy that ran from 1975-1982 and although not a huge hit, it developed a loyal following. It was set in a police precinct in New York's Greenwich Village and featured the precinct captain Barney Miller and his team of around three or four detectives, and one uniformed officer constantly striving to be promoted to detective.
The show was different in that there was no glamour or action at all. Everything took place in the small and grungy squad room and the adjoining private office of Miller. All the main characters were male and there was little or no romantic or sexual comedy, although some of the characters had relationships that were occasionally referred to but remained off-camera. There was no slapstick or broad humor. It was all low-key. It also had an unusually long opening sequence before the credits kicked in.
In most comedies there are quirky characters with exaggerated and easily labeled characteristics (the dumb, the smart, the oblivious, the eccentric, the greedy, the ambitious, etc.), and the rest play the straight roles that the others get laughs off. But in Barney Miller none of the series regulars were particularly weird, although they each had distinctive personalities and were well-developed characters, and the interactions between them provided a lot of the humor. None of the characters had standard tics or mannerisms or tag lines. There were no obvious eccentrics (a la Kramer in Seinfeld) or doofuses (Joey or Phoebe in Friends) or exceptionally dim people (Coach or Woody in Cheers). In Barney Miller, all the regulars were normal and played, in effect, the straight part and were the foil for the oddball characters that wandered into the precinct room in each episode. These people were usually petty criminals, drunks, vagrants, neighborhood residents and shopkeepers, and so on, and how the detectives dealt with them provided the humor.
In many TV comedies, you get cued mirth (either in the form of a laugh track or a live audience) where there is uproarious laughter for even the lamest of jokes or when characters did some standard shtick they have done hundreds of times before. I find that really annoying. In Barney Miller, the show's writers did not insult the audience with exaggerated canned laughter. It was subdued and realistic, corresponding more closely to what was called for, sometimes just a chuckle.
Here is one episode, called "The Psychic", to get a taste of what the show is like.
Most sit-coms periodically fall victim to having a "special" episode where they get preachy about some issue and try to give a "message" full of "meaning", and in the process forget to be funny. Seinfeld was a notable exception. Barney Miller did not fully escape the temptation but when it did try to give a "message", it managed to do so briefly and with a light touch, as in this clip about bigotry.