You are being redirected - hold on tight!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

DVD Review: Relive the Golden Age of The Grit-Com with Barney Miller

With the rollout of practically every show that's ever been on television to DVD, there has been a conundrum that's especially endemic to older shows. For many older shows, it took a season to really hit their stride and figure out what they were about and what kind of stories they were telling. Subtle cast changes and behind the scenes shakeups mean that often the first exposure to a show on DVD is not really indicative of what made the program a hit.

So it was with Barney Miller. The show sprang out of a pilot called The Life and Times of Barney Miller and the first season hewed to the initial template -- sensible no-nonsense but sensitive Police Captain Barney Miller and the balance between his family and work life. Though it's a solid and entertaining first run, by the end of the season it became clear that his interaction with his wife (played by Barbara Barrie) and daughter were not nearly as interesting as his co-workers and the revolving cats of crazies that found their ways behind the bars of their Greenwich Village precinct.

Still, since we are by nature an orderly species and most people would prefer to watch a show on DVD in the order of it's run, the powers that be at Sony issued season 1 to test the waters for interest in the program. Not surprisingly, interest was muted in a Season that was atypical and didn't play to the shows evolving strengths.

Four long years have passed until Sony finally has seen fit to release Season 2, now out on DVD, and it's about time. Here is where the classic Barney Miller template is set. Though Barrie is still in the opening credits and shows up a few times the focus is squarely on the precinct house.

Hal Linden, who plays the titular character, is the calm sea of reason in a workplace -- scratch that-- a city full of lunatics. The comic vision of this sane man and his crew inhabiting a crumbling building is an obvious response to the deepening institutional malaise of the mid-70s. There's a wonderful added quality of catch-22 in the fact that Barney typically spends much of his time trying to unbook his prisoners and set them free from the tiny jail cell they call "the cage."

The supporting cast in the early seasons is dominated by the great Abe Vigoda as over-the-hill sardonic Sgt. Fish. Vigoda has an offbeat line delivery that turns clunkers into laughs, his stone face conveying the world weariness of someone who's seen it all and would rather forget. His decaying health and frequency of urination are a constant source of jokes, as is his exasperation with his wife, Bernice. The irony is that Vigoda, who is still alive, is a health nut in real life and was probably in better shape than anyone else on the show.

Ron Glass played Harris, a sharp-dressing intellectual black cop. The desire for a literary career would become more pronounced in later seasons as most often he is paired up with exasperated Puerto Rican cop Chano Amenguale, played by Gregory Sierra. By Season three Sierra would be gone, replaced by diminutive Ron Carey and the superb Steve Landesberg who shows up twice here -- first as a fake priest and later as his soon-to-be regular role of the philosophical, dry Dietrich.

Max Gail as the ex-Marine with the hard-to-pronounce name Wojohowicz ("Just like it's spelled!") , Jack Soo as Japanese-American cop Yemana round out the regulars. Meanwhile a pre-Alice Linda Lavin drops in as a sometime precinct cop and foil for Wojo, Squiggy shows up as a student pot dealer, and the city falls apart.

Watching these episodes on DVD is to immerse yourself in the dark humor of New York's "drop dead" days when the city was running out of money and the federal government refused to help. The reactions of old time cops like Fish and especially James Gregory's great Inspector Lugar to the changing world around them carries as much truth as humor.

Through comedy the show manages to draw sympathetic portraits of all kinds of deviant and what today might be considered ho-hum behavior. Miller is tolerant of gays, some drug use but not pushers, prostitution (the woman selling $60 dollar buttons for the bicentennial is a particular highlight) and mental illness.

Most importantly, the show is generally quite funny and character driven, mostly (though not always) avoiding Very Special Episode syndrome. Here's hoping Sony keeps up the Barney Miller DVDs because as good as Season 2 is, it really gets going in 3, 4, and 5.

Sony typically skimped on any extras so here's a great blooper from Season 3. The cast was working at 3:30 AM, not atypically for a show that was known for it's constant fine-tuning and around the clock shoots.

No comments: