Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
I was only 8 when Jimmy Carter gave his infamous “malaise” speech, so it didn’t register with me at the time, though when I read about it much later, the first thought that popped into my head was “of course.” I lived through the ’70s, and though there were plenty of cultural high points, it’s hard to imagine a more malaise-y decade. My memories of growing up in the ’70s are all wrapped up in heavy corduroy, itchy polyester, wood paneling, and macramé. The times smelled earthy and dank, and tasted faintly of baloney sandwiches, Campbell’s Bean With Bacon soup, and McDonald’s orange drink. Back then, we surrounded ourselves with sourness—on purpose, it seemed. We wore brown, burnt orange, and pea green on the outside, because that’s the way we felt on the inside.
Barney Miller is the quintessential ’70s sitcom not just because it’s set in a crumbling, economically ravaged New York City, but because everyone on the show looks uncomfortable nearly all the time. Their coffee is foul. Their heating and air conditioning are broken. Their clothes don’t fit, and their comb-overs aren’t fooling anyone. In the third-season two-parter “Quarantine,” which originally aired in fall 1976, police captain Barney Miller himself summarizes the situation when he tells dapper Detective Ron Harris that he doesn’t fit in at the 12th precinct. “You’re kempt!” he complains.
Barney Miller was one of many ’70s sitcoms that made frequent use of the two-parter or special one-hour episode—anything to get that little “Close Up” box in TV Guide—though few shows were as committed to making their characters and milieu so resolutely unspecial. With a few exceptions, almost every episode of Barney Miller was shot on one set: the grimy squad-room of the ol’ 1-2, where a few cluttered desks sat in the foreground, while in the background, viewers could see a chalky, handwritten duty board, a dingy holding cell, and a short hallway with a visible bathroom. The close proximity of the cell and the bathroom—combined with the actors’ frequent sweatiness—was like an open invitation for viewers to imagine how that room must stink.
Though “Quarantine” has two listed directors—Lee Berhardi and series regular Noam Pitlik, working from scripts credited to Tony Sheehan and Barney Miller co-creator Danny Arnold—the episode takes place over the course of one Friday night and Saturday morning, and has the quality of a one-act play, staged in a tiny off-Broadway theater. And though there’s a story, the writers set it in motion quickly, so they can get back to winding up their characters and watching them bump into each other.
The plot kicks in when Detective Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz (played by Max Gail) books an ailing activist named Philip Dupree (David Darlow) for burglary, just before the suspect passes out and gets carted to a hospital to be tested for smallpox. The particulars of the scene above supersede its narrative function. Wojo thinks Dupree was robbing a warehouse by the East River, while Dupree claims he was merely digging through a box of radios to find some excelsior he could use to make a bed. That’s such a fine piece of true-to-life detail, as is the information that Dupree is a world-traveler with no fixed address, fresh from the revolution in Angola. Dupree won’t be seen again in “Quarantine,” and yet in one minute, we learn more about him—factual and implied—than we learn about some TV characters in five seasons.
As for the quarantine that Dupree’s mysterious malady prompts, it leads to some mild “Are we going to die?” panic, but it’s really more of an inconvenience than a threat. Detective Harris (played by Ron Glass, here a touch more jive-y than he’d be in later seasons) has spent 75 bucks on tickets to a play his girlfriend wants to see, and is hoping she’ll be “grateful all weekend.” Barney (played by Hal Linden) is planning to take his wife to the shore for his own romantic getaway, while the aged Phil Fish (played by the wry Abe Vigoda) is actually fine with staying overnight at the station, since it means he won’t have to go home to his perpetually nagging wife Bernice. (While everyone’s bemoaning the prospect of a quarantine, Fish deadpans, “Don’t get excited until we know that it’s true!”)
There are also a few civilians caught in the quarantine. When the episode opens, Det. Sgt. Nick Yemana (played by Jack Soo) is booking a prostitute who claims she wasn’t doing anything illegal, and that she asked a man for 60 bucks “on a whim.” After the medical emergency distracts the detectives, the prostitute flirts with Fish, trying to get him to let her go—though their chats are largely an excuse for the writers to slip in a few more Vigoda one-liners:
Prostitute: “Can’t you finish writing me up?”
Fish: “Sorry, we work on commission.”
Prostitute: “How long you been a cop?”
Fish: “I was the first.”
Also at the start of the episode, neighborhood purse-snatcher Marty—a frequent visitor to the 12th—arrives with his lover Darryl, petitioning Barney to intercede with his probation officer so he and Darryl can move to San Francisco. The last straw for them? The Supreme Court has upheld a local anti-gay statute. (“Nine old men who dress up in black robes and they call us peculiar!” Darryl complains.) Barney Miller’s attitude toward Marty and Darryl is best described as quasi-enlightened. Capt. Miller himself is sympathetic, but only to a point, and both characters are exaggeratedly mincing—especially Marty, who hears that he might’ve been exposed to smallpox, and gasps, “Oh God, I’ve already got a bad complexion!”
On the other hand, most of the comedy involving Marty and Ray in “Quarantine” concerns how the other cops react to them. When Darryl shakes Wojo’s hand and says, “Detective Wojciehowicz, you haven’t changed,” Wojo pulls his hand back in disgust and insists, “I ain’t never gonna change!” And when the health department forces everyone to sleep in the station overnight, Wojo puts Darryl and Marty’s cots at opposite ends of the room, so there’ll be no fooling around.
The person most freaked out by Marty and Darryl is visiting Inspector Frank Luger (played by veteran Hollywood character actor James Gregory), who first admires Darryl’s hand-crocheted sweater until he realizes why Darryl’s so fashionable. “Where’d you pick up The Lavender Hill Mob?” he asks Barney, before soliciting opinions about what might be “wrong” with Marty and Darryl. Barney suggests a couple of reductive psychological theories, which prompts Luger to start singing “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” at every opportunity, so everyone will know he’s straight.
Even with the nods to its turbulent times, Barney Miller generally followed sitcom convention, in that it gave each character a few distinct traits and used them as fodder for jokes in episode after episode. “Quarantine” even acknowledges this at one point, as Harris, talking in his sleep, complains about how Fish spends too much time in the bathroom, and Nick makes terrible coffee. There’s scarcely an episode of Barney Miller’s first three seasons that doesn’t include multiple jokes about bathrooms and coffee. Still, those jokes are pretty smart. At one point, Nick brings hot coffee to the feverish Dupree because he’d read “on the back of a jar of coffee” that hot drinks cool people down. Later, Darryl instantly improves the station’s coffee when he scrubs all the mold and mildew off the squad-room’s cups. (“I thought it was a pattern,” Nick mumbles.) And there are quirky touches to “Quarantine” too, as when Nick loans Luger the toothbrush he uses to clean his typewriter. (“My breath smells like ink,” Luger complains. “Want to lick some stamps?” Nick replies.) Luger also gets a spotlight moment of his own when he tests Barney’s patience with a surprisingly gruesome, vivid monologue about the fate of his old partners.
After the doctors determine that Dupree has chicken pox, not smallpox, “Quarantine” begins one of the hallmarks of the Barney Miller style: the long wind-down. That’s what happens when the central conflict is resolved well before the closing credits, and the characters spend the last five minutes of so of an episode finishing up their last bits of paperwork and saying their goodbyes for the day. (The three-part Barney Miller series finale in 1982 is the ultimate example of the long wind-down, in that almost the entire last half-hour is a series of farewells.) Barney Miller was filmed before a live studio audience and used a laugh track for sweetening, just like most sitcoms at the time, but Danny Arnold reportedly called for a lot of retakes after the audience went home, actively searching for the quieter, subtler moments that don’t always play before a crowd. The long wind-down follows that same creative impulse to luxuriate in the small, and make even the unpleasant sides of life amusing and endearing.
The same is true of the way Barney Miller joked about the seedy specifics of a bankrupt metropolis and the overstressed folks who police it. “Quarantine” marks the first appearance by Ron Carey as tiny, toadying uniformed beat-cop Officer Carl Leavitt, who’d be a regular for the rest of the series and would eventually get promoted and join the team. Here, though, he’s arriving with his standard gripe: that these miserable-looking plainclothes detectives have it soft, while the rest of the force does the real work. “Quarantine” also makes several references to New York’s ongoing fiscal crisis, first when the doctor asks who’s paying for his visit with Dupree, and winces when Barney responds, “City,” and later when Nick is asked to order sandwiches for the squad and says, “I’ll give ’em an official police-department voucher. That’ll fool ’em.”
As for our Captain Miller, he’s a prime example of the ’70s TV man, simultaneously macho and sensitive. (See also: Alda, Alan.) He preaches the principles of compassion to his men, asking them to treat the criminals who come through their offices with respect, and to try and understand their point of view. Yet he’s also witty. When Dupree says he was going to jump in the East River, Barney warns “in that river, you don’t drown, you dissolve.” And he has a firm grasp of his job’s requirements. (While the doctor is examining Dupree, Barney tells Wojo to finish the booking sheet and prepare a transfer form… another example of the true-to-life detail that Barney Miller always took pains to provide.) Barney isn’t a saint, and he does get exasperated by his men’s more obnoxious character traits, but he also indulges them as much as he can, because he knows that’s the way to get the best out of them. Meanwhile, he’s always on top of the paperwork his superiors need at the end of the day, like a particularly deft Pizza Hut shift manager.
Is it because of Barney’s demeanor—and Hal Linden’s assured portrayal of same—that I enjoy spending so much time in this flat, flavorless Manhattan? Or is it some misplaced sense of nostalgia for an era that’s otherwise so unwelcoming? All I know is that whenever Barney Miller begins one of its long wind-downs, I feel a pang. That squad room looks so sweltering. The city around it is so decaying and dangerous. The company is so prickly. I never want to leave.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: The Sopranos, “Bust Out”