Thanks to an offhand comment by a good friend during a recent phone conversation, I’ve re-discovered a classic. She mentioned the TV sitcom Barney Miller, which ran for eight seasons between 1975 and 1982. In case there are any young ‘uns out there who don’t know, Barney Miller followed the everyday adventures (and non-adventures) of an eccentric group of police detectives in the fictional 12th Precinct of New York.
There are a whole lot of things to recommend the show. Most episodes take place entirely within the confines of two sets: the squad room and Captain Miller’s office, giving the whole a familiar and intimate feel. The writing is character-driven and top-notch. The cast of characters is diverse, especially for the time, including African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Jewish, and gay characters (plus Poles and Irish, the whites who get picked on the most), and even when the humor focuses on stereotypes, it’s never played for cheap laughs or degradation. Most impressive of all is the fact that while it is a cop show (and I normally hate cop shows with a passion), it focuses on the characters and their everyday struggles and foibles rather than the cheap and easy vulgarity of violence. Instead of gory murders, the detectives get called out to pick up purse-snatchers, burglars, obscene phone callers, and the guy down at the laundromat who decided to wash the clothes he was wearing without having anything else to change into. Instead of going rogue and battling their superiors and acting without orders, they rib each other, drink bad coffee and type out paperwork. On those rare occasions there is actual violence, or danger, it makes it all the more poignant. It’s little wonder that surveys of real police officers reveal that Barney Miller is their pick for most realistic cop show ever, and well as being their favorite overall.
I haven’t watched the show since it originally aired, meaning I haven’t seen it since I was about 6 years old (I remember Jack Soo, and since he passed away in 1979 I must be remembering somewhere in the first four seasons). Watching it again, I’ve gotten little flashes of memory, things that seem familiar through the many years that have passed. I couldn’t understand or appreciate the show when I was 6, of course, so it’s more about impressions and feelings instead of remembering dialog or situations.
But the thing that struck me most is what became the title of this blog entry.
Fish, the senior detective (played by the wonderful Abe Vigoda) is a couple of years away from mandatory retirement. He talks about joining the force in… wait for it… 1938.
1938?! Wait a minute, are you kidding…
Nope. Episode set in the present day (when it was filmed), which was 1976. 1976-1938 is only 38 years.
The building that the 12th Precinct is headquartered in was built during the Great Depression, which is a plot point in the show because the building is always leaking and falling apart. Well, sure, you have to expect that from a building that’s over 80…
No. Make that over 40 years old, as Captain Miller himself says.
A character is introduced who looks to be in his 50s. He talks about getting a purple heart in Vietnam…
No. Make that World War II. Heck, a person in his mid-50s today would have been too young for Vietnam.
As a guy who’s now in his 40s, I can accept a lot of the stuff in the show that might really stick out to younger viewers. The phones are all land lines. There are no computers. The detectives all type their reports on manual typewriters, and get ink all over the place when changing the ribbons. When they need to pull a perp’s file, they walk over to an actual filing cabinet and thumb through about a dozen yards of actual paper. I remember stuff like this. I even once owned a manual typewriter.
But the realization that the era of Barney Miller… an era that I, myself, remember… is exactly halfway between today and the Great Depression, between the era of Barack Obama and that of FDR, gives me goosebumps. This was only a few years after the moon landings, only a few years after the great civil rights struggles in the south, only 30 years since the end of World War II.
It’s long enough ago that some of the jokes have aged in very interesting ways. In one scene, a detective takes a report on a stolen car… a 1958 Studebaker. The joke is that it’s a piece-of-crap beater that no one would want, which makes sense… in 1976, it’s an 18 year-old rust bucket. Today, the theft of a 1958 Studebaker would mean the loss of a fairly expensive, 55 year-old classic car… not a laughing matter.
Am I just starting to… get old?
Incidentally… Abe Vigoda, who played Fish as a crotchety old man with an ever-changing list of age-related ailments, actually was in really good shape. The testament to that is that he’s still alive and well today… and in his mid-90s.
See? There’s hope for us all.