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Barney Miller

This is one of my all-time favorite shows. When it premiered in 1974, it was hailed by police officers as being a realistic look at New York detectives. Even today, older police officers compare their job to being like "Barney Miller", and apparently the show's star, Hal Linden, is occasionally called "Captain" by real police officers.

The show resembles a stage-play, usually taking place entirely within the precinct room, which includes a jail cell. The titular Captain Barney Miller is the level-headed leader of the group of men and is hard to pin down. He can be sarcastic and funny, and the actor has a great sense of comedic timing, but isn't the clown. He's also not the straight man, but a fully realized character, even when the show drifted from depicting his home life to focusing solely on the precinct. You also have Abe Vigoda playing Fish, the very mature cop who offers one-liners with a dry voice and who is always plagued by some unknown malady. Jack Soo played Nick Yemana, a Japanese cop who makes terrible coffee, gambles, and livens up the place with a sardonic comment or two when the mood takes him. Wojo and Chano liven up the cast as the straight-laced former Marine and the ever hilarious Puerto Rican cop who frequently goes into diatribes of Spanish while chastising criminals. Then there's Harris, the stylish, novel-minded cop who prides himself on being classy and chic while writing a novel based on his experiences as a New York officer.

Other characters come and go, including some recurring criminals such as Marty, the camp gay stereotype who nonetheless has some great lines, the over-enthusiastic female cop, Wentworth, and the sarcastic, deep-voiced Dietrich.

Overall, this show was also praised as being progressive, which isn't surprising considering when it aired. Marty, the aforementioned shoplifter, is incredibly campy (think Jack from "Will and Grace"), but is later balanced by his partner, who embodies none of the stereotypes from that era. There was even an officer who came out of the closet in one of the later seasons, the first show on American television to do so. One of the producers/writers even worked with the Gay Media Task Force in developing the gay characters who appeared on the show. One of the things that impressed me about this show was that, while the gay characters may seem offensive today--and rightfully so--it's worthwhile to note that the precinct guys treat them as human beings and with respect. Wojo is the only one who makes snide comments that I still hear today--and is reprimanded soundly for them. In some ways, I think portraying them in such a camp manner actually helped more than it hurt. Instead of saying, "You can't treat gay people wrong because there are 'normal' gays", it said that everyone deserves the same treatment.

The episode "Ms. Cop", which deals with rookie detective Wentworth, balances the sexism facing women cops in a way that's realistic; when Barney refuses to let her accompany the men on calls such as armed robberies, he tells her it's because she's new while the men know and trust each other and work together. She stays to answer phones and file paperwork. The episode was interesting in that it was a definite sense of sexism (Wojo, in particular, seems to have problems working with women), but also points out some very good points. Is Barney not letting her go because she's a woman or because she's the rookie? It doesn't take the easy way out and paint a terrible human being who likes his women barefoot and pregnant, but strives to create realism while definitely showing how frustrating it would be for a woman who finds herself being stymied by a traditionally male workplace.

In the end, a call comes through for another armed robbery and Fish is sent to go. Wentworth asks to accompany him and Barney says it's fine if it's fine with Fish, who offers his typical one-liner reply ("I would, but it would kill Bernice if I died with another woman"). He's called on the sentiment, which while funny, also is sexist--it's harder to call someone on sexism when it's couched in humor, but the show again doesn't take the easy way out by claiming that it was "just a joke" or making it so sexist that it can't be hidden behind humor.

Like I said, while it can be progressive in some ways, it's appalling in others. And I'm not just referring to the 70's fashion sensibility. There's one episode where a woman comes in with a hideous black eye, which she says her husband gave to her, frustrated by a recent heatwave. The entire precinct treats it like a joke and the show allows it. As the woman finally fills out the complaint form, she starts considering all the great years that her husband and she shared, while the precinct rolls their eyes and asks if she wants some time to think about it. I watched this episode with Sean, who says that this happens all the time; abused spouses often return to their abuser. The audience--which, at this point, was a live studio audience--applauds loudly when she walks out without signing the form. While realistic, it's definitely not funny. The audience only offered a lackluster clap when the woman returned and signed the form with a flourish, effectively sentencing her husband to three years in prison. While Fish constantly complains about his wife, some of his one-liners seem particularly awful here; they were clearly going for The Honeymooners type of joke, but it doesn't work when you have a woman with the side of her face bruised sitting two feet away.

Another episode, "Horse Thief", has an interesting side story about a man who is arrested for selling T-shirts and pants with the American flag on them. Wojo finds this particularly offensive, even denying the man from a seat because of the American flag sewn on the back of his jeans. Remember, this was the same year as the Smith v. Goguen ruling--which the show addresses directly (Wojo complains, "It's gotta be against the law," to which Barney replies, "Supreme Court says no.").

I'm talking mostly about particular episodes, and to be true, these were in the early seasons--the show ran eight seasons total, with two spin-offs--and the show did get better. However, like I said, it dates itself.

That said, the show is still good. It holds up well and paints a very real look at the realities of police work, including a ton of paperwork and boredom. Sean had to laugh at the episode "Layoff", which was a very real threat for HPD recently, when the station begins losing officers because of budget cuts. Some things apparently will always be relevant.

The show isn't perfect. The men are flawed--Barney, as I said, while being a competent, interesting character, is flawed and may or may not have sexist ideas he isn't even aware of; an entire episode is dedicated to Wojo's prejudice against prostitutes and gay people.

But the show tries and brings up an interesting portrayal of the mid-70's in New York. It's fascinating to see the Women's Lib Movement addressed (with great one-liners, including Harris telling a woman, "We'll read you your rights," with a woman quipping, "This shouldn't take long"), or police harassment of the gay community. Occasionally I had to remind myself that this show aired a scant five years after the Stonewall Riots. It took place four years after the first Gay Pride Parade. In 1970, only 2% of police officers were women. The Smith v. Goguen ruling is brought up directly. To see these things being portrayed on a television show, as they were happening, is remarkable in many respects.

For the most part, the show stands up to the test of time. It's interesting, funny, and if you're at all interested at seeing a microcosm of society in the 1970's, this show is a good look into that. The characters are lovingly portrayed and you find yourself growing close to all of them: the honest Barney, the sarcastic Yemana, the crotchety Fish, the vain Harris, the brave Chano, and all of the other kooky characters who work there. This show loves its characters and really develops them, but never at the expense of a cheap joke or a "very special episode".

Is it perfect? No. Is it still damn good? Yes.

Grade: A



WKRP in Cincinnati

If anyone has ever seen the classic show "Newradio", this will be a very familiar experience for you. TVTropes calls "Newsradio" the "Spiritual Successor" to "WKRP", which is an apt description. It revolves around a failing radio station with its band of eccentric workers who are shaken up by the arrival of the new producer, Andy Travis, who is determined to turn the station around with a new rock'n'roll format.

This show is remembered fondly for its music--sadly not available on most DVD copies, as the licensing proved too expensive--and is also credited for making some of the songs you hear today, such as Blondie's "Heart of Glass", major hits. It also won accolade for showing "Turkeys Away", an episode voted the absolute funniest of any TV show by TVGuide.

You have Andy Travis, who, while a likeable character, was not quite the type who could support the whole show. There's nothing wrong with him, which is kind of the problem. He's not eccentric, but not flawed either. He's a bland, driven, affable guy who wears obscenely tight jeans.

Really, the show rests on its other characters. You have Bailey, the shy, but smart, ingenue who wants to become a producer one day; Dr. Johnny Fever, one of the disc jockeys who offers cynical, sarcastic observations; Venus Flytrap, another DJ with a flair and style all his own; Jennifer, the ridiculously gorgeous secretary who neatly sidesteps being the ditz and effortlessly runs the station with hypercompetency; her boss, Mr. Carlson, who is ostensibly the boss, a good-natured yet bumbling man who is terrified of his mother, the station owner; Herb, the sleazy sales manager; and Les Nessman, the paranoid, hilariously deadpan news/sports/farm reporter.

The show doesn't just rely on its quirkiness to slide by, but manages to pull together some great episodes and plots. "Turkeys Away", as I mentioned, is one of the most hilarious episodes of any television show. I still laugh until I cry when I see that scene (if you've seen it, you'll know what one I'm talking about).

It wasn't progressive in the same way that "Barney Miller" was, but holds its own. There's an episode where Mr. Carlson's son, Arthur, comes to visit and is obnoxious, rude, and makes racist remarks to Venus. Sean and I were talking about it and it's interesting to see the by-play at work. Today, people insist on being "color-blind"; the show, which aired in 1978, instead addresses race in a frank, yet hilarious way. Tim Reid, who plays Venus and happens to be one of my favorite actors, apparently worked closely with the writers to develop his character and avoid being a "token" minority on the show. Unlike "Barney Miller", which very rarely calls attention to Harris's race, "WKRP" occasionally seems to be trying a little bit too hard--however, they're trying, and that's something. That's a lot of something, actually, for 1978.

It's also nice to see Herb trying unsuccessfully to hit on Jennifer, who neatly turns him down. She's a strong, confident woman, painted as being comfortable with her sexuality and appearance. Though she plays a secretary, she often seems to be one of the most competent people at the station, handling situations with aplomb and grace, including Herb's endless pursuit of her charms. Bailey, on the other end, is extremely shy and often has trouble speaking up for herself. She often goes to Jennifer for advice, and the two women have a real rapport. We gradually see Bailey come into her own confidence and begin standing up to the old-fashioned Les and Herb. Andy tries to foster her confidence, and there is an absolute great episode where one of her ideas goes haywire. Mr. Carlson is upset, naturally, and Andy tries to step in for her--except she cuts him off and steps up for herself, handling herself in a responsible and calm manner. You actually feel proud of her for doing it while watching the scene.

So no, it wasn't addressing every issue, but it had an organic feel to it that portrayed women in a positive light without ever flashing a big red sign at saying how ENLIGHTENED it was. In some ways, it mirrors "Barney Miller". I felt that sometimes "Barney Miller", while impressive at its handling of gay and race issues, suffered when it addressed women's rights, while "WKRP" is the opposite.

There apparently is one episode--which I unfortunately haven't been able to track down--which has Herb going on a date with a woman who had a sex change. I'm curious to see how it handles it, because, as I said, while this show was progressive in some ways, I'd hate to see them treat that like a joke.

That said, I will caution that this show didn't run nearly as long as "Barney Miller"; perhaps given time, they would have addressed the same issues that made "Barney Miller" so interesting.

On a superficial note, the show is funny. "Barney Miller" relies mainly on dialogue, rather than situational, but "WKRP" manages to mix both. There's some great dialogue, great plots, and great acting going on here. Occasionally it feels surreal, but never in a way that pulls you out of the show, and apparently some of the more outrageous things that happen were based on real events (including "Turkeys Away"). The cast is likeable, even sleazy Herb or paranoid Les, and in one episode in particular, where Andy realizes that the only way he could really turn the station around is by firing people and finds he can't do it, there's a genuine camaraderie that you yourself feel with the insane characters.

Also, take a look at some of the outfits they wear--wild, man, real wild--and the slang. There's tension between the older, suited men who run the office and the new, hip cats like the DJs and Andy, which leads to some great observations on late 70's culture. Like "Barney Miller", which introduced the term "love handles" as a new expression, "WKRP" often uses words and slang terms which are absolutely awesome. One episode even said that Jennifer made $24,000 a year and, while I was puzzled at what the big deal was, the show then explained that this was apparently an incredible sum and she was the highest paid employee of the station. Let that sink in for a minute.

No, "WKRP" wasn't as meaty as "Barney Miller", but it's still hilarious and I definitely recommend it.

Grade: A-

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January 2014

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