By: Carlo Rotella
April 7, 2022

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite TV shows of the Seventies (1974–1983).


BARNEY MILLER | 1975–1982

Barney Miller, which began when I was in middle school and stayed on the air until I graduated from high school, inspired in me a feeling of estranged familiarity of a sort one might get from Latvian hiphop or Oktoberfest in a Laotian hill town. It was a cop show with no action, like Moby-Dick with the whaling chapters removed, and it was also a sitcom, an ironic male weepie, a regular-guy drawing-room farce. It vied with Peter Gunn for the coolest first few seconds of theme music of all time, a smoothly robust bass walking up to a Mancini-cum-Grusinesque F7#9 chord, but that theme offered a promise of laid-back urbane sophistication on which the show — a pageant of neurotic tetchiness — did not attempt to deliver.

Barney Miller was supposed to be funny, but it struck me as humorous-in-theory, a comedy more in the sense of genre than actual effect. Its writing relied on self-deprecating asides similar to the “Oh, my aching beak” cracks made by animals serving as stone-age can openers and hedge trimmers on The Flintstones. Its comic timing favored long awkward pauses intended to produce a swell of audience response: Fish and Yemana are just sitting there at their desks, not saying anything, contemplating how aged and infirm they have become! Let’s prolong this quietly hilarious moment drawn from the undeniable realities of life! The canned laughter that cued and stood in for this hoped-for response only compounded my discomfort at being unable to provide it.

Still, I watched Barney Miller with interest, as if it were anthropological footage from a faroff place. That place was New York City, but the studiously diverse crew who occupied the fictional 12th Precinct were the opposite of the strong, silent types who worked the streets of New York onscreen in the wake of The French Connection and Shaft. The Barney Miller guys, who never set foot in the street on camera, shared a fussy, touchy, hypersensitive, compulsively gabby masculinity — easily hurt and almost as easily jollied out of it, forever teasing and squabbling and working it out. They were the sourly disappointed odd uncles of their saccharine ABC stablemates, Mister Kotter’s Sweathogs.

But the faroff place explored by Barney Miller that really commanded my attention was the adult workplace, the office. The characters on other cop shows — even the most self-consciously realistic ones, like Police Story — were obviously just actors pretending to be idealized tough guys. The cops on Barney Miller, by contrast, seemed like plausible coworkers, all quirks and vulnerabilities relieved by the occasional spasm of competence. I didn’t know many people like them–well, one guy in my grade reminded me of Wojo (he ended up as a rotating equipment engineer and poet), and every once in a while the inappropriately bookish Dietrich reminded me of myself — but I accepted the authenticity of their workplace.

Repetitive unfunny needling, bureaucratic tedium, vanity, abjection, hurt feelings, male pattern baldness… it all seemed like a reliable rendering of what I might expect from the office in twenty years or so. But of course in another twenty years I’d be marooned on an endless, featureless, plane-flat expanse of Law & Order, pining for that F7#9 chord and the company of plausibly annoying doofus coworkers into which it ushered me.


KOJAK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Lynn Peril on ONE DAY AT A TIME | Dan Reines on THE WHITE SHADOW | Carlo Rotella on BARNEY MILLER | Lucy Sante on POLICE WOMAN | Douglas Wolk on WHEW! | Susan Roe on THE LOVE BOAT | Peggy Nelson on THE BIONIC WOMAN | Michael Grasso on WKRP IN CINCINNATI | Josh Glenn on SHAZAM! | Vanessa Berry on IN SEARCH OF… | Mark Kingwell on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA | Tom Nealon on BUCK ROGERS | Heather Quinlan on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE | Adam McGovern on FAWLTY TOWERS | Gordon Dahlquist on THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO | David Smay on LAVERNE & SHIRLEY | Miranda Mellis on WELCOME BACK, KOTTER | Rick Pinchera on THE MUPPET SHOW | Kio Stark on WONDER WOMAN | Marc Weidenbaum on ARK II | Carl Wilson on LOU GRANT | Greg Rowland on STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES | Dave Boerger on DOCTOR WHO | William Nericcio on CHICO AND THE MAN | Erin M. Routson on HAPPY DAYS. Plus: David Cantwell on THE WALTONS.




Enthusiasms, TV