Leftist commentary from a mouthy bitch

Barney Miller: Progressive Television?

Feel free to argue points or bring up other questions. This was getting really long, so I tried to just wrap it up.

So the Boy and I have been watching a lot of Barney Miller on http://www.hulu.com, (this was brilliant while I was sick and stuck at home) and we were struck by how very progressive this show was for its time, even as we cringed at some of the racist/sexist/homophobic attitudes portrayed by the characters. But really, for 1975 it is amazingly liberal. The show ran until 1982, but this essay will focus on the first couple of seasons, because that’s all I’ve gotten through (again) so far. My family watched this show religiously when it was first run, and avidly in reruns and syndication for years.

The detectives of the 12th precinct are a mixed bag. Det. Fish is Jewish. “Wojo” (not even going to try to spell it) is Polish-American. Chano is Puerto Rican. Harris is African American. Yemana is Japanese. Linda Lavin makes recurring appearances as Det. Wentworth, a go-getting female cop. The first couple of shows also had Wilson, another African American detective. Detective Deitrich has been introduced, but is not yet a recurring character, but he’s kind of the spacey intellectual of the bunch when he does show up.

Now, I’m not going to argue that these characters don’t come burdened with the accepted stereotypes of their day. Fish is an older, Jewish man who complains constantly, and gripes about how unhappy his marriage is (which is belied by most of his actual on-screen interactions with his wife Berneice). Wojo is kind of a big, dumb Polock (sic) who admits to having cheated on his detective’s exam. Chano is a “fiery” Latino type, easily angered and slipping into Spanish when he loses his temper. Yemana spends a lot of time conforming to the “inscrutable Asian” stereotype. Harris is a slick, well-dressed, fast talking African American man, who speaks “correct” English around his colleagues, but will slip into “jive” with perps to make a point. Other ancillary characters also depict stereotypes, the fat, dumb, racist Irish cop (Kelly), the older, anti-woman, racist superintendent (Luger).

In the arena of perpetrators there are other stereotypes that get played for laughs as well: Sassy, heart of gold hookers, Marty the gay purse snatcher who lisps and minces, a parade of black pimps and hispanic theives. But there are also white theives and muggers. I don’t know, maybe I should sit down and do a count to see how many white perps there are versus other ethnicities. Many of the victims are stereotypically Jewish, as well as some of the ambulance chasing lawyers, shady accountants and other characters that make cameos. Most of the ethnically Italian characters are portrayed as mooks of dubious legitmacy.

But let’s talk about what makes this show progressive. First, the fact that the squad is multi-ethnic, and for the most part the detectives themselves are completely ok with it. They are comfortable with each other, trust each other, and all get along. The only characters who come in with openly racist jokes are ancillary characters like Kelly and Luger, and the regular characters demonstrate their disdain toward those attitudes (or as much as they can if the one doing the joking is a superior, but the audience sees the disgust in the characters’ faces).

One example of the writing subverting common attitudes of the time is Detective Yemana, who frequently turns around a lot of the common racist comments about Asian people of the time period. He often tells caucasian characters that they all look alike to him, jokes about never having gotten the hang of silverware, and these jokes all point out the absurdity of these types of comments when they come from caucasians or anyone else.

In the final episode of season one, “The Hero,” Chano, the Puerto Rican detective, shoots and kills two bank robbers who were holding hostages. This particular episode maintains much of the levity of the rest of the series, even while showing Chano trying not to lose it when the other cops (most of whom have never killed anyone) keep congratulating him, and ends with him sobbing in his apartment, in direct opposition to the tough, macho Latin cop sort of face he usually puts out there, and that shows like CSI Miami still haven’t gotten away from. (Seriously, when has one of the Hispanic male CSIs on that show ever done more than stoically clenched their jaw in the face of sorrow?)

Detective Harris, Ron Glass’s character, dresses well. He speaks well and is frequently giving the other detectives a hard time for never reading books or getting his references. He’s a very well-educated guy. He does allude to having grown up rough, but having overcome it. I don’t really know what to say about him other than that, and I think I’d like it if someone with more awareness of African American stereotypes of the 70s would have at concerning his character. I can see where he would conform to a sort of “Uncle Tom” stereotype, but I hesitate to dissect that further. I don’t know that he’s trying to prove something by dressing better or being more educated, I think that’s just who the character is. But I will gladly bow to superior knowledge in this arena.

In terms of sexism and homophobia, Wojo, the big dumb Polock, is devoutly Catholic, pretty sexist and extremely rigid in his views of women (can you say Madonna-Whore complex? I knew you could). This is played for laughs to some extent, but is also the grounds for a deeper look into the conflicts it creates for him on a personal level. In season one when he starts to develop feelings for a hooker (“Courtesans”), he has to try to rationalize his black and white view of prostitution with the reality that this woman isn’t a bad person, she’s just made different choices. Also, when he asks her out, and basically says he’d like to help her go straight, she turns down his offer to make an honest woman of her without even a second thought.

Throughout seasons one and two, Wojo’s homophobia is played for laughs. The rest of the detectives in the precinct are utterly unconcerned by Marty the purse snatcher’s sexuality. In “Discovery” in season two, someone is posing as a cop to shakedown men coming out of gay bars and there is no question of taking the accusation seriously. Marty’s friend is openly suspicious, but it never crosses Marty’s mind that Barney and the other detectives won’t help. Wojo has a heart to heart with Barney about the fact that gay men bother him, because he definitely buys into the stereotypes portrayed by Marty and his friend. However, when the cop from Manhattan South who actually collars the guy reveals himself to be gay, and it is all but directly stated that the cop who made the collar is gay, Wojo has another revelation and learning experience. Not only that, but the gay cop is your average, all-american, macho looking cop, giving lie to the effeminate stereotype. And not like “leather man” macho, he’s very “normal” macho.

I mean seriously, mainstream network TV NOW hasn’t moved away from the stereotypes. Look at “Will and Grace.” I know Will’s supposed to be the “not-gay acting” gay guy, but they FAIL. He’s still prissy as shit. And the less said about Jack the better. But that’s another post.

Detective Wentworth, and the two female cops in the “Hot Dogs” episode are another example of how progressive this show was. A. They HAVE female cops on the show. B. While they are shown as very eager, maybe over-eager, from Barney’s reaction I don’t get the feeling that they’re any more eager than any other rookie cop or newly minted detective. In fact a lot of the complaining about having to file and type and not being sent out that Wentworth does when she’s introduced, echoes Wojo’s complaints when he was still the new kid on the block in the first episode. And while Wentworth may be over-excited, Bailey a female African American detective in the “Heat Wave” episode is an incredibly cool, down to earth counterpoint to Wentworth’s eagerness.

In “Hot Dogs” when two female cops take it on themselves to do a plainclothes drug bust on their off-time, and need to be reprimanded for it, Barney leaves them to Luger in his office. Luger has already openly stated in the room with them that he doesn’t think women belong on the force, “but I won’t hold that against you.” As Barney closes the door, one of the other detectives asks him if he thinks Luger’ll be too tough on them, and Barney’s response is, “I think they’re tougher than he is.”

While the older cops in the precinct may have troubles with the minorities and women encroaching on their “good ol’ boys club,” Barney doesn’t. He takes all of his detectives as they come to him and remains relatively unflappable about the differences in personality, gender, whatever.

I repeat, for 1975 this was an amazingly progressive show. No one in the squad has a problem with anyone else’s ethnicity, while Marty might be a little predatory and more than a little swishy, you get the feeling that he plays that up to needle Wojo. No one else even bats an eye at Marty’s antics, not even Fish who is, at the end of Season 2, just one year out of retirement and admits to having graduated from the Academy in 1934. While the female cops might be a little over-eager, they are shown to be competent and very able.

This is not to say that the show doesn’t have its problematic moments. There’s a segment about spousal abuse in the first season (“Ms. Cop” episode) that made both Ogre and I cringe, but you have to remember that it is emblematic of attitudes at the time. Fish does make one or two cracks at the female victim’s expense, but by and large the detectives are sympathetic. They listen to her seemingly talk herself out of charging her husband with assault, and then at the last minute she runs back in, signs it and runs back out before she can change her mind again.

Marty and his friend are over-emotional and very swishy. Chano does exhibit the “Latin Temper” stereotypical behavior. Kelly and Luger pepper their speech with slurs and sexism, granted primarily as a foil to Barney’s open mindedness. There are a lot of stereotypical Jewish characters as well, hysterical women, smart alecky black teens, and like I said before, sassy hookers of all ethnicities except Asian, now that I think about it. But overall when you take the time period into consideration, Barney Miller was amazingly liberal for network television.

ETA: Frogmajick advocates watching a few episodes of “Adam 12” for perspective. I will be doing this in the next week or so.

8 comments on “Barney Miller: Progressive Television?

  1. tatterdamelion
    January 8, 2009

    This was one of my favorite “work-place” comedies growing up. “Barney Miller” was my M*A*S*H, and I think I watched just about every episode when it first aired — at least for a few years. I would have been 6 when it debuted. I still have fond memories of it, and am glad that it plays as progressive as it does. When you’re as young as I was, living in a town as white as Durango, I didn’t really see that kind of world anywhere else.
    I’m gonna have to go on Hulu and watch a few episodes tonight, maybe. 🙂


  2. javagoth
    January 9, 2009

    I used to love that show! I need to maybe see about watching it on Hulu.
    I have no brain left at the moment to comment more intelligently…


  3. darkphoenixrisn
    January 9, 2009

    Barney Miller was amazingly liberal for network television.


  4. biomekanic
    January 9, 2009

    I think in a lot of ways network television hasn’t moved on, and in some ways has backslided.
    Honestly, I think I remember every episode of this series, we watched it a lot growing up.
    I look at the current crop of sitcoms, and I think they compare unfavorably to the shows we had in the 70s – M*A*S*H, Barney Miller, and Taxi in particular.
    Keep watching, there’s some interesting developements among the characters coming you way.


  5. morinon
    January 9, 2009

    Sounds like something worth watching, IMO.


  6. deadrose
    January 10, 2009

    Having been in my teens and early 20s when this aired, I can fully agree that it was a *very* liberal show for its time. Loved it then, love it now (with occasional winces). So many memorable moments in the show, especially if you count the infamous Brownie Episode.


  7. thesali
    January 11, 2009

    I remember reading somewhere (don’t remember where since it was more than 25 years ago) that someone did a poll of cops asking which cop show was most realistic and Barney Miller won by a landslide.
    So there you go…


    • thesali
      January 11, 2009

      Hmm, don’t know what I meant by that last line. Should bed now…


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