Hollis Shiloh

Hollis Shiloh - author

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Barney Miller

I love Barney Miller!  It's a police station sitcom from the late seventies and early eighties.  It's a character-oriented show, so you get to know the characters, laugh at and with them, and enjoy it more for the humor than anything else.  Lots of guest stars, often playing quirky criminals, and sometimes on for more than one time each.

The characters are standouts.  Barney is the head of the station, Captain Barney Miller.  He has a big mustache, an infectious smile, and a gentle way of living.  He's a big tough guy but he's very empathetic and kind.  He cares about justice, the law, and giving people the benefit of the doubt when possible.  He's just a stand-up guy who sets the tone for the station: he's the responsible parent figure who guides people in the right direction.  It makes him sound rather dull, so I'm not explaining very well, because he's pretty funny, too.  All the characters are.

My favorite character is Wojo.  He's a big, ex-Marine, quick to anger, and yet he's such a gentle-hearted guy, who more often than not wears his heart on his sleeve.  It's Wojo the audience often ends up identifying with, because in some ways he's still a big wide-eyed kid, surprised by lots of stuff even when he's being tough.  He admits once, when they ask if he's going home for Christmas, that that stuff doesn't mean anything to him.  He wouldn't want to go back and see his old man, doesn't have good memories of growing up under his iron fist.  This tough ex-Marine has better memories of his time in the service than his own home growing up.  But you take one look at him interacting with the captain, and you say, "Ah.  He's found his father."  He trusts Barney with everything in his life, clearly adores him, comes to him with anything, and wants to be like him, even if he finds Barney's gentle ways confusing sometimes.  Wojo is quick to judge, but also quick to care, and willing to change his mind if he's wrong.  He's macho and tender and emotional and sensitive, a complex and sweet character, and really handsome with a cute, goofy smile that's very fetching.

I must admit I don't care much for Dietrich.  He's not in the earliest episodes, but eventually replaces Chano, who's very emotional and Puerto Rican.  Dietrich is not emotional.  He doesn't connect with people, no matter how hard he tries.  He's not a bad guy--he's wryly funny, intelligent, and caring in his own way.  I don't think he has a mean bone in his body.  But he has never, and will never, fit in with the rest of the precinct.  It's like they're playing one scene and he's playing another, every single time.  I have a strong, cringing reaction to that, because I feel like that a lot.  I hate feeling that way, and I think I take it out on Dietrich.  "Oh, just shut up, Dietrich!  Nobody's talking about that anymore!  You're just embarrassing yourself!"  (It's the kind of show that I end up talking to the characters on the screen.)

Then there's Harris.  I've always secretly wondered if Harris is gay or bi.  The show never hints that he is, but something about the way he carries himself, tosses his head, purses his mouth, and cares more about how he looks (always amazing, because he spends too much on fashion) than anything else, just gives me the vibes to wonder.  He's always shown as safely hetero, and only interested in black women, of course. (I suppose any interracial romance was too controversial even for that show at the time?)  I have a soft spot for Harris, who gets aggravated about so many things, little or big, and who is a passionate writer and hopes to be published 'for real' someday.  (He's furious when a smutty magazine butchers his "sensitive portrayal" story and turns it into porn, but eventually, reluctantly he's proud even to see his work in print there.)  He does write on the job, though, and shouldn't get away with it--but somehow he always manages!  He's very intelligent, but seems to use only a fraction of his brainpower for his job.  He also never approves of anyone else's fashion choices!

There are lots of other characters, of course, many recurring.

I love the way the show can tackle things and make you think and laugh at the same time.  At least it did for me.  It tackled social issues and gave us lovable characters, sometimes even in the criminals.  It showed the working life of the cops, having to deal with weird issues, make the best of things, and function as imperfect people in an imperfect world with an imperfect justice system--all while maintaining as much humor as they could and going home at the end of the day to come back tomorrow, drink bad coffee, and start all over again.

Some of them hate their jobs, some love their jobs, some just punch the clock and do their best.  But Barney is there, the father figure, helping them through, showing compassion on as many people as he can, and trying to solve the smaller problems without involving the court whenever he can get people to talk to each other.  You can't agree with everything in the show, and wouldn't try to, but just to be able to think and laugh and see people as complicated, weird, and human, both good and bad, is great.  It can be broad brush, but then they turn around show you another side to people, and it can be really beautiful.

I loved the way the show handled gay people, too.  For me, it gave me a safe place to think about this, to laugh at and secretly come to care about the characters, even when I wasn't in a place to admit I needed to think about this stuff at all!  The main gay character who showed up on several occasions was Marty, a middle-aged kleptomaniac, rather swishy, and lived with his mother.  He was, in some ways, a mess.  And in other ways, he was gentle and compassionate and wry and funny and wise.  He had a serious conversation once with a suicidal man, talking to him very gently and seriously about how he once came really close to killing himself, but realized it was better to live, no matter who he was on the inside.  No matter how different he was.  I had to stare very hard at the screen and fight back a lump in my throat, trying not to let it show how much that affected me.

And other times the show lets us unabashedly laugh at his arched eyebrows or speaking looks, his bad habits or oddities, and somehow that made me love him too.  If you can laugh with and at someone and listen to them too, it's a beautiful thing, or at least for me it was.

Later we meet Marty's boyfriend, a less interesting character, as well as a brief appearance from a gay cop (who blows Wojo's mind because he doesn't "look" gay), and a gentle, hirsute Russian orchestra conductor who wants to seek asylum in America because he's gay.  The way the other characters react to the gay characters is shown as important.  Barney doesn't really understand, but he tries to treat everyone with respect, including the gay characters, and he's angry when he hears about them being intimidated and shaken down by a cop (who turns out not to be a cop).  Marty tells his friend/boyfriend that he knew they could come to Barney about this.  He was right!  Barney won't put up with that shit in his city.

Wojo, the one the audience often identifies with, is the most interesting in this department.  He's not gay friendly.  At all.  He finds gay men scary, gross, and just weird.  But he wants to be like Barney, so he tries to understand, to wrap his mind around what is so foreign to him.  And, what makes you love him most of all, is when he can admit to Barney that the reason he's so uncomfortable is because he's afraid.  He wonders about what makes a man "like that," and if he could be.

How many straight men are uncomfortable around gay men because of fear--and how many of them would be brave enough to admit it?  To actually tackle those feelings and try to think about them and the way he treats people.  Wojo does that.  Just admitting the fear starts to free him from it, even if he never quite gets to a place of trusting or liking the guys.  "He's the one I told you about," says the main gay character, when he brings his friend/boyfriend in, and they both look at Wojo, very aware of his gorgeous physique and his distrustful attitude.

They get the last laugh when the obnoxious, hateful, drunken inspector Luger comes in one time, though.  He keeps trying to convince everyone he's NOT gay, while talking about the "sweet guys" he used to work with and falling all over himself to add he loved them, but "not like that," and making an issue out of it when nobody else cares at all.  He runs at the mouth, and he's annoying and judgmental and unkind to pretty much everyone.  (But Barney treats even him kindly.)

And as he's saying all these things to prove he's not gay, that there's nothing "wrong" with him, the gay men are just patient and don't say anything.  But the looks they exchange, the looks they give him--just mild, eyebrow raising, slightly skeptical looks--oh, does that make him uncomfortable.  He doesn't have to prove anything to anyone.  It's his own insecurity that makes him go on and on.  And WE can see that.  We're in on the joke with the gay couple, even though Luger NEVER gets it!  It's beautiful, because the man totally deserves a comeuppance once in a while, and he never gets a better one.

Ah, clearly this show holds a lot of memories and feelings for me!  Even though I still haven't seen every episode.  It's the kind of show where I know the characters by name and talk about them as if they're real.  And it's a show that, oddly, helped me to get more comfortable talking and thinking about "gay things" by letting me laugh at, laugh with, listen to and really hear, and learn to love a couple of flawed, gentle, weird, and very human gay characters, as well as see how others reacted to them and why--and to think about all of those things, in the "safe" confines of Captain Miller's precinct run with compassion and humor.

I still wonder about Harris, though.  His gorgeous strut, his sweet ass, and his pretty clothing always made me wonder....

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