94. "The Librarian," Barney Miller (1981)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Barney Miller is one of the strongest arguments against watching a sitcom from the beginning (Parks and Recreation is another). The first season of the New York City cop sitcom isn't terrible, but the show doesn't have a voice yet, and it tries too hard to channel the multicultural shouting matches of Norman Lear shows like All in the Family and Sanford and Son. It also leans too heavily on ethnic (and gay) stereotypes, and its breakout character — Abe Vigoda's broken-down Sgt. Fish — is overused and given too many repetitive jokes, like a Saturday Night Live character. (Vigoda also mugs for the camera to a distracting degree, but it's possible he was directed that way, as the show's answer to Happy Days's Fonzie or Good Times's J.J.)
Did I mention that Barney Miller is one of my favorite shows of all time?
Some might find some of the dialogue on Barney Miller too glib and on-point, but it's efficient in conveying new characters' stories very quickly. I enjoy shows like How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock that can use subtle jokes based on our having known the characters for a very long time, but I miss the wider range of people you'd see on sitcoms in the 1970s. (And I think a disdain for "very special episodes" grew because we often saw regular characters breezing in and out of alcoholism, anoxeria, etc., in a single episode. Why give Emmy-bait material to guest stars?)
"The Librarian," from Barney Miller's seventh season, is one of the more unsettling episodes (spoiler ahead). Det. Wojciehowicz (dumb in the first season, now just over-eager) sees a joke shop that's been vandalized with swastikas and talks the kindly (almost Mayberryish) owner into filing a police report. It turns out the enthusiast of dribble glasses and chattering teeth was once a Nazi concentration camp guard, and he's being harrassed by one of the camp's few survivors.
"Bob": I'm an old man who would just like to be left alone.
Wojo: Well, you won't be!
It must have occurred to the writers that the more straighforwardly comic B-plot, about a librarian who goes postal because patrons aren’t following the rules, has an echo with the “only following orders” theme of the A-plot, but they wisely didn’t make an explicit connection. (Barney Miller titles frequently refer to the more comic plots rather than the heavier storylines, maybe to avoid raising red flags with the network or sponsors.)
Miss Austin (listing various offenses by library patrons) ...young people meeting in the stacks for romantic interludes, when they could just as easily read about it...
Barney: Miss Austin--
Miss Austin: That's what I do.
Since I can't find "The Librarian" online, here's a pretty good (and certainly funnier) episode from season six, "Guns," which features Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague on The Andy Griffith Show) as a gun nut enthusiast whose historic pieces are stolen and used in crimes all over town. In the screen shot at the top of the post, Wojo is saying, "About that raise, Barney..."