I have to confess that I never thought Barney Miller was a show for me. A child of the '80s, I would constantly see it on the syndicated afternoon TV schedule, but because of its lack of aliens, puppets, or ninja turtles I never gave it a moment’s thought.
Of course, that’s before I learned about the show’s subversive gay backstory.
Barney Miller debuted in 1975 as a mid-season replacement after ABC axed a whole bunch of failed shows — their fall season had been an absolute ratings bloodbath, and the network was particularly desperate for content. From the start, Barney Miller was primed to feature queer characters: It was set at a police station in Greenwich Village, just a few years after Stonewall; and at a time when queer liberation was picking up steam, producer Danny Arnold was keen to use breaking news headlines as the basis for storylines.
Network censors, on the other hand, had very different ideas.
ABC had so little confidence in the Barney Miller premise that they only ordered two episodes at first, a move that seems more like sarcasm than a commitment to a series. It had none of the ingredients that it seemed a gritty '70s cop show needed: There was no action, there were no big stars, the show almost never ventured beyond two cramped rooms of New York’s 12th precinct police station.
But what it did have was a fantastic cast with great chemistry, and some particularly smart, funny writing. It became one of those slow hits that starts with a tiny but devoted following; though Barney Miller struggled in the ratings, it gradually picked up more and more followers — in part due to its willingness to tackle controversial topics.
Queer characters were a relatively new phenomenon on television in the mid-1970s. By that point, there had only been a handful — Beverly LaSalle on All in the Family, a murder victim played by young Martin Sheen on Dan August, Uncle Arthur in Bewitched (if you read between the lines). But Barney Miller charged right into relatively uncharted territory, opening its first episode after the pilot with a gay purse-snatcher storyline.
The thief is named Marty, and he gets all the good lines. (When a victim of his purse-snatching is asked if anything was missing from the purse, he chimes in, “yes, good taste.”) Personally, I love the character: He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s confident, and he’s unambigulously gay. But ABC was alarmed by the depiction. The network had recently come under fire for some particularly negative depictions of queer characters on other shows, and they weren’t eager to elicit another public outcry.
So Danny Arnold, the showrunner, brought in a consultant from the Gay Media Task Force, a new organization that advocated for better depictions of gay characters. The consultant, a psychologist named Dr. Newt Dieter, felt that while Marty did conform to some stereotypes, it was certainly an improvement over the killer lesbians and sexually abusive monsters who had appeared on TV recently, and he gave the show his blessing.
Alas, he misjudged.
Gay audiences were miffed by Marty’s depiction: A sassy flamboyant criminal who leered at straight men, many viewers felt that Marty reinforced negative stereotypes about gay people. Of course, flamboyant gay men exist, as do gay criminals. But because those tropes were particularly common on TV at the time, there was concern that viewers would get the impression that Marty represented all gay men.
So Danny and Newt went back to the drawing board in preparation for season 2 of Barney Miller. They crafted a few tweaks to the character, deepening details of his personal life and planning to add more gay characters to the show. They recognized the dissatisfaction of gay viewers, and were confident that they could address the criticisms.
But they nearly never got the chance.
In 1975, all three TV networks had agreed to reign in what was considered “controversial” content — which included sex, violence, and anything queer. It was an arrangement known as “The Family Viewing Hour,” in which potentially offensive programming was kept off of the air in the first hour of primetime. Alfred Schneider, the chief censor at ABC, already had Barney Miller in his crosshairs, and he launched an aggressive crackdown, forcing the show to eliminate words like “hell” and “damn” from scripts. He also made it clear that queer storylines had no chance of being approved. Newt and Danny’s attempt to correct the missteps of the first season seemed doomed.
But Danny believed in the changes they’d planned and wasn’t willing to give up on them, so he took a big gamble: Despite ABC telling him that gay storylines were forbidden, he spent $100,000 to shoot the planned episode anyway, and then sent it to the network to see what would happen. If they rejected it, not only would he lose that money (about a half million dollars adjusted for inflation), but there was a chance that the show — which had low ratings, no stars, and a troublesome producer — could be canceled.
And it very well might have been, if not for a very fortuitous meeting in September of 1975. The censors for all three networks met to discuss the Family Viewing Hour project, and privately they conceded that it was going very poorly. They all accused each other of failing to hold up their ends of the bargain, and of having inconsistent standards for what was and wasn’t allowed on air. ABC’s censor, Alfred Schneider, came in for particular criticism: His counterparts at NBC and CBS felt that he was too harsh, and was setting too restrictive a standard.
By the end of that meeting, Schneider’s conviction had started to weaken. He admitted that he might’ve gone too far. And two days later, he informed Danny Miller that the gay episode could air.
And so, what viewers saw in October of 1975 was a vast improvement over Marty’s first appearance. The character was no longer depicted as a criminal; he was given a partner and a sympathetic backstory; and the episode has a surprise twist at the end that unexpectedly subverts old gay stereotypes.
The success of that episode led to more: Over its eight seasons, Barney Miller would go on to feature a storyline with a gay immigrant; it would touch on gay parenting and Supreme Court rulings; and a gay couple would be woven into the show so tightly that they were featured in one of the final scenes of the series finale, bidding the regulars farewell.
But none of that would have been possible if Danny Arnold hadn’t worked closely with the queer community to craft strong depictions, and if he hadn’t stuck to his convictions, taken a gamble, and insisted on defying the network censor. As sitcoms go, Barney Miller is great fun; but the show’s principled behind-the-scenes stand on behalf of queer inclusion makes it a particularly important milestone in television.