We continue our countdown of my favorite 1970s Christmas TV episodes with 1976’s “Christmas Story” from Barney Miller.
I know I’m a broken record on this, but I will note that this is actually the last time I will bring this up on the countdown, as none of the other episodes listed on the countdown come from shows that I would have nominally included multiple episodes from that series if I hadn’t desired to work some variety into the list when possible. So, yeah, Barney Miller was an excellent sitcom about a group of detectives in New York City, so the base level episode of Barney Miller was likely better than a higher-end episode of another sitcom. So since Barney Miller did two Christmas episodes, you could argue that both should be on the list.
And, again, if the other episode (Season 5’s “Toys,” the last appearance of Barbara Barrie as Barney’s wife, originally a cast member of the series when the show was going to be about Barney’s work life AND home life, but was ultimately dropped when the work stuff was simply too good to not make it the whole show) was some amazing episode, I’d have found a spot for it, but it was only a pretty good episode, so I didn’t bother (there are some great scenes between Barrie and Hal Linden’s Barney, but the Christmas aspect was basically nonexistent for their scenes, which were about them getting back together after a trial separation).
So I’ll only be featuring one Barney Miller episode on the list, Season 3’s “Christmas Story,” which, like many Barney Miller episodes, maintains four plots all at once, namely:
1. Wojo (Max Gail) buys Christmas presents for everyone, leading the rest of the detectives to quickly try to buy presents for each other, as well
2. Fish (Abe Vigoda) has to go undercover as a Santa Claus to stop a thief who has been robbing Santa Clauses
3. Inspector Luger (James Gregory) is trying to finagle an invitation to Barney’s home for Christmas with Barney and his family
4. A prostitute is mugged, and Harris (Ron Glass) is handling her case. However, Nick (Jack Soo) is interested in her, and asks her out, and the other detectives aren’t sure whether to tell him that his Christmas date is a prostitute.
It’s all incredibly well-balanced, and the cast is filled with simply dynamite actors, so it works really well. Jack Soo’s scenes with Nobu McCarthy, as the prostitute, are brilliantly understated, as they sort of lay ground rules for their date (letting her know that yes, he knows she is a prostitute, but no, he is not expecting anything from her, sexually. There is a good bit where they note that they are BOTH off of the clock for the date).
There is always a bit of a quiet sort of sadness to a lot of the Barney Miller characters (as sort of a statement about society as a whole), and it is nice to see an episode that shows that there can be a quiet happiness, as well. There is a strong scene early on where Fish and Barney quietly commemorate the fact that they have spend so many years working together.
Luger, as one of the few really over-the-top characters, has always worked best in small doses (making him a cast member later on was an odd move), but his constant pressure on Barney for a Christmas invite was very funny. There’s also a great bit where Luger mentions how cops no longer get good Christmas presents from the local stores, since nowadays, it’s mostly just porno theaters and massage joints (and as Nick jokes, those are both really hard to wrap).
A side joke is a man who broke a toy store window in frustration over the directions to the toy he got for his kid not being in English. Harris puts the toy together for him as a kindness while the man sits in a cell, stewing over the only way he can get out of jail (pay the damages). When he ultimately agrees to do it when he is convinced it is better to just do that and spend his Christmas with his family, he is overjoyed to see the completed toy….until he can’t get through the doorway with it because it is too long!