What Barney Miller Can Teach Us Today About Empathy

11/28/2016 08:52 am ET

Recently, the world learned of the death of actor Ronald Glass, who was best known for his role of Sergeant Ronald Harris on the long-running sitcom, Barney Miller. Glass appeared on all eight seasons of the show, which debuted in 1975.

Ron Glass as the dapper Sgt. Ron Harris on <em>Barney Miller</em>.
Sony Television
Ron Glass as the dapper Sgt. Ron Harris on Barney Miller.

The dapper-dressed Sgt. Harris was always living above his means on the show, insisting on wearing designer suits and always paying attention to the latest investment schemes. He was an author and mid-way through the series, his first book was released. Blood on the Badge was based on his time working at the 12th Precinct in Manhattan and it became a best-seller and was in consideration to be adapted into a film before one of the people Harris wrote about in the book sued him for libel and won. By the time the series ended, Harris was just getting back into writing again and when the 12th Precinct closed down in the final episode, there was a decent chance that Harris might give up being a cop and pursue writing full-time (after all, his new precinct assignment was in Queens and that just was not going to work for him).

One of the best Harris-centric episodes occurred in Season 5, during November Sweeps (one of the months during the year where local ad rates are determined, so shows tend to try to do attention-grabbing episodes during those months). Titled “The Harris Incident,” it involved Harris being shot at by some patrolmen when he showed up at the scene of a crime. When the patrolmen were later interviewed, it became apparent that the main reason that they shot at Harris was because he was black. Harris, naturally, was dismayed at the situation and tired of having to always deal with the system as determined by “the man.” Meanwhile, his fellow detectives were struggling with how to deal with the situation, particularly Max Gail’s Sergeant Stan Wojciehowicz (better known by his nickname, “Wojo”). In the end, they and Harris come to an understanding where his friends acknowledged that they cannot truly understand what Harris was going through, but they let him know that they will be there for him, as best as they can.

That really was the message of Barney Miller, both the television series and the title character. Barney Miller aired from 1975-1982, so the social mores of the time are obviously much different than they are today. You’ll occasionally see notable examples of this, like an episode where the detectives are flabbergasted at the idea of a woman accusing her husband of rape (marital rape was still not a crime for years after it was a plot point on Barney Miller). However, besides a few exceptions here and there (like the aforementioned marital rape plot, which paid some lip service to the fact that it was, indeed, an actual issue in some cases, but mostly treated the wife’s complaint as frivolous - the wife turned out to just want her husband to be more romantic during sex), the show somehow manages to not really seem all that out of date on most issues when you watch it today. The way that the series handled gay characters, for instance, was light years ahead of most sitcoms of the era (or even a decade later). This is because Captain Barney Miller (played by Hal Linden) was always empathetic with the people around him. He did not always understand where the other person was coming from, but he was able to see past that and be sensitive to their feelings and beliefs. This made him admired and respected by his men and beloved by his local community.

Hal Linden as the kindhearted Captain of the 12th Precinct, Barney Miller.
Sony Television
Hal Linden as the kindhearted Captain of the 12th Precinct, Barney Miller.

It also often drew ridicule from the upper management of the New York Police Department and was likely the reason why Miller went without a promotion for so many years (before finally making Deputy Inspector in the show’s final episode).

Today, over 40 years after the first episode of Barney Miller aired, the message of Barney Miller still rings as true today as it did back in 1975. We live in a country where roughly half the voting populace essentially fears the other half of the voting populace (in exit polls of the 2016 Presidential Election, 72% of Democrat voters said that they feared a Republican victory and 59% of Republicans said the same of a Democrat victory). If you’re not willing to be empathetic to other people, then you’re never going to be able to form a larger community that works as well as Miller’s diverse little community in Manhattan.

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