Friday, February 5, 2016

Fish Fridays Intro

So, having bid bon voyage to the late great Abe Vigoda, we now shall attempt to assess his Barney Miller spin-off, Fish.

The groundwork was laid as early as the second season of Barney Miller. The broken-down Detective Sgt. Fish had become a hit, popularly and critically, so there were demands. According to Vince Waldron's Classic Sitcom Guide, ABC wanted a spin-off, ideally for Fish. Danny Arnold experimented with the idea of a rotating spinoff, showing the detectives' home lives or outside activities. Abe Vigoda too wanted either a spin-off or a larger role on the parent show (which was very much an ensemble). He knew this was likely to be his one chance to be a lead and not just support, so you can't really blame him.

The beauty of Barney Miller, as it developed, was that it was a one-set show. Everything happened in the squad room, and what didn't was described (like the actual arrests or chases). This gave the show a stage feel and helped make sure that any subplots still played into the whole (as a "customer" in the cell makes a remark which rebounds into the problem of a detective, and so forth). In addition to home scenes with Barney's wife Liz, there were attempts in the first three seasons to break out (showing a stakeout, different apartment scenes with the squad members), but it really wasn't as effective. The aging, poorly maintained squad room with its attendant problems was a character in itself. Later attempts to use an additional set were mostly saved for special two-part episodes (often season openers or finales).

So an anthology following the 12th Precinct home could have solved that (and indeed, the first season of Fish, which began halfway through the third season of Barney Miller in the spring of 1977, made an attempt). A few earlier episodes suggest some of the other possibilities, however. Wojo's relationship with Detective Janice Wentworth (Linda Lavin), which in the second season episode "Grand Hotel" saw them posing as a married couple in a hotel, was basically an experiment with this idea. A few episodes later, we have... "Fish," the episode, not the series. It introduced Steve Landesberg as Detective Dietrich. He goes to Fish's apartment, meets Bernice (played by Doris Belack, filling in for Florence Stanley) and their daughter Beverly Fish, a teacher having romantic problems with Howard. This leads to Dietrich impersonating Gregory Peck in a classic scene.

Frankly, this actually feels like a better premise for a spin-off then what they tried, having Fish and Bernice running a group home for troubled kids. Early Barney Miller episodes often arrested cute and/or wisecracking kids. The first (an eight year old who tries to stick up Liz Miller) appeared in the first season closer, "The Hero." The urchin (scared by Harris about facing "Judge Meanie" in court) was played by Todd Bridges, who would play Loomis on Fish (and of course, go on to Diff'rent Strokes). "The Kid" from the second season has a cute Puerto Rican kid (whose mother Fish becomes briefly attracted to). Third season introduced Jilly and Victor, who would go on to Fish. More about them in our next installment.

I'd hoped to say more, but Fish has to use the bathroom. He could be there awhile.

We may have to pick up with a Fish *Saturday*.

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