10.14.2017

update: the gay cop on barney miller comes out, plus an adorable child sex worker

About a month ago, I wrote about an episode from the late 1970s-early 1980s sitcom "Barney Miller", in which the squad discovers that an officer from their precinct is gay. To my surprise, Officer Zatelli returned to Barney Miller -- and he came out, right there in the squad room.

That's Zatelli (Dino Natali)
on the right, blurting out: "I'm gay!"
In this follow-up episode, gay couple Marty and Mr. Driscoll return to the squad room after a long absence. Driscoll's ex-wife is trying to prevent him from seeing his son, and the couple comes to the 12th Precinct for help. When they find none, Driscoll collects his son anyway, and the ex-wife is pressing charges; Officer Zatelli happens to be there.

While the plot device bringing these characters together was a bit clunky and obvious, the episode, which aired one year after the first gay-cop episode, demonstrates a bit of social progress. When the mincing Marty makes a sarcastic comment about the squad room decor, his partner Driscoll says, "Can we stop perpetuating the stereotype for a moment and get on with this?" Wojo's homophobia is on display again, but this time it is even more isolated, as no one else has a problem. Even the plot line is progressive, acknowledging Driscoll as a loving and positive influence in his son's life.

And then it happens. When the ex-wife goes on bigoted rant about "those people" and their "degrading, unnatural lifestyle," Zatelli tries to ignore it, then suddenly blurts out, "I'm gay!" It was a funny and poignant episode. It marks Marty and Driscoll's final appearance on the show.

* * * *

In my earlier Barney Miller post, I mentioned that the show re-used actors for multiple characters. In Seasons 6, 7, and 8 (the final season), this became completely ridiculous. The same actors show up repeatedly, playing different complaining citizens and arrestees. A criminal from one episode even turns up as a new detective in the 12th, which -- with the "retirement" of Fish (Abe Vigoda), the disappearance of any female detective, and the death of actor Jack Soo -- had gotten a bit empty.

If you go to the "full cast" link on the Barney Miller imdb page, beginning with John Dullaghan, look how many times those actors were all used! In that entire list from Dullaghan down, all but a few recurring roles have multiple character names listed for each actor -- many as many as 5, 6, or 7 roles!

In a show that sometimes had recurring characters, this became downright confusing. I can't imagine a TV show doing this now.

* * * *

The Barney Miller marital rape episode was puzzling, but, as it turns out, not uniquely strange: how about an episode featuring a child prostitute, played for laughs?

In "Call Girl," from Season 6, young Tasha Zemrus plays Rhonda Haleck, a sex worker so young and innocent that when asked for her age, replies "Fifteen and a half." She is a bit tough and wise-cracking, but appears squeaky-clean, well dressed, and well fed, in a way that a teenage street-walker would not.

Young Rhonda, sex worker, getting schooled by
Sassy Black Prostitute, sitcom edition.
Rhonda lives at a group home, and Detective Dorsey (played by Paul Lieber, the above-mentioned sometimes criminal, sometimes detective) uncovers the odd "coincidence" that numerous underage residents of the home have been arrested on similar charges. He accuses the avuncular adult who runs the home of pimping, and vows to watch him closely. (You can watch the episode here.)

Yet despite this suspicious revelation, Rhonda is sent home with the older man, and everyone has a good laugh at her cute little jokes.

Can you imagine a sitcom today playing child prostitution for laughs? Sex workers are a regular part of Barney Miller. They are always clean, well-dressed, and sassy. Some readers may remember Mary Tyler Moore's character Mary Richards getting arrested with a bunch of sex workers. They were also clean, well-dressed, and sassy. I guess that was the 1970s sitcom version of prostitution, more Neil Simon than Charles Dickens.

3 comments:

rww said...

Well I read the title and thought if there is one thing you cannot portray as adorable it's a "child sex worker". But then I read that they did and I might have watched it. I can only hope I did not find it amusing.

impudent strumpet said...

That is so weird! Why would you play child prostitution for laughs when you could just . . . not do that? It's like the writers didn't perceive it as a difficult topic or something!

laura k said...

It's like the writers didn't perceive it as a difficult topic or something!

Right.

Capt Miller says "Aren't you a little young for this line of work?" in a disapproving tone -- like he's caught her smoking cigarettes.

The truly amazing part is that they let her leave with a man who may be her pimp!