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Barney Miller: "Power Failure"

By Jay Young and Anthony Temple of Astraea

Actually there have been documented cases like this. People with two, three, even more distinct personalities that function and operate as separate individuals.

You couldn't say this on television today.

The half-hour sitcom Barney Miller about a Jewish police captain, his rundown Greenwich Village squadroom and a group of less-than-perfect detectives ran for eight years on ABC. It won two Golden Globes and an Emmy, and the cast were named honorary policemen by the NYPD, much the same as Jack Webb had been by the LAPD for his work in making Dragnet authentic.

Considering the care that was taken each week to produce shows with more than the usual clever wit, we would expect that they'd have a slightly different take on multiplicity, as indeed they did [although not too different] in the episode "Power Failure", which first aired December 9, 1976.

Charles Keller (Stefan Gierasch) is brought in and charged with assault (he punched a bookie). He's well-dressed and polite but nervous. As the pragmatic Sgt. Wojciehowicz (Native American actor Max Gail) is typing up his arrest report, Charlie tells him that Lennie, his other personality, actually committed the assault. Wojo expresses disbelief in what he and Capt. Barney Miller (Hal Linden) charmingly term "split personalities".

After being put in the cage, Lennie takes the front. He's confident and grounded, but obnoxious as hell. He loudly demands a phone to call his attorney. Sgt. Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) explains to him that Charlie already called their therapist and she's on her way. Lennie is less than thrilled by this news.

Barney wonders if there's a problem of identification, but Wojo insists there isn't -- this is the man he arrested -- and that Lennie is nothing more than an alias, like lots of people have. Lennie grimly denies that he is Charlie. He admits to punching the bookie, who owed him $3500 after he won "two exactas and a double at Belmont." Gambling addict Sgt. Nick Yemana (Jack Soo) lifts his head out of the Racing Form and says "Hello?"

Sgt. Dietrich, who is excessively well-educated and forever coming out with esoteric knowledge -- he reminds me of a radio stuck on CBC 1 or NPR -- points out to Barney the changes in Charlie / Lennie's voice and mannerisms. He calls it "classic schizoid symptoms". This is one of the few times Dietrich has been dead wrong. He recommends a book by Gregory Zilboorg about schizophrenia. There is a Gregory Zilboorg, but I couldn't find the book Dietrich refers -- it sounds like 'Schizophrenia Nacht Enfendungen'. Zilboorg called a lot of things schizophrenia, including simple conflicted motivations, so it would not be surprising that he would refer to multiple personalities that way.

Barney says he'd rather not handle it and says "keep'em in the cage, until their doctor arrives." This gets a laugh. Then again, it was 1976.

As the Kellers, Stefan Gierasch signified that they were switching by turning away from the camera and facing the wall, in much the same way that some impressionists prepare for different quickie imitations in stage routines. This is the one aspect of his performance none of us cared for, but it was better than the gruesome disintegrative convolutions one usually sees. (Had Mr. Kopechne (repeating guest star Kenneth Tigar), who believed on various occasions he was a telekinetic, a werewolf, possessed by demons, and Jesus Christ, been chosen to play the Kellers, we would have undoubtedly seen just that.) The detectives get a burglary call just as Lennie is telling Nick Yemana about his gambling system. Lennie is apparently able to substantially supplement the group's income this way. Nick is intrigued but has to leave, asking Lennie to write down the names of the horses to bet on in tomorrow's race. As they walk out the door, Wojo says "Split personalities. S'a lotta hooey, isn't it?" To which Nick replies, "Aw, I don't listen to him... but he makes a lot of sense!"

Dr. Fitzgerald (Susan Brown) arrives, all elegance and furs and a discreet diamond or two. So we know where a lot of Lennie's earnings are going. No wonder he dislikes her.

Dietrich makes a little pass at her by showing off his knowledge about multiplicity, but she's not interested. She's more attracted to Captain Miller, when she speaks privately with him in his office. She wants the Kellers released to her custody, but Barney can't allow it because the bookie is pressing an assault charge.

She insists that the group is sick, not criminal. But she adds "The concept of multiple personality is a very difficult one for the layman to understand, but Charles Keller and Leonard Keller are two entirely different people." That got our attention twenty-seven years ago when this episode was first aired and we had no idea about ourselves.

Standing close enough for Barney to smell her $500 perfume, she says Charlie shouldn't be held responsible for Lennie's bad act, since Charlie did nothing wrong "in the moral sense." Barney resists her advances, tells her that in the physical sense a felony has been committed, and suggests that she get an attorney and get the Kellers released on bail. She leaves in a mild huff, returning 45 minutes later with his bail ticket. While signing a form in the captain's office she again makes a play for Barney. This business of attractive, often wealthy older women being attracted to Captain Miller (who is happily married) is an ongoing one on the show, but we wish they hadn't made the MP therapist one of them.

By the time Nick returns, Charlie is front again and can't tell him a thing about playing the horses. A minute later when Dietrich approaches the cage for the Kellers to sign the form, the frontrunner is neither Lennie nor Charlie but a more elegant fellow with a very cultured voice, who says "I'm Neil. And I'm bored." Neil recognises Dr. Fitzgerald and says he has been trying to talk to her for some time, and Dr. Fitzgerald is stunned but pleased. Dietrich says "I think it's a breakthrough." Duh. Neil and Dr. Fitzgerald leave together.

This episode aired three years after Sybil was first published, but seems quite remote from it. It is much more like Milligan, but the incidents that prompted that book had yet to occur! Nowhere in this episode were the words "dissociation" or "trauma" mentioned. Dietrich says the words "schizophrenia" and "schizoid", but he is also dismissed as trivial by the doctor, whose main concern is to convince Captain Miller that the Kellers are distinct persons. The Kellers could use an In Essence pledge, but are obviously not out of touch with reality and function well enough to be able to afford the doctor's Fifth Avenue prices. Not too bad. Four stars.

Jay and Anthony, Astraea

pavilion @ karitas . net
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