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UFOs in TV : Backwards in Time
from Mr. Monk to Barney Miller

Almost always, when a television sit-com or drama has a UFO in the episode, it will turn out that the UFO wasn't really a UFO, just a hoax or a case of mistaken identity. Any so-called "true believer" in the episode is made fun of and by the end of the show, he or she feels sheepish for believing that there ever was a actual UFO. (Richelle Hawks, here at Binnall wrote about the UFO in television in her article The Cold War and Altered Minds: Recalling The UFO Device in Retro TV Episodes.)

The recent episode of Monk: "Mr. Monk and the UFO" uses the UFO as a device to move the plot along. Monk is a show I enjoy watching; but this episode was the laziest, as well as the worst, one I've seen in the years I've been watching the program. "Mr. Monk and the UFO" keeps the tradition of making buffoonish fun of UFOs cartoonishly alive. Not only does the UFO turn out to be a model created by the murderer to cover up his crime, but the expected jokes are nonstop, as well as ludicrously over the top.

Adrian Monk and his assistant Natalie find themselves stuck in a small desert town when their car breaks down and they have to stay there for a couple of days. While attempting to repair the car on a bridge in this small desert town at night, Monk looks up and sees a UFO.

The character of Adrian Monk, for those that don't know, is one of genius detective, but full of phobias. Suddenly his sanity is called into question by those close to him when he says he saw a UFO. His past brilliance didn't count for anything -- say you saw a UFO, and you're toast. His assistant does some research in the local library and tells Monk that she found out what UFOs are: "it's swamp gas." She also tells him that she "believes he believes he saw" a UFO implying that Monk isn't lying, but he didn't see what he said he saw.

The sheriff doesn't seem to believe him exactly, but does point out, when Monk argues that he saw a UFO, but that it also wasn't a UFO, and certainly not a "flying saucer," that the object seen was unidentified, flying, and an object. Ergo, a UFO. Monk reluctantly concedes. Within mere moments, it seems, the town is full of ridiculously costumed people: people painted green, the cliché slobby nerd, and ‘80s wave-o get ups of UFO nuts. The UFO "enthusiasts" inspect the supposed landing marks of the craft, which was a bunch of lines on top of each, not pod impressions. They decide this is the day they've all been waiting for... finally, the truth will be told! UFOs are real!

Monk wonders where all the people came from, and how did they find out about the UFO sighting so quickly? He's told it's the internet, something Monk is phobic about and unfamiliar with. Series of events ensue, which ends up with the "UFO nuts" believing Monk is an alien. When the murder is solved, Monk appears to the crowd to explain what happened; but this only convinces the bobble-headed crowd that Monk is covering up the truth. "Earth people of the internets" implores Monk, as he tries to address the crowd to tell them he is human. Especially when Monk refuses to show them his navel. (No navel means you're an alien.) Being phobic, that's not something Monk can do. Ah, but that's proof he is an alien of course.

The program utilized easy throw away references to the UFO in pop culture: the desert setting, swamp gas, goofy UFO nuts dressed like participants in a parade or some bizarro world flying saucer circus, landing impressions, belly buttons.

The entire episode was so over the top with its lame 1950s yuck-yuck factor concerning "flying saucers" it was just sad.

While it's true that the majority of the time when UFOs are introduced in TV shows they're, if not outright ridiculed, certainly revealed to have a mundane explanation, and usually as a cover for something else, I remembered one exception, and that was an episode of Barney Miller. I was delighted to find it on good old YouTube.

In contrast to the nonsense of the Monk episode, there was an episode of The Barney Miler show (1975 - 1982) that brought some bit of dignity to UFOs. Also a detective show, the episode The Sighting involved one of the detectives reporting his sighting of a UFO to the Air Force. Except for a few mild smirks from one of the detectives, Detective Wojciehowicz's ("Wojo") sighting is treated respectfully. A captain from the Air Force arrives to take Wojo's report, and it's clear the Air Force captain is the one full of it, not Detective Wojciehowicz.

Wojo's sighting is made more legitimate -- and shows up the Air Force captain -- when the precinct receives several calls from witnesses who report seeing the same object. When the Air Force captain is told by his superiour to give the official explanation, even he doesn't believe it. The end of the episode has Detective Dietrich giving a little summary about aliens that is delivered, and received, quite reasonably. No smirks or inept jokes. Dietrich tells the intrigued detectives that many believe the aliens "walk among us" and have been around for a long time.

With contemporary culture saturated with alien and UFO imagery, jokes, references, movies and the internet, it seems odd television still relies on the stupid factor when it comes to UFOs, as it did with Mr. Monk and the UFO. Yet over thirty years ago, Barney Miller took a realistic and even respectful view, in other words, rational, even while remaining humorous. Which is ironic, given that Barney Miller was a comedy program, and Monk is a drama.