Even growing up, I was always a TV person. In what was possibly a sign of bad parenting, from the age of five, I had a tiny black and white TV in my bedroom. It was almost always on one channel: Nickelodeon, and at night, Nick at Nite. Watching shows like The Donna Reed Show, Mister Ed, and The Patty Duke Show instilled a love of classic TV that still lives deep down. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the show, TV Land has been running marathons of one of my favorites: The Dick Van Dyke Show. And I’m surprised at how well it holds up to the test of time.
Premiering in October of 1961, The Dick Van Dyke Show follows both the home and work life of its lead character, Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), something that was unique for its time. At home, we get to know his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), a former dancer, and his son Ritchie. At work, he is the head writer for the fictional comedy program The Alan Brady Show, working with his fellow writers Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers. The series was created by Carl Reiner, who based the show on his own life and career working for Sid Caeser’s Your Show of Shows and also made guest appearances (in a very meta fashion) as Alan Brady. At work, Rob, Buddy, and Sally write their show and squabble with show runner Mel Cooley. At home, Rob, Laura, and Ritchie fall very much into the standard Happy ’50s Family mold, complete with neighbors Jerry and Millie.
The Dick Van Dyke show isn’t the most ground-breaking, it must be said. Laura is a stay-at-home mom and she and Rob sleep in separate beds (no wonder Ritchie doesn’t have any younger siblings). Sally is in her 40s, single, and man-crazy. There is nary a minority to be seen in the suburbia, and the one time a not-white character is featured, it’s played as a punchline: in a flashback, Rob and Laura fear that their son was switched with someone else’s baby at the hospital and arrange a meeting with the other parents, who turn out to be an African-American couple. Wikipedia tells me that gag “registered the longest, uninterrupted span of laughter from a live studio audience.”
But in some ways, it was slightly, cautiously subversive. Laura is a stark contrast to other housewives of the time, daring to wear – GASP! – capri pants! She revives her old career for a time filling in for another dancer on Rob’s show and – SHOCK! – contemplates the idea of going back to work! Rob and Laura’s marriage seems to be built on – PEARL CLUTCHING! – mutual respect and admiration! Meghan Purvis gives an example of this in her recent post on feminism and The Dick Van Dyke Show:
The thing is, though, after Rob makes that speech, he arrives home ready to lay down the law”¦ and it’s completely played for laughs. We know going into it that he isn’t for a minute going to actually dictate household policy to his wife”¦ and it turns out, neither of them really want him to. Laura reveals that she understands Rob’s duty to his career, and rather than being angry at him, she’s angry at herself for not being supportive. In fact, they end up kissing and making up after a conversation where they communicate like”¦ well, equals. True, equals where one is ostensibly the man of the house, but compared to the vacuuming-in-pearls trope the show was emerging from, it’s an enormous step forward.
And if we want to point to a definitive feminist legacy of the show, just the fact that it propelled Mary Tyler Moore to international stardom – enough to helm her own show ten year later.
At the end of the day, though, The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the most wittily written, funny, and lasting shows of its time and definitely one worth checking out.