Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Last of the Wine

TV reruns filled many of the wasted summer hours of my youth. What's more regrettable, I never watched the Dick Van Dyke Show, though it was then in syndication. Now, offers online all five seasons. The show ran from 1961-1966 and totaled 159 episodes. In retrospect, Dick Van Dyke stands for all that was appealing in secular, liberal America during the mid-20th century.

This was a truly charming show. The wit flows like good wine among friends. As Rob Petrie, a comedy show writer, the young Dick Van Dyke is funny without being abnormal. Mary Tyler Moore, who plays his even younger wife, Laura, is pretty, articulate, precious. Both actors possessed genuine comedic gifts that the remorseless passage of years has long since obscured.

The plot lines are often trivial. As with Seinfeld, this is a show "about nothing." Yet the social backdrop is about everything. Here is a middle class American family. It is small--only one child appears. It is secular--little talk of God surfaces. Above all, it is liberal--not so much for its political commitments as for its habits of being. The authority of the husband is real, but heavily tempered by the reasoning prowess of his wife and by his own foibles. High culture receives deference, if not love. Articulateness in speech is valued. There is a taste for the bon mot. Food (speaking of taste) is enjoyed, but in moderation, and almost never alone. Van Dyke's lean frame predates the food revolution that now packs the guts even of small children.

All this is to say that while the show is funny, humor does not entirely account for its charm. For the humor is embedded in a social setting that is itself winning and attractive. The humor flows from the virtues of the people and the relationships those virtues enable them to have. And those virtues are liberal virtues.

Unwittingly, the show hints at the coming dissolution of this liberal world. There is banter, and some plot lines, regarding marital infidelity and divorce. An old flame of Laura's comes into town, a pretty young singer flirts with Rob. There are winks and playfully raised eyebrows. The influence of such incidents does not survive the episodes in which they occur, and the Petries have a good marriage--a strong one, even. Yet there is no acknowledgment of the sacred and moral underpinnings such a marriage must have, nor of the vulnerability of freefloating unions that lack them.

After Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore went on to star in her own show. But by then the liberal world represented by the Petries had begun to alter and to unravel, and Moore's new show quickly reflected the change. Her character, Mary Richards, was single--the producers had wanted to make her divorced but considered that too "advanced" for the viewer. None of the eligible men in Richards's life were ever of the Rob Petrie grade. Typically, they would appear at her apartment door in their silly '70s garb and their artless manners and their dubious intentions. Even the best of them compare unfavorably to the sleek coat-and-tie'd Van Dyke. One could argue that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was funnier than Dick Van Dyke. It certainly had a larger, more versatile cast. But no one could claim that the lives of Mary Richards and the men at her door were more refined, more attractive, or even more interesting than the lives of the Petries.

And so I want to lift, and tilt, my glass to The Dick Van Dyke Show. This was the last of the liberal wine, poured out by men and women who, though unknown to me, I feel compelled to call friends.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly the the last sentence of your opening paragraph. I wonder though, if we can really understand this program when we viewed years after it's contemporary running, and moreso, without benefit of the perspective of the writers and producers. While set in the early 60's and around the medium of television, I always felt the program looked backward instead of forward. I especially would point to the fact that Rob's co-workers were clearly old hands at Vaudeville or Catskill performance. These people represented the icons of the earliest days of television, the Milton Berle's and Sid Ceasar's of the world. To your point, what does it say that Petrie is a professional, living in the suburbs, etc. etc. I'm trying to think of another program that showed a family at chuch, only Andy Griffith comes to mind. And of course, in America, it had to be a Protestant image of religion. What will people say of our time of media, post Columbine, Post 9-11, with our 50 percent divorce rate and a seemingly unending war. Will this not influence the fodder that fills our minds. Once, one could count on literature to chronicle the march of history. Think of the Red Badge of Courage, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, FutureShock. What will be produced by the climate we live in presently??

  2. Great comments. I would agree that Dick Van Dyke was backward-looking. It is certainly not a show that is highlighting and glorifying what is new in the 1960s. It would be helpful to know the intentions of the producers, but their final product does seem marked by what is now sometimes called "traditional liberalism" as opposed to more radical versions of liberalism that emerged in the 60s and eventually redefined liberalism. The Andy Griffith Show is an interesting comparison. Here there is a lot of churchgoing and the childrearing seems more conservative. In one episode an unruly child (not Opie) is even literally sent to the woodshed. Hard to imagine that on Dick Van Dyke.
    Later comedies in the liberal line are clearly different from D.V.D. The best of them are just as funny, but their underlying social premises are less appealing. Today's "The Office," for example, is almost the exact opposite of D.V.D. Most of the characters are profoundly lacking as persons. D.V.D. was the last comedy in the liberal line to reflect an underlying social order and values that are actually appealing.