Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show

Rob and Betty and Don and Laura

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Laura Petrie and Betty Draper

Mary Tyler Moore was the loveliest woman ever to appear on television, but you can only fully appreciate her charms if you also believe that Dick Van Dyke was maybe the most attractive man. I spent much of my youth obsessed with Rob and Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which I think is the best three-camera sitcom of all time, and the one that secretly had the greatest impact on my inner life. Along with so much else, it was the first show that seemed to mine comedic and narrative material out of the act of its own creation. Rob was a comedy writer, and thanks to his scenes at the office with Sally and Buddy, I thought for a while I might want to do the same thing. I know now that this wouldn’t be a great job for someone like me, but the image of it is still enticing. What made it so appealing, I’ve come to realize, is that when Rob came home, the show never ended—he was married to a woman who was just as smart, funny, and talented as he was. (Looking at Moore, who was only twenty-four when the series premiered, I’m reminded a little of Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, who effortlessly kept up with her older costars under conditions of enormous pressure.) It was my first and best picture of a life that seemed complete both at work and at home. And the fact that both Moore and Van Dyke seem to have been drinking heavily during the show’s production only points at how difficult it must have been to sustain that dream on camera.

What strikes me the most now about The Dick Van Dyke Show is the uncanny way in which it anticipates the early seasons of Mad Men. In both shows, a husband leaves his idyllic home in Westchester each morning to commute to a creative job in Manhattan, where he brainstorms ideas with his wisecracking colleagues. (Don and Betty lived in Ossining, but the house that was used for exterior shots was in New Rochelle, with Rob and Laura presumably just up the road.) His wife is a much younger knockout—Laura was a former dancer, Betty a model—who seems that she ought to be doing something else besides watching a precocious kindergartener. The storylines are about evenly divided between the home and the office, and between the two, they give us a fuller portrait of the protagonist than most shows ever do. The influence, I can only assume, was unconscious. We know that Matthew Weiner watched the earlier series, as he revealed in a GQ interview when asked about life in the writers’ room:

We all came up in this system…When I watch The Dick Van Dyke Show, I’m like, Wow, this is the same job. There’s the twelve-year-old kid on the staff. There’s the guy who delivers lunch. I guarantee you I can walk into [another writer’s office] and, except for where the snack room is, it’s gonna be similar on some level.

And I don’t think it’s farfetched to guess that The Dick Van Dyke Show was Weiner’s introduction, as it was for so many of us, to the idea of writing for television in the first place.

Rob Petrie and Don Draper

The more I think about it, the more these two shows feel like mirror images of each other, just as “Don and Betty Draper” and “Rob and Laura Petrie” share the same rhythm. I’m not the first one to draw this connection, but instead of highlighting the obvious contrast between the sunniness of the former and the darkness of the latter, I’d prefer to focus on what they have in common. Both are hugely romantic visions of what it means to be a man who can afford a nice house in Westchester based solely on his ability to pitch better ideas than anybody else. Mad Men succeeds in large part because it manages to have it both ways. The series implicitly rebukes Don’s personal behavior, but it never questions his intelligence or talent. It doesn’t really sour us on advertising, any more than it does on drinking or smoking, and I don’t have any doubt that there are people who will build entire careers around its example. Both shows are the work of auteurs—Carl Reiner and Matt Weiner, whose names actually rhyme—who can’t help but let their joy in their own technical facility seep into the narrative. Rob and Don are veiled portraits of their creators. One is a lot better and the other a whole lot worse, but both amount to alternate lives, enacted for an audience, that reflect the restless activity behind the scenes.

And the real difference between Mad Men and The Dick Van Dyke Show doesn’t have anything to do with the decades in which they first aired, or even with the light and dark halves of the Camelot era that they both evoke. It comes down to the contrast between Laura and Betty—who, on some weird level, seem to represent opposing sides of the public image of Jacqueline Kennedy, and not just because the hairstyles are so similar. Betty was never a match for Don at home, and the only way in which she could win the game, which she did so emphatically, was to leave him altogether. Laura was Rob’s equal, intellectually and comedically, and she fit so well into the craziness at The Alan Brady Show that it wasn’t hard to envision her working there. In some ways, she was limited by her role as a housewife, and she would find her fullest realization in her second life as Mary Richards. But the enormous gap between Rob and Don boils down to the fact that one was married to a full partner and teammate, while the other had to make do with a glacial symbol of his success. When I think of them, I remember two songs. One is “Song of India,” which plays as Betty descends the hotel steps in “For Those Who Think Young,” as Don gazes at her so longingly that he seems to be seeing the ghost of his own marriage. The other is “Mountain Greenery,” which Rob and Laura sing at a party at their house, in a scene that struck me as contrived even at the time. Were there ever parties like this? It doesn’t really matter. Because I can’t imagine Don and Betty doing anything like it.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2017 at 9:05 am

Behind the screens

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Edward Platt and Don Adams on Get Smart

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What was your favorite TV show as a kid?”

As I write this post, I’m huddled upstairs, engaging in an illicit activity that I’ve repeatedly denied to my daughter: I’m looking at a computer screen. When Beatrix was born, we didn’t have a lot of childrearing rules in mind, but we knew that we didn’t want her watching television or using digital devices until she was two years old, following the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Even now, it’s just about the only rule we try to follow, aside from a general effort to avoid giving her sugary snacks. This has degenerated into an ongoing confidence game in which we try to convince her that Ritz crackers are really cookies, and she’s going to be so mad when she finds out the truth.) In practice, of course, she sees screens all the time. There’s almost always a laptop open on the dining room table, and it’s rarely long before she’s demanding to look at pictures of herself, her grandparents—or pretty much anything, really. And while we try to enforce the rule as much as we can, it already feels like a losing battle that will become even more futile if, or when, a second kid comes along.

Obviously, there are sound reasons for wanting to limit my daughter’s screen time, but part of me also suspects that I’m simply uncomfortable with the differences between the way she’ll grow up and my own experience. I consumed a lot of television, every day, all the way from preschool to college, and although my viewing time has gone down dramatically in adulthood, it’s only because other screens have dominated my attention. And when I watched television, it was in ways to which Beatrix will never be able to relate. We had cable most of the time, but only one channel for kids, and I spent a lot of afternoons in any case staring at whatever grainy shows would come across the antenna in the back room of my mom’s office. I also watched a lot of random stuff on videotape—often on a vintage Betamax player—that we’d recorded at one time or another: television specials like The World of the Dark Crystal, hallucinatory animated features like Richard Williams’s Raggedy Ann and Andy, and that one episode of The Nature of Things about dinosaurs that I’ve tried in vain to find ever since. It was a mixed bag, but I watched it to pieces, mostly because it was all we had around.

The Dick Van Dyke Show

These days, the situation is radically different. There are countless cable channels devoted to children’s programming, killing off what remained of Saturday morning cartoons, and the funny thing is that it doesn’t really matter. Most kids watch most of their content online, which is why iPad is a stronger brand among American children than Disney, Nickelodeon, or McDonalds. (This isn’t restricted to children, either: a recent survey found that a majority of consumers report that they watch most of their online television shows on YouTube, which also implies that a lot of people aren’t sure what “television” means.) There’s more variety and access than ever before, and in theory, kids could be watching clips on demand from any show in the history of the medium. In practice, this doesn’t seem to be happening: one of the side effects of having a vast spectrum of entertainment options is that content can be tailored ever more precisely for particular audiences. Kids are watching shows that are directed squarely at them, often brilliantly, and because of—or despite—the range of choices at their disposal, they’re much less likely to end up watching something just because it happens to be on.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t want to become unduly nostalgic about the junk I watched growing up because there wasn’t any alternative. Yet there’s also something to be said for the serendipity that a more limited slate of programming enforces. Among the first shows I ever remembering loving were the reruns that ran on Nick at Nite: Dick Van Dyke, Get Smart, Patty Duke, even Mr. Ed. They stuck with me to the point that years later, when I saw Blue Velvet, it was through the lens of The Donna Reed Show. And the only reason I saw them at all was because the channel stayed tuned to Nickelodeon and never left, after the evening programming began. These shows hadn’t been designed for me; they came from another era, with jokes that flew over my head, and in many cases, they were still on the air only because they could be cheaply packaged for syndication. (It’s also worth noting that black-and-white sitcoms still look gorgeous, while early shows shot on videotape, like All in the Family, are all but unwatchable on a visual level, so it’s unlikely I’d have been so taken by Nick at Nite if I’d been watching it a decade later.) But I’m glad I saw them. Beatrix won’t need to watch anything made before she was born, but I’d like to think she will, even if the rest of the world is busy moving beyond it.

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2014 at 9:52 am

Lessons from Great TV #1: The Dick Van Dyke Show

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We tend to treat television as a utility available at the push of a button, like electricity or hot water, but it’s also an art form made by real men and women, and unlike film, it’s emphatically a writer’s medium—at least on the inside. From the outside, it’s fair to say that even in the era of the celebrity showrunner, many viewers are only vaguely aware that television sitcoms—even those that seem largely improvised—are written by people other than the actors themselves. (Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, claims he was often approached by fans who would gush: “That Peter Boyle is so funny—the things he says!”) Still, there was a time in my life when I thought writing for television was the coolest job imaginable. While I’ve since realized that my own narrative skills are better suited for a different sort of storytelling, I’m still fascinated by what television writers do. And for that, I have The Dick Van Dyke Show to thank.

When it came time to figure out what Rob Petrie did for a living, creator Carl Reiner gave him the job he knew best: he was the head writer for a television variety show. And The Dick Van Dyke Show, along with giving us the coolest married couple in sitcom history, made working for television look like the greatest game in the world. The first episode of the show I ever saw was “My Husband is Not a Drunk,” and while it may not be the series’ finest moment—my own vote would go to “It May Look Like a Walnut”—it’s the one that I still view with the most affection. The premise is pure slapstick: Rob accidentally receives a posthypnotic suggestion that makes him roaring drunk whenever he hears a bell ring. It’s an excuse for Dick Van Dyke, one of our great physical comedians, to do what he does best, and the high point is an incredibly sustained sequence at Rob’s office, where a ringing telephone turns him into a giggling mess in front of one of the program’s sponsors. The sponsor, naturally, is delighted, thinking he’s watching a comic genius working out a brilliant comedy routine. And the funny thing, of course, is that so are we.

Tomorrow: The joys of crude animation.

Written by nevalalee

July 2, 2012 at 9:50 am

Smash through a writer’s eyes

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It’s safe to say that of the millions of viewers who tuned in last night for the premiere of NBC’s Smash, few were hoping to see a show about a couple of writers. The deluge of ads that aired during the Super Bowl promise an old-fashioned backstage melodrama, and on that count, the series delivers. (Perhaps a little too well—even given the disorderly nature of most network pilots, it has at least one personal subplot too many.) But I decided to check out the show for somewhat different reasons, which means that I’m going to ignore most of its other attractions, including the very fetching Katharine McPhee, to talk about a version of Smash that doesn’t exist yet, and probably never will. Because as farfetched as it might seem, this show represents the best chance we’ve had in a long time for a series about what I modestly think is the most interesting subject in the world, which is the creative process at work.

For obvious reasons, most movies or TV shows about writers aren’t very good. This is partially because a writer’s life doesn’t lend itself to visual storytelling, unless you’re going to indulge in frequent fantasy sequences—as Smash is clearly quite willing to do. It’s solitary work, without a lot of dramatic moments, and it doesn’t lend itself to neat character arcs. The movies like to pretend that there’s an intimate relationship between an artist’s life and work, but in fact, there’s often no correlation between the two. Writers can produce their best work on lousy personal days, and vice versa; most attempts to write biographies of Shakespeare (or, even less forgivably, the Earl of Oxford) based on clues from the plays founder on the fact that he didn’t necessarily write tragedies when he was miserable, or comedies when he was happy. A writer’s life, perhaps ironically, is doomed to frustrate most of our expectations about good storytelling.

When you have two writers in the room, however, that’s something else entirely. It’s no accident that the best works of art about the creative process often center on a collaborative relationship, which generally means some form of theater. I’m thinking of The Red Shoes, of course, which is my favorite movie of all time, but also of works as different as Topsy-Turvy and The Dick Van Dyke Showthe latter of which made writing for television seem like the coolest job around. And while it’s far too early to include Smash in that select company, there are some positive signs. We have a very appealing pair of writers in Debra Messing and Christian Borle, who, to my eyes, are the real stars of this show. If nothing else, Messing and Borle have real chemistry—which is more than I can say for McPhee and her ambiguously gay boyfriend—and in their scenes together in the pilot, I saw a glimpse of a show that I could learn to love.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily the show that creator Theresa Rebeck has in mind—although her recent interview with the A.V. Club was very promising. And we’re probably going to see many more fantasy musical numbers and karaoke scenes before we plunge any deeper into a writer’s inner life. But the producers of any television show are writers, first and foremost, and there are moments in the Smash pilot that feel like closely observed moments of what it means to write for Broadway. Messing is initially skeptical of the idea of a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, for instance, until she realizes that it will give her a chance to write a baseball number—and I suspect that all writers have been drawn to projects for equally random reasons. This leads to the truest moment in the pilot, when Messing confesses her real reason for wanting to write Marilyn: “I don’t want anyone else to do her.”  That’s a sentiment that any writer can recognize. And if Smash can follow up on these hints, it could become something really special.

Written by nevalalee

February 7, 2012 at 10:57 am

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