When one thinks of The Dick Van Dyke Show it’s hard not to think of its star Dick Van Dyke. After all, it’s his name on the opening credits, and he does play the lead character in this groundbreaking television comedy. There’s little question that the show became a wonderful vehicle for his many comedic talents. But the genius behind the show wasn’t really Dick Van Dyke at all. It was Carl Reiner (yes, Meathead’s father) who is the true brains behind the show.
Reiner was a popular comedy writer in the early days of television. He made his name with Sid Caesar, writing for the very popular Your Show Of Shows. During that time he had been inundated with ideas for his own show. He wasn’t happy with any of them and decided to write his own. The result was Head Of The Family. It starred Reiner as Rob Petrie, a television comedy writer living in the New York suburbs of New Rochelle. In a break from traditional sit-com style, he told his stories both at home and at the office. We got to see Rob with his fellow writers and with his wife and neighbors. If any of this sounds rather familiar…it should. It was a clever idea, but it stank up the ratings and was soon dropped.
It was Sheldon Leonard who approached Reiner with an interesting concept. He thought the show idea was wonderful; it just shouldn’t star Carl Reiner in the lead role. He thought that Reiner should write the show and recast it. Reiner resisted, often saying in interviews he wasn’t too keen on the idea of failing twice with the same material. Fortunately for television history he was persuaded to go along with the idea. The result was far from the ratings bomb of Head Of The Family. The result was one of the most popular television comedies in history. The result was The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The series starred Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie. He was the head writer of the fictional Alan Brady Show. Carl Reiner would take the part of the rarely-viewed Alan Brady. Rob’s fellow writers were Sally, played by Rose Marie. Sally was forever looking for a good man and had a rather cynical outlook on love and life. The third writer was Buddy, played by Morey Amsterdam. Buddy was stuck in the 40’s and 50’s, still wanting to tell the old vaudeville jokes. He liked to make fun of anyone and everything, but his favorite target for sarcasm was Mel, played by Richard Deacon. Mel was the balding producer of the show and Alan Brady’s brother-in-law. He took abuse from both sides and had the thankless job of acting as a liaison between Brady and the writing staff.
At home Rob had a wife named Laura, played by Mary Tyler Moore. Moore was an unknown actress at the time and got the job when Danny Thomas remembered her from an earlier audition. She once auditioned to play his daughter on his show but was turned down. The story goes that she didn’t have the nose for the job. He remembered her, however, and she became Laura. They had a son named Richie, played by Larry Mathews. The home life also included neighbors Millie (Guilbert) and Jerry Helper, played by Jerry Paris who also directed the majority of the episodes.
Stories could come from either the home or the office. The show was also known for telling many flashback episodes. These often involved Rob’s early Army life or his courtship of Laura. Any little thing could be a catalyst to a flashback story. A mystery check found by Rob’s accountant leads to the story of how they found their house. A pill bottle leads to a story of Laura first meeting Rob’s parents. These little items would lead to Rob mentioning that there was a story behind the item and his friends insisting he tell it. The next thing you know we’re at a different place or time in the show’s mythology.
The show produced some of the most memorable episodes in television history. The most famous might be an episode that takes place in one of Rob’s nightmares. He believes aliens are using walnuts to take over the world. The episode starred show producer Danny Thomas but is, unfortunately, not part of this 4th season set. Fortunately, there are some classics to be found here.
Laura has her foot stuck in a hotel bathroom tub faucet in one of the show’s most memorable episodes called Never Bathe On Saturday. Bupkis is another classic that has Rob fuming when an old Army buddy tricks him into giving up his interest in the silly songs they used to write. One of them becomes a bit of a hit, and Rob begins to suspect he was swindled. The funniest episode of the season has to be the two-parter 4 1/2 & The Alan Brady Show Goes To Jail. It starts as a flashback episode that tells the story of Rob and Laura getting mugged in a stuck elevator by Don Rickles. The second episode has the gang going to his prison to entertain the cons. It’s an early role for Rickles and long before he had gained the reputation he later enjoyed. It’s all still here, thoughtful and funny as ever. Jerry Van Dyke plays Rob’s brother in the two-part Stacey Petrie. Jerry was, of course, Dick’s real-life brother and would do the same thing later on when Dick Van Dyke starred in Diagnosis Murder.
When the show ended in 1966 it was still one of the most popular shows on television. Both Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore wanted to do something else. Both were made confident by the huge stardom the show provided them, but neither was ever able to reproduce the magic here. Of course, Mary Tyler Moore found great success with a different kind of show in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That one would go on to become a classic in its own right. CBS didn’t want the show to end and continued to run the reruns for another four years before offering them to syndication where they continue to be a hit.
Now the classic show arrives on Blu-ray. You might not think the show can really add anything in high definition. You might not be totally wrong there, but it does look good. It’s also a chance to have the show in a more modern format. It’s more about status and a show deserving to be preserved in this way. I think you’ll find there aren’t many comedies in the history of television that deserves this honor. The Dick Van Dyke Show is one that does.
Each episode is presented in its original full frame format and in black & white. The 1080p image is arrived at with an VC-1 codec at an average 20 mbps. You’re not going to get show-off quality here, to be sure. Still, the black & white benefits from the sharper image and most particularly from the strong contrast. I’m not going to try to sell you that it looks like it was made today. It still looks like it was made in 1964. But that’s kind of a good thing here.
The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono is pretty much only there to serve the dialog, and that’s what it does.
Each of the three discs contain bonus features. Much of it is the extra stuff ported over from the DVD, and none of the extra stuff is really in HD. Highlights include:
DVD and TV Academy tributes.
Short clips from Diagnosis Murder and The Danny Thomas Show
Dick Van Dyke Show Remembered: (46:28) This is the only feature longer than a few minutes. It’s a vintage television special that recalls the classic moments of the show.
The Dick Van Dyke Show has become one of those milestone television comedies that appears to be as popular 50 years later as it was when it took to the CBS airwaves in 1961. It’s the kind of show that broke ground leading to the kinds of shows we still watch today. It broke away from the “perfect” family model and showed life in a far more realistic fashion. Rob and Laura would argue like real couples and have many of the same issues that the audience could relate to. Rob had a “glamorous” job that never really appeared so glamorous. Sit-coms today try to imitate what these guys did 50 years ago. “The music’s the same. The costumes are the same. After a while you forget they’re monkeys.”