Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing our coverage on the best episodes from one of the most interesting early ’70s sitcoms that you may have forgotten about, The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-1974, CBS). This series has not been released on DVD, but it was mildly syndicated for several decades, and I have an almost complete collection on a set of DVD-rs. (I’m only missing one Season Three episode.) I’m confident that because of Mr. Van Dyke and Mr. Reiner, the series will eventually be released. Until then, I’m thrilled to present the first ever guide to the best episodes!
Local Phoenix based talk show host Dick Preston and his beautiful wife Jenny contend with life in the early ’70s alongside their children, their neighbors — Dick’s manager and his wife, and Dick’s sister/producer. The New Dick Van Dyke Show stars DICK VAN DYKE as Dick Preston, HOPE LANGE as Jenny Preston, FANNIE FLAGG as Mike Preston, MARTY BRILL as Bernie Davis, NANCY DUSSAULT as Carol Davis, and ANGELA POWELL as Annie Preston.
Classifying and comparing the second season of The New Dick Van Dyke Show to the first is difficult, for these 24 episodes are largely an extension of the last 24. The same strengths (Dick, some mild topicality) and the same weaknesses (only adequate scripts, wasted ensemble) still linger. However, it seems that while last year was about establishing the characters and attempting to create original and non-predictable stories, this season is about the comedy. The show does a better job of being funny in Season Two, but not as good a job at crafting unique and never-before seen plots. (You’d think it would be the other way around, given the rise in competition.) There’s no doubt that several of the show’s biggest laugh-getting episodes come from this year, but a lot of the excitement that stemmed from last year’s freshness is gone. As was the case with last season, production was completed by the time CBS broadcast the premiere, so the network and the producers were allowed to shuffle around the airing order. Unfortunately, the series wasn’t given its comfy Saturday night spot (next to The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and was moved to Sunday, where it failed to deliver the expected ratings in TWO different time slots. CBS would have canceled the series, if not for that three year “pay or play” deal. Some big changes were in order, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 25: “The Former Mr. Preston” (Aired: 09/17/72)
Mike unknowingly books a guest who claims to be Jenny’s first husband.
Written by Bernie Orenstein & Saul Turteltaub | Directed by Bill Persky | Production No. 28
CBS was wise to choose this episode to kick off the season; an engaging premise is coupled with a pretty laugh heavy script, creating one of the series’ most memorable installments. The surprise introduction of Jenny’s mysterious first husband, played by Dick Patterson, carries the episode’s story and her explanation is both logical and satisfying. Note that this is one of the few times in this entire series that Dick, Bernie, and Mike are given the chance to share a repartee of the caliber of Rob, Buddy, and Sally — to whom they are often compared. Great episode.
02) Episode 27: “The Great Prestoni” (Aired: 10/01/72)
Two crooks rob the office after hours, forcing Dick to attempt a daring escape.
Written by David Pollock and Elias Davis | Directed by George Tyne | Production No. 46
Although a lot of the ideas weren’t as clever as they were in the first year, the show got wise and figured out its main asset: Van Dyke. There are several episodes of this series that give Van Dyke long opportunities for solo comedy, and this is probably the best. Dick’s office is mugged and he’s bound and gaged, so he tries to escape out the window, only to end up in the women’s bathroom. A great showcase for Van Dyke, this is a very funny installment, and once again, CBS was wise to air this episode (which was produced late in the season) early.
03) Episode 28: “Sobriety Test” (Aired: 10/08/72)
Dick agrees to get drunk on the show to demonstrate the use of a breathalyzer.
Written by Martin Cohan | Directed by Bill Persky | Production No. 27
Van Dyke does a drunk bit like no other — it’s one of his specialities (as we saw several times on his ’60s series). Again, this is a great example of the show deciding to maximize the usage of its primary calling card. And though the bit itself may not be anything new, the premise is wickedly funny: Dick, worried about his show, agrees to get drunk on television and take a breathalyzer test (allowing for the always delightful Bernie Kopell to play a cop). Unfortunately, inebriated Dick is a blabbermouth and he spills about a fight he had with Jenny that morning. Funniest episode of the Arizona format. As close to a classic as they come on this show.
04) Episode 33: “Chef Mike” (Aired: 11/19/72)
Despite her lack of experience in the kitchen, Mike is given her own cooking show.
Written by Bernie Orenstein & Saul Turteltaub | Directed by Harvey Korman | Production No. 45
Fannie Flagg is perhaps the most underutilized member of the ensemble, with only about three (out of 48) episodes centered around her character. This episode, which features an admittedly goofy premise, is nevertheless a great showcase for this kooky and talented lady, who really deserves better than what she gets. But this is the funniest of the Mike episodes, and it makes my list because of a hysterical sequence in which Dick hides in the kitchen during the taping of her show, trying desperately to help his sister pull off the recipe.
05) Episode 34: “Ashes And Urns” (Aired: 11/26/72)
Dick’s mother brings her father’s ashes to the house to be scattered, but somehow they get lost.
Written by David Pollock and Elias Davis | Directed by Peter Baldwin | Production No. 42
Mabel Albertson’s back in this funny episode that probably was pretty original for television in 1972. (We’ve seen variations on it since.) When Dick’s mom brings over the ashes of her father there’s lots of one-liners to be had. But the real comedy comes in when Teela, the Prestons’ maid, played by the recurring Carmen Zapata, removes the ashes to clean out the urn, setting off a frenzy as Dick tries to locate the whereabouts of his grandfather. Naturally, he attempts to recreate the ashes himself. Silly, daring, fresh (for 1972).
06) Episode 39: “Dick And The Baby” (Aired: 01/07/73)
Dick is charged with taking care of the baby all by himself and proceeds to lose him at the supermarket.
Written by Saul Turteltaub & Bernie Orenstein | Directed by Norman S. Powell | Production No. 48
The last episode produced for the season, this is another installment given almost entirely to Van Dyke (as were the two produced right before this), indicating that the series had essentially run out of ideas for the other less-defined characters. That’s perfectly fine for the viewers, because Van Dyke is capable of holding his own, even when the story involves… babies. (You all know that I find babies to be the death of comedy. But the series seems to agree with me, as that child is barely ever seen or heard – even in this episode.) Solid installment because of Van Dyke.
07) Episode 42: “Pot Luck” (Aired: 01/28/73)
Dick’s mom accidentally smokes marijuana thinking it’s one of her regular cigarettes.
Written by Gordon Farr & Arnold Kane | Directed by Jerry Paris | Production No. 44
Perhaps the most contemporary and original story of the season, this episode gives TV audiences something they probably never thought they’d see: Mabel Albertson high on pot. She plays it well — not quite as hammy as you might expect — and while that sequence is the comedic crescendo of the episode, the build-up is logical and pretty funny on its own. Not surprisingly, this episode is largely successful because of its premise, but it has just enough comedy in support of the action, making for another one of this year’s most memorable. Viva Mabel Albertson!
08) Episode 44: “Will Baby Make Three?” (Aired: 02/18/73)
Carol makes a fool of herself when she and Bernie attempt to adopt a baby.
Written by Elias Davis and David Pollock | Directed by Bill Persky | Production No. 39
Like Flagg, Nancy Dussault is another one of the series’ underrated gems, although, to be fair, she does get about twice as much to do as Flagg (because she’s both Dick’s neighbor and wife of his manager). This episode is thrown entirely to Bernie and Carol, but most particularly to the latter, who earns big laughs when she gets drunk in front of the adoption agent. It’s a little cartoonish and over-the-top for a “sophisticated” 1973 sitcom, but all of her choices are motivated within the story, and because it’s also very funny, it comes across very well.
09) Episode 45: “The Power Of The Bleep” (Aired: 02/25/73)
Dick walks off his show when the station bleeps him.
Written by Arnie Kogen and Michael Elias | Directed by Lee Philips | Production No. 38
Though produced midway through the year, this episode is stylistically similar to Season One: an interesting premise with an unpredictable trajectory. With the story being about Dick’s walking off the show due to censorship, one would think that this would be an office story concerning the internal machinations of the station. However, this is actually a home story, as the episode takes comedy from the idea of Dick being home with nothing to do (to Jenny’s aggravation). It’s not riotous, but it’s quietly well done and very enjoyable.
10) Episode 48: “Guess Who’s Coming To Seder” (Aired: 03/25/73)
Carol must pretend to be Jewish when Bernie’s mother comes to visit.
Written by Elias Davis and David Pollock | Directed by George Tyne | Production No. 29
This is another very funny episode — definitely among the best of the entire series — and it’s largely because of Dussault. While we’ve seen this story many times since 1973, this episode still manages to pack quite a comedic punch. The best bit, one later stolen by Frasier, is the idea that Jewish people answer every question with a question. You may be wondering why this excellent episode was held; I’m willing to bet its because the network thought it was too similar to the recently premiered Bridget Loves Bernie, which hadn’t yet aired at the time of production.
Other notable episodes that missed making the list above include: “The Game,” in which Bernie pitches an idea for a game show, “Old Dick And Jenny,” in which Dick and Jenny question whether or not they’re still sexy (this sophisticated installment, which doesn’t quite live up to its full potential, most deserves to make the above list), a two-parter in which Dick gets involved with organized crime, “My Friend The Public Enemy (I)” and “My Friend The Public Enemy (II),” and “Big Brother Is Watching You,” in which Jerry Van Dyke plays Dick’s brother, who comes home with a woman who used to be a nude dancer.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The New Dick Van Dyke Show goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Three! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!