Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing coverage on the best of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963, CBS), which is currently available in full on DVD.
The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis stars DWAYNE HICKMAN, FRANK FAYLEN, FLORIDA FRIEBUS, and BOB DENVER. With SHEILA JAMES, WILLIAM SCHALLERT, STEVE FRANKEN, JEAN BYRON, RAYMOND BAILEY, and DORIS PACKER.
Following the deservedly unpopular final trimester of Season Two, where the show sought to progress Dobie Gillis by having him and Maynard (and eventually Chatsworth) join the army in an arc that aimed for character growth but took scripts away from the ensemble of great recurring players that had proven to be the series’ saving grace in the wake of its missing thematic purpose, Dobie Gillis‘ third year is often regarded as something of a Renaissance, or a return to form, as Dobie, and all his pals, are now back home and enrolled in community college. Yes, that means Dobie, Maynard, Chatsworth, Zelda, and even Mr. Pomfritt, the high school teacher who’s conveniently become a professor, are back on the campus, where Max Shulman and his stories belong. This naturally resurrects a healthy surrounding ensemble — which includes Dobie’s parents and the delightful Doris Packer as Mrs. Osborne, along with new hires: Raymond Bailey as the curmudgeonly dean and Jean Byron as Dr. Burkhart — in addition to the establishing narrative particulars with which we associate the show. To wit, with the boys back in the classroom, the first third of the season is the best episodic stretch the series has seen since its much heralded first year, thanks to a return to youthful romance stories, fine work by the primary cast (particularly Hickman, Denver, and James, who play so well together), and some of the thoughtful, period-specific teenage angst that Shulman is often able to capture and use wisely, making Dobie and his friends seem more like real college students than characters on TV… Unfortunately, the year only restores the external properties of location and cast; it’s still missing its original dramatic intentions — the tension between parents and kids that commented (believably) upon the generation gap, and the sexual undercurrent that fueled Dobie’s very existence. Okay, there are a few more “loves” this year than last — and one may be tricked into thinking the show has reconnected with this fundamental part of its identity — but Dobie is still tame: there’s no longer any winking indication of nookie, which means Dobie Gillis is no longer speaking to characters his age in their own language.
What’s more, the Renaissance stumbles after the first trimester, as the season gets desperate looking for new story. The diminished use of Zelda (because of a failed spin-off attempt for her character) and Shulman’s decreased original contributions (he remains producer and touches every script, but is credited with fewer of the ideas himself) makes the year resort to either blanket remakes of earlier efforts, or plots that go outside of the premise, often with character-rejecting high-concept entries built around Herbert, who’s goofier and less sincere than ever, or Maynard, who’s also goofier and less sincere than ever — no longer a beatnik, more like an early version of Gilligan. Stories centered around the latter are more frequent this year, and they pick up during its last third, when Hickman was felled by pneumonia and spent several weeks in the hospital, forcing the show to actively write Maynard as the lead — a trend that somewhat sticks. This is part of the series’ mythology — Maynard G. Krebs taking over Dobie Gillis in the same way that Fonzie took over Happy Days — but it’s surprising to note that it happens fairly late in the run, and at first, these shows aren’t terrible; they still try to connect with the premise as established. Sadly, this doesn’t last long though, as stories with Maynard — now more a caricature than a character — inherently drag the series down even further to a more idea-driven touch-and-go baseline, eventually encouraging broad laugh-seeking entries totally disconnected from reality. There are only a few true absurdities here (see: Maynard discovers a cave man), but they presage the kind of material we’ll see more often in Four, which really goes off the deep end and has even more trouble coming up with plot (despite gimmicks meant to spark it). The problem with outings of this type isn’t just that they’re overly silly — no, Shulman’s style is heightened and invites a certain amount of silliness — it’s that they have nothing to do with Dobie Gillis, his communication with his parents, his pursuit of romance, or even the strong ensemble relationships that had otherwise defined the series over its past two years. And, so, it’s devastating that the season’s so-called Renaissance can’t even last beyond a baker’s dozen, putting Dobie Gillis on the path to utter foolishness, but Three does have a handful of early gems worth noting, and I have picked ten that I think exemplify its finest.
01) Episode 77: “Dobie, Dobie, Who’s Got The Dobie?” (Aired: 10/17/61)
Zelda mourns when Dobie finds a girl who wants him as much as she does.
Teleplay by Les Pine | Story by Rod Amateau | Directed by Rod Amateau
Sheila James’ Zelda is the star of this offering, the year’s sophomore excursion following the premiere establishing the boys’ return home and enrollment in college, as another girl decides that whomever the sensible Zelda likes (Dobie) is the man for her too. This forces Zelda to do everything in her power to break them up, including a hysterical public mourning scene that proves why James was given an attempted spin-off (that likely would have been ten times funnier than any of the other teen girl shows of the period). Lots of laughs here, and they’re built on character relationships that tie into the series’ initial “many loves” theme.
02) Episode 79: “The Fast White Mouse” (Aired: 10/31/61)
Dobie uses a heredity experiment to pass off Zelda to Chatsworth.
Written by Max Shulman | Directed by Rod Amateau
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Fast White Mouse” is a Shulman teleplay that I seldom see listed among selections for the series’ finest. But this is a glaring oversight, for it’s not just another terrific display of its author’s ethos — with distinct voices afforded to the teenage leads, who all have intense convictions — it’s also the best version of a familiar story pattern: the one in which Zelda turns her focus to Chatsworth. In Season One, Dobie tried to pawn her off by making Zelda seem rich; in Two, Chatsworth pursued her to improve his grades, and in Three, Dobie uses science — Zelda’s language — to make an argument on the basis of heredity that she should set her sights on Chatsworth. (This is an idea that delights his mother, the effervescently funny Doris Packer, who wants Zelda to bear lots of “nasty little boys!”) It’s a smart, silly, unique showcase for the college characters, whom I’ve called the “saving grace” of Dobie Gillis following Season One, and so this is the year’s most favorable sample — what it offers, and what I wish it offered more often.
03) Episode 82: “Eat, Drink, And Be Merry… For Tomorrow, Ker-Boom!” (Aired: 11/21/61)
The class is putting together a time capsule, but Maynard thinks it’s futile.
Teleplay by Lawrence Williams, Maggie Williams, and Joel Kane | Story by Lawrence Williams & Maggie Williams | Directed by Guy Scarpita
With something of a pensive quality lingering in the air, this installment deals with lofty themes in an intelligent manner, supporting the notion that Dobie Gillis‘ student characters are the era’s most realistic seen on TV, for the kind of angst Maynard exhibits with regard to posterity — during the troubling Cold War, which doesn’t have to get a direct mention in 1961 to loom large here — is identifiable even to audiences of other generations. And the interesting moral questions around “why be good if the world is going to end anyway?” is a philosophical debate perfect for flawed characters within conflict, making this a funny show that works as a time capsule of its own, with enough emotional relatability to transcend its time and stand as both a character piece and a timeless commentary in Shulman-ese . My runner-up MVE.
04) Episode 85: “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Me And Robert Browning” (Aired: 12/12/61)
Dobie is inspired by Robert Browning to reach for the unattainable: a girl.
Written by Max Shulman | Directed by Rod Amateau
Although there are exceptions to the rule, it’s usually pretty easy to tell a Shulman script — particularly from this era — because he instills in every character, his college leads especially, a sense of agency and intelligence that doesn’t rob them of their naïveté, but buttresses it with believable integrity. That’s certainly the case in this entry, which has Dobie inspired by a Robert Browning quote to have his reach “exceed his grasp,” and while it’s better written than premised, it’s a perfect reflection of the Shulman style, which is amusing, lofty, and soul-filling.
05) Episode 87: “Crazylegs Gillis” (Aired: 12/26/61)
Dobie tries to keep a football player with a family from getting kicked off the team.
Teleplay by Terry Ryan & Joel Kane | Story by Max Shulman | Directed by Rod Amateau
A fine collegiate offering with the chance for Hickman, Denver, and Faylen to all do some silly physical comedy that’s within the Shulman brand, “Crazylegs Gillis” is the better of the series’ two football shows for its farce not only showcases the regular players well, but also delights with appearances by great guests like Michele Lee and Joyce Van Patten. And with a twinge of romance involved too, this is what Dobie Gillis should be doing this year.
06) Episode 94: “The Marriage Counselor” (Aired: 02/20/62)
Dobie decides to give up and marry Zelda.
Teleplay by Les Pine | Story by Rod Amateau | Directed by Rod Amateau
After an over-the-top episode that found Dobie, Maynard, and Zelda stowing away on a boat to South America, it’s refreshing that her next appearance is in this sincere character-based outing that sees Dobie digesting all Zelda’s pro-marriage arguments and opting to lower his resistance and finally marry her, leading to a counseling session with Pomfritt and Dobie’s folks. It’s a smart script, with earned emotional moments that treat the characters like real people.
07) Episode 95: “The Big Blunder And Egg Man” (Aired: 02/27/62)
Dobie tries to impress a girl by investing in the commodities market.
Teleplay by Bud Nye & Max Shulman | Story by Bud Nye | Directed by Rod Amateau
Whenever an entry’s motivation begins with Dobie trying to impress a girl, I immediately take notice, because this was supposed to be the series’ primary story structure, and even though, by now, it’s totally devoid of the sexual subtext that made the first year so exciting, it still provides every plot with a foundational bedrock, from which it’s therefore okay to get a little broad, like here, when Dobie buys into the commodities market (to show off to an economics student) and doesn’t sell before delivery day, leaving him with thousands of eggs. Funny, unique.
08) Episode 96: “Birth Of A Salesman” (Aired: 03/06/62)
Thalia returns with a proposition for Dobie, but it requires him to leave school.
Written by Arnold Horwitt | Directed by Rod Amateau
Tuesday Weld, who left during Season One and took a lot of the show’s sex appeal with her (simply because the series never filled her void), returns as Thalia for the first of two guest appearances. The second is in the fourth year, but it’s an idea-driven mess that contorts everyone for its comedic scenario; this is a much more legitimate character-based effort, as she comes back with a temptation for Dobie: quit school and he’ll get a job (and her, the woman of his dreams). It’s mostly a way to supply some noble contemplation on the value of education, but for a college show, it’s also an argument that makes sense, and frankly, the mere continuity of seeing Thalia again, in an offering that makes use of love vs. money, is valuable.
09) Episode 105: “I Was A Boy Sorority Girl” (Aired: 05/08/62)
Dobie and Maynard are hired as waiters for a sorority open house.
Written by Arnold Horwitt | Directed by Ralph Murphy
This is another collegiate entry with choice physical comedy — and though it’s quite broad, it’s in the “campus capers” category that excuses foolishness because it doesn’t really break with logic, just verges on the silly side — as the story has Maynard and Dobie being hired as waitstaff for a sorority function, only to see Dobie’s latest love, forcing them to hide and even disguise themselves as women. Throw in Doris Packer as the hostess and it’s a romp!
10) Episode 109: “Bachelor Father… And Son” (Aired: 06/05/62)
Winifred goes out of town, leaving the guys to fend for themselves.
Written by Joel Kane | Directed by Stanley Z. Cherry
A popular episode with a lot of laughs, “Bachelor Father… And Son” is mostly notable for its comedic idea of having the guys live alone and being slobs, with Winifred leaving Herbert, Dobie, and Maynard to take care of themselves… well, under the watchful, skeptical eye of Reta Shaw, one of those material-elevating character actresses who increases the energy and brings hahas, making this half-hour too likable to ignore, despite its easy premise.
Other notable entries that merit mention include: “The Blue Tail-Fly,” a collegiate show with some nice character moments and a breezy, appealing musicality, and “I Do Not Choose To Run,” which puts Dobie and his father in the most conflict they’ve ever been in outside of Season One, but with story trappings that usurp character and rob the drama of its bite. Of more Honorable Mention quality are outings that deal with romance, “The Gigolo,” “The Second Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” and “An American Strategy,” and two showcases for Frank Faylen, “Dig, Dig, Dig” and “Happiness Can’t Buy Money.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis goes to…
“The Fast White Mouse”
Come back next week for Season Four! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!
Been loving your commentary on this show. Happy memories from my childhood. Had to comment here because I’m so glad to see “The Fast White Mouse” as your favorite. That’s my favorite episode and I never see it recognized as it should be. It’s one of Shulman’s finest! Also love “Bachelor Father And Son” so thank you for including that one. Reta Shaw is the greatest and I think the chemistry between father and son here is never better…I wish the series had ended this year. It’s a shame about S4.
Hi, Joey! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Both “The Fast White Mouse” and “Bachelor Father… And Son” are ideal showcases for character, which is probably the guiding metric for success this season. While the former employs themes indicative of the series’ initial raison d’être, the relationship between father and son in the latter is — you’re right — well-applied (per this season’s standards).
And, though it’s not great, stay tuned for my thoughts on Season Four — next week!
I’ve never really understood why Sheila James doing a failed pilot for her own show resulted in diminished screen time on DOBIE (especially in Season 4). Since it was for the same studio it would seem that this could have been worked out . Her absence certainly hurt the show.
Hi, John! Thanks for reading and commenting.
From my understanding, James was bound by a year-long exclusivity period with CBS (not 20th Century Fox) for the ZELDA pilot and the network intentionally held her to it under the pretenses of maybe changing its mind and greenlighting the show as a midseason replacement. She eventually shot her first of four final season episodes almost exactly a year after ZELDA — no coincidence.
I agree, much better than the second half of Season Two, but not back to form. Would have needed more Thalia and Armitage and father-son conflict to manage that. Two episodes you don’t mention probably just don’t have the laughs to make the list, but “Names my Mother Called Me” is an episode with enough heart to make it memorable and “Magnificent Failure” stands out for me among the Herbert-centric eps this season. I never cared for “Bachelor Father..and Son”, I guess because I always compared it to “Bob Batches It”, from Hickman’s previous series and found that episode so much funnier.
Hi, Hal! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I am heartily not a fan of “Names My Mother Called Me.” I think it reaches for sentiment it doesn’t get and I am baffled by the entry’s dramatic desire to give Dobie another understanding father figure when it already has one in regular supply — to its own detriment.
“The Magnificent Failure,” meanwhile, I find to be exactly the same as the Herbert-centric shows from last week that I excluded, for, again, I’m not emotionally invested in his character beyond his relationship with Dobie, and I don’t favor episodes where the father/son dynamic isn’t integral to the action or thematically clear in some way.
As for “Bob Batches It,” all it shares with “Bachelor Father… And Son” is a basic premise — a common sitcom idea that extends beyond these two series — and the presence of Dwayne Hickman. Otherwise, they’re entirely different episodes because their respective series are entirely different, with narrative interests and character concerns that (by this point) don’t overlap. I wouldn’t think to compare them here, for an understanding of THE BOB CUMMINGS SHOW is not fundamental to an understanding of DOBIE GILLIS, particularly in this era. (And truly, these two episodes in question are so unalike that I’m a little bit baffled by the impulse to associate them!)