Mabel Albertson Celebrates 420

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This post is being published on “420,” an informal holiday associated with marijuana, since, apparently, the early 1970s. Frankly, I am the last person who should be providing any expertise on this subject, but what I can say is that, also since the early 1970s, marijuana has offered an alternative to alcohol as a common sitcom trope, when characters unknowingly get intoxicated on something other than booze. Last year, we discussed one of the best, if not THE best, entry in this category, Barney Miller’s “Hash” (from ABC, December 1976), and we’ve also studied a whole series where weed-related shenanigans were a fundamental part of its premised identity — That ’70s Show (1998-2006, FOX). In a few weeks, we’ll also be looking at a well-liked Roseanne that’s a fine addition to this lot… but first, I want to focus on a forgotten contribution from The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-1974, CBS).

Often written about as a postscript to his earlier classic, Dick Van Dyke’s 1970s follow-up tried to match the same basic format of the original, with a dual work/home structure centered around a patriarch in the TV biz. But his new series — which I covered on Sitcom Tuesdays way back in 2014; then I shared an updated list of favorites in 2021 (see here) — was notable for being shot and set in the actor’s home state of Arizona, and while the cast included some heavy-hitters like Fannie Flagg and Nancy Dussault, the ensemble was not up to its oft-compared ’60s predecessor’s (especially in leading ladies — Hope Lange is charming, but she can’t do comedy like the brilliant Mary Tyler Moore). The show was nevertheless popular in its first season though — airing in a lineup with All In The Family and Mary Tyler Moore — until a move out of this comfy neighborhood the following year brought a steep drop in ratings that encouraged the network to make changes before Season Three — bringing back consultant Carl Reiner in a more hands-on capacity, and transferring production to L.A. amid a retooling that ushered in a mostly new supporting cast, including Chita Rivera (Van Dyke’s Bye Bye Birdie pal), Richard Dawson, and Barry Gordon. Placed now behind Here’s Lucy — another sitcom with a star whose efforts after an earlier gem never quite lived up to the inevitable comparisons — the even newer version of The New Dick Van Dyke Show fared moderately better. But it was not renewed at the end of its initial three-year “pay or play” deal, for the show’s fate had been sealed a few months earlier by the announced departure of Carl Reiner — who publicly refused to work with CBS when the network blocked broadcast of an episode about Dick’s daughter walking in on her parents having sex. (For context, this was produced in late 1973 — a year after Maude Findlay had an abortion, and two years after Mike Stivic struggled with impotence… both on CBS.)

This fun trivia about an episode that only aired in syndication is often repeated, but the fact of the matter is, throughout its three-season run, whether produced by Saul Turteltaub & Bernie Orenstein or Carl Reiner with help from David Pollock and Elias Davis, the series had always expressed interest in reiterating its ’60s predecessor’s timely sophistication by similarly keeping up with the Joneses, or rather, the Lears, with plots that claim strong sexual undertones, and more frank discussions on race, religion, and gender. Of course, it sort of straddles the fence in style — wanting to remain in good taste, but not insincere regarding the current state of the world — and, yes, there is a sense, particularly in some of the more topical entries, that this is a company not totally at ease with such subject matter. Indeed, Van Dyke continues to thrive in the broader, more physical comedy reminiscent of the prior decade, and although most of the characters on his ’70s show try to reiterate his earlier classic’s understanding of how leads should be built — with an elemental, low-concept definition supplied by an attention to detail — it’s never as consistent or honest, for they lack Reiner’s tight control on their storytelling (as he originally employed a more autobiographical, and thus rigid, threshold)… That said, I once compared this series to the first three years of The Lucy Show, because it obviously isn’t on par with the iconic masterwork for which its star deserves to be best-remembered, but there are still enough funny, memorable, well-done episodes to make it worthy not only of study here, but also of your own personal enjoyment. And, to that point, while outsiders who’ve not seen much of this show are most interested in the final year because of Reiner’s increased presence, and others are drawn to the first purely based on the Nielsen returns, I have to say that no season is significantly better or worse than the others, for the neglected member of this trio — the middle year — also has a fairly high number of winners relative to this series’ own baseline.

In fact, Season Two (1972-’73) boasts the episode I’m spotlighting in this post. It’s called “Pot Luck,” credited to writers Gordon Farr & Arnold Kane, and directed by original Dick Van Dyke alum Jerry Paris. It was first broadcast by CBS on January 28, 1973, and its plot involves Dick’s recurring mother, played by the quintessential difficult in-law, Mabel Albertson (you know her best from Bewitched and That Girl, but she was Cloris Leachman’s real-life mother-in-law too), who gets high on marijuana when she accidentally mistakes her grandson’s doobies for her own tobacco cigarettes that she’s been trying to quit. It’s a naturally funny idea — this old lady getting stoned and acting a fool — but it’s well-motivated by what we know of the regular/recurring leads, and it serves as an example of how this show was gingerly trying to address themes unique to the early ’70s without being as issue-driven or sociopolitical as a Lear series, like Maude (which quickly produced an episode about marijuana that aired only a month-and-a-half before Van Dyke’s). And it is truly one of this series’ better efforts because the subject matter — thanks to its use of character and the strong, broad comedy that results in validation of this show’s strengths — doesn’t feel out of place. So, in honor of 420, and heck, the terrifically game Mabel Albertson, I’m offering to subscribers — who comment below to alert me of their private, non-commercial interest — a fun but forgotten episode of the classic-adjacent The New Dick Van Dyke Show. For everyone else, here’s a clip. Enjoy!



Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Roseanne!