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.
Dobie Gillis stars DWAYNE HICKMAN, FRANK FAYLEN, FLORIDA FRIEBUS, SHEILA JAMES, and BOB DENVER. With WILLIAM SCHALLERT and STEVE FRANKEN.
Despite a successful first season that squeaked by in the ratings but nevertheless built up a following in the intended demographics, The Powers That Be decided to tinker with success. This was the subject of an October 1960 TV Guide article scanned below, which details changes made for the second year of Dobie Gillis — a new shortened title that subconsciously disassociates the series with its source material and the primary interest that made it special: Dobie’s many loves. While the behind the scenes stayed the same — creator and author Max Shulman remained showrunner alongside director/producer Rod Amateau — in front, there were three big moves noted in the article’s subheading: 1) “They’ve darkened his hair,” which had been dyed blonde the year prior to make Hickman look younger, meaning now they were consciously aging his character, 2) “and taken Tuesday Weld out of his life,” which means they removed the object of his desire, a loss that didn’t have to rob the show totally of his character’s sex-based motivation, but inevitably does, as his “many loves” have reduced too, and 3) “and now even his father loves him,” which means that the communication issues Shulman hoped to explore between teens and adults is no longer fodder for conflict since dad is warm and cuddly. Obviously, many of these changes seem likely out of Shulman/Amateau’s hands — I’m sure removing the sexual subtext, which made it relatable to teens, came from higher up — but other decisions were apparently Shulman’s, like the guys’ graduation from high school, leading to a stint in the army that breeds a highly unpopular series of episodes in the year’s last trimester. I get it; they don’t work, for not only are we leaving the campus where Shulman’s ethos resides, these entries also make it difficult to connect with what’s since become the series’ crowning achievement in Season Two — its roster of vigorous ensemble characters, most of whom are still at home: Zelda, the new (albeit sexless) leading lady; Chatsworth and his mother, fun but caricatured laugh-getters; and the other adults — Dobie’s folks and Mr. Pomfritt, all of whom have become nice and gentle, friendly authority figures who encourage thoughtfulness among their teen subordinates. Yet this arc’s impetus — the desire to progress Dobie from school — is not the guiding problem that causes the year’s overarching decline.
Again, aging Dobie and his pals is smart; it’s realistic evolution we encourage, and even with the factors that make the military shows unenjoyable — no more campus or main ensemble — it’s not a notion that comes at the expense of the first year’s emotional relatability… you know, unlike the loss of both the fraught father/son dynamic and the relationship-driven sexuality that underscored Dobie Gillis’ weekly motivation. It’s only in their absence that Two has no choice except to put more stock in an ensemble of players who are broadening but becoming better at earning laughs in the traditional sitcom sense — which is why minimizing them in the last third is crippling — and though this new focus ends up endearing us more to their characters, losing the series’ overall reason for being begets a sense of narrative aimlessness that nags the rest of the run, even extending beyond the handful of late/post-high school outings that deploy the show’s trademark thoughtful sensitivity, born from contemporary teenage angst and insecurity. Actually, those are supposed to feel aimless, striking chords of emotional realism and enabling their teen characters to seek maturity while remaining naive (the hallmark of Shulman’s writing), and they’re great. I’m talking about the rest of the collection, the first half of the year, where the series attempts to plug Hickman’s Dobie! pop album by having him sing occasionally (as if he’s Ricky Nelson!), as scripts are saturated in desperate catchphrases and engage in routine idea-driven stories that maybe display some character, but don’t have the truth, purpose, or even stylistic flare we saw in Season One. Now, some may want to blame this on the elevated use of Maynard and his “takeover” of the show — with all the logic-defying stories he allows — but while Denver does ascend to sidekick position here, he’s seldom the anchor of story, and he’s not himself a detriment… yet. Rather, his chemistry with Hickman and James, the series’ new core, is electric, and it’s the main benefit keeping Two at an okay level (military episodes notwithstanding). Fortunately, Three will wisely ditch the army and take the kids back to college, leading many fans to cry “Renaissance,” but there’s no avoiding the initial loss of purpose: if the series isn’t being authentic or thematically pointed, then there really is no point… Still, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s finest.
01) Episode 40: “Who Needs Elvis?” (Aired: 09/27/60)
Dobie turns to Zelda for help winning over a tall music-loving classmate.
Written by Max Shulman | Directed by Rod Amateau
Although there’s already an aesthetic shift that the series was commenting upon in the press around the time of its debut (see the article above), the first few offerings from Season Two most feel like they could belong in the superior first year, for while Dobie’s hair is now dark, Zelda is the new leading lady, and the show is going overboard trying to frame Hickman like Ricky Nelson with a singing career, Dobie’s pursuit of a girl drives the show’s dramatic engine and Shulman’s dialogue supports the kind of heightened emotional realism that we adore.
02) Episode 41: “You Ain’t Nuthin’ But A Houn’ Dog” (Aired: 10/04/60)
Maynard alters Dobie’s essay about his dog and enters it into a contest about fathers and sons.
Written by Lawrence Williams & Maggie Williams | Directed by Rod Amateau
This is a real “changing of the guard” in terms of thematics, as the sidekick use of Maynard in a goofier story smacks of the new Season Two version of Dobie Gillis, while the interest in exploring the relationship between father and son, which isn’t typically warm and cuddly, reminds more of the first year. Of course, the reason this outing does the latter is likely to transition to its new status quo, as Herbert comes to appreciate his son more by this entry’s end — even though it’s all because of a comedic misunderstanding. (Tellingly, this is the last episode to feature his “I gotta kill that boy, I just gotta” catchphrase.) Jack Albertson guests.
03) Episode 42: “Baby Talk” (Aired: 10/18/60)
Dobie, Maynard, and Zelda find a baby.
Written by Joel Kane | Directed by Rod Amateau
A popular installment, “Baby Talk” employs the old idea-based notion of what happens when three people who shouldn’t have a baby suddenly find themselves with one, and this half-hour is basically a one-joke bit with them trying to keep it under wraps from everyone else. However, I appreciate it on two fronts — principally, for the way the show’s new trio works together as an effortless machine (this is the first to really prove their chemistry), and the deft, hilarious choreography that shapes several big comedic moments. Jo Anne Worley appears.
04) Episode 43: “Dobie Goes Beatnik” (Aired: 10/25/60)
Maynard pretends to be Dobie to impress a bigwig from Herbert’s lodge.
Written by Joel Kane | Directed by Guy Scarpita
It’s another tired sitcom idea to have characters pretend to be each other, for it gives a show a good excuse to mock and heighten its leading characterizations without having to worry about whether or not it’s emotionally logical. But, at the same time, stories like this prove the existence of well-defined and established regulars, and if there are earned laughs (as there are here), it’s wonderful validation for a series and its quality of writing. So, I highlight this one as a testament to the year’s character work and maintained watchability (in spite of its missing thematics). One of the series’ rare, overtly knowing and self-aware segments (sanctioned by the plot).
05) Episode 53: “The Big Question” (Aired: 01/24/61)
Dobie and Maynard are forced to consider what’s next for them after high school.
Written by Max Shulman & Joel Kane | Directed by Rod Amateau
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), this atypical entry has a special place in the heart of many fans, for it’s one of the most earnest, pensive, and sincere with regard to the angst and insecurity that all teenagers face, especially during transitions in their life. Here, their favorite teacher (Pomfritt) has asked the boys to write essays on “whither are [they] drifting,” forcing them to think about where they’re going in their lives as graduation approaches. And instead of a hijinks-led farcical show, as is becoming more popular in Season Two, the script turns inward and delights in being shockingly low-concept, with characters just talking and not giving much concern to plot. Now, I love this and always will — it favors character — and I understand why other viewers do as well: it makes the teens seem authentic, which is always Shulman’s ideal. But I caution — shows like these are rare on Dobie Gillis; I can count similar outings on one hand. In appreciating this one above the others on this list, I have to point out that it’s not the best representation of the season or how it usually functions.
06) Episode 54: “Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife?” (Aired: 01/31/61)
Dobie convinces Herbert to be more romantic with Winifred.
Teleplay by Ray Allen | Story by Rod Amateau | Directed by Robert Gordon
Faylen’s Herbert becomes a more comedic character as the series goes along, but he’s always a terrific presence who motivates most of his material, and so I enjoy when he’s given a lot to do. However, I’m not emotionally invested in stories that don’t specifically invoke his relationship with Dobie, as that’s supposed to be the series’ dramatic interest and our link to him. I explain this here to note that, unlike many shows in the final two years, this one does a great job of pushing Herbert as its star, while still using Dobie as the necessary catalyst for character-driven (and not idea-based) plot. This is what Herbert shows should be. (Jack Albertson appears again.)
07) Episode 56: “Zelda, Get Off My Back” (Aired: 02/14/61)
Chatsworth woos Zelda to improve his grades.
Teleplay by Lawrence Williams & Maggie Williams | Story by Max Shulman | Directed by Rod Amateau
A first season show cited last week as an Honorable Mention (“Dobie Spreads A Rumor”) used a rudimentary version of this idea, with Dobie attempting to pass off Zelda to Chatsworth, but this year takes the premise and, true to its more heightened character (but-independent-of-theme) aims, puts the onus on Chatsworth, who pursues Zelda to improve his grades. And despite removing Dobie from the driver’s seat, this actually brings more laughs — Chatsworth is a grand caricature (as is his mother) — and reinforces the series’ regular relationships, as Dobie comes to miss Zelda. (Mind you, there’s another superlative outing in this vein ahead too…)
08) Episode 60: “Dobie Vs. The Machine” (Aired: 03/14/61)
Dobie and Maynard turn to a computer for help deciding their futures.
Written by Malvin Wald & Max Shulman | Directed by Rod Amateau
As the first episode following the guys’ high school graduation, there’s a certain emotional insecurity to this offering that matches the aforementioned “The Big Question,” as the story predictably involves Dobie and Maynard not knowing what to do with themselves now that they’re out of the classroom. But instead of a low-concept conversation piece, this entry has an actual narrative purpose: introducing the army arc that will last for the rest of the season. So, it’s built around a funny centerpiece where both Dobie and Maynard get evaluated by computers, which is basically a series of well-deployed gags about their characters. Memorable.
09) Episode 62: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier, Sailor, Or Marine” (Aired: 03/28/61)
As Dobie and Maynard head off to boot camp, Chatsworth ends up in the latter’s place.
Written by Joel Kane | Directed by Rod Amateau
The boys head off to boot camp, in this, the first show to officially take the characters off to the misbegotten military arc. What I like best about this outing though is that it not only benefits from the emotionality of the farewell, which grounds the idea, but also for its comedic use of Chatsworth, who ends up accidentally processed as Maynard. There’s another army show with Chatsworth (and his mother) that gets huge laughs, but this one comes closest to matching the bizarre protocol-spoofing Phil Silvers, a series Shulman expressly claimed a desire to emulate. Guests in this excursion include the hilarious John Fiedler and Frank Wilcox.
10) Episode 67: “Like Mother, Like Daughter, Like Wow” (Aired: 05/02/61)
Dobie’s latest girlfriend is the daughter of one of Herbert’s old flames.
Written by Ray Allen | Directed by Stanley Z. Cherry
One of the main problems with the army shows — and the reason we don’t like them — is they take the series away from the ensemble of regulars and/or must contrive a way to get the boys back home. This one works because it incorporates Dobie’s parents by having him date a girl (Yvonne Craig) who reveals that her mother used to be an old flame of Herbert’s. This narrative inherently suggests a return to the series’ initial thematics, even though it’s really just an excuse for an “adult” show starring Faylen, Friebus, and Jane Dulo as Herbert’s plain-talking ex.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: a wacky show that combines 1960 politics with an illogical idea-based premise, “The Mystic Powers Of Maynard G. Krebs,” a surprisingly sincere outing with character intentions that seem at odds with the rest of the year, “The Bitter Feud Of Dobie And Maynard,” and the second Chatsworth army show, stolen by Doris Packer, “The Solid Gold Dog-Tag.” Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile — all flawed/mediocre in some way — are the popular and high school appropriate “Drag Strip Dobie,” the Shulman-blessed “Parlez-Vouz English?,” the Herbert-led “The Second Childhood Of Herbert T. Gillis,” the Zelda-led “Everything But The Truth,” and the silly, but not totally alienating (pun intended) “Take Me To Your Leader.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis goes to…
“The Big Question”
Come back next week for Season Three! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!