TV reruns filled many of the wasted holiday hours of my youth. What’s more regrettable, I never watched The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), which was then in syndication. Over the past couple of years I have had the chance to see the show online, and my kids and I caught a few episodes this Christmas break. To my mind, Dick Van Dyke offers a hugely appealing image of secular, liberal America during the mid-20th century. That image was a fiction, of course, but it was a fine fiction, and it is a fiction we have lost.
This was a truly charming situation comedy. As Rob Petrie, a young Dick Van Dyke is funny without being abnormal. Mary Tyler Moore, who plays his even younger wife, Laura, is pretty, articulate, precious. Both actors possessed genuine comedic gifts that the remorseless passage of years has long since obscured.
The plot lines are often trivial. As with Seinfeld or The Office, this is a show “about nothing.” But the social backdrop is about everything. The Petrie family is secular-liberal. That is, the family is mainstream, white, middle class. It is small–only one child appears. The Petries rarely speak of God. If they ever attended church, they did so discreetly, off-camera. The marriage at the family’s center is egalitarian. Rob’s authority as husband, though real, is heavily tempered by the reasoning prowess of his wife and by his own foibles. Meanwhile, high culture and education receive due deference, and polished speech is valued. Food is enjoyed, but with restraint, and almost never alone. Indeed, an air of Aristotelian moderation moves through the whole scene. The Petries confront their life-difficulties, such as they are, with reason, good will, and tolerance.
All this is to say that while the show is funny, humor does not entirely account for its charm. For the humor is embedded in a social setting that is itself winning and attractive. The humor flows from the virtues of the main characters and the experiences those virtues enable them to have.
After Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore went on to star in her own show. But by then the world represented by the Petries had begun to alter and to unravel, and Moore’s new show quickly reflected the change. Her character, Mary Richards, was single, and none of the eligible men in Richards’s life were ever of the Rob Petrie grade. They appear in silly ’70s garb, possessed of artless manners and dubious intentions. Even the best of them compare unfavorably to the sleek coat-and-tie’d Van Dyke. Other situation comedies that followed, such as All In the Family, relied heavily upon personality defects and family dysfunction for their storylines and punchlines. The Office has taken the trend to an extreme. Most of its characters possess such grave moral shortcomings that one would never want to actually work with them, much less live under the same roof with them.
We would be hardpressed to name a secular-liberal TV family as enchantingly depicted as the Petries of Dick Van Dyke. From one vantagepoint, that may be just as well. It is not an all clear that a family can be so happy and well-adjusted without prayer or any reliance upon transcendent truths. Maybe Hollywood moved away from the Petrie model because it grew weary of its own godless fiction. Still, I would welcome the return of such a fiction if it brought to the screen all the virtues on display in Dick Van Dyke.