A happily-wedded husband and wife would watch The Dick Van Dyke Show during its initial run (on CBS from 1961 to 1966), and be gleefully vindicated. Upon viewing the comic adventures of Rob and Laura Petrie (as played by Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore), the merry married would turn to one another, and vow, “Now there’s an attractive, upper-middle-class couple. He has a great job. She enjoys being a housewife and mother (to Larry Mathews’ little Richie). But, sometimes, they act kind of goofy. Just like us, honey. That means they’re not perfect, which means we aren’t either. And that’s okay.”
With a little help from various classic TV networks over the decades, among other sagacious syndicators, that same real-life viewing duo (now, with more salt, than pepper, but equally as wise), continue to enjoy The Dick Van Dyke Show, alongside younger contemporary twosomes.
Today’s bonded lovebirds still find it difficult to reject the handsome Mr. Petrie, a refined, respected, and well-established husband and father fashion staple with a good job (as a comedy writer for fictional TV variety hour starring Alan Brady, played by Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner). But he’s also the guy who’s the little kid at heart, unafraid to admit that he doesn’t have a workroom that’s seething with machismo, courageous enough to reveal that he’s always wanted to be Perry Mason or an operative for the FBI. He’s in touch with his feminine side, that is, his wife, his prettier better-half; the one to whom he’s not embarrassed to divulge emotions, or admissions of physical inferiority (Laura once flipped a drunk in a bar in self-defense, when Rob, alas, just flipped).
Laura is cultivated, sophisticated and, like her twin-TV-counterpart Mary Richards (from The Mary Tyler Moore Show), she “can turn the world on with her smile.” With her elegant intelligence and sometimes (but not too often) subtle irreverence, her appeal to viewing husbands and wives alike becomes multi-dimensional. In a good way. Right before our eyes. With her Capri pants and Jackie Onasis hair, Laura established a model trend in the fashionable 1960s, in apparel and demeanor. She and Rob were the first self-effacing hipsters of the television age. They made it okay to laugh at themselves, in effect — us — ourselves. They allowed humor to evolve from their credible situations. In this way, The Dick Van Dyke Show was never burdened by unrealistic portrayals.
Friends and co-workers of the Petries were also a milestone, by nature. Rob’s underwriters, so to speak, for the Brady show, Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), were joke-meisters. But, they too, had other sides. Buddy was the first real character of the Jewish faith to have ever been presented on a mainstream television situation comedy. Sally was just as groundbreaking as the first female character on a TV show, and actually considered “one of the guys.”
When she did behave in a way that was then considered more acceptable for a woman, Sally still waxed more dimensional. She just didn’t cry. She dealt with her tears. Ms. Rogers explored her lack of knack to find the love of her life but, still, she survived. She had her own apartment, was a member of a male-dominated workforce, and was independent. She, not Buddy, was the true threat to the hen-pecked Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon).
At home, Rob and Laura lived next door to dentist Jerry Helper (Jerry Paris), and his meddlesome, though caring, wife Millie (Ann Morgan Gilbert, later of The Nanny). At work, around his in-home dental chair, Jerry was a sincere and trusting professional. Once across the fence with Rob, however, he would let loose and get silly. Along with his fellow Van Dyke characters, Dr. Helper adapted to his situation. He wasn’t always a dentist or ever a neighbor. He wasn’t always serious or ever laughing. He was a little everything, the good with the bad, all the time, just like real people.
Six decades after its debut, The Dick Van Dyke Show proved to be ahead of its time, in execution and display of three-dimensional characters. Mislead contemporary viewers may think they’re screening a contemporary sitcom that is being filmed in black and white, and accuse it of being artsy. But no way. It isn’t artsy. It’s art. As with any cultural masterpiece, albeit TV classic, The Dick Van Dyke Show’s appeal rests with its stoic period representation, social influence, and timeless appreciation of non-insulting, marriage-encouraging, friendship-bonding, and work-ethic-inducing scripts.