Spoilers for this week's Dick Van Dyke after the jump:
For a show that aired in the 1960s, Dick Van Dyke as a whole is remarkably timeless. However, one thing about it that has not aged well is its less than stellar attitude towards gender equality on a few occasions. This isn't an issue the vast majority of the time, but once in a while it results in overtly sexist episodes like next week's terrible "Washington vs. the Bunny". And a handful of other times it results in installments like "Sally and the Lab Technician", where the sexism is perhaps a bit less in your face but is still very much there. So grit your teeth while we get through these next two, after which it should be mostly smooth sailing for quite a while. (Also, prepare yourself for a decent amount of outrage from yours truly, as I'm not about to let this sort of garbage slide without comment just because the show is old.)
That's actually not as hard to do here as it will be next week, mainly because in this case the sexism is largely confined to the episode's first half. More specifically, it shows up primarily in the initial plot establishing scenes between Rob and Laura. Laura decides to introduce Sally to her cousin Thomas, a lab technician. She does this after Rob mentions having to drive Sally home because the "poor girl doesn't have a husband": a line that is the first suggestion that something's amiss here. What's wrong with not having a husband? He then goes on to talk about how Sally's personality and the many wisecracks she makes tend to drive away her boyfriends.
Now, I was obviously appalled and angered by these ideas, as any sane person should be. Think for just a moment about some of the assumptions contained within them: such as that a woman's primary goal in life should be to find a husband, and that she shouldn't "scare off" (two of the words Rob uses) potential suitors by doing things such as making jokes and sarcastic remarks. This is completely outdated and offensive nonsense, of course (though sadly there are plenty of people who still believe it), and when it looked as though that was where Dick Van Dyke was going with this story I was ready to dismiss "Sally and the Lab Technician" as an equally outdated and offensive episode, and to give it a much lower grade than the one it wound up receiving.
But to its credit, the episode then takes a different turn. The day after the disastrous (or so it seems at the time) dinner party, Sally walks into the office visibly upset, realizing that she really has gone overboard with the wisecracking. The key to this sequence is that it has little to with the fact that she was on a date, and everything to do with her realization of how her jokes and quips have negatively impacted the people around her. She admits that even she hated the person she was the previous night, and the fact that the unintended victim of her humor was a guy doesn't matter. What matters is how she views herself.
Of course, it turns out that Thomas actually wasn't bothered at all, and in fact enjoyed the evening immensely. And Sally's certainly not going to suddenly become deeply introspective from here on out, since ongoing character development isn't something this show does very much of. That's fine. It's still a great scene: tremendously well acted by Rose Marie and superb in the way it deftly avoids (though by no means redeems or even apologizes for) the sexist undertones suggested by that early dialogue between Rob and Laura.
Everything else is extremely uneven, and that's actually putting it a bit generously. There's far more average to mediocre material than good stuff, with the dinner party sequence being one of the few highlights as far as comedy is concerned. If you're only going to have a few, though, making them as memorable as this scene is the way to go. It's absolutely hilarious, providing Sally with the chance to deliver great line after great line, and increasing in hilarity throughout as the cumulative effect of the jokes grows. Though not quite as iconic as other extended comic sequences from later episodes, I'd say it's pretty close.
But it's also one of the only times I laughed out loud at this one. Thomas himself never really rises above the (also very offensive) "socially awkward" stereotype bestowed upon him from the moment he sets foot on screen, and as a result he never becomes particularly interesting or funny. We also don't get nearly as many office scenes as usual, which isn't a good thing given the inconsistency of the rest of the episode. There are a few great moments such as Charlie criticizing the show, but it's not really enough to save "Sally and the Lab Technician" from being easily the weakest installment of Dick Van Dyke we've seen so far. But considering how bad those early scenes are, it could have been a lot worse.
- Loved Buddy completely ignoring Rob's request to leave the room "tactfully". On the other hand, that scene with him wearing the mask was probably the first Buddy-centered moment to fall flat.
- A consequence of the lack of office centered scenes was that there were no Mel-Buddy interactions (in fact, Mel didn't even appear). And an episode of Dick Van Dyke without at least one of those just doesn't feel like an episode of Dick Van Dyke to me. Then again, I probably wouldn't have minded if I didn't have a number of other problems with this episode.
- As already mentioned, next week's episode is "Washington vs. the Bunny" (one of the worst episodes the show ever did).