Spoilers for this week's Dick Van Dyke after the jump:
"Forty-Four Tickets" suffers from the same problem which has plagued a few of these other early Dick Van Dyke episodes (and 90% of the good but not great sitcom episodes out there, I'd imagine), which is that it's just not funny enough. This is in truth something the show never entirely overcomes, and I think that's largely because of its emphasis on situational humor over character-based humor. There's plenty of the latter (the comic situations obviously don't work without good characters to react to them), but the quality of a given episode of Dick Van Dyke is enormously dependent—probably more than on any other sitcom I've seen—on how strong or weak its central story is.
I'm not sure, but my guess is that this is a product of the show's time more than anything else. Even today most comedies are not enormously serialized, and in the 1960s that would obviously be even more true. Outside of a few two-parters, this is a series where you can watch pretty much any episode at random and not miss out on much. Even the few running gags—such as Buddy's habitual insulting of Mel—are designed to be funny on their own. With this in mind, the situation has to carry most of the weight in terms of delivering laughs. And when it works (which it does a large amount of the time), that's fine, as it results in episodes like "My Blonde-Haired Brunette". But sometimes it doesn't, and that's when you wind up with mediocre installments such as "The Unwelcome Houseguest".
Unfortunately, this episode feels a lot more like "The Unwelcome Houseguest" than "My Blonde-Haired Brunette". It's quite a bit better, mainly because the good jokes are more plentiful (although there's not a single scene in it as funny as Rob singing to a dog in German). But the story—which centers around Rob's attempts to get forty-four tickets to The Alan Brady Show at the last second after forgetting he'd promised them to the PTA—isn't particularly strong or funny. It has its moments: most notably a scene in the middle of the episode in which Sally and Buddy try to steal some tickets from Mel that is comically inspired and absolutely hysterical. But the majority of "Forty-Four Tickets" lacks that comic spark, instead choosing to rely on predictable jokes such as Rob's one-sided phone conversation with a person he believes to be Laura. I can't imagine anyone watching this scene and not immediately realizing that Richie would wind up being the one on the other end of the line.
I also don't buy that upsetting a few PTA members would be the end of the world, particularly as long as Rob apologizes for forgetting about the tickets. More importantly, it doesn't seem as though Rob believes it, either. At one point he tells Mel how desperate he is, but I just don't see that desperation in Dick Van Dyke's performance, even when he's doing things such as trying to buy tickets from scalpers at the last minute. Laura's and Rob's words suggest that there should be a sense of urgency to this story, but their actions suggest otherwise. And as a result, any real momentum the comedy may have been able to build up winds up stalling before it ever really gets started. So while there are funny moments throughout (such as when one of Rob's last second purchases is revealed to be from last week's show), on the whole Rob's plight never really coheres into anything especially hilarious. This is in stark contrast to the brilliant comic escalation of the last two installments.
That said, the episode moves at a decent pace, and (especially when compared to some of Dick Van Dyke's weaker episodes) the action is moderately involving even if it's not hysterically funny. I was definitely far more invested in whether Rob would find a way out of the mess he'd created for himself than I was in the endless conversation about a potential motel trip in "The Unwelcome Houseguest" or the sexist rhetoric in "Washington vs. the Bunny". So that's something. And a few scenes do work as self-contained comic masterpieces, among them the bridge game—in which Rob ends up bidding "four no tickets", "forty-four no trump", and "forty-four no tickets" in succession—and the aforementioned bit with Mel and the tickets.
The number of laughs in "Forty-Four Tickets" is comparable to early episodes like the pilot and "The Meershatz Pipe". It's just a bit of a letdown after last week's unadulterated triumph. Such is the nature of being a true sitcom on network television, perhaps. Not every situation is going to be a winner, but on a show such as Cougar Town the characters can shoulder a lot of the burden on those occasions when it's not. Dick Van Dyke doesn't really have that luxury. Its characters are likable and relatable, sure, but they're not nearly as deep as those on many current comedies. Add in the fact that the show had to come up with 30+ different situations each season—instead of the usual 22-24 of shows nowadays, which is by no means a picnic—and there are going to be fluctuations in quality from week to week. The fact that this series generally (although not always, as we've already seen) manages to keep those fluctuations from being too dramatic is part of its greatness.
- I always enjoy the way Rob is forced to swallow his rage and be polite when people tell him what they didn't like about the show, which is something that happens a lot. Very funny.
- Best Buddy insult of the episode: "UNPTA. Hey, he knows five letters already! Next year he'll be able to wave bye-bye."
- Next week's episode is "To Tell or Not to Tell". To say that this is one of the low points of the first season is putting it mildly. Don't say I didn't warn you.