Spoilers for this week's Dick Van Dyke after the jump:
These early episodes of Dick Van Dyke have for the most part been fairly low-key, don't you think? With the exception (and I apologize for bringing it up, since if you're like me you want nothing more than to forget it exists) of the dream sequence in "Washington vs. the Bunny", there's not one situation in them that seems particularly outlandish or absurd to me. "Harrison B. Harding of Camp Crowder, MO" puts an end to this trend. It shows that the series is more than capable of creating a seemingly run of the mill story that rapidly and hilariously—but also believably—escalates into something delightfully ludicrous as it goes on. This is something we'll see more of as the show goes on, with often spectacular results.
The situation the episode depicts initially seems like one that's merely slightly awkward rather than ridiculously funny. And indeed, that's the way the first few scenes play out. An old army buddy of Rob's named (not surprisingly) Harrison B. Harding shows up at the office one day, and Rob has absolutely no clue who the guy is. Dick Van Dyke gets some solid laughs out of the strangeness of their first meeting, as well as the extremely relatable feeling of discomfort we can see on Rob's face as he tries to pretend he remembers Harrison. None of this is nearly as cringe-worthy as a number of scenes on shows like The Office, but it's definitely more than slightly uncomfortable. I'm generally not a big fan of this kind of humor (which tends to make me cringe far more than laugh), but here it's done reasonably well. Still, it's not anything especially brilliant, especially compared to what follows.
Inevitably, Rob winds up agreeing to have dinner with Harrison and his wife Evelyn, only to discover that Laura has already started preparing a meal at home. So he decides to bring them there instead. It's here that the comedy really starts to take off, as Rob reveals to Laura that he's worried the couple might be a pair of con artists looking to steal something. From that point on things get more hilarious every second, especially once they begin eavesdropping on Evelyn and Harrison's conversation with Richie. The humor during these scenes is incredibly confident and well-paced, with one laugh following another in rapid succession. Dick Van Dyke will have many funnier episodes than "Harrison B. Harding of Camp Crowder, MO", but this is the first one that shows just how hysterical it can be.
We know of course (sitcom plots being what they are) that Evelyn and Harrison aren't going to be thieves, even after they convince Richie to show them where the jewelry is kept. But Laura and Rob don't, which of course makes their bumbling attempts to deal with the situation even more hilarious. I especially love how Rob maintains his calm demeanor even as he's doing things that are clearly absurd, such as calling the police several times to report on the progress of a "possible robbery" and telling Laura to drink tomato juice just so he can use the glass to listen through a wall. What's more, none of this struck me as out of character for either of them, particularly as their fears begin to look more and more likely as the evening continues. (I get that Harrison was trying to surprise Rob, but looking through your hosts' jewelry in order to find a watch seems like a pretty stupid thing to do, even if your motives are pure.)
The main problem is that in the end all of these events don't really lead anywhere interesting or comically inspired. While the scene in which we learn how Harrison and Rob know each other is excellent (Harrison mentioning the "You Wonderful You" scene from "Oh How We Met the Night That We Danced" is a really nice touch), it's not much of a payoff as far as humor goes. Sensing this, the episode tries to give us that payoff when the police officer Rob had asked for a few minutes earlier shows up. But this scene just feels strained and unfunny in a way the rest of "Harrison B. Harding of Camp Crowder, MO" isn't, and it fails to deliver a single moment that's even mildly humorous. Disappointing doesn't begin to describe it, and it probably cost the the episode an A.
This flaw aside, this is a really great episode of Dick Van Dyke. It's basically perfect until that final scene, and is a terrific example of the series taking a simple (and seemingly dull) story and turning it into something tremendously funny. It's quite simply a much better episode than any of the previous installments, including "Oh How We Met the Night That We Danced". The comic escalation and the overall sophistication of the humor—not to mention the consistency of the jokes—are unlike anything the show has done to date, and they foreshadow many of the best installments of the series.
The first of which is coming up very soon, by the way. Sooner than I originally thought.
- Rob's "yes, again" to the operator after his third request for the police was a joke that took a long time to set up, but it was totally worth it. Possibly my favorite moment in the entire episode.
- Next week's episode is "My Blonde-Haired Brunette".