Friday, June 22, 2012

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" - "The Unwelcome Houseguest"

Spoilers for this week's Dick Van Dyke after the jump:

There's an tremendous extended comic sequence late in "The Unwelcome Houseguest" that starts with Rob attempting to get a German Shepherd named Larry to jump in a crib. He tries every trick in the book—including sticking his own leg in the crib and lining up other objects as stepping stones—in order to make this happen, and after much cajoling he eventually succeeds. But Larry keeps crying, which is exactly the thing Rob was trying to stop. A few minutes later, he's figured out that the dog isn't cold or anything like that, just lonely. And then the scene goes from great to classic when Rob begins singing a lullaby to Larry. In German, of course.

This is brilliant comedy, and might just be the funniest thing Dick Van Dyke has done so far. The rest of the episode is unfortunately anything but brilliant. I remember liking it a lot when I first saw it, and I'm honestly not sure why. Most of it is basically forgettable, with the only other really good scene coming very early in the writers' room. As usual, the byplay between Rob, Sally, and Buddy is nearly perfect, and (at least this week) the family drama that unfolds as a result of Rob bringing home Buddy's dog without permission doesn't even come close to that level. Instead, we get to spend quite a few tedious minutes listening to the family discuss a rather pointless trip to a motel—in which it appears the plan was to drive all the way to Connecticut just to sleep there—before things even get off the ground.

Once Rob reveals what he's done, you'd expect things would improve. And they do, but only slightly. Laura's rightly furious, as she's just told Richie that the family's "system" is that both parents have to agree on these sorts of decisions. He tries to tell her that Richie's going to love the dog far more than the motel trip, but this too seems doubtful when Richie starts screaming about the "wolf" in Rob's car. If there's one thing that's consistently strong about this episode, it's Richie's terrified reactions to Larry. I can certainly sympathize with him, as I used to be extremely scared of dogs and am still rather skittish around them. So I found all of this material to be both funny and very true to life. Sadly, it's about the only thing here that really works. 

It also makes the lack of laughs in the rest of "The Unwelcome Houseguest's" rather boring story stand out all the more. Rob formally introduces Laura to Larry, and she winds up liking him. But Richie's still scared, and it looks as though the dog is going to get put in a kennel until Buddy comes back. This is a fairly believable conflict that should result in some strong comedy, but for the most part the jokes just aren't there. There's a running gag involving Richie pointing out how the family isn't adhering to their system that's incredibly inane, and many of the episode's other attempts at humor either share this quality or else wind up being merely dull and repetitive. Most of the episode has passed without anything funny or interesting happening by the time that extraordinary scene of Rob trying to calm Larry down shows up and almost manages to save the day.

But obviously it can't, because one terrific scene is rarely (I wouldn't say never, but rarely) able to completely redeem an otherwise unmemorable episode of television comedy. This is definitely the case with "The Unwelcome Houseguest", which just can't compare with "Oh How We Met the Night That We Danced" or "Jealousy" in terms of either laughs or quality. There are (as usual) a few great jokes and lines here and there, and the happy ending in which Larry and Richie finally bond is nicely done. And at worst the episode is amicable and inoffensive, which obviously makes it far better than "Washington vs. the Bunny". Still, there's nothing about it that's especially entertaining or remarkable. Aside from Rob Petrie singing to a dog, that is. 

Other Thoughts

- I originally thought I might have to conclude this first batch of reviews earlier than I would have liked. But after looking at my schedule, I realize I can probably continue them until August 17th. This is perfect timing, actually. It will allow us to get through the first half of season one, which seems like a good stopping point. More importantly, it means we'll also be able to get to at least one of my all-time favorite episodes. We'll then do the second half of the season next year. Sound good?

- Next week: "Harrison B. Harding of Camp Crowder, MO".

Grade: B-

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