Friday, June 8, 2012

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" - "Washington vs. the Bunny"

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

After spending quite a bit of time commenting on the sexism on display during certain scenes in "Sally and the Lab Technician", a lot of what I have to say about "Washington vs. the Bunny" may sound pretty similar. But having these two episodes (assuming of course that they have to exist at all) back to back is in some ways preferable to the alternative, because it means that after this Dick Van Dyke starts getting much better again pretty quickly. However, before we get to that point we do have to first talk about this mostly terrible episode, which is far worse both in terms of quality and in terms of the consistently infuriating behavior of Rob than last week's merely mediocre outing was.

Yes, it's Rob again. It may seem like I'm picking on him, but I have to review what the episode gives me. And since he is the main character, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that his behavior is reflective of the huge problems within this installment. We'll get to those problems very shortly, but first it's worth noting that "Washington vs. the Bunny" is actually really good right up until that hideous dream sequence begins. The premise of Rob being torn between his work and his promise to see Richie play "the main bunny" is quite strong, and the initial conflict it generates between him and Laura is extremely effective. Aside from Mel's exceptionally stupid and offensive speech about not being his wife's "puppet" (an idea which the episode makes the enormous mistake of fixating on), it's all handled very well, and is quite funny. Sure, the initial flashback device on the plane is unnecessary, but the rest of it: solid. In short, this is the only reason the episode doesn't earn an F.

Because from there things go downhill fast. First we come to that dream, which is hands down one of the worst things you'll ever see this series do. Please believe me when I say it rarely becomes this bad again. Rob is quite literally transformed into a puppet that Laura controls while dressed in a bunny costume. Mel's also there with a pair of giant scissors, for reasons that never really become clear (although I guess it's to mirror the conflict going on inside Rob's brain or something to that end). Rob speaks in a weird voice, ostensibly meant to mimic that of a puppet. He dances like a puppet. Finally, he's showered with stuffed bunnies. I can't tell you how much I wish I was kidding about all of this. It's one of those sequences where you just stare at the screen, stunned at how awful it is. And yet it's also deeply sexist, because we're meant to feel as though Rob is being controlled and manipulated by the evil puppet master Laura: something that couldn't be further from the truth.

So, what happens after that? Well, the episode sort of improves, but only in the sense that the rest of it is awful in a more mundane (but equally offensive) way as it continues to explore Rob's fear that he's becoming his wife's puppet. Here's the thing: he's not entirely wrong about his need to go to Washington. It is his job, after all. But where both both he and "Washington vs. the Bunny" lose their way big time is when they try to turn it into an abominable argument that "real" men are supposed to be in control of the household. I can't think of a line that best sums up this disgusting notion than this one: "a woman's opinion should be weighed and considered, but in the final analysis a man has to do what he thinks is right or he is no man ". He's making a case that women should be treated as second class citizens in their own home, subject to male rule. Because if not, then men are simply puppets. (Even worse is the fact that the rest of the men on the plane actually applaud during this scene.)

A fair question to ask at this point is the following: why did I even decide to write about this series if both it and its main character tick me off so much? Well, the answer is pretty simple: this isn't what The Dick Van Dyke Show usually is. While there's no excuse for this episode, it's still worth remembering that this was a series made in an earlier and less progressive (i.e., worse in terms of almost every ideal of equality most of us hold dear today) time period. While I'm not at all familiar with most other 1960s TV programs, my guess is 90% of them had far more of these types of episodes than Dick Van Dyke does. This isn't the last of them or even the most egregious. But if you were to put all of the show's episodes in a bag and pick one out at random, you'd pull out an installment that ranges from good to timeless almost every time.

Along with last week's episode, "Washington vs. the Bunny" is one of the few that isn't. It should absolutely be condemned for both its quality and its viewpoint, and hopefully I've done a good job of doing just that in this review. I hate so many things about it with a passion. It makes me absolutely despise a typically likable main character by having him do things that aren't really consistent with the generally terrific human being he is the rest of the time. Its attempts to get us to empathize with the horrible idea that men need to be (and should be) in control are simply despicable. And it contains one of the worst individual scenes you'll ever see on television in that dream sequence. But after this it's all mostly uphill, starting with next week's terrific episode. See you then, assuming you're still with me.

Other Thoughts

- Buddy's response to Mel's statement that he "didn't come here to be insulted" is to ask him where he usually goes to get insulted.

- Rob ad-libbing a story about Richie's arm being hurt was very funny. Especially loved his comeback to Laura asking him what he was doing: "What does it sound like I'm doing? I'm lying."

- The tag scene of Laura, Richie, and Rob singing "You're the Top" didn't impress me very much, probably because I'm not all that familiar with the music of Cole Porter. I suppose that's something I should remedy at some point, especially given the fact that I really like the few things I've heard.

- So, will there ever be an episode of Dick Van Dyke that deserves an F? Possibly. There's one much later this season that I really loathe, but I'll obviously have to rewatch it before making that decision. I only give F's to episodes that have literally zero good scenes and/or redeeming qualities, which is a relatively rare occurrence (and even more rare on good shows like this one). The episode I'm thinking of might very well fit that bill, though, so we'll see.

- Next week's episode is "Oh How We Met the Night That We Danced", which I promise you is a huge improvement over this one.

Grade: C-


  1. Okay, I HAVE to comment about your critique of the dream sequence. It's obvious you want to appear as a man with a strong social conscience, but set that aside for the moment. The scene is actually quite clever, in particular Van Dyke's dancing, which is some of the best physical comedy performed on the series. Sure, it's politically incorrect by today's standards, but remember this is 1961.

  2. I thought the dream sequence was sexy. I liked the bunny costume <3

  3. Totally agree with you about the outdated gender politics; what stuck out to me is how Laura is portrayed as being completely in the wrong, even though it's understandable that she would be angry at Rob. Although, as you pointed out, Rob isn't entirely in the wrong either (key word, 'entirely'.)
    (Incidentally, even though this is only the fourth episode of the series, this is already the second time they've had a conflict of Rob having to choose between work and family, after the pilot. Just thought that was interesting.)
    That said, I'm going to preach to the choir here and say I personally really enjoyed the dance number. Putting aside the misogynistic subtext and admiring it purely from an aesthetic point of view, it's a brilliant showcase of the actors' triple-threat abilities, and it reminded me of the long-gone ballet sequence from classic Broadway musicals.

  4. Presentism. You're doing it here.

  5. Presentism. Stop doing it.