Friday, July 6, 2012

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" - "My Blonde-Haired Brunette"

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

A tremendous comic performance is often what truly makes a great sitcom episode great. It's not quite as vital as a good script, perhaps, and "My Blond-Haired Brunette"—which is most definitely a great episode of comedy television, and the first great episode of Dick Van Dyke—certainly has that as well. But the installment also suffers from a premise that strains credulity just a bit, which is that a rational person like Laura would suddenly decide to bleach her hair blonde in response to the feeling that Rob is taking her for granted. From what we've seen of the two characters so far, Rob actually seems like the one who'd be more likely to do something this impulsive. Remember when he was ready to quit his job for no reason whatsoever? In particular, the fact that she'd do this just a day after the argument which brought these feelings out would seem to require far too much suspension of disbelief. Shouldn't she just talk to Rob?

Of course not, because that wouldn't be nearly as funny as what happens instead. But sometimes (a few of the early episodes of Parks and Rec's fourth season were guilty of this, to list but one example) sitcoms go for laughs while completely sacrificing any semblance of realism and/or character consistency. At least one of these two elements is typically essential to any great episode of TV comedy, because otherwise all the jokes just wind up being silly. So in order for "My Blonde-Haired Brunette" to really work, Mary Tyler Moore has to make us believe that Laura is so worried about the state of her marriage that she'd be willing to do something this drastic. And she's more than up to the task, giving a tour de force comic performance that is both convincing and extraordinarily funny.

It all starts when Rob wants to sleep in on his day off instead of having breakfast with Laura. She decides to get him to wake up by setting his alarm ahead a couple of hours. When it rings, he springs out of bed, as energetic as he's ever been. The moment she tells him what she's done, however, he remembers his exhaustion and immediately collapses in spite of Laura's objections. It's a funny scene that would have been the highlight of a lesser episode, but here we're just getting started. The real fun starts when he wakes up for real and goes into the kitchen wearing his rather appalling "day off" outfit. It's during this scene that Moore begins to take over, delivering hilarious moment after hilarious moment, including an indescribably terrifying smile at Rob that is the first of many classic facial expressions in the show's run (another comes later in this episode). But there's also a sense of genuine distress to her performance, and this allows the laughs to come from a place of real emotion instead of feeling manufactured.

It's this distress that leads Laura to confide in Millie her fear that Rob isn't paying her or their marriage very much attention: a problem which her friend offers a solution to. Millie's idea is to change Laura's hair color as a way of forcing Rob out of his current state of complacency, something she's apparently done a few times with Jerry. Laura initially dismisses the idea (generally the wise course of action with ideas that come from Millie or Jerry), but eventually she agrees.

Meanwhile, Rob is busy talking to Buddy and Sally about what happened, and with their help he figures out what he did. It says a lot about how good Moore is that this scene is probably the weakest part of "My Blonde-Haired Brunette", when up until this point I've usually found Rob's interactions with his two co-writers to be among the strongest aspects of any given episode. Along with last week's installment, this episode shows that the rest of the material is finally catching up to the consistent brilliance of the writers' room scenes. Don't get me wrong, these scenes are still very funny as well (and as usual contain some great one-liners from Buddy and Sally), but in this case they're mostly designed to set up the incredible comedy that unfolds over the final few minutes.

You see, Rob decides to call Laura and tell her how much he loves her, which is all he really needed to do in the first place. But he does it too late, after Millie has already bleached Laura's hair. He starts to sing to her about dreaming of "Laura with the dark brown hair", at which point Moore's virtuoso portrayal of Laura's growing sense of panic begins again. It gets worse when she asks Rob what he would think about her as a blonde, at which point he replies that she'd look like Harpo Marx (her horrified "and I do!" after looking at herself in the mirror is another brilliant piece of comic acting). He then tells her he's coming home shortly to take his "brown-haired beauty to dinner", forcing Millie to race against time to change her hair back.

Inevitably she fails, which leads to what is arguably the episode's most iconic moment: Laura coming out of the bedroom with her hair half blonde and half brown. While I've spent much of this review praising the acting of Moore, what really makes this sequence one for the ages is Dick Van Dyke's reaction. The look on his face—and the way his mouth moves without any words coming out—is as astonishingly funny as anything you're likely to see from this or any other series. And in the subsequent scene where Laura and Rob embrace, the show manages to hit the expected emotional notes quite effectively while also leaving room for a few more laughs (such as Millie trying to leave through the wrong door). It's a hysterical conclusion to a classic episode of television comedy, and one that establishes "My Blonde-Haired Brunette" as one of the finest installments of Dick Van Dyke's debut season.

Other Thoughts

- Sally talking about one of her boyfriends, "Doubting Charlie": "He keeps proposing and I keep saying yes, but he just won't believe me."

- Been a long time since I saw this one, so I was initially worried that the episode was going to have Laura's decision revolve around her suddenly feeling that she wasn't attractive enough, which would have been extremely sexist. Fortunately, "My Blonde-Haired Brunette" backed away from this idea and took a different (and far better) path, in which the decision was designed solely as a temporary measure to shock Rob into being a more attentive partner.

- So many great moments in this one. Many of them are courtesy of Mary Tyler Moore, from her tearful string of nonsensical sentences during the fight with Rob (". . . well if the bloom is off the rose, then . . . ") to her none too excited "yay" in response to Rob's announcement that he's taking her out to dinner. Just a magnificent, incredibly funny performance.

- It should tell you something about how much I love this show (and how many great episodes there are to come) that "My Blonde-Haired Brunette" may not even make the top 25 episodes list I'll inevitably be putting together after we finish the series many years from now.

- I don't believe we ever see the guy from the pharmacy again, but he made the most of his one brief scene. "Is that you, Phil?"

- Next week's episode is "Forty-Four Tickets".

Grade: A

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