Saturday, January 6, 2018

Sitcom Interruptus

Van Dyke and Lange, with TV daughter Angela Powell.
Some forty-odd years ago, my sister and I tried hard to convince my mother that we were big fans of The New Dick Van Dyke Show. What we liked best about it, in truth, was that it aired on Monday nights after Here's Lucy, which we were allowed to watch before being hustled off to bed. My mother, of course, never fell for that routine, designed to let us stay up a bit longer.

Not available on DVD, and little-seen in syndication, Van Dyke's second TV sitcom, which aired on CBS from 1971 to 1974, never came close to matching the popularity or the critical acclaim of his first. But the writers and producers and writers did try to bring a 1970s topicality to the show, with plots revolving around topics like marijuana and interracial dating. They went one step too far for CBS' comfort with the third-season episode Lt. Preston of the 4th Cavalry, which network executives refused to air as shot.

Norman Lear's sitcoms had radically changed sitcom standards in the early 1970s, so Van Dyke's producer Carl Reiner was shocked that censors targeted this episode. It does have a premise you won't see on I Love Lucy, or My Three Sons. The episode finds Van Dyke and his TV wife (in this series, Hope Lange) coming to the slightly horrified realization that their young daughter unwittingly barged in on her parents while they were making love. Even though the script handled the premise in good taste, CBS censors felt that the episode was not in keeping with the star's family-friendly image. Reiner was so angered by this decision that he promptly quit the show, and shortly afterwards Dick Van Dyke refused to continue the series for a fourth year.

Like so many other TV obscurities, that episode has now been posted to YouTube, along with several others. Having heard about the brouhaha for some years, I was interested to see the show for myself. Take a look, and let me know what you think. Did CBS make the right call, or did executives overreact?