You might think when a popular television series begins its fourth season with episode 95 (of an eventual 158), the best days lie in the past. But as 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' demonstrates early on with a fantastic emasculating episode entitled 'My Mother Can Beat Up My Father,' there was still plenty of comedy left in the tank for another season, and then some, of the '60s sitcom.
At this point, with three seasons already under its belt, audiences were well acquainted with the various goings-on in both the Petrie household and the writers room of The Alan Brady Show. The series had nothing to prove, so to speak, and so it was free to fiddle with the established relationships within the framework of what had already come before. That's not to say in 1964-65 – when season 4 of 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' originally aired – there was much in the way of reinvention for characters or series on television. In fact, for the most part, the goal was to create and maintain an even keel, something reliable for audiences to tune in to and appreciate for thirty some-odd weeks a year.
And, if anything, the sheer size of this half-hour sitcom's season commitment – a number that would be considered unfathomable and, almost certainly, fiscally irresponsible by today's standards – demonstrates the comedic aptitude of everyone involved that the series would still be garnering considerable interest from any audience by that point. So it was, then, that creator, writer and producer Carl Reiner set out to maintain that relevance by giving the audience more of what they'd already fallen in love with, while still managing to make the interplay between characters who'd spent a considerable amount of time talking, haranguing and harassing one another feel fresh – which is something, taking into account how often Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) had an insult for Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon) at the ready, in case Buddy's bespectacled, chrome-domed adversary happened to saunter into the writer's room that was the workspace he shared with Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) and, of course Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke).
Season 4 was, like the other seasons, obviously, all about these characters' relationships with one another, but at this point in the series, it also came to be about the writers' relationship with the audience and how that came through in the scripts and the gags, as it pertained to managing the expectations of both long-time and casual viewers.
'The Dick Van Dyke Show' certainly had it's own recurring themes and storyline that served to enhance one's appreciation of what was transpiring on-screen. How much funnier and more delightful were Rob and Laura's (Mary Tyler Moore) exchanges for those who had been there from the beginning, and knew just how the couple had met, and what they'd gone through to get there? This knowledge helped make one of the season's (and series') standout episodes, 'Never Bathe on Saturday' all the more hilarious, as it was so evident just how into one another Rob and Laura were – even after so many years of marriage and sleeping in twin beds separated by a shared nightstand that may as well have just been a network censor.
But much of the genius in the writing stems from just how easily the show can be picked up and enjoyed, regardless of your knowledge of the situation, or what season you're in. Long before Nick at Nite was a thing, or older television series were readily available in their entirety on home video (let alone Blu-ray) I can recall summer afternoons canceled by a thunderstorm, or glorious days spent away from school – thanks to an illness that was either real or imagined – watching reruns of 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' and other television staples like 'I Love Lucy,' 'Leave it to Beaver' or 'The Andy Griffith Show.' And it didn’t matter what the episode was, or where it landed in the chronology of the series; it seemed any episode could be easily consumed and enjoyed no matter what.
Watching episodes that are in or are nearing their fifth decade of existence, it's striking to notice a) just how well made the show was and b) how many of the tools that were used to keep the audience's attention are still used today. Now granted, the tone and language of today's sitcoms has changed dramatically (especially anything that's being handled by Chuck Lorre – the man who has almost single-handedly helped multi-camera sitcoms find the lowest common denominator), but one might successfully argue that the older a series is, the more sophisticated it had to be in its writing. There was so much language the writers were not allowed to use, they had to constantly come up with more and more clever ways of expressing themselves that keeping the laughs fresh and straightforward meant a significant amount of effort had to be put into each script, so as to maintain the standards of network television at the time and ensure they weren't simply repeating themselves.
Another standout episode of season 4, 'Baby Fat', proved writers on 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' (in this case, 'Pretty Woman' director Garry Marshall) were willing to make insinuation not only to an obviously gay costume designer, but also to Tennessee Williams, who is lampooned in a way by Strother Martin, as the notable and notably eccentric playwright Harper Worthington Yates. But more importantly, the episode heavily featured Reiner, as the frequently mentioned, but infrequently seen Alan Brady, in a story about a television comedy writer's desire to be acknowledged for more artistic pursuits. As the entire conceit of the series was based on what Reiner had come to know first-hand as a writer on 'Your Show of Shows' it's easy to see how this episode is also an extension of his (and all writers') desire to be taken seriously as an artist.
That episode alone hints at the deceptive level of complexity tucked away in what was otherwise a simple '60s sitcom about the work/life balance. Even though it had already crossed the 100-episode mark by this point, one thing was absolutely clear: 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' remained a remarkably funny, clever and refined comedy that would significantly raise the bar for television excellence. Moreover, season 4 was just as funny as anything that had come before it, and it showed that even after reaching the century mark, a show could continue to strive for and achieve comedic brilliance.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Dick Van Dyke Show' season 4 comes in a set of three 50GB discs in a larger, three disc keepcase. The insert featuring the artwork for the case is double-sided and lists all the episodes along with a description of the special features available either in conjunction with the episode, or on the disc in general.
If you've ever watched a black and white series from the '60s on a regular television set, VHS or even DVD, they can sometimes come across as underwhelming – even if there has been some restoration going on. Thankfully, that is not the case with season 4 (or any other season, mind you) of 'The Dick Van Dyke Show,' which features a VC-1 transfer of new scans of the camera negatives. The result is quite remarkable, as the sheer clarity of the image paints the series in a whole new light.
When shot properly, black and white cinematography can be truly captivating and, despite this being a weekly, half-hour sitcom, 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' manages to have a remarkably consistent and precise way of filming that is a pleasure to watch. Moreover, the crisp, clean image is practically devoid of anything like grain, noise or countless other telltale signs of aging. To put it plainly, the image is practically pristine. There is a fantastic amount of detail present that really shows off the detail in the actors' facial expressions, costumes and the sets like the Petrie house and the writers' room on The Alan Brady Show -- the detail is so good, you can practically read the titles on the spines of books sitting behind the Petrie's living room couch.
More importantly, as, again, this is black and white; there is an incredible degree of gradation between the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. This helps to deliver an image with an absurd amount of depth to go along with all of that detail. Of course the added level of detail and clarity does tend to highlight the limitations the show was working with in regard to make-up and special effects, but at this point in the show's lifespan, this all pretty much works out to be a part of its charm.
Although some noise is present, here and there, on the discs it isn't anything too distracting or overpowering in comparison to the overall quality of the image here. Watching these episodes on Blu-ray really is akin to seeing them again for the first time.
The sound on 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' was thankfully preserved in its original mono format, but in DTS-HD Master Audio form, which delivers a very clean and precise listening experience that sounds great, but is also indicative of the limitations there were in television with regard to sound at the time. Still, there is nothing here to complain about, really, as all the actors sound great and the music in the episodes is equally superb. Moreover, there is no balance issue between the various elements vying for attention on the mono track, so every character comes through crystal clear – even when the laugh track kicks in.
There's honestly not too much to say about the mix as it upholds its end of the bargain by taking a very limited audio mix and turning up all the positive elements it can and making them sound as good as the image looks.
For anyone who didn't purchase the entire series when it was released on Blu-ray, or were concerned that the best 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' had to offer was contained primarily in the first few seasons, season 4 is a necessary addition to your Blu-ray collection. There is a fantastic collection of 32 great episodes and some really superb supplemental features in this set, as well. Best of all is the fantastic job Image has done with the picture quality, which breathes new life into this tireless series. This set comes highly recommended.