- The Dick Van Dyke Show by Joanne Morreale
Joanne Morreale's The Dick Van Dyke Show is among the latest entries in the pocket-sized [End Page 84] TV Milestones series from Wayne State University Press - a set of short and accessible monographs that serve as enjoyable and informative companions for viewing (or, perhaps, re-viewing) landmark television programs. This volume is a long-needed primer on a beloved, but understudied, 1960s sitcom that is significant both for the ways that it built upon early 20th century traditions honed in vaudeville, radio, and early television comedy, and for the ways in which it pushed the bounds of the sitcom form to presage the politically and civically engaged TV comedy of the 1970s "era of relevance." In the 128 pages of this slim book, Morreale concisely achieves the dual aims of charting The Dick Van Dyke Show's production history and contextualizing it as an important historical interlocutor in Kennedy-era cultural debates.
The book opens with Morreale explaining that "One of the joys of studying television is watching a show you think you know and realizing it is so much richer than you ever remembered" [xii]. This is an apt introduction for a book that itself exudes a palpable sense of celebratory discovery. The book guides its reader through three phases in The Dick Van Dyke Show's history, unraveling the complex ways in which this sitcom has resonated as an industry innovator, a cultural touchstone, and a cherished object of nostalgia. Morreale's work is an excellent introductory text for general readers, students of television history, and fans of 1960s television. However, readers seeking a definitive account of The Dick Van Dyke Show's history and influence may be disappointed: the TV Milestones Series' diminutive format does not allow for comprehensiveness. Morreale is upfront about the imposed limitations of her work and it ultimately turns out that a key strength of the book is the way that it self-consciously positions itself as a précis for more sustained interrogations of related topics, like the history of the sitcom genre, the study of TV production and reception, and the sociopolitical stakes of 1960s popular culture.
Morreale begins by sketching The Dick Van Dyke Show's development in a succinct introductory section that highlights the creative contributions of producers Carl Reiner, Sheldon Leonard, and Danny Thomas. She explores how the show's production staff marshaled earlier comedic traditions honed in vaudeville and televised sketch comedy alongside novel forms of narrative and aesthetic experimentation to devise a distinctly "modern" brand of situation comedy. The Dick Van Dyke Show is situated in the broader arc of the sitcom genre's long development, positioned as a pivot between the suburban family sitcoms of the 1950s and the urban "relevant" sitcoms of the 1970s. As those familiar with Morreale's previous work will expect, this is a well-researched and illuminating historical account. However, it does rely very heavily on anecdotes gleaned from the memoirs of the show's creative staff, sources that are somewhat less than academic in tone and that are not unbiased. Given the general lack of scholarship on this program, this is almost certainly a research method born of necessity. Nevertheless, the book might be more engaged overall with the robust body of existing historical scholarship concerning the sitcom's generic development.
Morreale goes on to explain how The Dick Van Dyke Show circulated as a cultural product born of Eisenhower's America, but poised at the cusp of Kennedy's New Frontier. She links the show to earlier precedents in radio (The Jack Benny Program), TV variety (Your Show of Shows), and 1950s sitcoms (Make Room for Daddy), but then goes on to explain how it broke with established traditions to pave the way for more socially and politically engaged content. By citing dozens of specific episodes and scenes, Morreale demonstrates how The Dick Van Dyke Show both "affirmed the nuclear family" and addressed "modern values,"  incorporating upscale, chic, and socially progressive values within a fairly conservative...