By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 1, Episode 12: “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace”
Original airdate: Dec. 12, 1961
Dick Van Dyke isn’t really a show about ideas. As I’ve remarked before, I really think it’s the quintessential situation comedy. Its ultimate goal is to make us laugh as hard and as frequently as possible at the given situation, and as such it rarely tries to do too much with character or theme. “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace” is a bit of a departure from the norm in that regard. While it certainly gets a lot of laughs out of the idea of Rob buying a necklace that Laura flat-out hates, it also uses that idea to say some legitimately insightful things about art and art appreciation. Those insights in turn make the episode even funnier. As you can probably tell, I think it’s one of the strongest installments of the series we’ve seen so far.
So, is Laura right, or is Rob? Is the necklace horrible, or not? Well, these are obviously unanswerable questions, and to the episode’s credit it doesn’t really try to answer them. The subjective nature of art appreciation is something I imagine we’ve all experienced at one point or another, whether it’s arguing over a movie with a friend/family member or debating the merits of the Lost finale with someone. Much of the humor of “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace” stems from this subjectivity, and what makes the episode so terrific is that it doesn’t ask you to take sides. Although we’re pretty clearly meant to agree with Laura (that was my impression, anyway), all the jokes still work regardless of whether you think the necklace is beautiful or simply the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. There are plenty of laughs to be found in the idea of two people looking at an object and seeing two completely different things, particularly when one of them bought the object for the other and is completely clueless as to how he or she feels about it.
This is what much of the comedy involving Laura and Rob—in other words, a fair amount of the comedy in the episode—boils down to: the wildly different viewpoints people can have on art, and how those opinions can (if they’re not careful) make them blind to how others feel. When Laura first opens the box containing the necklace, she lets out an “oh, Rob!” that you’d think no one with a brain could mistake for excitement or happiness. But Rob does, because he loves the necklace so much. Throughout the episode, she all but says “I hate this necklace” through her body language and overall demeanor. And yet he never catches on. This has probably happened to just about everyone more than once, and by the same token most people (myself included) have been guilty of it on at least a few occasions. I remember trying to get my father to share my love of the films of Hayao Miyazaki. It took me ages to finally look beyond my own enthusiasm and realize that he just didn’t like them. So while the depiction of this phenomenon in “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace” is obviously heightened for comic effect, it struck me as fairly accurate.
Equally important, of course, is that it’s also very funny. Laura’s initial reaction to the necklace is probably the most purely hilarious moment, but there are plenty of others that are almost as good. Rob invites Millie and Jerry over to see the piece, and we see the initial awkwardness of the situation play out again, only this time with two more people in the room. Like Laura, Millie immediately despises the necklace, and immediately and vehemently says “no!” when Jerry (who like Rob had the exact opposite reaction) suggests buying her one. When she gets strange looks, she has to come up with a lame explanation—which they both completely buy, of course— about the foolishness of having two such awe-inspiring necklaces so close together. It’s truly hilarious stuff, and while the comedy never quite reaches the level of “My Blonde-Haired Brunette” (or the climactic scene of next week’s installment), it’s consistently great throughout.
Personally, I didn’t find the necklace particularly awe-inspiring either way, but that’s another big part of what makes the immediate and visceral responses it inspires so effective from a comedy perspective. It’s as if it has almost magical qualities to arouse strong emotions—positive and negative—in people, and the completely out of proportion reactions to this rather innocuous piece of art never really stop being funny. About the only person it doesn’t work on is Rob’s father, but that might just be because he barely pays it any attention at all. Rob’s mother, on the other hand, has perhaps the most over-the-top reaction to it of anyone, bursting into tears at the sight of what she believes is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.
This in turn saves Laura from having to tell Rob how she feels by giving the necklace to someone who clearly appreciates it more than she does. “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace” spends a lot of its time making fun of our emotional responses to art and the complications that ensue from them, but in the end this scene shows that our lives would be much poorer without those responses, even if they can lead to awkward situations between spouses, families, and friends. The tears of happiness Rob’s mother sheds upon being given the necklace are played for laughs, yes, but the scene is also a genuinely moving and uplifting moment for anyone who has had an emotional reaction while seeing a movie, watching a TV show, or listening to a song (to name three of the most common art forms of today’s world). And haven’t we all?
– Didn’t talk at all about the opening scene where Rob buys the necklace, but I liked it well enough. Mel’s cousin was a moderately funny character, and Buddy had some great lines. Especially loved his comment about not trusting Pickles’s taste because she picked him to be her husband.
– The bit involving “the discount” (which appears to always result in a price of $35) was also very clever.
– Great comic expressions from both Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke throughout this episode. Particularly enjoyed the silly grin that appeared on his face several times upon seeing how “happy” she was.
– One of Millie’s suggestions for getting rid of the necklace is to “put it in the blender and drink it.”
Next Week: “Buddy, Can You Spare a Job?”