The belief that single people lead less happy and fulfilling lives than their married counterparts is an idea that I think still exists among a fair number of people today, although thankfully not to the same degree that it did in the 1960s. It’s obviously a stupid and ridiculous concept on its face, but what bothers me the most about it is how it tends to be applied more to women than men. Laura’s statement about how birthdays “become a milestone” for women after “a certain age” nicely sums up this attitude, which is obviously extremely ignorant. Interestingly, just a decade later Mary Tyler Moore would play a character who would be one of the first on TV (probably the first, actually, but I don’t know my TV history well enough to say that with certainty) to expose this belief as pure idiocy. Still, it persists, even as times change. It does so towards both genders, for sure, but still far more towards women than men.
Much like “Sally and the Lab Technician” and “Sally Is a Girl” before it, “Where You Been, Fassbinder?” initially appears as though it’s going to read as an endorsement of a sexist and foolish idea. The episode revolves around Sally’s approaching birthday, and the fear expressed by her friends that she’s going to be spending it alone, since she’s unmarried. Upon rewatching the show, I’ve noticed that this is kind of a trend with Laura and Rob (although in this case Buddy’s somewhat involved as well). Okay, maybe a handful of episodes doesn’t equal a trend, but the way the characters talk about her is very reminiscent of previous conversations we’ve seen Laura and Rob have. They come from a place of concern, but they’re nonetheless appalling in their casual sexism. In this case, the sexism is rarely overtly stated (the aforementioned line about birthdays is the only moment that specifically mentions Sally’s gender), but ask yourself this: would they be half as concerned about an unmarried male friend? I don’t think so.
But the episode itself ultimately undermines this idea. It acknowledges that people living alone—whether of their own choice or simply because they haven’t found anyone to spend their lives with—can get lonely on occasion, but that’s really all it does. Unlike her friends, it never suggests that Sally’s life is inherently unhappy because she’s single, or because she’s a single woman. No, she’s just feeling a little lonely (as most of us do from time to time, regardless of our relationship status), and wants to make a connection with another human being on her birthday. And it leads to an episode that’s pretty darn powerful, if you ask me.
Tonally, “Where You Been, Fassbinder?” is very different from the typical Dick Van Dyke episode. It has a few laughs, but for the most part it’s a more understated and melancholy affair than we’re used. Sally is such a consistently funny character that you wouldn’t expect Rose Marie to be able to break your heart, but she does here. It’s a beautiful piece of acting that captures the character’s constantly changing emotions completely. First there’s sadness. Then happiness, when she makes plans to spend the evening with an old classmate from high school named Leo Fassbinder. Then a brief misunderstanding that temporarily causes her to feel even sadder, before eventually being resolved thanks to the unwitting help of her friends. Through all of this, we have Marie’s tremendous and understated performance showing us everything Sally’s going through.
Critically, the episode doesn’t set up Leo as any sort of white knight figure who’s come to save Sally from her miserable single life. Maybe it intended to, but what I like about George Neise’s work in the role is how he conveys the fact that Leo’s just as lonely. The episode doesn’t end with a grand romantic gesture, but rather with two people joking about getting older and enjoying each others’ company. Although the tag hints at a possible romantic relationship, this is yet another situation where we never see the guy in question again (Sally will eventually have a recurring boyfriend, but not right now). Overall, then, Sally is still happy with being single, and the show rarely if ever questions that choice or tries to turn Sally’s personal life into a “who will she end up with?” scenario. Because who’s to say she has to end up with anyone? In that way, Dick Van Dyke is actually less ignorant than many of its characters, who seem to see Sally’s life as being incomplete without a husband.
I find it a bit odd that the show never really tried to prioritize emotional power over laughter again. When it leads to an episode this strong, one would expect another episode similar in tone in the future. But while there are certainly some strong emotional scenes in future episodes, the series (at least according to my memory of it, which as I’ve mentioned before is fairly shaky in places) never again attempted to do an episode made up almost entirely of emotional scenes. It leads me to wonder what might have been, but I guess we’ll never know. Instead, all we have is this one interesting and very successful departure from Dick Van Dyke’s usual style, and an episode that successfully transforms a seemingly sexist premise into a story which holds up to scrutiny today.
– As a cat person, I’d just like to say that Sally’s cat is adorable.
Note: Finals are upon me this week, which means “The Bad Old Days” is going to have to wait until the week after next. But after that, my coverage of the last four episodes of the season should be able to proceed without interruption. See you in two weeks, at which time we’ll look at probably the worst episode of the show’s entire run.