By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 1, Episode 28: “The Bad Old Days”
Original airdate: Apr. 4, 1962
Unlike, say, smoking, we don’t ordinarily think of writing reviews as an activity which is hazardous to one’s health, but there are rare occasions when it is. Take “The Bad Old Days,” one of the worst episodes of television I’ve ever seen: a sexist and misogynistic pile of garbage that inspires more venom in my heart than I ever thought a work of fiction could inspire. Having to watch such an episode is bad enough, and you can see why writing about it—a process which requires one to articulate exactly what you hated about it—could cause a certain amount of stress, which in turn can lead to health problems. It also carries milder risks for readers: namely, that the review could at any point turn into a simple list of every synonym and near-synonym for “terrible” that exists (which would probably be fun to read, but not the informative and well-written review you’re looking for). I’m going to try not to let that happen, by taking the precaution of opening up a second tab containing pictures of kittens and puppies, which I will look at as necessary. Hopefully that will be enough, but I can’t promise anything.
The main problem with “The Bad Old Days” is similar to the issues with the two other truly loathsome episodes of season one (“Washington vs. the Bunny” and “To Tell or Not to Tell”), which is the way the sexist behavior of the characters is framed by the episode. As I mentioned in my review of the latter of those two episodes, the problem isn’t necessarily that certain characters behaved like sexist pigs, but rather that the episodes themselves seemed to have quite a bit of sympathy for those characters and their arguments. There’s lots of fun to be had on certain comedies when the characters are jerks or even sociopaths (Archer being the best current example), but only when we’re meant to see them as such. But what this terrible trio of Dick Van Dyke episodes has in common is that it treats sexist ideas as something worthy of consideration. It wants us to think that the characters expressing those ideas are behaving like perfectly decent human beings, rather than scumbags. And that’s just not funny at all, or in the least bit enjoyable to watch.
Just about every joke falls flat. Many of them do so because of their reprehensible ideology, but they also largely fail as jokes in and of themselves. The episode consists mostly of Buddy and then Rob whining about “the decline of the American male”: a meaningless term that Buddy read in a magazine, and one which is used to argue for the return to an era where women and children were little more than servants to their husbands. Again, it would be one thing if the show were making fun of this argument, or mocking Rob for his misogynistic idiocy. But it never does. Instead, “The Bad Old Days” wants us to identify with him. Or at the very least, it attempts to downplay just how horrible he’s being by painting the dispute as a simple domestic argument. Indeed, Laura herself uses the word “silly” to describe Rob’s behavior. And it certainly is that as well. But it’s also disgusting, pathetic, awful…
Look at the kittens, Greg. And the puppies. Be calm. (Takes a deep breath.) Okay. So, from there the episode gets worse. Wait, I can’t possibly be referring to…yep, that’s right. It’s another terrible dream sequence: one that’s every bit as horrible as the one from “Washington vs. the Bunny.” A frightening prospect, I know, but what can you do? It’s in there, much as I’d like to pretend it wasn’t. The scene features Rob dreaming about this earlier and supposedly “better” time period, in which he orders Laura and Richie around and treats them like dirt. That’s it. That’s pretty much the entire scene. Oh, there are some lousy jokes sprinkled in throughout, like Laura saying that the television set “hasn’t been invented” when Rob asks her to turn it on. None of that stuff works, either. Nor do the visual effects the episode uses to illustrate how quickly Laura responds to her husband’s orders. The entire scene is just a complete and utter failure on every level. But that’s okay. At least it ends with Rob waking up in terror and realizing that “the good old days” were really “the bad old days,” right?
Unfortunately, no. Rob does indeed come to this realization, but his rationale for it is every bit as troubling as his previous behavior. He’s bothered by “the bad old days” not because he’s remembered that women are not, in fact, inferior to men. No, his sole reason for rejecting the idea of husbands behaving like “feudal lords” is because of the effect it has on him: namely, the fact that Laura looks ugly rather than beautiful, and that he doesn’t like looking at her because of it. Let me say that again: according to this episode, the worst thing about women being treated as servants to their husbands is because it prevents them from looking attractive to those same husbands. Um…I don’t even know where to start with that. This is the kind of episode we’re dealing with here, in case that wasn’t already clear. Starting to see why I need those kitten pictures?
Seriously, “The Bad Old Days” made me more angry than perhaps any episode of television I’ve ever watched. I’ve probably seen episodes that are worse, but none of them made me want to put a fist through my TV screen (well, laptop screen in this case, but you get what I’m saying) the way this one did. Rarely do you see an episode that’s the total package of awfulness, but this fits the bill. It’s rotten, abominable, stinking, and putrid. It’s hideous, dreadful, pitiful . . .
Hmm. The cute animal pictures seem to have lost their calming effect. That means it’s probably time for us to part ways for the week, before I run out of different ways to say how much I hated this episode. Looking forward to discussing the last three episodes of the season in the coming weeks, as they’re all much, much better than this.
- All right, I guess the episode isn’t a complete waste. Sally pretending to cut Buddy’s hair was a nice gag, and an excuse for a few very funny lines.
- Also enjoyed Laura immediately knowing it was Jerry after Rob called him “the neighborhood smart alec.” But these two things are the extent of what’s good about this episode. Literally.
Next Week: A classic two-parter begins with “I Am My Brother’s Keeper.”